By David McGee
THE CLASSIC CHRISTMAS ALBUM
In 1998 Martina McBride cut a truly classic Christmas album, White Christmas. Although a bonafide country superstar, and one of the more important female country artists of her generation, the Kansas-born McBride’s robust soprano voice has only the slightest Midwestern drawl–nigh on to undetectable, in fact–and is right at home amidst pop-styled orchestral arrangements featuring multi-voiced background choruses. A few male singers have thrived in this same environment, and a couple of them appear in duets with McBride on The Classic Christmas Album. Both, however, were deceased at the time Martina joined them in song via the wonders of modern recording technology. She’s actually at her most country sounding when she adds her voice to Elvis’s “Blue Christmas,” and though these faux duets are rarely satisfying, the participants here actually sound simpatico and the mating of their voices at the end is effective and affecting. Her playful innocence up against Dean’s flirty swagger lends a smoldering edge to their tête-à-tête on the Frank Loesser-penned seasonal gem, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” These two duets show off McBride’s versatility in being able to shift from the hard attack of the Elvis number to the lush, orchestral atmosphere producer Gus Levene fashioned for Dean. On his 1959 Winter Wonderland album, Martin cut a lusty version of the song with various singers from a female chorus but until he was joined by McBride the only female of note appearing in a duet with him on this number was Marilyn Maxwell, during the late ‘40s-early ‘50s radio run of “The Martin and Lewis Show.”
Martina McBride and Elvis duet on ‘Blue Christmas’ on Good Morning America, from Elvis’s Christmas Duets album
Dean Martin and Martina McBride duet on ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ as featured on the latter’s Classic Christmas Album
The White Christmas album mentioned above is the source of almost all the 16 cuts on The Classic Christmas Album. As long as Elvis is part of this conversation, let’s point out that his Christmas albums have been carved up and retitled so many times you could forget that the King recorded but two Yuletide long players in his lifetime. Well, Martina’s White Christmas has been augmented and reissued not once, not twice, but three times–well, four if you count this disc. The chronology goes thusly: the original 10-track White Christmas was released in 1998; the next year, 1999, it returned with the same title but sporting new cover art and two new tracks (now also included on Classic): a tender, beautifully understated “Do You Hear What I Hear” with an impressively nuanced lead vocal, a subdued but richly textured orchestral arrangement with effective woodwind flourishes and soft, silky background vocals; and a stately, string-rich “O Come All Ye Faithful,” in which the country cry in McBride’s voice is striking.
Martina McBride, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’
Martina McBride, ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,’ from The Classic Christmas Album
Come 2007, yet another revised White Christmas materialized with new cover art yet again and expanded from 12 to 16 tracks with the addition of four new cuts, three of which are presented on Classic: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” which alternates anthemic instrumental blasts with reverent readings by McBride and chorus; a playful, warm take on “Winter Wonderland,” produced by McBride with a sure feel for the seasonal textures available to her via strings and woodwinds complementing her cheery pop reading; the aforementioned duet with Dean Martin on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which was not recorded for a McBride project but rather for inclusion on Dean’s posthumous duets album, Forever Cool. It was a good idea–“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” was a crossover country/adult contemporary hit, his first chart action since 1983’s “My First Country Song.” Only a cool treatment of “Jingle Bells” didn’t make the transition from the 2007 iteration to the 2013 release.
Martina McBride at the Grand Ole Opry, ‘O Holy Night.’ Posted at YouTube by oprylive.
To Classic, Legacy has added the “Blue Christmas” duet with Elvis from the latter’s unfortunate posthumous album from 2008 titled Christmas Duets along with all 10 tracks from the original White Christmas plus the new tracks mentioned above. Which leaves us with a fine holiday outing blending heartfelt sacred carols (a piano-based “O Holy Night,” austere and reverent with a periodic, captivating wash of strings; a stirring rendition of “Away In a Manger” awash in strings and a mighty-voiced choir complementing McBride’s plaintive vocal, with a tin whistle adding a wistful Celtic air to the proceedings) with frisky seasonal frivolities (“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”) and those of a warm, reflective nature (especially well done on “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire)” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” with a harmonica adding the same rustic touch to the latter as the tin whistle does to “Away In a Manger”). Consider Classic, then, to be the next installment of Martina McBride’s ongoing dialogue with Christmas, and a fairly scintillating one at that.