Do you know what it isn’t any more? It isn’t April. And that’s a shame, because April is traditionally the month in which we Four Word Review the heck out of a Christmas album (see Mahalia, Barbra Streisand, Michael Bublé), and right now I’ve got another Christmas album burning a hole in my CD collection. So let’s throw tradition to the wind and have a listen to Joy: A Holiday Collection by Jewel, even though it’s May and May is nowhere near as inherently Christmassy as April.
Do you remember Jewel? I do. She’s an Alaskan singer-songwriter with professional opera training and her name actually is Jewel. (Jewel Kilcher, if you want to write her a letter or something.) Back in the mid-90s she released several incredibly popular country/pop crossover albums, one of which, Pieces of You, remains one of the best selling debut albums of all time. I remember her for a brief period in the late 1990s when my dad became a huge fan and played her second album Spirit almost to the exclusion of all other music. I’m not sure to this day whether he genuinely likes country music – his only other flirtation with the genre was to buy an album by the Mavericks – or whether he just fancied her.
Anyway, in 1999, with several massive albums under her belt, Jewel released this collection of Christmas songs which are very much in her own slightly country, slightly operatic, pop-influenced style, with lots of orchestra and a choir and all the other things you need to include if you’re doing a Christmas album. It’s a mix of very traditional Christian songs with a few singalong pop classics.
If you want a snapshot of the album without having to hear it, imagine listening to a very gentle orchestral sound, a very enthusiastic choir, and a singer with as angelic and sweet a voice as you can possibly imagine who is doing her best to include every note she knows in every word of every song. That sort of singing (it’s called melisma, if you’re wondering) is usually associated with Mariah Carey, but Mariah’s got nothing on Jewel.
Saddle up your reindeer. We’re going in.
|1. Joy to the World
|2. O Holy Night
|3. Silent Night
|4. Winter Wonderland
|5. O Little Town of Bethlehem
|6. Ave Maria
|7. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
|8. Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
|9. Face of Love
|10. Medley (Go Tell It on a Mountain; Life Uncommon; From a Distance)
|11. I Wonder as I Wander
|13. Hands (Christmas Version)
Overall, I’d say this is quite good. It’s gentle and Christmassy and nicely made. Like all the other Christmas albums we’ve reviewed, there are a couple of songs that aren’t strictly Christmassy, but this is hardly the worst offender for that. As someone who doesn’t have a lot of time for country music, it’s also very light on country influence, though “Winter Wonderland” has some sad twangy guitar paying an unwelcome visit, and is paired with vocals that are literally yodelling.
In amongst all the inoffensive niceness, there are a few tricky songs. Jewel’s version of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” is particularly odd – maybe Jewel listened to Barbra Streisand’s “Jingle Bells” and decided to go one weirder. It’s very sparse, it sounds like jazz, it’s oddly sad, and then – about halfway through – abandons a lot of the lyrics, so it goes:
Rudolph the red nosed… ba-doing-doing
Had a very shiny… ba-doing-doing-doing
And if you ever… ba-doing-do-do
You would even say ba-doing-doing-doing
Then, towards the end, she concludes the line “as they shouted out with glee” by adding the world’s saddest, quietest “yippee”. In many ways I was still reeling from her treatment of Rudolph when I was blindsided by Jewel’s medley, which lumps three songs together that have nothing in common except their track number. In the middle is a sudden, unexpected and utterly harrowing blast of “From a Distance” by Cliff Richard, which is a nasty trick to play on anyone, let alone at Christmas.
In conclusion, I think I would say my favourite thing about this album was the sticker on the front showing the full name, address, telephone number and email address of its previous owner, who lived in Portsmouth. Imagine having hundreds of shiny metallic stickers made so you could mark every possession as your own, just in case they ever left the property. I expect Mr and Mrs Benton had a little silver label on every CD, book and soft furnishing in their house, and good for them. My least favourite thing was track 12, “Gloria”, which was not a cover of the power pop singalong classic by Laura Branigan, and nor was it Christmassy enough for me to notice it as it played.
Come on, Jewel. Give the people what they want for Christmas. G-L-O-R-I-A! We deserve it.