Once upon a time, a holiday album was a sign that an artist had truly made it. The luxury of putting together a collection of interpretations of time-honored Christmas carols—and perhaps a few original songs of merriment—was reserved for singers and musicians who had reached commendable artistic heights and succeeded commercially in the process. Over the past decade, the qualifications have changed. With record companies seeking more opportunities to cash in amidst the increasingly volatile state of album sales, the novelty aspect of Christmas CD's has been exploited far more frequently, often regardless of how relevant the theme is to the respective performer's image and style.
The overcrowded landscape of musical yuletide is given fresh air when a truly time-tested, multi-faceted talent joins the festivities. 22 years into a remarkably consistent and prolific career, it makes perfect sense for Mary J. Blige to deliver her spin on traditional tunes of the season. Likewise, it's fitting that she work with a highly seasoned producer, David Foster, in bringing the gift to listeners. That said, A Mary Christmas will find a welcome home underneath many trees, but might not quite light up the trimmings of others.
Comprised entirely of longstanding favorites, A Mary Christmas finds both Blige and Foster playing it safe in delivery and arrangement. A handful of high-profile guests—including Barbra Streisand and Jessie J—as well as two internationally flavored selections, are the main points of distinction insofar as interpretation is concerned. Blige approaches the material with a straight-ahead mindset that seldom strays too far from the songs' melodic core, while Foster's string arrangements and the rhythm section are steadfast in purity. Indeed, the presence of live instrumentation and the absence of unnecessary vocal frills is far preferable to the heavily programmed, overly stylized atmosphere which many of the singer's contemporaries have resorted to on Christmas collections. One can't help but notice, though, a certain spontaneity and warmth missing from some of the recording.
Putting a unique twist on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "The Christmas Song," or "This Christmas" can be a real challenge for even the most talented of artists, given the countless interpretations that have surfaced through the years. It's clear that Blige and Foster are aiming for sophistication on A Mary Christmas. They succeed, but in the process sometimes lose the soulful factor that audiences have come to expect from the vocalist. There's no denying that the production is classy; but where there should be a celebratory vibe, there's often homogeneity in its place. Blige seems to be holding back on "This Christmas," making it hard to live up to cover versions by Patti LaBelle (1990) or Boney James featuring Dee Harvey (1996). Similarly, although her tone on "Little Drummer Boy" is pretty, there's not a feeling of engagement as she vocalizes over the somewhat sterile instrumental structure.
The disappointing moments on A Mary Christmas are balanced out by more memorable ones. The galloping jazz adaptation of "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer" finds Blige effervescently scatting and swinging over several grabbing tempo changes. "Noche De Paz," a bilingual reading of "Silent Night" performed with Marc Anthony, is eloquent in both musical texture and a naturally flowing vocal chemistry. Furthermore, there are several instances where Blige's technical adeptness really shines through, as on her faithful take on "My Favorite Things" and a heartfelt rendering of "Mary, Did You Know."
With first-rate musicianship and an unquestionable respect for the material, A Mary Christmas will certainly stand the test of time. In Blige's recorded legacy, however, it's missing the personal stamp which has made past holiday albums by the likes of Stephanie Mills and Toni Braxton so thoroughly enjoyable throughout the changing seasons. Blige is likely to add to her already massive fan base with the traditional approach she employs; but by restraining the sass and gusto for which she is consistently revered, her seasonal message might not reach some of her core fans. Conservatively recommended.
by Justin Kantor
Connect with Justin on Facebook