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It's Christmas, Of Course

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 25 December 2018 02:30 (A review of It's Christmas, Of Course)

Darlene Love and Christmas go together like peanut butter and chocolate. I welcome any opportunity to hear her church-trained pipes taking on the trappings of the season, and It’s Christmas, Of Course finds her in stellar form. From her choice of material through her vocal performances, from the cover art to the range of styles, Love has assembled a fine, fine holiday album here.

 

There’s less gospel or religious themed material then you’d think. If any performer could make me care about hearing another version of “The First Noel,” “O Come All Ye Faithful,” or “What Child Is This,” it would be Love. There’s only two of the twelve songs that center around religious imagery or feature lyrics that mention Jesus directly, “Christmas Must Be Tonight” and “Night of Peace.” “Night of Peace” is the stronger of the two as it features Love’s voice quacking with restraint, emotional devotion and tenderness.

 

The rest of the material is assembled of covers of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (“Christmas All Over Again”), James Brown (“Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto”), the Pretenders (“2000 Miles”), and John Lennon (“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”), just to name a check a few of my favorites. Her version of “2000 Miles” drips with the emotional longing and melancholy of the song, while her “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” is equal parts empathetic and emphatic. Yet it’s her version of “Christmas All Over Again” that announces itself as best of the pack straight out the gate. It’s refreshing to hear Love sing straight rock and roll, and her big voice adopts itself to Tom Petty’s rollicking song quite fetchingly.

 

Sure, the production here is more staid and generic than any of her well-known Spector classics, or her team-up with the E Street Band for “All Alone on Christmas,” but it’s still a uniformly solid album of seasonal material. Props to Love for releasing a new Christmas album without a “Silent Night” to be found, and for going with a colorful cover that forsakes the traditional red, green and white color palette. It won’t rival “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” but it also only adds to her artistic legacy and domination of the season.


DOWNLOAD: “Christmas All Over Again”      



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House of Wax

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 25 December 2018 02:29 (A review of House of Wax (1953))

The original selling point for House of Wax was the 3D technology and stereophonic sound, not to mention the completely unnatural color scheme (not a complaint), but the film’s legacy remains in Vincent Price’s tortured, hammy performance. Come for can-can dancers sticking their legs and rumps directly into the camera, stay for Price’s burn victim makeup and stalking the night for corpses. It’s that kind of delightfully trashy movie.

 

The plot of this thing feels ripped straight from Tales of the Crypt: gentle artist creates lifelike wax figures while his rich investor wants him to drop the stately, gentile artistry for lurid compositions. An argument ensues, the artist and his creations get caught in a fire, then we flash forward to find the rich investor killed by a badly scarred man, the artist reopening his wax museum, and the new exhibits in the wax museum with striking similarities to several missing persons and stolen corpses.

 

And if House of Wax had narrowed its focus down to just that and not added in thinly written lovers, comedic relief bumbling cops, and barely there sidekicks, it would have been much better. Why exactly does one of Price’s henchmen turn on him? I guess it’s because the cops wave some booze in front of his recovering alcoholic face and he sings like a canary. It’s one of many plot points that feels rushed or just thrown in and prove more distractions or time marking from Price’s central performance than anything else.

 

House of Wax is Price’s show through and through, and it’s the film that launched him from reliable supporting player to horror icon and leading man. While the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean were turning mumbling into the new cinematic dialog, Price wraps his nasal purr around every rolling syllable and elongated vowel with élan. He masticates his purple dialog and delivers it as if he’s still acting opposite the likes of Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde in a major studio production. Price’s elegance and artistry is better than the material surrounding him, but he also manages to elevate it to something almost worthy of his presence.   



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Freaks

Posted : 4 weeks ago on 25 December 2018 02:28 (A review of Freaks)

Freaks was Tod Browning’s passion project. His earliest work on the project can be traced back to 1927, and it’s something of a miracle it got made at all. It’s an even bigger miracle that MGM didn’t bury this thing after the horrific first reactions and heavy editing involved.

 

It’s tantalizing to think about the film that Freaks might have been, but what emerges as you watch it is a sense that is unclassifiable film is still a masterpiece. It’s nearly impossible to wrap your brain around the prestige and glamour of MGM having produced this humane, sympathetic, and yes, scary film. Was wunderkind producer Irving Thalberg merely trying to recreate the box office and magic of Dracula and Frankenstein? Probably, but boy did he get something wholly different.

