Thursday, December 2, 2010

Elvis Presley Sings Christmas Songs: 50 Years Later, Who Cares?

The Good: Moments of vocals
The Bad: Musically standard, Nothing terribly original or creative, SHORT!
The Basics: Wow. Elvis Presley sings Christmas music and not even a full half-hour of it! There are better albums for fans of Elvis and Christmas music.

Whenever I pan something that others seem to consider a great standard, it behooves me to mention my bias, if that ever factors into such decisions. In the case of Elvis' Christmas Album, I have no trouble admitting that the truth is I'm not a big fan of Christmas albums. I understand that part of the reason I am not a fan of them now is because of how people like Elvis Presley pushed the proverbial envelope on the genre back in his day. People like Elvis Presley reached a level of commercial success that led them to be able to do virtually anything and they wanted to tap into a different audience, like those who were avoiding the hip-shaking rock and roller. With Elvis' Christmas Album, Elvis publicly presents his more direct Gospel heritage and he presents a variety of Christmas songs and spirituals.

And it still feels like a sellout, a commercialization of personal faith and that's pretty much what I don't dig about the whole obligatory Christmas album that most artists, like Presley, eventually release. And yes, I pretty much feel like I'm doomed to burning in hell for panning what seems to be the best selling Christmas album of all time (9 million units), but the truth is, there's nothing genuinely special about this recording.

With twelve tracks clocking in at seconds over half an hour, Elvis' Christmas Album is an album that would have disappointed me quite a bit more a few weeks before I began my studies of Elvis Presley and came to learn that he was far more a performer than a singer-songwriter (which he is almost not at all). As a result, on this album, Elvis sings and plays guitar and does nothing else. He wrote none of the songs, nor seems to have had any part in the production of the album. Instead, this is Elvis singing the Christmas classics.

Here Elvis sings such church classics as "Silent Night" and "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" along with such secular hits as "White Christmas" and "Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane)." Probably the best known Christmas track is Elvis Presley's rendition of "Blue Christmas."

"Blue Christmas" is the lyrical notable of Elvis' Christmas Album as far as the Christmas songs goes. With Elvis recognizably crooning "You'll be doing all right with your Christmas of white / But I'll have a blue blue blue blue Christmas. . ." ("Blue Christmas") the song is known world around and it sounds generally good. But like so many of the songs on the album, Elvis and his team cannot take the blame for the obvious lyrics that have the typical and overdone rhymes that plague much of popular music and the Christmas music genre specifically. "White/right" is not the worst rhyme scheme on the album, but it does embody a certain lack of imagination in the songwriters of the songs Elvis chose to sing on this album.

But the even more problematic aspect than the lack of lyrical creativity is the lack of creativity in terms of the assembly of the Christmas album. Elvis' Christmas Album is not even entirely Christmas songs! Tracks like "Take My Hand, Precious Lord" and "It It No Secret (What God Can Do) are spirituals and/or Gospel songs, but they are not (traditionally) considered Christmas songs. So, when Elvis affirms his faith with "I Believe," it's a fine sentiment, but it's hardly a Christmas one. With a full third of the tracks being non-Christmas music, one has to wonder about the audacity of calling this a Christmas album!

The irony is that the superlative track on the album is not one of the Christmas songs! Elvis does a wonderful job of performing "Peace In The Valley," gently crooning out, "Well the bear will be gentle / And the wolves will be tame / And the lion shall lay down by the lamb, oh yes / And the beasts from the wild / Shall be lit by a child / And I'll be changed, changed from this creature that I am . . . / There will be peace in the valley some day . . ." He manages to make the register skips and the stops in the song to make it a truly beautiful sounding recording.

The thing is, the vocals on Elvis' Christmas Album are more or less typical. They are what the listener expects, what we anticipate and he never surprises the listener on this album. Our expectations are met - at best - , but not ever exceeded. In other words, the listener anticipates that Elvis will present known Christmas standards and sing them with his soulful, mellow voice and lo and behold, he does!

Elvis give rather standard performances of such tracks as "White Christmas" and "Silent Night," presenting them as anyone who is a master of the tenor and baritone ranges might be expected to. He in no way makes the songs his own. Instead, he provides the requisite two and a half minute tracks with little other than what one might expect of a decent chorus singer in a church choir. In other words, if it wasn't Elvis, this truly could be anyone.

So, on tracks like "O Little Town Of Bethlehem," Elvis makes himself in many ways the musical everyman, save that he has perfect pitch. Honestly, that is probably all that separates the music on Elvis' Christmas Album from a c.d. produced by a local church choir member or member of a congregation. In virtually every church, it seems, there is a performed who is more of a showboater singing from the heart and gut and that sort of singer would have overwhelmed Elvis on this recording. Here, his performance is typical, subtle and largely unremarkable.

Musically, this album is largely unremarkable, simply replacing organs with pianos and guitars. Given that these songs are all covers of recognizable christmas songs, it seems reasonable that they strive to sound like what people expect. The problem, however, is that the music never becomes more than that. Instead, this is exactly like what one would expect to hear of songs like "Here Comes Santa Claus." Even the - possibly - least familiar song "Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)" has been performed musically and vocally in more distinctive ways than Presley performs it on this album.

In the quest to find albums worth listening to or to buy, the overwhelming evaluation of "typical" and "standard" ought to serve as a death knell. In the case of Elvis' Christmas Album, typical is the closest to a compliment I can muster for this pathetically short album that one would have thought would have been released on c.d. only with at least one other Christmas album to best use the medium. Alas, no, this is a pure re-release of the 1957 cash cow, er, Christmas recording.

There are better Elvis Christmas compilations that give the listener more bang for their buck than this one, making it easy for me to not recommend this release. The best track is "Peace In The Valley," the low point is the unmemorable rendition of "I Believe."

For other Christmas albums, please check out my reviews of:
Midwinter Graces – Tori Amos
One More Drifter In The Snow – Aimee Mann
20th Century Masters: The Christmas Collection – The Best Of Reba – Reba McEntire


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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