Friday, November 27, 2009

Low-budget review (plus lyrics and translations): Andrea Bocelli, My Christmas

Short version: 4 and three-quarters one-half stars. (When I got to the end of my cut-by-cut analysis I docked the album a quarter-star because I realized that "God Bless Us Every One" really just ain't, you know, all that.) Generally spectacular; misses perfection only because "Jingle Bells" is gimmicky and doesn't quite work, and because "I Believe" is theologically appalling (which I wouldn't necessary dock an ordinary album for, but this is a Christmas album and if you're going to do a Christmas album the least you can do is make sure it's compatible with Christianity). And because "God Bless Us Every One" isn't as good as I thought it was the first time I heard it, plus they write the title wrong in the liner notes.

Other than I

And that's the short version. Now here's the fuller version:

If you don't know who Andrea Bocelli is, let's put it this way: he's what Josh Groban wants to be when Josh grows up.

There's a reason Andrea Bocelli has sold so many albums worldwide, and I think a good way to explain the reason is by comparing him to, um, your humble Peril himself....continue reading... There's not a note that Bocelli hits on this album that I can't hit, too (his range almost exactly coincides with mine, making it sing-along heaven for me). But nobody would want to listen to me sing these songs, while the whole world wants to hear Bocelli sing 'em. It's not just the perfect technical control that makes every note he sings sound like he doesn't even have to try hard. It's the inimitable purity and texture of his tone -- rich and velvety in timbre in the lower registers, clear as a trumpet call when he ascends on high. And the transition between the two happens so smoothly and imperceptibly that you can't even tell where the change happens (which is a sure sign of years of hard work and training). I defy the casual listener (that is, the listener who has no vocal training) to tell when Bocelli is doing something difficult and when he's doing something any pop singer could do; but I defy anyone who has ever tried to sing seriously not to have his jaw drop periodically. In other words, Bocelli can do anything he wants with his voice, and he long ago proved it and no longer has to show off. So now he simply does whatever is necessary to make the song work, without worrying about whether it's easy or hard...and the result is simply glorious music.

It also means that this is a guy who is so comfortable in his musical skin, and so in command of his instrument, that he can happily pair up -- on just this one album -- with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Katherine Jenkins, and also with Reba McEntire, and also with, of all things, the Muppets.

Very well, we have the vocal instrument we need for a great Christmas album. And there's obviously a rich vein of Christmas music to be explored. The only problem is that it's all been done before...lots and lots of times. So either you have to do a traditional arrangement and do it better than other people do, or else you have to find something new to do with the song. In Bocelli's case, as long as he sticks to the former, he's in his wheelhouse: nobody is going to do traditional, classical work better than Bocelli.

Still, any time you do one of the standards, you'd like to do something to make it your own. Bocelli takes two main approaches, both of which generally work.

1. He bounces around from language to language, often in the same song. This works great for European audiences. Alas, it will probably reduce his American sales. In Italian and Latin and French he sounds great; and in English he is, improbably, all but accent-free. Only when he sings a verse of "O Tannenbaum" in German did I find myself thinking, "Um...I don't think he's German."

2. There are a lot of duets/ensemble pieces on this album, and they work. Well, okay, both of the cuts I don't like fall in this category...but it's not because he has other people singing with him. The Muppets are not what's wrong with "Jingle Bells," and Katherine Jenkins is not the problem with "I Believe." This guy can sing with anybody. For all I know he could sing a duet with me and make me sound good.


"White Christmas / Bianco Natale"

It begins, as "White Christmas" always seems to begin, with strings in the first few measures, exactly the way you've heard a hundred mediocre versions of "White Christmas" begin before, and you think, "Oh, boy, here we go," and start to twiddle your thumbs. Then the strings die out and Bocelli comes in on that first sustained, deep, rich "I'm..." -- and you think, "Oh, wait, this might be special after all." By the time the cut is over you have heard a perfectly competent but still been-there-done-that arrangement, turned into something memorable simply by the Voice. Plus you've heard some Italian, because that's what Bocelli switches to for the second verse.

"Angels We Have Heard on High"

We're still in the same genre as the first cut, except that we sound at first as though we're in church. It's in Italian, which frankly fits in much better with the Latin chorus than English usually does, and begins as a rather intimate little piece between Bocelli and an organ. But the orchestra joins in before long, and then halfway through the piece suddenly both Bocelli and the orchestra switch gears and soar into the upper register, whereupon a huge choir joins in as well. The last verse is the old familiar English first verse, and if you like big endings you won't find one bigger than this one.

"Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"

A delightful little swinging version with a children's choir. You can't help but sing along with this one (and most of it can be sung along with by anybody who usually sings along with the radio). And you can't help but smile while you sing. This isn't the most impressive song on the album...but it's one of the best. It's a great illustration of what I was saying above, about how Bocelli no longer needs to show off and can simply do what's necessary to make a song work.

"The Christmas Song" (with Natalie Cole)

The first real duet, and it's just lovely. This is done in a "pop standard" style, not classical choral, and there are moments when Bocelli reminds you irresistibly of Michael Bublé. You could be sitting on a beach in Tahiti listening to this song on your iPod, and if you closed your eyes you'd be able to hear the logs crackling gently and see the warm and intimate shadows of a firelit room. If you're an American in your forties and this song doesn't put you in a Christmas mood, then nothin's gonna.

"The Lord's Prayer" (with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir)

Exactly what you would expect stylistically, done as well as you could ask it to be done. There's a nice touch in that Bocelli sings pretty much the standard melody line right up until the traditional big finish, but then just as you're expecting the triumphant high note on "for-E-ver," he backs off and goes calmly down instead of up. But that's just because he intends to reprise the last section of the prayer, and then you get the big finish, which turns out to be quite a bit bigger than what you thought was the big finish his first time through. Very nicely done, very nicely done indeed.

"What Child Is This" (with Mary J. Blige)

Okay, it's got Mary J. Blige in it, so you know you're going to have some vocal freestyling. It's therefore a bit of a surprise when it starts off with Gregorian chant over a synthesizer...but then Blige joins in and we get the unusual mix of a black gospel soprano freestyling soloist over a string-style synthesizer and male Gregorian chant choir. Um...guess what? It works. Then the first verse is almost arhythmic in the freedom of its meter. Not until the second verse do we finally begin to feel a prevailing beat.

This is where Bocelli's musical humility genuinely impresses me. He's singing a duet with Blige, and for the entire first verse he plays straight man to her riffing -- they are singing a duet in nice harmony, but he's singing straightforward melody without flourishes, while she's just going off. But then he begins to play, too, and for the rest of the song you're treated to the kind of freestyle duet that you can only get when you have two artists who know the bones of the song and trust each other so much that they can do whatever they want, knowing that what each wants to do will fit with what the other wants to do...since neither of them will do anything wrong.

The mood of this song, by the way, is so can I put this? Everything about the song says, "It's time to play." And so when I sing along I can't help but improvise a third part in between the two of them, much to the kids' bemusement...but to just sing what someone else is singing is to betray the whole point of the song, if you see what I mean. You have to find something neither of them are doing and make it fit, or else you aren't really participating. To sing along, is not really to sing along...[sigh] okay, either you see what I mean by now or else I'm not a good enough writer to communicate it. So on to the next song.

"Adeste Fidelis"

All in Latin. As traditional as it comes. As good as it gets. Nothing more to say.

"O Tannenbaum"

Bocelli's at his most multicultural on this one. He sings a verse in Italian, then another in German, and then a third in English. This is, again, pop standard style, and very nice without being very musically ambitious -- just a nice, simple, treatment of the song. About the time you think it's over he comes back home to Italian for a final verse, with slight melodic variation. I like it a lot. Other people might not.

[The kids wanted to leave the coffee shop at this point, so I published and signed off. Picking up now on Friday evening after dinner:]

"Jingle Bells" (with the Muppets)

Doesn't work. Sorry, it just doesn't. Bocelli tries to make it a novelty number by playing games with the tempo -- really slow for the first verse, then doing a "Rock Island"-style accelerando through the second chorus, then repeating the verse this time fast...meh. Doesn't work. Sorry. Weak cut. So much for five stars.

"Silent Night"

This number has just leaped into second place on my "Silent Night" Top Ten List, and I had to listen to it two or three times in a row to be sure that it was in fact not going to be able to bump Luis Miguel's "Noche de Paz" version. (A bummer for Americans: of the two best "Silent Nights" I've heard in my forty-three years, one is in Spanish and the other is in Italian until the last verse. Oh, well.) The comparison between these two versions is actually instructive, because "Silent Night" poses a fascinating problem for the arranger.