 

Browning has compassion and empathy for those dubbed “freaks,” and he works to humanize them throughout. This point-of-view, spoken aloud by Wallace Ford and Leila Hyams, reflects Browning’s own history as it spent a great deal of time traveling the country in a circus during the late 1800s. If you’ve ever wondered why so many of Browning’s best known films involve circuses and their performers, why they’re so routinely conscious of their struggles and desires, then this bit of biographical trivia will fill in that blank.

 

Freaks is of a piece with his other works like The Unknown, another tortured love story in a circus with horror undertones. These films spend a great deal of time examining the minutia of a performer’s daily life, and we begin to identify with them as people before the curious and troubling story beats kick in. The brief running time of Freaks means that this sympathy is essential for the complicated emotions of the ending to work.

 

The story finds Hans, one of the little people in the sideshow, falling in love with the trapeze artist Cleopatra. Cleopatra is carrying on an affair with Hercules the strongman, but indulges Hans’ affections because of his immense wealth. Once she realizes that she can get a few things out of him with coy flirtations and touching, she decides to up the ante by marrying and then poisoning him. Once the rest of the sideshow learns of her horrifying actions they devise a plan to protect their own and save Hans.

 

It is in the final moments of this twisted courtship that Freaks pulls away from “slice of life” scenes and into more atmospheric, terrifying territory. Everyone knows the two biggest set pieces of this section of the movie, the wedding scene and the rainy night revenge. The wedding scene is a scene that transforms the film from something akin to cinema verite towards the shadowy, hallucinatory aesthetic of the Universal Monsters. The sideshow performers announce their intention to accept Cleopatra as one of them and pass around the “loving cup,” but soon Cleopatra and Hercules erupt in scornful mocking of the entire scene.

 

That scornful eruption underscores much of what makes Freaks such an essential masterpiece: for all of their physical disabilities or deformities, these circus freaks contain the same wants and dreams as the rest of the us, and it’s the characters whose compromised morality and inability to see their humanity that emerge as the true monsters/freaks of the film. Cleopatra and Hercules may be attractive and capable of passing through society unnoticed or commented upon, but their hearts are twisted things incapable of connection or empathy with anyone not exactly like them.

 

The destructive harm these two threaten to the circus means that something must come around to right the wrongs. I mean, that’s just basic horror movie morality play at work. Whatever is coming about to disrupt the stasis, be it a werewolf or stalking serial killer, it must eventually be expunged. This leads us the rainy night revenge scene.

 

This is probably Freaks’ must outright concession to a being a horror movie. The intolerance of Cleopatra and Hercules must be snuffed out, and the thunderstorm, mud, and hinted at violence of this make it truly unnerving. This is the most exploitative moment, probably the only one in the film, that finds many of the less mobile sideshow performers slowly crawling towards a frantic Cleopatra and Hercules. What exactly happens to Hercules is a mystery, but Cleopatra’s fate ties into the carnival barker introduction in a neat little bow.

 

First reactions to this film found its viewing audience siding more with Cleopatra than Phroso or Venus, a circus clown and seal trainer that meet the freaks as equals and react with disgust at their mistreatment. MGM removed about thirty minutes from the running time, leaving Freaks at a little over an hour, and couldn’t figure out an ending. They eventually settled on a happy coda that finds Hans reunited with Phroso, Venus, and Frieda, Hans’ original fiancée and a fellow little person in the circus sideshow. It’s a strange beat to end on and something of tonal whiplash after the violence of the prior scene, yet it doesn’t harm in the film in any material way. What emerges in the end is a sense that Freaks is a compassionate film buried beneath a label of “horror” and a complicated history that serves as an anchor around its neck.  



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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Posted : 1 month ago on 20 December 2018 08:04 (A review of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)

You don’t go to MGM for horror, especially during the 1930s and 40s when Universal was cornering the market and RKO’s Val Lewton unit was making artistic works on shoestring budgets. MGM was the home of glamorous movie stars, of heightened romances, epics, and musicals. Yet here is 1941’s spin on Robert Louis Stevenson’s little Gothic novella about the duality of man, and what an odd creation it is.

 

MGM essentially took the script of the Pre-Code Paramount classic, gutted the stuff that wouldn’t get past the censors, and put big names squares into round holes. The entire thing takes the Gothic fervor and hothouse sensuality of the 1931 version, complete with similar shot setups, and plays it in the refined, glossy, sexless manner of many an MGM costume spectacle. The first thirty minutes and a couple of hallucination sequences feel like a cheat by the time Spencer Tracy’s Jekyll/Hyde finally meet their demise.

