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Hall & Oates Album Reviews

Written by Edwards de Oliveira, Brazil, 12/14/2006, visit his website: edwardsoliveira.wordpress.com

This is a pleasantly challenging album to review - I tried to refresh my memory on some musical terms, and discussed the finer points of the vocals with an accomplished singer (who happens to be my mother). Hopefully I can give readers an appreciation of what Daryl Hall and John Oates have achieved with this recording:

1. Overture/First Noel
The first Noel the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds
In fields as they lay,
In fields where they lay
Keeping their sheep
On a cold winter's night
That was so deep.
Noel Noel Noel Noel!
Born is the King of Israel!

They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the East beyond them far,
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night.
Noel Noel Noel Noel!
Born is the King of Israel!

The instrumental overture pays a loving homage to traditional orchestrated Christmas music realizing the unique potential of bowed strings to create and gently elevate the mood. It opens with a lilting midtempo sway on the violins that continues as the lower notes on the cello introduce the melody of "The First Noel," until the high strings take the lead to give us a foretaste of the second song "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," with the cello now lending support below--there may be a viola in the middle providing harmony for the melody on the violins. Then the strings briefly slow and return to gradually oscillate into a brisk trill before subsiding into a low plain of calm waiting for the violins to sway back in to set up the beginning of the song itself which opens in a decidedly but reservedly Gospel mode. In writing the Overture, Rob Mathes wisely avoided a heavy handed over-the-top arrangement, allowing them to take full advantage of the strings without being bound to the conventions one expects of "symphonic" music, resulting in a smooth transition as they "take it to church" in a refined gospel arrangement smoothly segued from the strings, opening with a few notes on piano and one acoustic strum as the organ and electric piano come in. Hall's opening high vocalizations immediately introduce H&O's signature soulful backups putting a light gospel-inspired melodic and stylistic twist on the "Noel" repetitions in the refrain. These first vocal harmonies are H&O's classic blend. But to my ear the origins of the style Hall uses in the lead reach way back to the pre-Hall & Oates days when he recorded with another group. The more precise articulation of "The Reason Why" with the gospel feel of "A Lot of Changes Comin" (both recorded with Gulliver around 1970) are here brought and blended to perfection three and a half decades later. Hall sounds quite youthful in the sensitive, straight-up delivery of these opening lines, yet there's a lifetime of knowledge behind it--there's no dramatic ad-libbing here, the distinctive charm is in the subtle little touches in the phrasing and on individual notes. Hall is an expert at turning a vowel to make it "sing" and avoiding disruptive consonants, but in applying those vocal rules he never loses touch with the comfortable familiarity of common speech, and therefore has the ability to uplift the language without ever falling into the contorted sterile pronunciation that we hear in some forms of church music. Beginning with the vocals we also hear a very light percussion, possibly including brushes or light touches on shaken instruments. In the second verse my mother liked the way he eschewed the old practice of breaking "look-ed" into two awkward syllables, much preferring the addition of "as" at the start. Other than that, the lyric deviates very little from what appears in my old "New Blue Book of Favorite Songs" (copyright 1915-46), the only other changes being the pluralized "angel" and repeating "say" and "they" instead of the original "was" and "and." Also note how on the word "up" he goes up an extra step from the traditional melody. The high strings from the Overture return for occasional accent, as well as a lightly plucked little solo on the acoustic guitar presaging the style of the song soon to follow. Throughout the song, the vocal moves gradually toward Hall's present style, until the 5-minute mark when he takes a dramatic turn into the more improvised style that concertgoers have enjoyed in their live shows--and here the song goes up another level. At the long drawn out "Noel, born is the king, of Israel," the lead is swirling up and cascading down on the first word and the last two, but blending into the soft intervening phrase sung as a backup to set them off--with beautifully harmonized supporting vocals not too far in the background. After taking the song "to church" Hall takes it home--punching out "He was" in the lead, beginning the wave of alternating backups with Hall's harmonized double tracked "Born is the king" rushing in, followed by the same line (now with Oates singing) gently subsiding, then back to Hall's more intense delivery of the line sung in the lead this time while the backup drops out, then returning to the to-and-fro swing of tension and release in the backups as the ad-libbed lead heightens and intensifies the mood. Toward the end Hall's multi-tracked backup line drops out alternately to give a 1 to 2 ratio with the softer backup featuring Oates (which is maintained throughout)--this could be to provide more space to highlight Hall's lead as it works up into a more free-form Gospel ending With soft sparing rhythmic touches on acoustic and electric piano holding down the bottom, a strong simple "Noel Noel Noel" progressively soars up with a final flourish into the fade out--an understated yet powerful ending.

