Julia Stone, Everything Is Christmas (BMG) ***
Wrapping: Unwrapping, more like, as Australian singer-songwriter Julia wears nothing more than snowflakes. Diaphanous would not cover it. Song titles in classic festive red on the back of this prompt re-issue of an album released too close to Christmas to draw media attention last winter, but now making it onto HMV’s Yuletide shelves in York, alongside Sir Cliff, the Bocelli and Estefan families, Aled & Russell, Joss Stone, Alicia Keys and Backstreet Boys (but not Chris Isaaks’s Elvis-lite Everybody Knows It’s Christmas, alas).
Content: Julia’s 14-track debut Christmas collection, recorded in a week in the Reservoir Studio in Midtown, New York, with producer Thomas Bartlett (piano, keys), Sam Amidon (banjo, guitar, violin), James Gilligan (pedal steel & bass), Leigh Fisher (percussion), Nico Muhly (string arrangements) and Ross Irwin (trumpet, horns).
“This record encapsulates my fondest childhood memories tinged by the reality that so many are forever missing from my life today,” Stone says, as she picks hymns (Come All Ye Faithful, The First Noel, Away In A Manger, Joy To The World), standards (It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas, Jingle Bells, Winter Wonderland, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas) and latterday Christmas gems (Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You, Wham’s Last Christmas and Joni Mitchell’s River).
Style: Imagine Kylie singing Dolly Parton’s bluegrass take on Christmas, or Eartha Kitt guesting on Bruce Cockburn’s classic folk-rooted 1993 album, Christmas. Soulful Mariah makes you believe what she wants for Christmas will definitely arrive; doleful Julia, by comparison, probably not. More Boxing Day rueful reflection than Christmas Eve hope.
’Tis the reason to be jolly: Those Carols, especially Away In A Manger in a duet with Amidon, and the arrangements, wherein Irwin’s horns, Amidon’s banjo, Gilligan’s pedal steel and Muhly’s strings add wintry magic and variety.
Scrooge moan: No new songs amid the bleak winter stalwarts. The backing vocals on Last Christmas sounding as uncommitted as dads told by the dame to sing the panto song-sheet.
White Christmas? Oh yes, a beauty, bedded in for winter with Bartlett’s piano and Amidon’s violin.
Blue Christmas? Very blue, like how frozen Julia looks on that snowy cover. “Everything is a celebration, and everything is painful. Everything is love and everything can be lost. Everything is Christmas,” she said, when announcing the album. That is how she sings, as lonesome as the solo choirboy on the first line of Once In Royal David’s City.
Stocking or shocking? The mournful, moving, yet beautiful record to match the downbeat mood at the fag end of 2022, a shocker of a year. What Julia needs for Christmas is Satchmo’s Cool Yule (see below).
Louis Armstrong, Louis Wishes You A Cool Yule (Verve) ****
Wrapping: Satchmo in Santa garb, trademark trumpet on his lips, looking heavenwards amid stars and snowflakes. More trumpeting on the reverse beside a Christmas tree, more stars, more snowflakes, and the track listing. Inside, notes by Ricky Riccardi, Armstrong biographer, lecturer and director of Research Collections for the Louis Armstrong House Museum.
Content: Armstrong never made a Christmas album, although 1957 delivered the Armstrong As Santa Claus set, while Ella & Louis and Louis & Friends Christmas compilations are readily available. Anyway, 51 years after his death, here are his six Fifties’ Christmas singles for Decca and duets with Ella Fitzgerald (the romantic I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm) and a sultry Velma Middleton (the fruity Baby, It’s Cold Outside, replete with Louis double entendres). Plus his last ever recording, a previously unreleased February 1971 reading of Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit From St Nicholas, aka The Night Before Christmas, newly accompanied by Sullivan Fortner’s jazz piano.
Style: Louis’s rumble of a larynx is as much the voice of Christmas as Noddy Holder’s holler, Shane MacGowan’s slur or Bing Crosby’s bonhomie. Warming as mulled wine, rich as fruit cake. Then add that jazz swing, all in “the cause of happiness”, with Benny Carter and Gordon Jenkins’ bands and The Commanders.
’Tis the reason to be jolly: Cool Yule, Winter Wonderland, Christmas In New Orleans (his hymn to his home city), ‘Zat You’, Santa Claus?. Sung in that voice.
Scrooge moan: What A Wonderful World is not a “holiday song” but…on the other hand, what a wonder it is, the message of hope ever resonant.
White Christmas? Yes, the best version ever, no less.
Blue Christmas? Only the temperature on Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
Stocking or shocking? What a wonderful present this would be.
Reviews by Charles Hutchinson