Monday, December 6, 2010

(Mostly) Original For Christmas, Melissa Etheridge's A New Thought For Christmas Is Just Worth It.

The Good: Decent vocals, Some good lyrics, Decent instrumental accompaniment
The Bad: Some of her takes are troublesome (to say the least!).
The Basics: Generally, a rather original Christmas album, A New Thought For Christmas is more erratic track-to-track and there is a new two-disc version fans will want more than this one!

Melissa Etheridge is one of those musical artists who I have long respected and enjoyed following. I was very happy to get in her new album Fearless Love (click here for review!) and have reviewed her singled like Nowhere To Go (click here for that!). She is also one of the artists who I never thought would release a Christmas album (which I tend to see as more exploitative of the fan base, as opposed to genuine artistic expression). Last year, she took her A New Though For Christmas and made it into a two-disc set, which was amusing to be because I just got in last year's one-disc version. Ultimately, my "recommend" is mild and I'd recommend anyone who is serious about Melissa Etheridge's music get their hands on the two-disc version instead.

That said, A New Thought For Christmas is not as bad as I feared when I first saw that Etheridge was producing a holiday album. In fact, usually, my problem with such albums is that artists tend not to have anything truly new to say that others have not already said in singing the same Christmas standards. My problem with Melissa Etheridge's album is some of her departures from the standard interpretations come across sounding sloppy and cacophonic. Even so, there is enough decent original material to make any liberal happy around the holidays to have this on.

With an anemic running time of only 44:10 for the album's ten tracks, A New Thought For Christmas is a combination of original Melissa Etheridge songs - like "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and "Christmas In America" - and holiday standards, like "O Night Divine" and "Blue Christmas." Etheridge provides the lead vocals for each and every song and she plays guitar on most every track as well. In addition, Etheridge is credited as a co-producer on the album. In short, this is very much the musical vision of Melissa Etheridge and her idea of what she wanted to do for a Christmas album.

What sets A New Thought For Christmas apart from most every other Christmas album is the unabashed politics of it. Etheridge is fearless in presenting an antiwar sentiment in songs like "Christmas In America" when she sings, "It's Christmas all around me / You're in someone else's land / So I'm sending out my only wish / Hey Santa tell the man / Hey mister send my baby home / This December I don't want to be all alone / Oh Christmas in America / I need you in my arms / Far away from harm / Mister send my baby home" Having heard that song originally a few years ago when it was clear it was an anthem against the War In Iraq, I was curious as to how it might hold up now, but it still does. Etheridge was smart to not make specific references and one suspects this will endure as a more timeless anthem like John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)."

On the songs that are not original, Etheridge presents her trademark rock and roll sound and it generally works. On "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," though, she kicks up the tempo and completely guts the emotional resonance of the original song. Instead of being lonely, it is like a celebratory anthem and I, for one, did not care for it. That said, her upbeat renditions of "Blue Christmas" and "Ring The Bells" work nicely. Her rendition of "O Night Divine" is a rather true-to-the-original one and those looking for something that sounds a little more Christmasy will like that, even if the more traditional piano arrangement has been replaced with Etheridge's guitar.

Etheridge sounds very much like Melissa Etheridge on this album, so those expecting some angelic soprano vocals will be unpleasantly surprised. Instead, Etheridge continues to sing with salty, more tenor-range vocals that make her sound like a smoker who is performing. The vocals are good, but they are a bit more gravelly, than virtually any other female recording artist who would put out a Christmas album. Again, there is nothing surprising for those who have heard Melissa Etheridge before in her vocal presentation here.

Similarly, her guitarwork is very upbeat and smart, just like one would expect from Melissa Etheridge. The album has a very produced musical sound, so each sound has the richness of a rock and roll guitar along with drums (most have bass as well). Those looking for a rockin' Christmas will find it in A New Thought For Christmas.

Lyrically, the most enjoyable songs are the ones Etheridge wrote. And just as Etheridge does not sound like the perky blondes or Celine Dions, Etheridge is not afraid to write and sing more moody Christmas songs. As such, she continues her trend toward the theme of loneliness, even on A New Thought For Christmas. So, those looking for upbeat may be surprised to listen to the actual lyrics and note lines like "We light a light / A light this year / ´Tis the season of change / What do we have / What do we have not / What do we need that isn't here / This mindless numb consuming / Is driven by a subtle fear" ("Light A Light"). And as long as one knows that coming in, it's fine. Many people, though, are bound to be in for a surprise!

That said, A New Thought For Christmas is a very contemporary rock and roll interpretation of Christmas music and Etheridge is a good vocalist and artist to present just such an album.

The best track is "Christmas In America," the low point is "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas."

For other Christmas albums, please check out my reviews of:
Wintersong – Sarah McLachlan
Elvis' Christmas Album - Elvis Presley
Midwinter Graces – Tori Amos


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

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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