2. It Came Upon A Midnight Clear
It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
With news of joy foretold,
Peace on the earth, good will to men
From heaven's all gracious King
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

With all the times of sin and strife
The world has suffered too long
Beneath the angels voice has grown
Two thousand years of wrong
And men are born but man can?t hear
The love song that they bring
So stop this noise you men of war
And hear the angels sing

Peace on the earth, good will to men
From heaven's all gracious King
The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing

Reminiscent of their early 70's folk-soul fusion, this simple arrangement by Hall and Mathes, beginning with guitar and vocal, presents a traditional lyric with fresh instrumentation and vocals that add a new but unobtrusive line of melody--an intelligent and valuable complement to a song that has no formal refrain/chorus. The first verse is sung word for word as written. The second verse (which follows immediately) introduces light strings and the same type of soft percussion used in the first song--the lyric here has references that may sound contemporary, but it's actually a lesser known verse (third in the 1850 original) with some modern English substituting for older forms--"times" for "woes," "voice" for "strain," "can't hear" for "hears not," "stop" for "hush," "you" for "ye," and a second "war" instead of repeating "strife." But instead of intrusively inserting new words or a complex musical phrase into a beloved classic, they sing simple repetitions of the words "midnight clear" (one line of the harmony seems to use the same note for the first three syllables) stretching the words out into an aural picture of the peaceful "stillness" described in the lyric--like a smooth-as-glass lake under the stars. The backups here seem to act as the lead, while Hall's gentle solo ad-libs provide accent. These vocals provide a restful pause after the verses and lead into a delicate solo on the guitar accented with a little light strumming. Then Hall sings an intensified repetition of the second half of the first verse, perhaps to serve as a lyric refrain, which listeners of popular music expect to hear. Their "midnight clear" interlude then returns to complete the song, continuing through the extended ending. As in the vocal on "The First Noel," there is great attention to the details in enunciation--here it is essential to creating the atmosphere of the song, for each sound is important in this minimal arrangement meant to evoke a "pin drop" quiet. But the color of the vocal is a bit darker and weightier, incorporating the texture and style of Hall's 1990s and later recordings. The finger picking style on the guitar was an ideal choice for this song--the feeling of a crisp winter night accented by the clearly audible sound of fingernails plucking the strings.

3. No Child Should Ever Cry on Christmas Family Christmas What a memory Just a child On this here day Round the world Are so many families Not enough to keep But still the faith to pray Let the Holy star above Shine a silver light of lovin'
Turn this world around

(Chorus)
No child should ever cry on Christmas
No child should ever be afraid
No child should ever cry on Christmas Day

Come the morning
Toys and laughter
Yeah that's the way
It's supposed to be
Then all the mornings
Ever after
Bring us hope and joy and harmony
Let the Holy star above
Shine a silver light of lovin'
Turn this world around

Repeat Chorus

Let the Holy star above
Shine a silver light of lovin'
Turn this world around

Repeat Chorus

A string section prelude gives us a lovely taste of the chorus melody before the drum breaks the song into an adult contemporary mid-tempo reflection on the ideal of Christmas. One of two original songs, this one written by Oates has more of the classic soul-music feel. The lyric nicely blends faith and tradition with ever-present concerns expressed with hope for the future. Vocally the song showcases Oates' falsetto and textured mid-range (but this time decidedly on the sweet rather than sensual side of soul), as well as the duo's signature harmonized backups. The strings return only for accents in the chorus--the main musical support coming from the percussion, electric piano, and bass, with only minimal touches on acoustic and electric guitar.

4. Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday
(Chorus)
Every day will be like a holiday
With my baby
When my baby comes home

She's been alone such a long time
Christmas is coming
I've got her on my mind
I bought a present today
Some sweet perfume
I'll wait for my baby
You know she'll be home soon

Repeat Chorus

I'm never worried
I never sit by the phone
Cause come Christmas time
I'll never be alone
See everybody
On this holiday
I know this feeling somewhere
Never gonna go away

Repeat Chorus

Opening with a country-kissed chorus (before the soul inspired verse) gives a nice twist to this cover of a song by the late 60's-early 70's female soul/gospel quartet "The Sweet Inspirations"--this time with a male voice and an "unplugged" feel. Nicely layered tracks of Hall's voice give the chorus a full-bodied sound fleshed out with the rich acoustic guitar strummed accompaniment--as mentioned previously on the discussion board, it makes us wish we could play the guitar. There are no strings here, just organ for accent. The music and production, as other fans perceptively point out, recalls their cover of "Starting All Over Again" from 1990's Change of Season that opened the "unplugged" approach after the high tech sound of the 80's. As the only song focusing on romantic love, the lyric is broadly vague enough to cover separations in various circumstances. Were it not for the explicit mention in the lyrics, the jingling sleigh bells in the background would be the only hint of a Christmas theme. The sing-along style simplicity of the chorus stands in direct contrast to the more stylized ad-libbed gospel on many of the other tracks.

5. Home for Christmas
Leaves are fallin'
December is callin'
Feels like that time of the year
Ooh and a chill in my bones
Got me thinking of home
And everyone I hold dear
If ever I miss my connection
Stranded and feeling alone
But no matter how mean
This hard road treated me
I always could find my way home
Don?t you know

(Chorus)

That you are in my heart
And I always come home for Christmas
We're living apart
We're so close
We're so far
I'll still come home for Christmas
It might be just for a day
But I'll still come home for Christmas
Oh how I wish I could stay
But the years slip away
I come home for Christmas
And I'll always come home

I see all the lights
Someone told me tonight
Putting the star on the tree
It's a feeling I know
I'll never let go
Like my first holiday memory
Sometimes we all miss our connections
We're stranded and feeling alone
But no matter how mean
This hard road seems to be
We always could find our way home
Cause you know

Repeat Chorus

But no matter how mean
This hard road treated me
I always could find my way home
Don't you know

Repeat Chorus

Opening with percussion suggestive of the sound and rhythm of horses' hooves, the music recalls images of snowy carriage rides, aided by the sleigh bells audible in the chorus. This equine rhythmic element is a rare but occasional ingredient in rock pop music (remember McCartney's "Listen to What the Man Said.") But its usage here in the title track seems very much at "Home for Christmas" and blends perfectly with the nostalgic reverie of the lyric. The second of the two original compositions (this one by Hall, Mathes, bassist T-Bone Wolk, and Greg Bieck), is cleverly written from a life-on-the-road perspective, the words play on the double meaning of travel and airport realities like "missing connections" and being "stranded" to reflect on relationships and the broader view of life's journey home. The strings and organ provide accents, but the percussion and acoustic guitar frame Hall's vocal with a down-home feel. Note how the chord played with the first word of "feels like that time of the year" brightens the cold December imagery. Singing in the upper part of a normal register gives this affectionate vocal just enough emotional edge to raise it above an overly mellow sentimentality without losing touch with tradition. A vibraphone-like wave and an almost Hawaiian-sounding guitar provide unexpected touch of tropical warmth to the Christmas theme--Hall wrote this one in the Bahamas and one can almost see the palms swaying at the mini guitar solo. Just before the final chorus the homey feel is briefly suspended with a surprisingly tech-sounding echo that appropriately releases this radio single from the fireside to the airwaves and out into space.

6. Christmas Must Be Tonight
Going down to Bethlehem, see the little son of man
Lying away in the manger, praise the Prince of Peace
Wheels start turning, fires start burning
Shine a light on the wise men journeying from the East.

