Orla Fallon’s merry Celtic Christmas & Susan Boyle’s Gift is worth giving

Fallon’s Merry Celtic Christmas

Orla Fallon has sung in front of popes and presidents in the five years since she joined Celtic Woman and launched a successful solo career. The singer/harpist from the village of Knockananna in Co. Wicklow makes another bold play for the national spotlight with her American public television holiday special Órla Fallon’s Celtic Christmas.

It made its debut last week, and Fallon is following that up with a series of dates this week.

The show features Fallon and includes special duets with her former Celtic Woman band mate Méav, American Idol’s David Archuleta, the original Riverdance choir Anúna, and country singer Mark Wills.
Shot in Nashville’s Polk Theatre in the Country Music Hall of Fame, Vince Gill makes a special appearance on the CD for a duet of “Little Drummer Boy” with Fallon, and the result is spine-tingling.

Like Moya Brennan (Clannad) and Enya, Fallon possesses that ethereal ghost-like quality in her voice that is simultaneously modern and as ancient as the Celts. She easily manipulates that chill on your spine with masterful performances of Christmas classics that routinely brings the audience to their feet for one standing ovation after another during this performance.

The show is produced by bandmate and friend Dan Shea, who wisely unclutters the holiday arrangements so that Fallon’s supple voice shines. Like Phil Coulter, another brilliant arranger for big shows like Celtic Thunder, Shea knows when to lay on the atmospherics and when to make silence sound deafening.

Though she is clearly comfortable in her own skin to give up the spotlight to the other stars on the bill -- it’s fun to see the young girls squeal in their seats when Archuleta comes from the side of the stage for his “Silent Night” duet -- but Fallon owns the stage with her supple harp solo that ushered him onstage in the first place.

Fallon is a vision in a golden ball gown whose sparkle is only matched by her smile and overjoyed expression during the show. On record, the joy shines through just as loudly. She is an engaging storyteller, delighting her audience with tales of an Irish Christmas and holding them in the palm of her hand.

Fallon is not only stepping out during the 2010 holiday season, but 2011 will see her star in yet another public television special in March. My Land – Starring Órla Fallon is an Irish music, geographical and cultural celebration featuring the legendary Dubliners, Tommy Fleming, Damien Dempsey and the Dublin Gospel Choir. The show was shot on location throughout Ireland and Northern Ireland, with a full length concert taped in Dublin this past September.

If her Celtic Christmas is any indication, the pastures are indeed green for My Land!

Boyle’s Gift Is Worth Giving

Susan Boyle dropped her latest album on us a few weeks ago, and I know readers here expect me to be the guy first on the scene to review things like this.

Well, sue me if I didn’t open The Gift, Susan’s brand new holiday album, until now. I’m the type of guy who can’t bear to hear Christmas music so soon after Halloween, but I am apparently a minority.

The Gift debuted at number one atop the Billboard chart with over 317,895 copies sold in its first week, so there are plenty of people around that want to get a jumpstart on the mistletoe season!

None other than Simon Cowell, on the occasion of her top spot on both U.S. and U.K. charts, said, “I’m thrilled for Susan, she has once again defied the odds. She is my superwoman.”

So, is the album a gift as the label would imply? The answer is a tentative yes.

I’ve always thought Christmas albums were produced by artists desperate for ideas. They have had breakthrough success and a great run of albums, but they are long-in-the-tooth in the minds of record buyers. Some A&R guy at a record label convinces them that they can revive their career by “owning” a holiday chestnut like “Silent Night,” and the star would shine bright once again.

So, based on that theory, I was not thinking “if” this gal was going to drop a Christmas disc. It was always “when.” I just didn’t think it would land in our stockings so soon!

But now that it’s here, I can report that it is a balance of threadbare standards and interesting deviations.

As you would expect, the soaring voice of this lioness produces chills when she unleashes on a tune like “O Holy Night.” She is appropriately reverent as the orchestra sets a somber tone for the first 33 seconds of “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.”

According to Boyle’s online press release, this album is an expression of her deep faith, and she puts you in the front pew with this fantastic interpretation. I can’t remember the last Christmas album I bought with this hymn on it, and I applaud the creative song choice!

I am typing this on my feet in standing ovation for the inclusion of the Crowded House eighties chestnut “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” a tune not normally associated with the holidays that transforms into a Christmas carol of hope and optimism for the New Year. A brilliant choice that confounded my expectations of a lame Christmas album.

There are a few sour notes on The Gift that make you regret you opened the packaging and crumpled the receipt. Boyle’s read through of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is pointless, especially when put up against Jeff Buckley or k.d. lang’s versions.

While “O Come All Ye Faithful” is an interesting a capella arrangement that pairs SuBo with a choir, this listener would have loved to see her do battle with a full-on orchestra.

On “The First Noel,” she seems to sing without any regard for the pace the bare acoustic guitar and piano arrangement sets behind her. Her timing becomes unhinged by a half beat just as the choir comes in, leaving the listener wondering how the producer didn’t catch this.

As we all know, Boyle is a former country girl with the unibrow who became a YouTube sensation with a jaw-dropping performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” that led to a monster Grammy-nominated album. This is the woman who had the audacity to take away a classic rock ballad like “Wild Horses” from Mick Jagger, so I’m wondering why she chose to play it safe with a holiday album at this point in her young career.

Boyle’s is a success story that seduced the planet, and it is inhumane to wish against this woman. I’m not trying to do this here and on balance, I think The Gift is a present for the holiday season.

Let’s leave it at that. Who wants to risk being put on Santa’s naughty list? Not me....

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