 

It all comes down to casting choices, muted story beats, and uninspired direction. Tracy is a baffling choice for the main role(s). His cinematic legacy is that of sturdy, good-natured all-American fathers, father figures, or individualists, so seeing him dive into a villain is an interesting prospect. It doesn’t come off through a combination of poor makeup (he resembles Dwight Frye during his manic scenes in Dracula), lazy acting (Hyde breathes roughly and bulges his eyes), and a lack of moments for him to play. By Tracy’s own admission he was miscast, and he worried that this film would torpedo his career. I mean, this is the film he chose to do in lieu of The Philadelphia Story.

 

While Ingrid Bergman does much better in general terms of acting, she’s sacked with a near unplayable role. Her character is clearly a sex worker but presented as a barmaid, and often swings back and forth between stubborn fighter and limp victim. This change happens within the same sentence in a few moments, and it could have been interesting material to dive into as Bergman’s character is clearly being beaten down and abused by Jekyll’s latent misogyny.

 

She’s the naughty whore to Lana Turner, of all people, as virginal bride-to-be. Turner’s legacy as a clotheshorse and less as an actress is underscored by her presence here as she evaporates from the memory as soon as she leaves a scene. If only the script had made room to explore how Jekyll’s love for Turner was entirely dependent on her virginity and social acceptability/societal status. It would have helped underscore the sexual violence of the Hyde persona as something always bubbling under the surface instead of coming out of the void as it does.

 

It’s not all gloom in this film as the first thirty minutes hint at a much better, psychologically complex film lying in wait. Look at the strange dream sequences during which Jekyll first turns into Hyde: Jekyll cracks the whip on horses pulling his carriage that transform into Bergman and Turner. Just as good is another sequence where Turner is trapped in a wine bottle with Bergman’s head as the cork that explodes once it is pulled out. These scenes are strange, sexually complicated, and way better than the rest of the overly long film orbiting around the two of them.  



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Unconditional Love

Posted : 1 month ago on 17 December 2018 10:00 (A review of Unconditional Love)

Darlene Love got her start in her local church choir as a young girl before getting drafted into the Blossoms. The rest is musical history, best exemplified by “He’s a Rebel,” “He’s Sure the Boy I Love,” “(Today I Met) The Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” yet Love always expressed an interest in recording a gospel album. A musical return to her roots and an expression of solidarity with the music that best informed and forged her vocal style.

 

Well, in 1998 she got her wish with Unconditional Love. It’s a fine album with dated late-90s production styles and a highly theatrical vocal performance by Love throughout. Of course, gospel singing practically demands and makes allowances for vocal indulgences, and Love’s church soaked alto nearly demolishes the walls of Jericho with their emotive fancy and power.

 

The problem is that much of Unconditional Love begins to sound the same with one song bleeding into another with little differentiation. I’m not sure if it’s the uniformly dated R&B sounds or the arrangements of the gospel mainstays, but Unconditional Love lands with a softer touch then you’d imagine. I wonder if the presence of a few secular songs reimagined as gospel numbers, Love’s version of “Lean on Me” or Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy,” for instance, would have provided more personality. It’s fine, a bit generic, but Love’s in damn fine voice here and gives some truly memorable and powerful performances. The New York Times didn’t describe her voice as a thunderbolt for nothing.

 

DOWNLOAD: “It Is Well”



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Groundhog Day

Posted : 1 month, 1 week ago on 13 December 2018 08:00 (A review of Groundhog Day)

Workaholic asshole learns to appreciate the small things and slow down. Along the way they find love that was staring at them in the face in the entire time. A million romantic comedies have been built upon this structure, and they typically star a business woman falling for a salt of the earth type.

 

Well, Groundhog Day takes the typical “Bill Murray character” and gives him the comeuppance that eluded him in prior films. One of the great joys of star personas is in watching them stretch or get subverted in successive films. Murray spent a good part of the 80s developing a jocular asshole, a smug archetype that would machine-gun rattle quips and snark while remaining stagnant. He was happily anarchic and spotlight stealing, and Groundhog Day humbles him.