(Chorus)

How could a little baby boy, be bringing down so much joy
Son of a carpenter, Mary carried the light
It must be Christmas, must be tonight

See the shepards on a hillside, looking up at the sky
On a cold winter night they hear the angel's sing
In a dream I heard a voice, said fear not, come rejoice
It's the end of the beginning, praise the new born King

(Chorus)

Just a little baby boy, he's brining us so much joy
Son of a carpenter, Mary carried the light
It must be Christmas, must be tonight

(Repeat Chorus)

Then it came to pass, the child was born at last
Happened right before the star that shines on high

(Chorus)

How could a little baby boy, be bringing down so much joy
Son of a carpenter, Mary carried the light
It must be Christmas, must be tonight

(Repeat Chorus)

Must be tonight, it must be tonight
Christmas must be tonight
Son of a carpenter, Mary carried the light
All right and it's all right, Mary carried the holy light

This perfect example of acoustic-driven rock gives off good vibes from start to finish--it's not just a great Christmas song, it's a great song period. In fact, there is nothing in the music itself that says "Christmas"--not even jingling sleigh bells. It's all in the lyric--a contemporary re-telling of the Nativity--and other than Los Lonely Boys "How Far Is Heaven," it's hard to think of another recording with religious content that's as radio-friendly as this lovingly re-envisioned cover of a song written by Canadian Robbie Robertson in 1977 and recorded by his group "The Band." (Robertson also wrote "Broken Arrow" beautifully remade by Rod Stewart.) Compared to the original, this new version has lyric variations throughout--mostly in the verses--but the basic narrative and imagery of the song are intact. The most obvious deletion is that they use only the second half of the last verse, which gives it more emphasis. In both the original and this new version the pictures painted by the lyrics seem to be separate little vignettes rather than a unified chronology. Though the style is up-tempo and guitar-oriented, Hall sings with the same sensitivity to content that we hear in his rendering of the traditional carols, but modified to suit the popular music genre. The delivery is streamlined and simplified befitting the faster pace of a song that moves right along--the nicely tight structure doesn't leave much room for ad-libs, so the emotion must be fully expressed through the verses and chorus. I've never heard Hall's voice exude so much warmth with such appealing simplicity--the closest would be "Life's Too Short"--another feel-good acoustic rock gem from "Do It For Love." Yet there is a difference here necessitated by the subject matter--both songs are upbeat, but while "Life's Too Short" is lighthearted and playful, "Christmas Must Be Tonight" has just the right amount of reserve to give it a gentle but joyful poignancy. As many times as I've heard Hall sing the word "Baby" throughout the years, without my mother's perceptive observation I might not have noticed how differently he treats the word on this song (and the two that follow)--clearly he is voicing the word differently--one can almost tell he is singing about an infant and not a girlfriend. He keeps the "b" consonant soft but not sensual, and simplifies the vowel sounds. With no vibrato on the syllables, the second one clipped, he uses rhythm and a brightened tone to make the word pop with pure joy. Throughout the whole song in fact, he uses not only volume but vocal color to highlight certain words and phrases (like "how could a little baby boy"), while softening others as the in the final verse "the child was born at last." The harmony in the chorus is so close (and particularly smooth on "Son of a carpenter--Mary carried the light") that it is difficult to tell who is singing--I believe Hall is double-tracked. Hall's vocal expertise is all under the surface here--any obvious sophistication in the performance would smother the song; he makes it sound deceptively easy--and what greets the ear sounds refreshingly uncomplicated. Some fans have noted how certain songs on the album reflect certain musical phases of H&O's career--"It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" (Abandoned Luncheonette), "Everyday Will Be Like A Holiday" (Change of Season). Yet their most commercially successful 80's period of number one hits seems to be stylistically absent here--except perhaps for the "It Must Be Tonight" backups toward the end of this song that have a characteristic clipped, percussive, half-sung/half-spoken effect that punctuates several songs on "Voices," "Private Eyes," and "H2O." (For a same-word comparison listen to "tonight" in the backup on "Friday Let Me Down Tonight" from 1981.) But compared to these more structured backups, the line "It must be tonight"--though seemingly delivered in that same speech register--has a more conversational tone as the song draws to a close. The instrumentals are minimal--the drums draw no attention to themselves, and there are no strings. The organ provides light support and subtle accents, and it seems a series of four well-placed strums takes the place of the usual electric guitar solo. Though the guitars recede into the background for the verse, the acoustic come in stronger to propel the chorus, and the electric dig in between the vocals grounding the instrumental with an earthy richness without ever detracting from the lyric. Perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that the organic quality of the music is a charmingly natural medium for such uplifting words, which indeed express the joy of finding wonder and awe in the most unexpected and seemingly ordinary places.

7. Children Go Where I Send Thee
Going down to Bethlehem, see the little son of man
Lying away in the manger, praise the Prince of Peace
Wheels start turning, fires start burning
Shine a light on the wise men journeying from the East.

