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In defence of an unabashed love for Mariah Carey’s ‘Merry Christmas’

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There are two types of people in the world…those who hate this album, and those who love it.

Gather ’round children, and let me tell you a story of the 90’s.

Once upon a time, before Michael Buble was a household name, before his Christmas album was a twinkle in a producer’s eye, there was Mariah Carey and Merry Christmas. The year was 1994, and this reviewer was a wee tot of 2, but she was destined to cross paths with Carey’s holiday album in just a few years…and the year after that…and the year after that…and all the years after those.

I’m not entirely sure when Merry Christmas first came on my radar – I was probably 5 or 6 – but I do know that after that first encounter, nothing has sounded more like Christmas to me since. Two decades later, all I require to get into the holiday spirit is to hear the first rippling piano chords of ‘Silent Night’ and I’m good to go.

Whacking great dose of nostalgia aside, it is my humble opinion that Merry Christmas also delivers a musical treat the likes of which Michael Buble has yet to top. This was my first encounter with a gospel choir, a Hammond organ, and a voice of superhuman capabilities, and my childhood imagination was entirely captivated by this ridiculously groovy take on the season.

The prime time for listening to Christmas music when I was a kid was in the car with Mum and younger bro, on our way to our grandparents’ for various festive visits (tree-decorating, setting up the inflatable pool, delivering presents…). This was a 40 minute trip – just enough to blast out the 38 minutes of MC – during which all three of us would pump ourselves up on holiday spirit, ready to decorate the Christmas tree with gusto upon arrival at our familial destination.

“She has such an incredible voice,” my mother would say, shaking her head in wonder at Carey’s vocal acrobatics. It was the only time I really heard Mum admire a musician, so I listened to the mind-boggling melisma with rapt attention. Carey’s voice sounded like some wondrous alien instrument, flying up and down octaves of notes with fearless abandon.

And then there was the gospel choir.

I had no concept of gospel music at age 7 or even 8, but listening to the joyful cloud of harmonies sounded to me like there was a crazy good party going on inside that tape cassette. It was also the first time I heard a Hammond organ…there were so many things to listen to! For me, Merry Christmas was a festive patchwork of musical magic with no comparison.

By age 9 I’d been playing classical piano for three years, and the prominent piano solos and accompaniments across the album (but perhaps especially in ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’, ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ and ‘Jesus Oh What A Wonderful Child’) did much to reassure me that piano could be a ‘cool’ instrument, used for other purposes than Mozart. I promised myself I would learn such groovy riffs when I was older and had mastered Bach and Beethoven.

There were things I didn’t appreciate until I was older, too. As a child I couldn’t understand why there seemed to be so many things that made Carey sad at Christmas (‘Christmas: Baby Please Come Home, ‘Miss You Most At Christmas Time’)…surely this season was the best distraction from a lame boyfriend who’d dumped her unceremoniously? I didn’t understand the magnifying effect of Christmas until much later, although I’ve always tried to remember my childhood approach to heartache.

Perhaps the best thing about Merry Christmas however, was the way it drew my mother into as childish a state of Christmas excitement as our own. As the chorus of ‘Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town’ hit, Mum’s usually strict observation of driving safety would melt slightly, allowing her to take one hand off the steering wheel to punch the air with the ‘hey!’. We always knew it would be a good day if Mum was fist-pumping to MC.

I can’t be sure, because this is not the kind of thing grown-up people discuss, but I refuse to believe I am alone in this once-a-year obsession with a 90’s Christmas album (whoever DJs for Westfields clearly shares my love, for one). But as the years slip by and the baby-faced pop stars of today release their own takes on seasonal tunes (looking at you JB and Ariana Grande), the haters are so quick to trash my beloved MC.

Well, save your “bah humbug”s – the only crime Merry Christmas has committed here is to be so damn good it gets mercilessly overplayed. And may it be so for many years to come!

Single review: Laura Marling’s ‘Soothing’

Four and a half stars

Slinky, seductive, and perhaps just a little coy, Laura Marling’s first single from upcoming album Semper Femina is as bewitching a herald of things to come as we could have hoped for.

Gone is the broody darkness, replaced by sensuality and tenderness. Gone are the earthy acoustic tones, replaced by sparse percussion and bluesy electric guitar. Somehow, we’ve ended up in experimental jazz territory, the likes of which are usually inhabited by Norah Jones. But Marling makes this strange new land her own.

Wafting delicately amongst the rhythmic gyrations and harmonic instability, Marling’s vocal has all the hushed intimacy of pillow talk, and all the confident authority of a narrator. It’s a combination of contexts that is as bewildering as it is bewitching, but when a cloud of strings lifts us into the dreamy surrender of the chorus (sounding a little as though it’s taken a leaf from Kate Bush’s book), all is deliciously clear.

