Diane Arkenstone & Misha Segal,
Christmas Healing, Vol. 2
(PrimaVista/Neo Pacifica, 2007)

I consider myself a Christmas music connoisseur, having grown up in the time when Bing Crosby, Andy Williams and the King Family all appeared in our living room on the small screen every December to sing us carols and to paint a bright American holiday picture. And if the TV wasn't turned on, then the stereo was: playing my mother's Firestone records and Bing's White Album, which included an image of him sporting a jaunty Santa hat on the cardboard sleeve. White Christmas was our favorite movie, an annual television event to be planned around and never missed, in the day before recording off-air or buying VHS copies was possible. You get the idea.

Now when Nov. 1 rolls around, department store clerks shuffle out bins of Christmas CDs. Some are new, and some are old favorites that have been reissued and remastered. After more than 50 years of selling pretty much the same songs over and over to the American public, music industry promoters understand that each disc needs to have some kind of hook to distinguish it from the rest. Otherwise, why would people buy it?

Christmas Healing appears on the surface to have a viable hook. Featuring new-age vocalist Diane Arkenstone and production and keyboard veteran Misha Segal, this CD (one of three volumes) has the mission to be "gentle, soothing, joyful, romantic and downright playful," and to provide "a departure from the standardized, shopping mall-ized, perennial holiday music fare." Noble aims, indeed. The trouble is: the music just doesn't deliver.

Each volume of Christmas Healing contains 10 songs. Volume one was released in 2006, and volumes two and three came along in 2007. Judging by the title alone, I got the impression the music would somehow be ethereal, otherworldly, a form of audio incense, or the kind of charming soundtrack you could play in the background during a family holiday dinner. And since I was given volume two to review, this surely meant volume one must have met with some singular success. I must say I was disappointed when I finally listened to the songs.

Arkenstone probably has a cadre of fans who will enjoy this recording. But I just don't see any uniqueness in the performance. Her thin alto voice often slides from one note to the next, slurring the melody lines in a way that suggests uncertainty of where the next note lies. Is that a style defined by the "new age" label? I don't think so. Arkenstone and Segal are accompanied by Peter Hume (of Evermore fame) on guitar and Cathy Larson on woodwinds. Overall, the instrumentation seems too basic, too elementary. It's as if the arrangements came from a beginner's book of carols -- the kind with giant notes printed on spacious staffs -- and everyone is following the score tentatively, as if they're sight-reading and not yet confident in their attacks. If you played this recording for friends without showing them the actual credits, they might well think it was a pretty good job for a group of young musicians just learning their craft.

Arkenstone begins with a simple version of "Away in a Manger." For "Deck the Halls," she appears to be singing with herself on the same melody line: an overdubbing production technique used nicely by the Beatles, but here sounds as though a clone has been added for no compelling reason. "What Child is This" includes a flat flute descant by Larson, above or between Arkenstone's verses. "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "We Three Kings" follow, with no distinguishing features; and then Arkenstone's voice is given a rest for three instrumentals. "O Holy Night" is, thank goodness, a guitar solo that is one of the quieter selections. "The Holly & the Ivy" is also on the subdued side, with a verse by guitar, then a keyboard one, then a third again by guitar. "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is similar, beginning with a guitar verse and followed by a verse on a keyboard cued to create an angelic harp-like sound. But the third verse suddenly erupts with Larson's shrill recorder, piercing the air as sharply as your fork stabbed that last slice of holiday ham. This is far from the gentle, soothing sound promoted by the artists. Arkenstone returns for "O Come, All Ye Faithful," which includes another flute descant. The CD concludes with "The Little Drummer Boy," an instrumental that begins with a keyboard verse, adds a guitar for the second, and includes Arkenstone's humming on the third. And that's all, folks.

On the same weekend that I listened to Christmas Healing, I also tuned in to NPR's Prairie Home Companion. The second half of that live radio show featured a stunning performance of "House of the Rising Sun," given by legendary folk singer Odetta, who was accompanied by a single pianist. That's a simple enough tune, written in a basic A-minor chord progression, and it's one that practically everyone knows and can sing by heart. And yet, this was the most impressive and passionate version I have ever heard in my life. The audience in New York City's Town Hall applauded so long and so fiercely I'm sure they were giving Odetta and her accompanist a well-deserved standing ovation.

There's a difference between being simple and being simplistic. We need not have complexity in every piece of music that we hear, especially in songs that are so familiar to us. But we at least need passion and a certain quality of musicianship. Quite frankly, Christmas Healing falls short. Its music is unmemorable and does not compare favorably with those other holiday CDs in the department store bins.

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review by
Corinne H. Smith

15 December 2007

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