Friday, December 28, 2012

Baby Jesus Saw the Frog and Laughed

Original Facebook post here.
Today's whole-album listen-through: The Animals' Christmas by Jimmy Webb. Well, El Nino it ain't. Honestly, it's hard to recover the full affection I once had for this pop oratorio from the guy who wrote "Wichita Lineman" and "MacArthur Park." I'd been a fan of his songs for Art Garfunkel, and this seemed like an intriguing extension of that collaboration, with Art joining Christian pop star Amy Grant and a children's choir. But where I once thoroughly enjoyed its seemingly seamless blending of folk, pop, and classical sounds in the service of a mildly eccentric telling of the Nativity in which animals play key supporting roles, I now find it alternately cloying and joyous, heartening and just plain weird. The sound of the thing is most off-putting: All the high voices and harps and strings and major keys really crowd the treble end here, and it must be said that while Amy Grant's Karen Carpenter-ish soprano is entirely adequate, Art Garfunkel's smudgy choirboy falsetto is a problem. Putting his ethereal voice centerstage must have seemed inspired, but the result is roughly like putting a pan-flute at the head of a marching band; some of Webb's attempts at big climaxes don't come off because there's a cipher in the leading role, vocally speaking. That said, at its best (usually when the children's choir is featured), the album has moments of beauty and the sort of exquisite compositional taste that usually eludes other popsters' classical crossover attempts (I'm looking at you, Macca). For instance, the quietly shimmering closer, "Wild Geese," hits precisely the angelic, transcendent quality Webb reaches for elsewhere. Bottom line: I'm unlikely to spin this one a lot in future, but if one day my boys discover and love it, I won't object.

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