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Music review: Justin Bieber, 'Under the Mistletoe'

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beebxmas.jpgHalloween's over, but here comes the season's real scare: Justin Bieber's back -- with a Christmas album.

Keep in mind, Bieber, now all of 17, is a household name yet still has not released a non-seasonal, full-length album -- just two long EPs, an acoustic collection and now this diverse, occasionally quite fresh holiday set, "Under the Mistletoe" (Mercury) [2<br />
and a half stars], out Tuesday.

Give the kid credit for investing some spirit into these recordings and not (always) merely coasting through the perennial payoff that is a college-fund-building holiday album. In 1997, Hanson rushed through a Christmas set ("Snowed In") to capitalize on their similar, sudden teenage fame; youngest Hanson, Zac, was 12 at the time, so the songs were not only lame but tame. Bieber, though -- mobbed by girls last Christmas in Chicago at the Jingle Bash concert -- clearly is putting away childish things, and he's got a one-track mind on the mistletoe.

What the Beeb wants, Santa can't provide. "I don't need no presents, girl / You're all I need," he sings on "Christmas Eve." "I don't care if I get anything," he reiterates later, concluding that "All I Want Is You." The come-hither continues during the Jason Mraz-like first single, "Mistletoe": "I should be playing in the winter snow / but I'll be under the mistletoe." Money can't buy him love.

Bieber's not just roasting chestnuts here, either; he co-wrote 10 of the 15 tracks, which includes a credit for his pussy-cat rapping alongside Busta Rhymes on "Drummer Boy." He also contributes to the latest twist on the I'll-be-home holiday plea, "Home for Christmas," written and nicely harmonized with Kimberly Perry from country's The Band Perry. The guests keep coming -- Boyz II Men make for more great harmonies on the slow jam "Fa La La"; the Beeb's voice, now sliding gracefully down the pubescent scale, blends well. Mariah Carey phones in her backing tracks for a karaoke version of her perennial favorite, "All I Want for Christmas Is You," which only furthers Bieber's holiday hookup theme.

The only time he sounds like he's truly coasting is on standards such as the Jackson 5-quoting "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." His reading of "The Christmas Song" is overdecorated with merry melismas, but its warm beats and finger snaps keep it from sinking into the usual seasonal syrup. The album closes with Stevie Wonder's "Someday at Christmas" -- a song he sang to President Obama in a TV special in 2009 -- and this recording of it is obviously at least a couple of years old, because suddenly we're hearing lil' Justin again. His voice his high, light and lilting, utterly boyish and innocent.

Which only casts the previous teenage cravings for shrub-mandated kisses into a starker Christmas-tree glow. His next studio album, due early in 2012, is titled "Believe," and this holiday album recycles his ballad "Pray" from last year's "My Worlds Acoustic." By then, though, we wonder what he's praying for now, because the previous tracks show a teen Beeb on the prowl.

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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