The abundance of latex in the music video may spell it out, but the low purr of sexuality makes itself known through the songwriting alone. The tension of the verse melts into a gentle sigh of pleasure; Marling sings “I need soothing”, but the request sounds so fulfilled it seems to be uttered after the fact.

Soothing showcases a self-composed Marling, ready and willing to tackle her introspective themes with a softness she may not have known how to use before. It’s promising, it’s exciting and it’s bloody beautiful.

March 2017 can’t come fast enough.

Semper Femina is out March 10th, 2017 on Marling’s label More Alarming.

Three albums to add to your library right now

Dustin Tebbutt – First Light

Vance Joy fans rejoice – for those of us who have outgrown Riptide and its fellows, Tebbutt’s latest release offers a perfect (dare I say, more grown-up) alternative. At once chilled out and uplifting, the gentle mix of acoustic guitar, light percussion and occasional layer of electronica, support Tebbutt’s floating vocal deliveries. Cue lazy Sunday morning.

Lakuta – Brothers and Sisters

If Western club music has you wanting a little more, look no further than the global sounds of Lakuta. Including musicians from Africa, Spain and the UK, this group combines the very best of danceable soul, disco and funk with socio-political statements, sensual Latin vibes and infectious Afro-beat rhythms.

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

I don’t remember being this awestruck by musical charisma since I first heard Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs in my early uni days – Cohen’s latest album is absolutely bloody mesmerising. Skeletal accompaniments and gospel choirs take a backseat to musings that have been 82 years in the making. “I’m ready, Lord” growls Cohen, to which your ears will reply “Take me, take me now”.

Michael Buble: Nobody But Me (Deluxe Version)

michael-buble-nobody-but-me-2016-2480x2480Album: Nobody But Me (Deluxe Version)
Artist: Michael Buble
Label: Reprise Records
Released: October 21, 2016

RATING: 2.5/5 STARS

Michael Buble has been around long enough to hone his template to perfection; so while it is both comforting and disappointing to discover I could have written this review just as accurately without actually listening to his latest record, it is certainly not a surprise. Nobody But Me is yet another perfectly crafted album of knee-melting ballads, toe-tapping jazz, and pop tunes of the sweetest vanilla. Admittedly, there’s less of the latin influence I danced to incessantly when To Be Loved hit the shelves, and the brass blasts are fewer and smoother than those of its predecessor, but for the most part Nobody But Me is of the same mould.

There’s the uplifting but forgettable pop original (I Believe In You), the cheeky rock ‘n’ roll number (Nobody But Me), the guest cameo (Meghan Trainor, on Someday), the deliciously scathing revenge song (I Wanna Be Around), the no-brainer classic covers (My Baby Just Cares For Me, My Kind Of Girl), the classic cover that didn’t really work (God Only Knows…how much better this version could have been, were it not so slow and stilted) and thankfully, the gorgeous reimagining of a vintage sound (On An Evening In Roma). In between these certainties lie a few slower and/or ordinary numbers (The Very Thought Of You, Today Is Yesterday’s Tomorrow) that fill the gaps and carry us to the bonus tracks, if you’ve chosen the deluxe version for your purchase (not a terrible idea, as Take You Away is a fun little cha cha).

Consistency is usually reassuring, but this time around it’s made me restless to hear a little more daring from Buble. He must certainly be applauded for maintaining a fresh sound – and for offering new material alongside the classics – but Nobody But Me continues the trend of over-production in his more recent work. Gone is the rawness we heard in 2007’s I’m Your Man, and where is the innovation that created that extraordinary jazz cover of The Beatles’ Can’t Buy Me Love?

While the radio stations will likely delight in the cutesy ukulele that accompanies Buble and Trainor in the safe ray of sunshine that is Someday, I’ll listen to On An Evening In Roma and dream of bygone days when Buble’s albums oozed with nuance and romance.

Friday wrap-up: Szymon, The Basics & At The Dakota

Szymon – Tigersapp

3.5/5 stars

It is a great shame that Tigersapp will always sit in the shadow of its creator’s death; a greater shame still that there will be no follow-up (or three). This collection of dreamy indie-pop electronica is as gentle as it is layered, as intricate as it is sensitive – gently unpolished and somewhat unfinished, but captivating all the same. Lovingly constructed from a plethora of beautiful timbres and finely intersecting rhythms, Tigersapp showcases a flourishing musical talent with burgeoning potential. The spine-tingling keyboard riff of Golden is a standout, as is the honey-toned saxophone solo on Polen; and while Szymon’s vocals aren’t as strong as his songwriting, they serve their dreamlike purpose well enough.