Here's the deal: the song is about silence and peace, but the melody wants to soar to the heavens with the angelic choir. So there are three basic ways most people attack the song:

(1) You can stay true to the spirit of the lyrics, and do a deliberately quiet and simple version. I myself would love to hear "Silent Night" sung by Toni Braxton with no accompaniment other than Joshua Bell's violin, but you have a better chance of overhearing a country-church-ful of Oklahoma Baptist carolers (not Catholics, because it's the Baptists who have spent their whole lives actually practicing singing in church every Sunday morning) standing all wrapped in blankets in the snow outside an elderly shut-in's front door, singing in a cappella four-part harmony. And while it may not be something you can sell tickets to for $200, there are few things in the world I enjoy hearing more.

(2) You can ignore the peacefulness of the lyrics and go full-throttle with the power of the melody. The best version in this class, by far, is Luis Miguel's unforgettable big-band swing version complete with three key changes and a swingin' Black gospel choir. (Which you can find on his Navidades album, which is my very favorite Christmas album ever...but which is entirely in Spanish, I fear.)

(3) You can try to combine the two, by starting quiet and peaceful to give the lyrics their due, and then building to a big crescendo in the final verse to do justice to the melody. This is by far the most common approach, and it's the approach Bocelli takes. And for my money his version, with its clear Italian in the first two verses, the crescendo up in the third verse (which is the first English verse), and then the settling back down to the gentle ending with the Salvation Army Boys Choir helping to close things out...well, because of Luis, Bocelli doesn't quite make Best In Show. But he does in my mind win Best of Breed.

(Should I mention, by the way, in the presence of Baptist Gentle Readers, that if one sings along with the Italian lyrics of the second verse, one will find oneself briefly praying to the Virgin Mary?, I don't think I will. Wouldn't want to spoil the song for 'em.)

"Blue Christmas" (with Reba McEntire)

Now here's something Luciano Pavarotti couldn't possibly have done, even while he was, you know, still alive: turn in a Nashville-style duet with Reba McEntire in which, while they're singing "decorations of red on a green Christmas tree" in thirds, he sounds like he belongs in a Nashville studio just as much as she does. Do you know what I mean? Their voices blend together perfectly in style as well as pitch, if you see what I'm saying: you don't think for a moment, "Oh, isn't that nice, with that country girl singing along with that opera singer?" I would expect this song to get lots of airplay on the country stations, where I think it would be a big hit with people who think Andrea Bocelli was pretty lucky to get the chance to sing with Reba McEntire. (Which, actually, I think he was; I imagine they both had a ball.) Granted, I like country music; but I really like this cut.

"Cantique de Noel" (which is to say, "O Holy Night," but in Placide Cappeau's original French)

The more I listen to this one the more I wonder about Bocelli's French accent...I'm not sure it's that good, but my own French is no longer good enough for me to be very confident about it. I like the French lyrics better than the English ones (the French lyrics were, after all, good enough to have been published originally as poetry and later set to music), but that's probably just a matter of personal taste. Other than that, this is pretty much like any other "O Holy Night" you've heard recently, only (a) in French and (b) with Andrea Bocelli's voice. So, um, would you rather hear Andrea Bocelli's voice or Celine Dion's? (Hint: there's a right answer to this one. Especially if we're talking questionable French accents.)

Caro Gesù Bambino

Hey, I hadn't heard this one before. It must be a traditional Italian carol or something. Very simple little tune, and very simple treatment, fitting because it is a song sung to the baby Jesus by a poor Italian child. Probably the single cut on the album that leans most heavily on the quality of Bocelli's rich and textured tenor. I liked it very much, and can't resist just putting my translation in here so that you can know what you're listening for:
Dear Baby Jesus
You Who are such a good child
Grant me this pleasure:
Leave heaven for a little while
And come play,
Come play with me.
You know my papa is poor
And I have no toys
I'm a good child
Just as you were yourself...
But you'll see, if you come,
We'll have such fun
Even without toys
Come, Baby Jesus!
Now you can't wait to hear it, can you?

"I Believe" (with Katherine Jenkins)

Okay, you've heard this kind of number before -- it's every duet Celine Dion has sung with a male partner in the last two decades, except that Celine, bless her heart, doesn't very often get a partner who can effortlessly hold a high B for three and a half measures of slow three/four. The bit toward the end where Bocelli rips off the high B is well worth hearing musically.