 

There’s a pleasing meta-textural element at play here. Actors on set often relive the same instances in a character’s life by repeating lines and filming scenes over and over again to the point of tedium. Pull back from that limited scope of behind the scenes knowledge and look at the structure of the film. It’s all about one character knowingly replaying the same day again until he learns something, or “gets it,” then finally being able to move on.

 

It’s this strangely limiting scope that enables Murray to provide one of his richest performances. If that feels like a contradiction, then realize that everyone else is basically locked into a repeat performance while Murray is self-aware about the truth. This provides a tremendous amount of wiggle room for him to improvise and throw wrenches into the predetermined system. Think of his movement through the stages of grief, complete with a montage of suicide attempts that are darkly hilarious and oddly touching, before arriving at a desire to better himself. The journey from A to B has a lot of potential for a comedic actor of Murray’s ability to combine sarcasm with deep feeling.

 

The mundanity of the structure and narrative loop could lend the film towards maudalin or heavy sentimentality, but Groundhog Day is delightfully spiky. That spoonful of arsenic makes the sugar go down in the most delightful way. Yes, the film wants to teach us about the empowerment of bettering ourselves, or nurturing our emotions and intellectual curiosity, but it also wants to wrap it all up in small town bric-a-brac that can easily lend itself towards corny Americana.

 

Murray and collaborator Harold Ramis manage to navigate the tricky tone and emerge with a perfectly sweet and tart comedy about spiritual development. While Murray’s character is threatened with the same day reoccurring ad infinitum, he eventually sees that if he develops as a person then he’ll manage to grow out of it. Groundhog Day reveals itself in its final moments as one of the most spiritual (if sarcastic) mainstream comedies ever made. Think of it as the jocular cousin of It’s a Wonderful Life.     



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Unforgiven

Posted : 1 month, 1 week ago on 12 December 2018 08:20 (A review of Unforgiven (1992))

It is fitting that Unforgiven would be Clint Eastwood’s final traditional western, as it seems obsessed with not only the mythologies and portent of the Old West, but Eastwood’s own cinematic stature. Here he was transitioning away from expansive vistas and grizzled faces framed by cowboy hats and dripping with sweat towards his more “respectable” phase, the one in which Oscars rained down upon his films and he became the old guard of cinema. It is here that for all of the narrative revisionism on display, Eastwood’s penchant for “white elephant art” would trample all contenders in its path towards Academy glory.

 

Yet it does somehow feel appropriate that the man who found fame on Rawhide, one of the standard-bearers of the white hat/black hat morality of the genre, would go about toppling that easy archetypical duality. There are no white or black hats in Unforgiven, merely a series of characters wearing greys or dull earth tones. We have no prototypical western gunslinger here to bring order to a chaotic hamlet and drive out the bad guys. The bad guys have been tamed into structuring order into the town as they effectively function as judge, jury, and executioner.

 

The violence and romance, and where these two points dovetail in the imagination, of the Old West gets a workout. Much of Unforgiven’s power is in how it slowly strips away the glamor from the tales we’ve consumed about the wild, wild west and how it was won. Our consumption of the pioneering mythology is just that, a consumption of an elaborate series of tales that have been embellished into mythology. The natives weren’t primitive forces fighting against civilized society, they were a civilized society trying to protect themselves and their own cultures.

 

It’s that subtle flip that makes it all work. We’re introduced to our main character through a text crawl, one that reads like the pulpy prose of a dime store western novel, and his towering imagery is deflated from the start. We’re told he’s a man with a past of violence, destruction, anarchy, and is now one that has been quieted by the passing of time and what is socially permissible changing. He’s become domesticated, debatably willingly, much like the land that once functioned as his own heroic journey where he was the lone ranger bringing about order and vigilante justice.

 

We meet him as a pig farmer with two young children and a dead wife, and his misery of this lifestyle doldrum is palpable. It’s the presence of an upstart gunslinger and his tale that reignites a fire inside. Is there time for one last rabblerousing adventure before age and/or death claims him? Does this quest for revenge actually function as a rousing adventure? Is he acting for the sake of cosmic judicial scale balancing as he says, or is he trying to reclaim the mythology that has built around his youth?

 

If you’re looking for these characters to get a redemption or for Eastwood to underscore their violence as justice, then you’re looking in the wrong place. Several characters seem enamored with the deeds and stories of the grizzled, older characters, but it’s not the truth they’re fascinated by, it’s the folkloric aspects, the glamorous violence of the imagination. There’s a writer who rattles off factoids and trivia bits that gets a rude awakening when confronted with two of these figures locked in a battle of wills. There’s no gun fire in that scene, merely the threat of it, and it’s more disturbing then the scenes of actual violence for its threat of polite society decomposing at the first provocation.