The Basics – The Age Of Entitlement

1.5/5 stars

Gotye et. al. return with an acerbic take on Australian politics that is biting, but ultimately empty. Thrashing around from pub rock to brooding ballad, to Afro-beat, the result is an unconvincing album of pastiche that fails to truly engage. The band succeed most in Time Poor, a ranty rock number that damns the Western world’s glorification of ‘busy’; Roundabout weirdly channels George Michael’s Faith but also works to get the album grooving. Given the prodigious talent of the musicians at work here, it it surprising that The Age Of Entitlement casts such a wide net yet fails to bring home the goods.

At The DakotaStories EP

2.5/5 stars

Maybe I’m still suffering withdrawals from the infectious summer pop of Hungry Kids Of Hungary, but the retro groove of opener Peach Hat had me hooked. As a general rule, Northern Territory musicians At The Dakota dish out upbeat indie groove-pop with guitar, bass, drums, and sweetly melodic piano lines. It quickly turns into something more gritty though, as fast-paced lyrics fire in all directions above the chilled guitar backing. It’s smile-inducing and warm, but to simply describe this EP as ‘sunny’ would be to miss the infinitely cooler soul/rock undercurrent that occasionally makes itself known.

Listen on Bandcamp.

Confessions of a ‘1989’ listener

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Generally speaking, pop music makes me uncomfortable. It’s too loud, it’s too catchy, too mundane, too…easy.

So I’m not sure what I was thinking when I bought a copy of Taylor Swift’s 1989.

I’d heard Shake It Off, I’d watched the Blank Space video (which, incidentally, makes for a terrific reaction from all car-lovers… girly screams galore, and that was just my dad). But you know, I didn’t think this was my thing. What did interest me, was how a musician could leap from one genre to the other and bring their fans with them. So I handed over $22 to satisfy my curiosity and listened to the whole damn thing in one sitting. Call it research.

Oddly enough, I can recall my first encounter with Taylor Swift rather vividly – especially given that was a figurative sentence, not a reference to a face-to-face encounter. It was my 17th birthday, I was cruising down the freeway, and one of my best friends (and enthusiastic Swifty) couldn’t believe I hadn’t heard Swift’s eponymous debut album. ‘Play’ was pressed accordingly and I found myself privy to someone else’s love-life in a matter of seconds. I was fascinated; not just by these uncensored matters of the heart, but by the neatness of the meter and rhyme (Edward Lear’s poetry was always my jam).

Seventeen-year-old me may have investigated further, but Love Story had invaded the airwaves several times too often and I made it my full-time job to avoid this soppy, angsty, trash – much less ever seek it out. I turned up The Beatles and directed the full force of my adolescent disdain toward Swift’s crowd-pleasing love songs. Oh yes, my music snobbery started at an early age.

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But how time changes the heart. Last week, I finished my 1989 listening spree feeling subdued and emotionally spent. Swift has always been an earnest scholar of the laws of attraction – and her thorough research has given her reams of relatable material – but 1989 deals more sagely with that vulnerable place between teenage romance and adult affairs. The passions are stronger, the recoveries slower, the scars are deeper, and our narrator changed forever. If ever there was a time to apply the “coming of age” label, this is it.

And let’s talk music. In keeping with the magnitude of the emotions dealt with here, 1989 is created mainly from an expansive palette of 1980’s-inspired synths and booming beats. The banjo has been banished, gone is the girl-next-door twang, and the whole album is begging to be heard loud and live. Even I know this is not typical Swift. That was, in fact, part of the attraction. If I liked this album, I figured, it wouldn’t make me a T-Swizzle fan…right? I’m safe. So I can sing along as loudly as I like… *ahem*

1989 is a pop record, plain and simple. Swift’s knack for narrative and rhyme means she handles the catchy chorus better than most, and her snappy songwriting fits sleekly into her new choice of genre. The euphoric Welcome To New York is surely a concert-opener, Style had me at “James Dean”, but it is Out Of The Woods (which I invariably call “Into The Woods” because I am actually a forgetful, Sondheim-loving grandma) that forms the standout moment of the album for this reviewer. It’s a powerful combination of adult realisation and innocent hope, delivered with hard-hitting repetition and a plethora of backing vocals. Shake It Off pales into insignificance beside this kind of thing.

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So here’s my shocking (at least to me) confession: I’ve had 1989 on repeat ever since I bought it. I can’t say I like all the tracks (Bad Blood, for all its hype, is a little too whiney for my taste), but the bigger numbers keep me coming back for more. Perhaps it’s the inevitable relevance it carries for me as a twentysomething, perhaps it’s the fact that Swift’s songwriting transfers effortlessly to a pop sensibility, perhaps it’s just that sometimes you need to stop thinking and dance. But I actually dig this album.

One more confession: less than a week after purchasing 1989, I added Red to my collection. And though I will never, ever, ever, ever, like THAT song, I rather enjoyed the others. Which begs the question: after all these years, am I actually a Swifty??

Well, they do say denial is the first stage…