Alas, the song, which could have gotten from me an "it's painting-by-numbers symphonic pop, but it has Bocelli's voice" thumbs-up, annoys me immensely with its terrible theology. If there's one thing any good Christian knows, it's that "we" will never, ever "make heaven on earth," and that any person who seriously for a moment thinks that "one day I'll hear the laughter of children in a world where war has been banned" is living in pathological denial of reality. Not that you don't do everything you can to heal those whose lives you personally touch, and not that you don't, if you are called to service to the State, do your best to establish justice and peace...but realistically the prince of this world is the enemy of the Prince of Peace, and that won't change until God steps in personally and rings down the final curtain. As G. K. Chesterton once put it, "Original the only part of Christian theology that can really be proved."

Now I don't object when those of my friends who are not orthodox Christians buy into the default Anne-Frank-ish attitude of optimism about human nature (without, apparently, having noticed how Anne Frank's story ended) -- but then my friends who are not orthodox Christians don't spend a lot of time releasing Christmas albums full of songs about the Incarnation. So, I don't imagine that the "Star Trek"-style humanism of "I Believe" (even "holy spirit" is printed in the album liner without capitalization) is likely to bother most of my Gentle Readers.

But it bothers me, dammit. Thumbs down on this one.

"God Bless Us Everyone [sic]"

You know what? This one isn't that great, either. Okay, this is now a four-and-a-half-star album; I'm knocking a quarter-star off my original ranking. Only a pedant would be bothered by the fact that the album liner insists on butchering the Dickens quote by confusing "everyone" with "every one"...okay, fine, I'm a pedant. But it doesn't bother me while the music is playing. Mostly this one is just lyrically bland. I think it's meant to be a sort of big Broadway number to finish off the album; unfortunately, they decided to pull it from a present-day Disney musical ("As featured in the Walt Disney motion picture DISNEY'S A CHRISTMAS CAROL"), and at this point Disney is more enslaved to formula than is the Theory of Relativity. Listening to this one this last time through, I was like, "Okay, there's another high B...meh. You know what? I think I'm gonna find myself hitting the skip button most of the time when this one comes up."

All right, then, we have eight or nine outstanding cuts that Josh Groban would give his right arm for, three or four very nice cuts I'll enjoy listening to repeatedly for years to come, and three that I'll habitually skip past.

I'd say that's worth the thirteen bucks the thing costs at Starbucks.

Oh, and as for lyrics and translations...the last time I tried to put lyrics with translations, it didn't come out all that well on the blog. How about, if you want the lyrics, you can e-mail me and I'll send you a Word file with the lyrics, along with my translations, said translations being worth about what you'll pay for them, namely el zippo (which is Spanish for "nada").


At 4:41 PM, Blogger Iris said...

All your comments on the songs are very interesting and it shows you have a lot of musical knowledge. I enjoyed reading them very much, even where I did not quite agree.

But I would argue one point with you. "I believe" was written originally about 10 years ago for Andrea to sing for Pope John Paul II and it is said to have been one of the Pope's favorite songs and that he was very moved when he heard Andrea sing it. Now I am not an expert on Catholic theology, but if the song was approved by the Pope, I don't think your comments on it as theologically unsound can stand--at least as far as Catholics are concerned.

The song is clearly meant to be a Utopian vision, as Andrea himself has said--not anything more concrete and realistic than that. But it's strange to me that no one seems to have noticed that the song's message is the quintessential Christmas message: "Peace on earth, good will to all men."

Now let me add that I dislike the duet version and the glitzy David Foster arrangement of the music and I recommend that everyone go to hear the original, as sung by Andrea as a solo on the 1998 DGG CD, "A Hymn for the World" vol. 2. I would hope it's on Youtube. His pure young tenor voice and emotional belief in what he is singing is very moving.

If anyone wants to hear a "Silent Night" that is simple and pure like spring water, then they should listen to the young Andrea sing it on his CD, "Sacred Arias"
(1999), in an arrangment which matches his youthful tenor voice.

At 9:32 AM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...


What a great comment! Thanks very much. That comment in fact calls for a new post re-evaluating "I Believe," which I'll do something this weekend.

And, a question raised by my Kazakhstani you personally pronounce "Iris" as "AI-ris" or as "ee-REES"?

Anyway, thanks again for the comment.

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Ken Pierce said...

OK, Iris, I responded (pretty much saying I was wrong) here. Thanks again ever so much for the comment.


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