How do you come back from a worldwide best-selling album? If you are Susan Boyle, you release a holiday album called The Gift that is part Christmas and part pop music given the Susan Boyle treatment. This is a story of two albums contained on one disc.
The Pop Music
Susan Boyle stretches the term “pop” about as far as it can be stretched, especially when producers Steve Mac and David Arch are putting a classical and, in some cases, choral arrangement on traditional pop songs. Take for example the modern classic “Hallelujah”, written by Leonard Cohen and first made popular in a version sung by the late Jeff Buckley. There is a power in “Hallelujah” that is completely lost in the arrangement that Susan has been given. In place of the soaring chorus, a choir floats in from the background, but it just doesn’t have the same impact.
Susan’s interpretation of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” also extracts much of the joy from the original and replaces it with a piano arrangement that does Ms Boyle no favors. The vocals on the chorus are arranged in such a way that it almost sounds otherworldly, and I am not sure if that was intentional or just an accident. To my ear, Mac and Arch missed out on an opportunity to let Susan do something a little more upbeat.
The Christmas Music
No matter your opinion of Susan’s choice of material for the non-holiday songs, it is hard to deny that she is a great fit for Christmas music. The same arrangements that felt odd when paired with secular songs are a beautiful fit on songs like “The First Noel.” This is the type of Christmas song that you would want to hear on Christmas Eve when all of your errands are done and you are sitting quietly in the glow of a Christmas tree and a crackling fire. “O Holy Night” carries that mood along, and “O Come All Ye Faithful” is an elegant way to close out the album.
Speaking of tradition, it is great to hear Susan’s roots come out in the Scottish arrangement of “Away in a Manger.” The arrangement that opens the track is exquisite, and only cements the reason why when Susan is paired with the right song, her voice can be magical. “Make Me A Channel of your Peace” fits Susan’s voice so well that it sounds the most authentic out of all of the songs on this collection.
The only two missteps on the holiday side are “Auld Lang Syne” and “Do You Hear What I Hear,” a duet with Amber Stassi. Amber was found via a YouTube contest earlier in 2010, and while she has a great voice, the vocals together on the same track do not fully mesh. “Auld Lang Syne” sounds like a sterile version of what should be a very emotional delivery, although I would concede that is more of a personal preference.
Some Good, Some Bad
It is hard to rate an album like this because it really is two separate pieces of work. The holiday music, while a bit tame, is very well done and Susan fits right in. On the other hand, the pop selections sound forced and awkward, dragging the vibe of the whole disc down. If you were to drop the four non-Christmas songs, it would be a terrific Christmas EP.
Recommended tracks: “Make Me a Channel of your Peace,” “The First Noel,” “Away in a Manger,” “O Come All Ye Faithful”
When I first heard her, I was thrilled by her voice. But this album does not do justice to her. The arrangements were overwrought and the orchestra and chorus often overwhelmed her voice. The breathiness that she brought to some of the songs was irritating. Her voice is an instrument of great beauty but in this album it seemed to be shoved in the closet. Who ever did the orchestration should have listened to Nelson Riddle’s work with Linda Ronstadt. In theie albums, there was a lovely dance between the orchestra and Linda. Oh, how I wish the orchestra had “”danced”” a little more lightly here.