(Chorus)

How could a little baby boy, be bringing down so much joy
Son of a carpenter, Mary carried the light
It must be Christmas, must be tonight

See the shepards on a hillside, looking up at the sky
On a cold winter night they hear the angel's sing
In a dream I heard a voice, said fear not, come rejoice
It's the end of the beginning, praise the new born King

(Chorus)

Just a little baby boy, he's brining us so much joy
Son of a carpenter, Mary carried the light
It must be Christmas, must be tonight

(Repeat Chorus)

Then it came to pass, the child was born at last
Happened right before the star that shines on high

(Chorus)

How could a little baby boy, be bringing down so much joy
Son of a carpenter, Mary carried the light
It must be Christmas, must be tonight

(Repeat Chorus)

Must be tonight, it must be tonight
Christmas must be tonight
Son of a carpenter, Mary carried the light

All right and it's all right, Mary carried the holy light
I grew up listening to a great old version of this song by the Les Baxter Balladeers--slightly different lyrics, folk oriented and fast as The Beatles' "I've Just Seen A Face." Hall and Oates take the tempo down a notch for this organ-accented Southern gospel rendition flavored with a bit of country-blues-twang in the acoustic guitar. In dropping the folk-style rhythm, they've given the song a rollicking gospel choir sway as one discussion board poster noted. A counting song presents particular challenges--the lyrics repeat with a single line added each time--there is no formal verse or chorus. Anyone familiar with Hall's freewheeling live vocal improvisation might expect him to let loose in this one. Yet, as befits the unique structure of the song, his lead is markedly unlike any of his past recordings--pulsing with a controlled excitement (like a race horse capable of pulling away but holding back, as my mother put it). While Hall keeps the song on track, the more emotive lines are sung by Oates and their guest vocalists, David Sancious and Klyde Jones, who also provide a richly soulful backup. Each line (a "numbered" short phrase) is nearly identical in melody and rhythm, building tension until the final release of "born in Bethlehem" which is set up by a phrase (for number one) that is double the length of the others--a rather rare variant that I've only heard from Michael McDonald. Given the repetition, it's no surprise that musically speaking the driving force behind the song is the beat, and the percussion almost steals the show, making even the most melody-minded wish they'd spent some time behind the drum-kit. But Hall sustains that concentrated intensity to keep the vocal in focus all the way through eight cycles, until the instruments drop out to leave only the beat, as he sets up the ending with "that's how the whole thing started, way down in the manger"--and then rewinds the song all the way back to the beginning with one final countdown to "Bethlehem."

8. Mary Had A Baby
Mary had a baby (oh Lord)
Mary had a baby (oh Lord)
Mary had a baby
Mary had a baby
Mary had a baby (oh Lord)

She laid Him in a manger (oh Lord)
She laid Him in a manger (oh Lord)
She laid Him in a manger
She laid Him in a manger
She laid Him in a manger (oh Lord)

What did she name Him (oh Lord)
What did she name Him (oh Lord)
What did she name Him
What did she name Him
What did she name Him (oh Lord)

She named Him King Jesus (oh Lord)
She named Him King Jesus (oh Lord)
She named Him King Jesus
She named Him King Jesus
She named Him King Jesus (oh Lord)

Mary had a baby (oh Lord)
Mary had a baby (oh Lord)
Mary had a baby
Mary had a baby
Mary had a baby (oh Lord)