 

Yet for all the sympathy it elicits for its prostitutes, we root for them and their meager efforts to press against the patriarchal structure ruling over them, and for all of the slow erosion of male braggadocio, masculine grandeur, and pop culture glorification of violence, Unforgiven strangely fails to engage with race in any meaningful way. The blind casting of Morgan Freeman as Eastwood’s partner is interesting and there’s a few mentions of his time in the Civil War trenches, yet nothing much comes of it. Same goes for English Bob’s constant waxing poetical about the Chinese exploitation to build the railroad system. There’s one native woman who gets a completely silent part as Freeman’s wife, and that’s about it for it on that front.

 

Sure, Unforgiven is revisionist in some respects, but it tantalizing teases a few other threads that it then goes about ignoring. These threads feel more classical in nature, and several of them weigh Unforgiven down. English Bob, for instance, is a character that disrupts the narrative flow upon his introduction and then sticks around for a long while before finally paying off with a powerful monologue with Gene Hackman’s Little Bill in a jail cell. Eastwood’s “shoot the first draft” approach sometimes works in that it lends his films a distinctively odd character for all of their traditional virtues, but they also wind up with quite a bit of fat on the bones.

 

There’s also the duality at play that in the climatic shootout that puts a dent into the revisionism of mythologies at play here. Yes, it’s a stunner as filmed and edited, and one that is rightfully famous, but there’s something at odds within itself. You have the image of Hackman begging for mercy, we’ve been asked to sympathize with a misogynist that happily abuses his power over the town, so there’s something of a script-flip in that we feel a shred of empathy for the antagonist, but there’s Eastwood standing tall and mowing down a room full of people. That’s a well-known image of his career, one that he traded on from the early 60s straight through to this film’s 1992 release.  This is a cinematic ceremony as most westerns and revenge films, funny how often these two overlap, frequently end in a blood soaked shootout with our unkillable hero emerging from it all unscathed. Unforgiven wants to subvert the tropes it ends up celebrating, and it was just daring enough to finally bring Eastwood respectability and awards recognition.

 

I guess Unforgiven does have a happy ending after all.



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Trolls

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 7 December 2018 08:20 (A review of Trolls)

Does any current studio adhere harder to a predetermined formula more than DreamWorks Animation? From the moment Trolls starts to build its world it’s incredibly obvious how the players will change, where the pieces will move around, and how it’ll wrap up. There’ll be an avalanche of pop culture references hammered in, a veritable example of square peg into a round hole, and a grab-bag of celebrity voice acting. Oh, and don’t forget that we need to send the audience out on a big dance party!

 

You know, for a film that features a naked character covered in glitter (and yes, he frequently farts glitter), Trolls does have a few bright spots. Namely, there’s a pleasing scrapbook and tactile quality to the design of the film. There’s a lot of creatures made up of yarn, buttons, and threads, and moments, far too intermittent, where the film transitions into a scrapbook-like play. It’s these few moments where a better, more adventurous Trolls movie pokes out.

 

It’s quickly subsumed by a soundtrack that’s filled with mashups and kid-friendly covers of pop tunes. Why is DreamWorks so obsessed with repurposing pop songs as anthems? The only time this really works in Trolls is in a quiet, emotional moment when our grumpy character sings to a crestfallen sunny one. That song, “True Colors,” is already an emotionally packed song, and one that is just vague enough to work in a variety of contexts and moods.

 

Notice that I haven’t talked about the script for Trolls yet, and there’s a valid reason for that. It’s the thinnest gruel, a combination of hero’s journey, love story, and musical adventure that’s cliché from the word go. Will the sunny character learn the value of other emotions? You bet. Will the grumpy one regain his vibrancy after exposing his Tragic Backstory™ and joining up with the sunny one? Absolutely. Will the villains house a sympathetic character that helps our heroes and works through her own emotional arch? Yep, got that too.

 

Calling Trolls a cliché feels somehow an insult to clichés. Trolls is straight-up rolled off of the assembly line, and super-engineered to entertain the tots and sell a ton of merchandise. DreamWorks has franchising in mind here, and they’ve barely bothered to conceal that aim. They made a movie with just enough personality to guarantee solid box office returns, a spinoff tv show, and a sequel (or three).



