Mary McCandless,
Mary Christmas
(self-produced, 2000)

I generally approach self-produced CDs with a great deal of trepidation, but I already knew enough about Mary McCandless's work to play it with pleasurable anticipation. Originally from the U.S., she's become a well-known and respected singer in her adopted city of Toronto. She's got a list of theatrical and club credits a mile long, and was featured in the original cast of Ragtime, which I consider the best musical of the 1990s. McCandless has a great love of Christmas, which can be seen in the care with which she has put together her second solo album. (Her first, 15 Songs in Search of Broadway on the Heartsounds label, is highly recommended.)

Mary Christmas is a perfect Christmas album. The selection of songs is an appealing mix of traditional and new, and the variety is mirrored in McCandless's extraordinary voice, which extends from a pure soprano to a rich contralto. One can hardly believe that the many voices belong to the same woman, but the reality is perfectly illustrated by "Fum Fum Fum," in which she sings four parts, all of which are then doubled to create an eight-voice a capella choir. The result is delectable and flawless.

Among the other traditional songs are "I Wonder As I Wander," which is given new life by the drama of McCandless's reading, and "Coventry Carol," sung in a hushed, almost breathless voice, and complemented beautifully by Sarah Davidson's harp. "Jingle Bells" is sung as you've never heard it before, with slide whistle, accordion and hilariously purposeful (I hope!) false starts and clams. It's delirious and joyful agony. Another old chestnut (what better for Christmas?) is "The Christmas Waltz," which gets a charming and straightforward reading.

"A Child Is Born," Thad Jones' classic, isn't too often heard with the Alec Wilder lyrics, so this one's a real treat. Paul McCandless, Mary's brother, is a brilliant double reed and soprano sax player, primarily known from his work with the group Oregon. On this track, he plays with enough intelligence and beauty to make Kenny G ask for some McCandless talent for Christmas. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is treated, not as the love ballad it's become, but the World War II-era tearjerker that it started out as. This is a sad, sad song, and McCandless deftly mines its tragic, world-weary riches, with fine support from vocalist Thom Allison. The most popular carol ever, "Silent Night," is sung with a slightly different English translation and in the original German, and begins with the otherworldly tone of a crystal quartz bowl. All these elements combine to let us hear the song as if for the first time.

Among the newer songs are two very funny ones. "All Those Christmas Cliches" lovingly skewers all the "elves in the yard and each sentimental card" while confessing that we just can't get along without them: "I want the gulp and the tear at the moment that I hear Johnny Mathis being played." The other chuckler is "Ch-Ch-Channukah!" by Harry Lewis, who wrote the songs on McCandless's first album. This one outlines the woes of writing a Channukah song with its guttural "CH" sound: "You would hardly be enthused when your vocal chords got bruised." Somehow the message of the holiday makes it through.

There are other fine newer songs as well. "A Song for Christmas" is a lovely way to start the album, sounding fresh and traditional at once. There's a new classic on the horizon with "Star of Bethlehem," a glorious ballad whose every note is lovingly caressed by McCandless. It wins hands-down "Most Beautiful Song on the CD" award. The runner-up has to be "Christmas Eve," with some soaring cello accompaniment by Paul Widner. This one gets us closer to Christmas's true meaning than any of the others. It's tragic and majestic.

"December Lullaby" is precisely what it says, sung with simplicity and grace, McCandless's voice crooning like that of a mother bending over a cradle. There's a winsome Christmas love song in "Just in Time For Christmas." Sinatra would have recorded this one if he were still around, but I'm not all that sure that he would have done it as well.

The penultimate song, "The Christmas Tree," is brief and touching, and the CD ends with "Joyfully," a real change of pace with its programming accompaniment. Though the instrumental sound is a real 180-degree turn from the rest of the album, it's a bouncy and "joyful" way to wrap up a marvelous program of songs.

Throughout, McCandless gets fine backing from bass, drums and piano (often from the songs' composers). The instrumentalists are canny enough to know that they're there for the vocalist, and Mary McCandless shines like a Christmas star over the course of 17 tracks. The production of the CD is as professional as her voice, crisp and clear and perfect. This is one that will come out at my house every Christmas without fail.

[ by Chet Williamson ]

Though it's been widely distributed in Canada, Mary Christmas hasn't yet seen a U.S. release. For ordering information, e-mail Mary McCandless at