After a soulfully spare electric piano intro with a bluesy-gospel downward progression on electric guitar and what I can only describe as a drum roll on the bass strings, the sense of anticipation is immediately relaxed by the playful informality of Hall's opening vocal. The intimate mood sold me on this song right from the start. It sounds as if it's being sung in a home studio among friends, not unlike the way he begins "Rich Girl" live at the electric piano and plays with the song before the drum and other instruments come in. This particular style of gospel suits his voice to a T--he's never sounded more comfortable. The carefree sound of Hall's voice belies the attention given to the little details. The vocal has a subtle charm expressed in slight variations on the same words--inflections, timing, melodic twists, and the way he strings certain sounds together--as the liquid "glides" in the transition to the "l" and "r" sound in "Lord." Here also the word "baby" seems to be pronounced differently than it is in lyrics about romantic love. A vocal coach could explain the change more precisely; it may be in softening the 'b" plosive (named for the consonant's explosion of air) or in modifying the vowels. Yet only twice, after the guitar solo when the instruments are held back to accentuate the lead and backups, does he clearly accentuate the long "e" of the dictionary pronunciation, as is associated with simplified speech used with children learning to talk. The difference is more elusive here--more felt than heard, perhaps due to the more earthy style of the music itself, which doesn't sound babyish at all--gospel can groove, and this recording certainly does. As such, some of the most affecting vocals are almost subliminal--just audible under the surface of the music. The only obvious mini-climax is the release of energy at the second "Jesus" which is nicely set up by the little delay of the word "Lord" ending the previous line. But toward the end, instead of winding down, the excitement seems to wind up to a series of high syncopated-sounding notes on the electric guitar, vocally echoed seconds later as the song comes to a swirling finish, (like a vortex of water speeds up as it flows out), subsiding into a final almost hypnotic mood of heightened awareness as the lead and supporting vocals weave together till Hall's one falsetto note signals them to come to rest on "Lord." I think the old-time gospel singers from whom he learned the style would be proud to hear the fruits of their tutelage in its original context. In focusing on the lead we shouldn't miss the quality of the backups (sometimes solo Hall multi-tracked--"and they call him the king," mostly with their blended voices possibly including both guest vocalists)--perfectly in character (even imitating the sound of the "train" in the latter part of the lyric)--they sound like a professional Gospel choir. This traditional song--with a simple lyric with many variants possibly growing out of call-and-response work songs--has been described as a "southern Christmas spiritual." As with the previous counting song, the simple repetitions of the lyric (without the standard verse/chorus form) lend themselves to a rhythm-driven arrangement, and here too the quality of the drumming is striking. The organ provides accents (as in the intro), befitting the gospel style, while the electric piano and guitar are more prominent, but there are also some southern-sounding strings arranged by Hall himself. In so doing, he taps into that great tradition of using instruments of European origin to express a very American sound--the most well-known examples being Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Younger music aficionados might better recognize the sound of the strings in the richly atmospheric extended ending of U2's "All I Want Is You," which is slow and entirely dissimilar in mood, but similarly steeped in the sound of the American South. It should be noted that "Mary Had A Baby" and the two preceding songs work very well together as an up-tempo block.

9. The Christmas Song
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Yule-tide carols being sung by a choir
And folks dressed up like Eskimos.

Everybody knows a turkey
And some mistletoe
Help to make the season bright
Tiny tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.

They know that Santa's on his way
He's loaded lots of toys
And goodies on his sleigh
And every mother's child is gonna spy
To see if reindeer
Really know how to fly.

And so I'm offering this simple phrase

To kids from one to ninety-two
Although it's been said
Many times, many ways
Merry Christmas to you

Long-time fans already knew that John Oates could beautifully deliver a vocal in styles as varied as folk, do-wop, funk, soul (of course), and even a little country-blues, but what a delightful surprise it was to hear him deliver a sweetly charming, yet jazz-savvy vocal on a very traditional treatment of the Christmas song. The spare but soulful electric piano and the playful Motown-flavored back-up harmonies give this familiar arrangement a distinctively Hall & Oates feel. It was written around the time they were born and you can almost feel Mel Torme smiling down on this heartfelt rendition recorded over a half-century after he penned it. The vocal leans more toward Johnny Mathis' straight-up wholesome delivery rather than Torme's ultra-smooth jazz twists. It can't be easy to sing a line about a "turkey" with just the right amount of emphasis--but Oates hits the mark here and throughout the song. My mother was particularly impressed with his "sweet 'n' low" notes--a rare combination. He blends that fresh crispness of Mathis with his own huskier tone in a more natural conversational style, while adding a touch of sophistication in matching the jazz phrasing of the saxophone (as in the relaxed vocal cascade of the fourth in the slightly varied ending series of "Merry Christmas to you"). The light touch on the drums (achieved with brushes I believe) and the vibraphone-style wave on the keyboards are in keeping with the jazz club influence, as are the organ flourishes. Notice the airy quality on the final notes on sax blending in with the vibe waves and soft percussion. Those who've seen the Hall & Oates band live know that saxophonist Charlie DeChant can play an up-tempo jazz-rock-soul fusion, but this slow, soft, laid back style shows yet another side that gives an appreciative nod to the 1940's. Oates seemingly has lost nothing in range or technique over the years. The mellow mood brings out the character in his voice, not only the textured low range but also the ability to produce subtle melodic variations on one line of music.

