Mariah Carey, "Merry Christmas II You" (Island)
Susan Boyle, "The Gift" (Syco-Columbia)
I know, the forecast is aiming at 70 degrees today, and you haven't even begun thinking about which pie to bake for Thanksgiving. However, there are no Thanksgiving records (save maybe Windham Hill's lovely "Thanksgiving" collection from '98), and the year's first big Christmas CDs are already on the shelves begging for your festive attention.
Though not begging that hard, mind you. The powerful voices of Mariah Carey and Susan Boyle both celebrate the season with timid new albums, each miserly with inspiration.
Carey's "Merry Christmas II You," which hit shelves last week, is a followup to 1994's "Merry Christmas" -- forgettable except for "All I Want for Christmas Is You," a simple, well-crafted chestnut and one of the last great additions to the Christmas pop canon. Lacking the same joy, "II" both suffers and succeeds because of some surprising restraint.
Gone are Carey's delusions of opera (1994's "O Holy Night" is revisited here in gospel mode, thankfully), as she reads classics with relative reverence ("O Come All Ye Faithful" is a duet with her mother, Patricia Carey). The new pop, though, doesn't quite heat up. "Oh Santa!" is a bouncy enough treat -- perfect rhythm for a little holiday jukin', South Siders -- and the soul of "When Christmas Comes" is smooth but tepid. In the end, all she's really got is an "extra festive" new recording of "All I Want for Christmas Is You," which just seems to add a few brassy backup singers to the exact same arrangement.
Still, she's more exciting than Boyle. The 49-year-old "Britain's Got Talent" sensation sold more copies of her debut, "I Dreamed a Dream," last Thanksgiving week than any debut by a woman in the 19-year history of SoundScan. You'd think she'd sound positively giddy as she wrapped up "The Gift," out today. But the album is remarkably glum.
"The Gift" includes religious hymns ("O Holy Night," "The First Noel," "Away in a Manger"), but opens with Lou Reed's "Perfect Day," followed by the world's umpthousandth unnecessary (and misunderstood) cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," even Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over." Producer Steve Mac's Rick Rubin approach to song selection should have resulted in an intriguing perspective on the holiday spirit, but Boyle's singing possesses no spirit. Every song, regardless of content, is delivered in the same unwavering and carefully measured mezzo-soprano -- a comatose coo, start to finish, like a drowsy Petula Clark -- over anemic arrangements designed to give her voice a cathedral-like space but sounding merely as if half the musicians missed the session.
Take Joan Rivers' advice, who tweeted last week: "Susan's CD is called The Gift. Hint -- don't unwrap it. She has sucked the joy out of the holiday season."