Prime Cuts: Do You Hear What I Hear, December Prayer, River
When Idina Menzel sings about a "voice as big as the sea" in "Do You Hear What I Hear?," it doesn't sound like a metaphor, she stretches her notes so loud and high until they became so elastic that they could play yoga with them. In a culture of understated singing and overpowered beats, Menzel is a breath of fresh air. Her big voice demeanor and her penchant for big AC-style ballads bring back the late 80s and early 90s. A time where big hair, big voice, and big ballads ruled the airwaves; a time where Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey were guaranteed a #1 hit whenever they release a power ballad. And to further seal her connection to the 90s, Menzel's "Holiday Wishes" is produced by Walter Afanasieff, the man behind the cavernous 90s sounds of Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Barbra Streisand and Tina Arena.
Before the winter-synergy of the soundtrack "Frozen," Menzel was already an established Broadway and theatrical star. From providing the soundtracks to shows such as "Rent," "Aida," "Wicked" and many others, Menzel has had a few Tony Awards and nominations under her belt. As a solo pop artist, Menzel already has three solo studio albums where she has had a top 5 Billboard Dance hit "Defying Gravity" and a top 20 AC hit "Brave." However, her career took on another dimension of success when she provided the voice to the character of Queen Elsa in the Disney-animated film "Frozen." The theme song "Let It Go," not only went viral, but it won Menzel an Oscar. The soundtrack became the best-selling album record for 2014, saved for Taylor Swift's "1989."
"Holiday Wishes," in many ways, is the totem of playing it safe. And for a holiday release, this isn't precisely a vice. For those who favor a reverential treatment of the more popular Christmas carols, "Holiday Wishes" scores a perfect A. Save for the title cut, all the songs here are familiar Christmas songs that pendulums between the religious to the frolicking fun. In the latter category, most noteworthy is her take of Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas is You." Here, Menzel doesn't try to reinvent the wheels. Rather, she does stick very much to the score. And the same can be said about her jazzy take of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Even the duet with Michael Buble on "Baby It's Cold Outside" sounds more rehearsed than candid.
However, in the more religious/spiritual plane, her own "December Prayer" is ruminative, thoughtful and sincere. Sounding not much different than when she did on the "Frozen" soundtrack is her take of album opener "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Sleighed by a lush bevvy of strings and Menzel's crescendo building soprano, Menzel makes sure we all do get to hear what she sings by the end of the song. Joni Mitchell's "River," though not strictly a seasonal piece, does mention the word "Christmas." And it's a piece of plaintive dirge that Menzel sings with heartbreaking palatability. "Holiday Wishes," isn't for those who like an avant-garde Christmas recording; but for those who like their Christmas music done elegantly and reverentially by a lady who can belt, this is it.
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