New Christmas Recordings

By ROB LESTER**** I’ve tracked down the ideal tracks for merry music for your holiday happenings– recently released “red ribbon” recordings.  Loaded down with Christmas gifts and chores, but didn’t yet download the music for your Christmas party or songs to keep you in the mood on Christmas Eve while wrapping those gifts to put under the tree?  We’ve got you covered with the latest covers of yuletide standards and some new creations, too.  With a few clicks, they can be yours.

BROADWAY’S CAROLS FOR A CURE: Volume 19. Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. 2017 casts of Broadway shows sing for the season on this annual collection. Rock-It Science Records. Once again, those working on the Great White Way sing not just of the white stuff sprinkling through the sky, but of all the joys of Christmas, both secular and sacred.  Raising money for the ever-urgent charity work, the talent and spirit are overwhelmingly rewarding. As always, this edition of Carols for a Cure is a nicely balanced mix of tried-and-truly time-tested treasure trove of classics and the twinkle-in-their-eyes tweaking of the traditional, tied to some aspect of the Broadway musical production represented.  As usual, a toast raised with a glass of egg nog is in order to thank producer Lynn Pinto.  Another Lynn, lyricist Lynn Ahrens, gets her fine holiday words heard again to the melody of Stephen Flaherty in the excellent “All Those Christmas Cliches” which cabaret fans may have first heard when Nancy LaMott took it on.  With the Ahrens & Flaherty score Anastasia part of this season on Broadway, it’s oh-so-right that its cast is assigned the lovely item and does such a nice job with this number about embracing the things some diss and dismiss as “corny.”  But it’s just one of 20 items on the festive and fun collection (a 2-CD set for those of us who still like the physical discs with cases, credits, liner notes, and something to pop into a player).

As you’d predict for this product, the cast of Hamilton adds hip-hop to the hallelujah hullabaloo (“Chester”).  Broadway’s long-run champ, The Phantom of the Opera (three decades and going strong), itself based on a tale more than a century old and embracing grand opera, is a good fit for “Old Fashioned Christmas,” a pleasing track sung with panache.  Not to be outdone, the tour cast of Jersey Boys brings Four Seasons’ Greetings with “Let’s Have an Old Fashioned Jersey Christmas.”  Its chipper lyric name-drops Jersey hero Bruce Springsteen, himself now a Broadway “resident.” The show titled after the holiday that comes 40 days after Christmas, Groundhog Day, takes “O Little Town of Bethlehem” for a new take and re-brands it to be about that town in Pennsylvania where the shadow-shy fellow comes out of his hole.  It’s got the spunky and sassy humor that was characteristic of that irreverent piece.  And speaking of cheeky, the plucky gang from School of Rock gets good grades for their youthful “Yule of Rock” montage that includes a rowdy “Deck the Halls” that would enliven any school hallway.  

For something more classic and religious, but with electricity, Billy Porter and his Kinky Boots gang have just the ticket. Hark! Porter and his posse take “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” for starters and sizzle. And James Monroe Iglehart, Aladdin’s genie brings a bit of his brand of vocal magic to “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Joined by her fellow residents of Chicago, Natasha Yvette Williams kicks things up several notches of excitement for a fervent, fully realized “This Is the Night” that is a true highlight that is the goosebump-giving champ of this set that fans of Broadway will surely want to check out and cheer.  And here’s the perfect segue to the next review: The cast of Disney’s The Lion King shines as they bring the welcome reminder that “Everyone’s a Kid at Christmas” — from Stevie Wonder’s repertoire, it was penned by Motown writer Ron Miller and Aurora Miller, the parents/grandparents of the talented folks who have brought a cluster of holiday singles this year, as they did last year.  The cut is dedicated to the writing Millers, with sweet comments in the packaging by their singing/songwriting daughter Lisa Dawn Miller.  Check out the other 18 volumes of this yearly treat from the hearts that are the beat of Broadway.

