Don McLean,
Christmastime! The Complete Collection
(Starry Night, 2004)

Don McLean struck it big with "American Pie" in 1971. Because subsequent songs like "Vincent" and "Castles in the Air" didn't climb as high as that first hit did, people might consider him a near one-hit wonder. And they might also wonder what he's been up to lately. McLean still tours and has even done Christmas shows.

On Christmastime! The Complete Collection he's put together a nice mix of religious and secular holiday songs. Almost all of them were taken from his Christmas (1991) and Christmas Dreams (1997) albums. His arrangements hearken back to the good old days of the 1950s and '60s, when holiday records featured instrumentations that included full orchestras and choruses. McLean makes sure to articulate well in his singing. And in many of the selections, he includes opening verses that you don't always hear. Those are the good qualities of the album. The recording technique -- whatever it may have been -- at times makes McLean sound as though he's singing from the other end of a long, empty hallway. In other words, the music is a bit "echoey."

This collection is made up of 23 selections, including rather traditional renderings of "Winter Wonderland," "O, Little Town of Bethlehem," "The Christmas Waltz," "Toyland," "I'll Be Home for Christmas/Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "The Christmas Song," "White Christmas," "Silent Night," "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear."

McLean's voice isn't as full as Elvis Presley's was, so the melody line of "Blue Christmas" sounds a bit thin. He chooses too to do the song in an overall minor key, which distinguishes it from the original. "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" involves a female chorus and is a tad stilted. On the other hand, "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" has a playful and sexy sound as soon as a saxophone adds an instrumental verse. "O, Holy Night" is well done, as the combination of piano, strings and chorus builds to a crescendo. And yes, McLean successfully hits the high note. However, the spirituals "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and "The Last Month of the Year" are a stretch for his vocal style.

I wasn't familiar with "The Burgundeon Carol" before I heard it here. McLean's single melody line is accompanied by strings and results in a nice, slightly medieval air. "Pretty Paper," which was written by Willie Nelson and made popular by Roy Orbison, is nevertheless a Christmas song. And when you listen to the words, you realize that it's not really very merry at all.

Two songs appear on this disc that weren't included on McLean's previous holiday albums. "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" features some nice guitar picking. And "Little Child" is slow and melodic and is a Don McLean original. To close the album, McLean chooses to read "The Night Before Christmas" as if to a waiting audience of children. He does a serviceable job at the familiar poem, except for naming the reindeer "Donder" instead of "Donner." I guess he never studied German.

You can pop in this disc and let friends and family members guess at the singer's identity. They probably won't be able to figure it out for the duration of the CD. It's obviously not Bing, Dean, Perry, Andy, Tony or Frank. It's someone with professional experience, someone they've heard somewhere before, but who? Your guests may never guess correctly, since McLean never begins a song here with "Long, long time ago..." or "Starry, starry night...." Nevertheless, this is a decent collection for holiday listening, and it would provide a nice background to a holiday dinner.

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review by
Corinne H. Smith

22 November 2008

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