The Good: Voice, Creativity of arrangements
The Bad: Hardly original, Seldom inspired, Musically dull and predictable (mostly), Disturbing arrangement on "Rudolph"
The Basics: Hardly inspired, Jewel presents a mix of Christmas, holiday and songs that have nothing to do with holidays songs in a disappointing "holiday" collection.
Every now and then, I like to step out of my proud, Northern Liberal facade to say something that might surprise those who know me as a smug, progressive critic. Today, that note from me is that I don't, as a general rule, hate Christmas albums. Sure, I've said in the past that I view them as a cheap attempt by many artists to capitalize on a near-guaranteed moneymaker and that certain artists would lose my respect if they release a Christmas album (Sophie, Heather, I hope you're reading that!), but in general, I have nothing against Christmas albums on principle. I don't even have anything against Christmas hymns. Seriously; when John Cullum sings the "Ave Maria" in the Northern Exposure episode "Seoul Mates" it brings a tear to my eye. Even at my most cynical, I've noted that Christianity has the music to sell it; no other major religion I know of tries so hard to keep its people engaged with a catchy tune as Christianity. And I've no problem with that!
I do, however, have a problem with disingenuity. For all of the things I ever thought I would accuse the artist Jewel of, I think being disingenuous or deceptive would have been pretty much the last. But calling her Christmas album Joy: A Holiday Collection when six songs specifically sing of Jesus Christ as being the savior (with several more glorifying other aspects of Christian mythology/religion), it's hardly truth in advertising to call it a "holiday" collection. Sure, Christmas is a holiday, but so is St. Swithen's Day. When you mean "Christmas," you ought to say "Christmas." For those not yet duped by Jewel: Joy is an album primarily of Christmas hymns and carols.
With thirteen tracks clocking in at 44:33, Joy: A Holiday Collection is Jewel Kilcher's take on seven public domain Christmas hymns, two classic carols, three tracks written by Jewel and one that is a Medley of three different works. It's essentially Jewel's chance to show off her pipes in a chance to cash in on those Christmas dollars. Actually, Jewel presents her unique take on several songs and at the very least, the album is distinctly Jewel. Mostly, that works.
I've never had a serious problem with Jewel's voice, save when she misuses it or tries to do something with it that goes against her natural sound. On Joy, she is natural, clear and hits her marks vocally. On "I Wonder As I Wander," she is high, articulate and impressive. Jewel reminds the listener just how beautiful a soprano voice can be on that song. Similarly, on "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" and "Silent Night," she is vocally beautiful and impressive, as she is on her original track "Gloria." And frankly, her vocals on "O Holy Night" are flawless. Strangely, I still prefer Cullum's "Ave Maria" to Jewel's performance on Joy, but she does an adequate job of singing and emoting in that song.
And the vocals are not the problem with her "Christmas" arrangement of "Hands." "Hands," one of the cornerstone tracks to Jewel's album Spirit, appears on this album . . . with bells and Jewel belting the song out even more plaintively than in the original (if that can be believed), but without anything that definitively makes it a holiday song any more than it originally was. Instead, the jaded reviewer might suggest that this was an attempt to draw in the die-hard Jewel fans who might be curmudgeons on the principle that they needed the Jewel song. Fans are likely to enjoy just how much Jewel there is on this album.
And Jewel certainly comes through with her poetry on her original song ""Face Of Love." In her attempt to write a "holiday" song for the ages, she expresses herself well, though with a melancholy that is hardly festive. In a moment of reflection, she writes and sings, "In silence I feared my heart / Would remain words unheard / Inside a separateness of skin / But now I know that the skin just veils the soul / For I have seen, the face of love / The face of God, the face of love" ("Face Of Love"). Perhaps more accurately, "Joy" (which isn't often a happy-sounding album) is more accurately subtitled "Jewel's Spiritual Collection." Okay, "Winter Wonderland" might not be a spiritual, but it is a holiday song, whereas "Face Of Love" and even "Medley" strike one as far more spiritual than holiday-themed.
Traditionalists, as well, might have problems with Jewel's interpretations as opposed to her original material. Opening with a very poppy version of "Joy To The World," the album seems at many points to put Jewel's style above any sense of message and that ranges from the awkward ("Joy To The World") to the downright disturbing ("Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer"). Jewel certainly is creative in her arrangements, though and the "Medley" of "Go Tell It On The Mountain," "Life Uncommon" and "From A Distance" is soulful and interesting. It's not terribly Christmas-y or even holiday-y, but it's auditorily intriguing.
What is not is Jewel's arrangement of "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer." Jewel reinvents the song as a jazzy, hip, upbeat number fresh with scatting and disturbing rests that sound often enough like she is singing through having a seizure. Here, Jewel takes up the mantle of one who seems to want to mess with something good just for the sake of messing with it and just because one is creative does not mean all they produce is art. Jewel's interpretation of "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" is more an experiment in sound and form as opposed to altering the song for any sort of content or message and as a result, it is troubling to listen to. It is more noisy than artistic.
Fortunately, this is the exception to the rule on Joy. While "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" might be unlistenable, the rest of the songs are more dull or standard than horrible. "Winter Wonderland" and "Hark The Herald Angels Sing" sound like they could be performed by pretty much any college girl's a cappella group. Similarly, "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" shows no creativity or sense of artistic expression at all. While Jewel's take on "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer" might be terrible, at least it shows some effort on her part. She might even have something she is trying to say in the song. Her take on "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" simply says "Look! I can sing 'O Little Town Of Bethlehem!'" Of this we had no doubt before she recorded it; Jewel, we know, can sing virtually anything.
Finally, the dealbreaker for the album is that it's short. Sure, I might not have enjoyed much of what was on Joy: A Holiday Collection, but for a c.d. the least Jewel should have done was packed it with music. "It's terrible!" "Yes, but at least the portions are good!" Here, the portion is small, leaving those who don't like what is on the plate poking around hoping there might be something more that we missed.
The best track is "O Holy Night," the low point is "Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer."
For other Christmas albums, please check out my reviews of:
These Are Special Times – Celine Dion
A New Thought For Christmas – Melissa Etheridge
Wintersong – Sarah McLachlan
For other c.d. and singles reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!
© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.