Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Johnny Mathis: Merry Christmas / A Personal Collection

Poor neglected Johnny Mathis. Unlike Frank, Dean, Sammy and Tony, he was never discovered by the hipsters. While Johnny has continued to record and tour for almost fifty years, his audience has remained largely unchanged, aging with him as he's fallen into that usually inevitable state of cultural obsolescence.

But it's honestly his own fault. While Johnny Mathis started out as the next Nat King Cole in the mid fifties, recording with jazz musicians and releasing lovely (if subdued) records of romantic standards, as the years went on, his oeuvre and style became ever more "Lite", molding into the kind of cheese that can rarely be appreciated by anyone young enough to keep the thermostat below 85 degrees.

Except during the holidays. There's something about Johnny Mathis' velvety falsetto that serves Christmas music particularly well, and it's not a secret. Mathis released six Christmas albums over the years, not counting the countless times they've been compiled, rearranged and reissued.

1963's Merry Christmas is his first—and best—holiday side. Orchestrated by Percy Faith and produced by Mitch Miller and Al Ham, this is as sweet and airy a confection as you'd imagine.

The soft, inoffensive sounds of those snow-white musical mavens were well suited to holiday fare. And Mathis, in his early twenties, was still in his prime—his warm vocals perfectly complement the music.

The 14 tracks on Merry Christmas (including two superfluous bonus cuts added for this reissue) ride the full yuletide gamut, from the dramatic and genuinely moving "O Holy Night" to the bouncy "Sleigh Ride". And it all works—there's not a Christmas Clunker on this album.

In fact, I'll go out on a bough and heretically opine that this record's take on "The Christmas Song" is the best version of that particular chestnut. Yes, even better than Nat's.

Having made a near-perfect Christmas record (no small feat), Johnny coulda capped the eggnog then and there...but no.

The compilation A Personal Collection culls 14 tracks from four of Johnny's Columbia Christmas albums. Chronologically sequenced, the disc charts a steep rise in the cheese factor from 1963 to 1986 as well as a journey through the increasingly affected and precious sound of Mathis' vocals, his falsetto looping and trilling higher and campier with each passing decade.

Additionally, the arrangements, orchestration (real and synthesized) and backup singing toss all restraint on the woodpile and go so broad and tinkly that they seem perfectly suited to a Lola Heatherton special on SCTV.

Especially considering that more than a third of this compilation pulls tracks from Merry Christmas, the jolly listener is advised to skip this comp and all its kin and go straight back to that original 1963 disc.

Oh, on a seemingly insignificant side note...why on Earth has Sony reinstated their generic Helvetica Bold typeface CD spines? In addition, they've added a horribly distracting holiday border to the covers of all their Christmas discs (I guess in case all the snow, fireplaces and candy canes weren't enough of a hint).

The packaging on these CDs is awful, in stark contrast to the care Sony Legacy usually puts into their releases. I realize Christmas music is low on the record label priority list, but surely somebody must give a reindeer's butt about this stuff! Or is it just me?

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