10. Jingle Bell Rock
Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock
Jingle bells swing and jingle bells ring
Snowin' and blowin' up bushels of fun
Now the jingle hop has begun
Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock
Jingle bells chime in jingle bell time
Dancin' and prancin' in Jingle Bell Square
In the frosty air

What a bright time, it's the right time
To rock the night away
Jingle bell time is a swell time
To go glidin' in a one-horse sleigh
Giddy-up jingle horse, pick up your feet
Jingle around the clock
Mix and a-mingle in the jinglin' feet
That's the jingle bell rock

Jingle bell, jingle bell, jingle bell rock (repeat verse1's
Jingle bells chime in jingle bell time last 4 lines)
Dancin' and prancin' in Jingle Bell Square
In the frosty air

What a bright time, it's the right time
To rock the night away
Jingle bell time is a swell time
To go glidin' in a one-horse sleigh
Giddy-up jingle horse, pick up your feet
Jingle around the clock
Mix and a-mingle in the jinglin' feet
That's the jingle bell
That's the jingle bell
That's the jingle bell rock

Then they take us back to the malt shop with an ultra retro remake of their 80's cover of Jingle Bell Rock, complete with 50's style electric guitars and high piano keys quickly tapped out. Completing the effect are the tinny AM radio effects rhythmically fading in and out at the end. Hall's vocal is a soft sell compared to the more punched out style of his earlier version, and the more casual style seems to add to the nostalgic feel. A redo of an almost kitschy-cute classic like Jingle Bell Rock might seem a strange segue into "Oh Holy Night" which one expects to be done in the traditional grand manner.

11. O Holy Night
O holy night,
The stars are brightly shining;
It is the night of
Our dear Savior's birth!
Long lay the world
In sin and error pining,
Till He appeared
And the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope,

The weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks
A new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees,
O hear the angel voices!
O night divine,
O night when Christ was born!
O night divine, O night,
O night divine!

To love one another;
His law is love and
His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break
For the slave is our brother
And in His name
All oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in
Grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us
Praise His holy name!
Fall on your knees,
O hear the angel voices!
O night divine,
O night when Christ was born!
O night divine, O night,
O night divine!

