November 29, 2012
Operatic singer Katherine Jenkins is a work in progress.
Most opera singers are truly awful at pop songs. Kiri Te Kanawa, perhaps the best soprano who ever lived (at least during the era of high fidelity recording), sounds downright silly singing Broadway songs. When opera singers turn to pop or rock, they're pretty hopeless.
It's like that horrible-great moment in the first episode of WKRP in Cincinnati, when the disc jockey is forced to play the Mormon Tabernacle Choir singing "You're Having Our Baby" (which, by the way, they never really recorded, just in case you were wondering).
Katherine Jenkins was as awful as any of them when she sang "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" on her first holiday album, My Christmas. Over-pronouncing all the words, which totally works for "In Paradisum" or "Un Bel Di," sounds grotesque with a song that is meant to be conversational.
The operatic voice doesn't even work for "Be Still My Soul," which, as a hymn, is about the message, not showing off vocal production.
But in this year's holiday album, This Is Christmas, Jenkins does a first-rate "Santa Baby," complete with the whispery faux-sexy tone. Her "Christmas Song" is warm and real.
Perhaps she realized, somewhere between those albums, that singing pop songs is like learning to sing in a different language. Just as you learn German or Italian pronunciation to sing songs in those languages, you have to learn pop or conversational pronunciation to sing pop songs or hymns.
But it's more than pronunciation. Pop singers handle notes differently, gliding onto and off of them in a very different way from opera or art songs. It's not that you're less precise; you just have to be precise about different effects.
Katherine Jenkins has acquired a whole new language and set of skills. This gives her a range of possibilities that I have only heard in Barbra Streisand, when her Classical Barbra album showed her range back in the 1970s.
These new skills also show up on Jenkins' Sacred Arias album, where she is completely convincing on "Down in the River to Pray" and the pop "Hallelujah," yet still brings off the classic "Misa Criolla: Kyrie" and "Pie Jesu."
I tried out a few other Christmas albums. Christmas with Scotty McCreery has him singing with the same easy likeability that worked so well for him on American Idol. But it leaves a kind of emptiness on a Christmas album, where the nostalgia of the season begs for a deeper kind of sincerity.
That intensity is present in Lady Antebellum's On This Winter's Night. I'm not usually a great Lady Antebellum fan, but this album is warm and lovely, even dreamy sometimes, especially on "The First Noel," which has country roots almost as deep as those on Emmylou Harris' luminous Light of the Stable (if you don't have that album, you don't understand Christmas music). And the new song (or new to me, anyway) "On This Winter's Night" is worth the price of the album. Best new holiday album of the year, in my opinion.
I hate Rod Stewart's singing. I switch away from stations the moment he comes on. I would rather listen to two pieces of styrofoam being rubbed together than listen to anything by Rod Stewart from his pop heyday.
But his album Merry Christmas, Baby has him making the same transition Leon Russell made a decade ago, singing pop standards in a surprisingly non-obnoxious way. I actually liked his "Winter Wonderland" and I could hear his "When You Wish Upon a Star" over and over.
I pronounce this album listenable. Maybe even good. Which I never thought I would say about anything Rod Stewart sang.
The indie pop duo She & Him really does include Zooey Deschanel. So when you think you recognize her face on the album cover, you're not crazy. And as long as you enjoy the simple, understated style of indie-pop, you're likely to enjoy what she and partner M. Ward offer.
Their Christmas album, A Very She & Him Christmas, is relaxed and warm. Deschanel ain't gonna sing no opera, but the songs have a good feeling and I couldn't help but like every track.
Christina Perri's A Very Merry Perri Christmas has the feel of smooth, cool jazz, with a personal tone as if she were singing the songs for a few good friends in her living room. I liked this one a lot.
A few years ago, when I realized the government was going to ban incandescent bulbs, I tried out fluorescents and LEDs to see how they worked.
At that time, LEDs were so dim as to be nearly useless. Yes, they were cool to the touch and used little electricity, but they were expensive and did not throw much light at all and they were often so huge that they did not fit well into fixtures with a limited space.
On the other hand, when you break an LED, you don't have to call a hazmat team to dispose of the residue, the way you nearly have to do when you break a fluorescent bulb and release poisonous mercury vapor into your house.
In the years since then, there have been a few changes. First, both LED and fluorescent bulbs have been engineered so that they now fit within the form factor of standard incandescent bulbs. You won't have to replace most of your fixtures.
Unfortunately, they have not yet found a mercury-free way to create fluorescent bulbs. That danger remains – and for me, that's a real killer when it comes to replacing incandescent bulbs. Light bulbs that can't just be thrown out with the trash, but have to be taken to a separate hazmat disposal site, don't really sound convenient.
In fact, the gasoline for the trip to throw away the mercury-laden fluorescent bulbs probably uses up just as much energy as you saved by using fluorescents instead of incandescents.
The great news, though, is that there are new LED bulbs that are every bit as bright as incandescents, contain no mercury, use a small fraction of the power, generate little heat, and fit into almost exactly the same space as the old incandescents.
The model that I found that reliably makes this transition is the Philips dimmable. A 17-watt "ambientLED" generates the same light as a 75-watt bulb.
I first tested the bulbs outside, where a walkway "streetlamp" fixture uses three 75-watt bulbs. One had burned out. I replaced it with the Philips LED bulb and it was exactly as bright as the remaining incandescents. When on, they were indistinguishable.
Since then another incandescent has burned out, and I've replaced it with another LED. The advertising promises that these bulbs will last 22.5 years. I'm not sure how they can know that, since this design is only a couple of years old. But my present life expectancy, having already had a stroke, suggests that I'll not live to change those bulbs.
In our bathroom fixture, where six 60-watt globe lights used to cast the light to allow such delicate light-hungry processes as shaving, moustache and beard trimming, makeup application and removal, and hair adjustment, we found that six of these Philips bulbs were much brighter and yet cast no more glare.
The previous 360 watts are now costing 102 watts for markedly more light....continued on page 2