Thursday, April 25, 2013

Music Review: A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas by Kirstin Chenoweth

Stars: 5 out of 5
Pros: Lovely arrangements of the familiar and rare
Cons: The country version of "Come On, Ring Those Bells"
The Bottom Line:
Mixes classic sounds
With arrangements that sound fresh
Instantly lovely

The Title Gets It Right.  This is "A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas."

My love of Christmas is legendary among those who know me. I love everything about it, including the music. Which is why I find myself buying several new CDs every year when I hardly have time to properly listen to all the great ones I already have. Usually, each new CD requires a couple listens for me to appreciate. That wasn't the case with Kristin Chenoweth's A Lovely Way To Spend Christmas. I was captured with the opening notes. And I wasn't disappointed as the disc progressed.

The disc opens with a slow, jazzy version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Kristin sings it with such longing it makes the already sad words take on an extra melancholy feel. About half way through, a sax comes in for a solo, and then continues with the piano for the rest of the song.

"Christmas Island" comes next, and it is a big band arrangement with just a hint of island instruments in there. I had never heard this song about the joys of spending Christmas on Christmas Island before, but it's fun and upbeat. But I've got to laugh at the placement. This song comes right after her wish to be home for Christmas.

She slows things down again for "The Christmas Waltz." At first I wasn't convinced it was going to work since every other version I had heard was upbeat. But I was converted by the half way point. The orchestra is simply breathtaking.

I'm not normally a fan of artists including non-Christmas songs, and Kristin has done that twice here. First, she does it with "Sing." (You know, "Sing, sing a song.") She has added a new second verse/chorus that have a Christmas theme to them. She does it again to close the disc, although this time, she combines "What a Wonderful World" with "Sleep Well Little Children," which is a Christmas lullaby. I'm not going to say that these are my favorite tracks, but I don't mind them as much as normal. Of course, it helps that I like the songs to begin with.

For absolute fun, there's her duet with John Pizzarelli on "Sleigh Ride/Marshmallow World." This isn't a fast version of the songs by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, we're back to piano based jazz. But listening to the two of them sing back and forth makes me smile. And they do get a little silly at the end as they talk about how cold Kristin is getting.

There are two more tracks on here I had never heard before. "Home on Christmas Day" is at once sad and uplifting. The song is sent out to loved ones no longer with us letting them know they will always be in our hearts at Christmas. What keeps it from being such a weeper is the soaring orchestration and Kristin's vocals. I find it more uplifting then I do depressing. "Born on Christmas Day" is a song focusing on the first Christmas. It's another piano based song that retells those events from so long ago.

But let's get back to a couple of the standards. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" is absolutely wonderful. It starts will bells and horns before Kristin starts to sing. Despite the horns, this really is a quiet song at the beginning, but it builds as it goes along until her powerful voice is belting out the lyrics. I can't quite tell, but it even sounds like her echoes herself on a few of the lines. There are also regular backup singers later who provide great harmonies, so that's why I can't quite tell if it is them on those lines. But with Kristin's unique voice, I really think it is her singing both parts.

"What Child is This?" is properly haunting with a souring orchestral arrangement.

While Kristin mostly sticks to big band, orchestra, and jazz, there are a couple country songs here. "Silver Bells" is mildly country, but "Come on, Ring Those Bells" is full on country. Frankly, that is the only misstep in my mind, probably because I consider Evie's version to be my favorite Christmas song of all time. Still, it is nice to see someone else record it. And after a couple listens, even this one has grown on me.

A Lovely Way To Spend Christmas is going to be one of the first discs I pull out every year and one of the last I put away in January. Kristin poured her heart into every note, and it shows. I can't recommend this disc highly enough.

CD Length: 43:28
1. I'll Be Home for Christmas
2. Christmas Island
3. The Christmas Waltz
4. Do You Hear What I Hear?
5. Sleigh Ride/Marshmallow World (with John Pizzarelli)
6. Sing
7. Silver Bells
8. Come on, Ring Those Bells
9. What Child is This?
10. Home on Christmas Day
11. Born on Christmas Day
12. Sleep Well Little Children/What a Wonderful World

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