Grand it is, but not in the traditional manner--though the lyric itself is nearly a word for word rendition of the most well known translation, first and third verses only with the familiar refrain. As this song was originally written in French, there are slightly different English versions from which they could choose. The use of the "our" variant sings more fluidly and warmly (rather than "the dear savior"). Also, note the American abolitionist reference from the 1855 English translation. As for the music, prior to the release, this song was the most difficult for me to imagine in the Hall and Oates style. But as the preview audio clips were released and "O Holy Night" (the final track on the album) was held in reserve, I wondered if they had indeed saved the best for last. The 1941 "New Blue Book of Favorite Songs" directs that "O Holy Night" be sung "slowly and majestically," and indeed the track opens with a brief reprise of the beautiful orchestral overture that begins the album. Then a subdued percussion starts the song itself as evenly repeated groups of three notes on the electric piano and strings (triplets I think--three beats per quarter note?) unexpectedly send the song in a slow, steady "doo-wop" direction subtly echoed in the opening line of Hall's vocal. (The versions I knew and loved had no strongly defined rhythm, and it was totally unexpected to hear them gently support the song with a soft beat). This surprising stylistic choice, reminiscent of the vocal groups that inspired 60's "soul," roots this beloved carol in the American tradition without being derivative. At this point we might think that musically the album ends where Hall and Oates began--reflective of the 1950s vocal style and harmonies in which they found inspiration. But that evocative feel fades as the vocal develops with nuanced gospel and European influences. It is worth noting that the first and this final track open with traditional orchestration--"Oh Holy Night" has additional strings arranged by Hall. Fittingly there is a more refined enunciation in the vocals on these two, reminiscent of a more European form of singing, traces of which can be heard in Hall's pre-duo recordings with Gulliver--particularly "The Reason Why" which also has orchestral accents. Much of the phrasing in both "The First Noel" and this closing song has an idealism that we might expect in a younger singer. (By way of contrast, the phrasing in "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" is equally beautiful but a bit darker--perhaps to blend with the song's sadder notes in the second verse--the more folk-oriented style of the acoustic arrangement evoking an era of American music that often addressed more somber realities.) There is a purity of tone and strength in the notes that I haven't heard before, not even in the years when one would expect Hall's voice to have reached its technical peak. Note the clarity given to the first syllable of "shining" by eliminating the vibrato. Singers tend to lose vibrato control as they grow older, but Hall is at the height of his abilities throughout this song, even modulating the speed of the waves in time with the beat or for emphasis (and ending a note on a particular wave), but in a less dramatic way than is evidenced at the end of the live "Wait for Me" on Hall & Oates' 1984 Greatest Hits. The masterful voicing and phrasing of particular words and phrases is worth a closer look. Words like "shining," "pining," and "glorious" seem to burst into being with a simple purity--as with "cold" and "day" in "First Noel," and "baby" in "Christmas Must Be Tonight"--there is no use of vibrato and no need for the more common little ramp up into the plateau of a note. He delays the start of "one another" after singing "love," giving that word more weight. At times the idea of voicing a lyric in accord with its content is reversed--feathery light on the word "error," while (as my mother noted) the "break" of the chains is softened with no enunciation of the "k" plosive, suggesting a gentle emancipation. The first time we hear "Fall on your knees," as the song takes a subdued but dramatic turn, he draws it out more meditatively--slow and serene, as if he's singing within himself, almost inviting listeners to close their eyes. The mood here feels more introspective, while in the second refrain the quicker timing and speeded up vibrato in the last word of that line give a sense of immediacy. An imperative lyric like "fall on your knees" can be problematic--singers must avoid the opposing temptations to pass over it meekly, or bellow it as a thundering command. Hall finds just the right emphasis, and my mother observes that it is the inner strength expressed in that line that lifts the song up into another level. She also feels that the ethereal quality of the vocal is partly due to the blending of masculine strength with the sensitivity more often associated with the female voice. The seemingly infinite colors in his vocal palate allow him to express an amazing range of emotional shades, and he has the sensitivity to know when and how to use them. He even weaves different colors, styles, and textures together in one compelling line: In the latter part of the second verse, the dark breathiness of "joy" (which makes it feel like a lower note), is immediately followed by an enlivening contrast in the bright choir-boy delivery of "grateful chorus raise we," again delightfully juxtaposed with the more sinuous "let all within" sung with the classic romanticism of a love song (perhaps the only such example on the album), before the punctuation of the staccato "us" returns the song to its dominant mood. At the second "fall" the vocal takes flight in a beautiful melodic counter to the word's meaning. This and the little pause and speeded timing in "on your knees" with the faster vibrato in the last word gives the beginning of this second refrain more immediacy and intensity compared to the more meditative first. The poignant use of breath and breaks of a note seem more emotive than a conscious art, yet the two are not mutually exclusive as even an acquired facility can become a natural mode of expression over time. For example, just a touch of huskiness in the final word of the first "Oh night divine" beautifully sets up that soft break at "Oh night when," just before he breaths air into "Christ." The understated near-whisper of certain words invites the listener's attention, while the high note near the end brings the song to its climax without the trumpeted over-the-top finale--the apex is reached simply with one note of the human voice, and the song gently subsides into a lilting fadeout accented with tinkled keys adding twinkling bursts of notes to highlight the beautifully varied repetitions of "O Night Divine." For Hall as a vocalist, "O Holy Night" is a beyond-definitive recording, for he not only reaches a heretofore-unrealized level, but does so in a different realm. It is still his distinctive style--purified and elevated. I suspect that in this song, the lamented gulf between artistic inspiration and realization seemed to disappear. There must have been something very special going on in that studio when they recorded it--even beyond the palpably positive vibe that emanates from the whole album. How refreshing it is, and how fortunate we are, that after 3-and-a-half decades of refining their art in the cynical world of popular entertainment, Hall and Oates are still in love with making music, and more fully able now than ever to give us this beautiful and moving collection--a Christmas gift indeed.

Edwards de Oliveira- Brazil


 

 

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