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Tarzan & Jane

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 7 December 2018 08:20 (A review of Tarzan & Jane)

Nothing destroyed the brand integrity quite like the unnecessary Disney direct-to-video sequel market. Many of them over-explain things that weren’t a mystery from the original film, or continue a story that felt self-contained and complete already. Then there’s the others like Tarzan & Jane that are basically three or more episodes of their spinoff shows jammed together with a loose framing device, and these are no better.

 

Some of these Disney spinoff shows had merit, Aladdin was a ton of fun and Hercules has its fans, but the movies that either acted as springboards or spliced together individual stories frequently don’t work. It’s not just the woefully limited budgets that leave the characters looking “off,” but it’s the lack of a coherent story or reason for the films to exist in general outside of brand recognition.

 

There’s profits to be had, so damn what made the original film work!

 

Tarzan & Jane picks up where the original film ended with the couple happily married and coming up on their one-year anniversary. Each episode is a glimpse of Jane’s Britain encroaching on Tarzan’s jungle life and friends. You ever wanted to watch Tarzan become gentrified, then this is the direct-to-video film for you!

 

Long gone is the sense of danger, the thrill of watching Tarzan swing through the trees, but they kept the awkward Phil Collins songs and added in Mandy Moore, for reasons. I think that’s a basic summary of what’s wrong with this film – it keeps the things that were awkward from the original film and dilutes the strengths. It’s best to leave Tarzan & Jane alone in the jungle.



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Merry Christmas

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 6 December 2018 08:38 (A review of Merry Christmas)

I may prefer my Christmas music of the distinctively secular kind, and I may generally find the overly reverent standards to be more funereal than celebratory, but I know a solid holiday album when I hear one. Mariah Carey’s pop-friendly R&B-lite has never directly appealed to me, but like any good gay boy worth his wait in diva worship I’ve appreciated a few songs over the years. One of them would be the justifiably famous original she launched into the canon of yuletide classics, where it’s always sounded perfectly at home since its debut.

 

It doesn’t hurt that Carey keeps the guest rappers, the displays of trend-chasing, and the strange need to function as a distracted disco chanteuse away throughout. She merely plants her feet squarely on the ground, surrounds herself with live instrumentation and a healthy dose of gospel choir backing, and belts towards the heavens. If this isn’t her best collection of vocal performances, then I’m sure one of her lambs would agree that it’s towards the top of the list.

 

Well, for the most part.

 

(Screaming) Mimi can’t help herself when it comes to “Joy to the World.” She marries the traditional to the Three Dog Night beat, throws in a bit of club swagger, and over sings like it’s last call at the drag bar and the tips are running low. Then there’s the way that her original songs, you know the ones not named “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” just limp along as ballads whose sole existence to buckle under the weight of Carey’s octave-scaling and vocal tics. “Jesus Born on This Day” even throws in a children’s choir for extra treacle and sogginess. It’s the kind of holiday music that makes an Scrooge out of you.

 

She’s much better ripping arrangements and material from Phil Spector’s holiday playbook. Not only does she cover Darlene Love’s immortal “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” but takes a spin on the Crystals’ version of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” She sounds positively buoyant and confident on these songs. “Santa Claus,” in particular, features some playful vocal choices that are quite fetching.

 

It’s when Carey plays it old school that the album soars. Think of how the cover places her as a chaste pinup, and then listen to “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” That one wouldn’t sound out of place on A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector. In fact, one of her music videos for it had her playing Ronnie Spector, and one can easily imagine Ronnie’s voice belting the lovelorn lyrics with gusto. It’s no surprise this song has become a staple as it sounds like it was plopped out of the glut of Christmas songs from the 50s/60s.

 

When Carey focuses on playing gospel belter or girl group pop princess that Merry Christmas soars. Sure, there’s too many ballads and the Christian material gets a little bit much after a while, but there’s still plenty to recommend here. It’s a reminder of what a gift Carey’s voice once was. Time and overuse may have weakened some of its power, but listen to her tame “Silent Night” or “Jesus Oh What a Wonderful Child” and bow before a titan. Her love for the material shines through, but Merry Christmas remains a testament to the religious power and mystery of Carey’s golden throat.  

 

DOWNLOAD: “All I Want for Christmas Is You”



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