Note: The Broadway Cares online store folks aren’t on sales duty throughout Christmastime, but you can buy or download at the usual places, like iTunes   or Amazon

LISA DAWN MILLER: It’s Christmas….   TCN (The Colossal Nerve) label…     (and other recordings)

Christmas sentiment and Lisa Dawn Miller go together like hearts and flowers or like Santa and his sleigh. Sincerity and sweetness seem to swirl through the colorfully painted aural landscapes of her performances on a bevy of mostly new Christmas-themed material.  It’s cozy ambience in her pillowy-lush arrangements, with candy cane-flavored tenderness filling the air, things turning serious when necessary, escapist Utopia that would make Norman Rockwell or Currier & Ives drawings seem wanting.  Whereas others might not eschew the goo or overdo the sunniness or idealism, Lisa projects the earnest emotions as coming from the heart.  Adding to that impression is the simple fact that she is the co-writer (with Mark Matson, also her co-producer) of much that she sings or the vocals she turns over to her polished offspring, Oliver Richman and Ashley Hackett (Lisa’s producer/performer husband is Buddy Hackett’s son, Sandy, and her dad was co-writer of pop hits, Ron Miller).

Sounding so serenely and snugly comfortable in the studio setting, Lisa Dawn Miller’s voice suggests pretty feathers aloft in bubbles, but there’s much pop production smarts — and a bit of gently employed vibrato adds to the gossamer quotient, but there’s a solid architecture under the deceptively fragile castle made of sugar cubes.  “A Miracle” sighs its way down a lover’s lane of longing and dreams about to be realized with a romance-y dancing conclusion on Christmas Day. Convincing us that we can again “wish upon a star” to expect that “dreams really do come true” —there’s that promise again —  “if we can believe” and opt for the conveniently rhymed actions of caring and sharing as her studio voice overlaps with itself effectively  (“My Favorite Time of Year”).

Physical separation is offset by other compensations and perspectives as dreams come up again (“I dream of holding you”) in “It’s Christmas” when that day is described as “the day that day that dreams come true.” The lovingly layered Miller/Matson “We’ll Always Have Christmas Eve” builds especially nicely in melodic construction, arrangement and drama.  A signature of their work appears to be a simple but catchy piano intro that is returned to in feel at the end, making for satisfying cool-down –yet impactful — endings.  “A New Year” at first blush seems to fluffy, feel-good pop, but then  rewardingly veers into the territory to self-empowerment and mindfulness about the fresh start that the calendar brings annually.  

The five songs described above are available as separate downloads and exist as a mini-collection of Lisa Dawn Miller’s yuletide tracks, too.  But, wait! There’s more! Recorded/ produced just weeks ago, and hot off the press now —or, hot off the download procedures, is a more serious-minded look at the broader world beyond romantic reveries or families gathering around the fireplace.  “A Christmas Truce” is a page from history–a ceasefire during the first World War, 103 years ago. Haunting and beautiful, while addressing sorrow and suggesting the relevance to later war-torn times, it’s an impactful number and performance.  Emotion replaces bullets as something ricocheting through the air and the feelings linger there after one absorbs the music and the message. 

Meanwhile, with the presence of Ashley Hackett and Oliver Richman, the next generation is gradually building up a body of recorded work that sometimes has its elder kin providing material. Last year, they covered their grandparents Ron and Aurora Miller’s “Everyone’s a Kid at Christmas,” and soon-to-be-college-bound Oliver themed the Kenny Loggins/Bob James oldie “Celebrate Me Home” as a Christmas perspective, coming up with an especially compelling and moving, open-hearted plea that shows his heart-on-sleeve honest intensity.  And in this soon-ending calendar year, pre-teen Ashleigh has another single out —not Christmas material, but there’s no stopping her peppy pop sounds (not holiday-related) with a new release of more Miller/Matson creations, “Can You Feel It” and “On and On and On.”  And this family of talents goes on and on and on, too, as most impressively demonstrated with Oliver’s own 50th anniversary recording of the classic “For Once in My Life,”  co-written by his grandfather.  

I look forward to more from this family in the new year.