Review: “Holly & Ivy” by Natalie Cole (CD, 1994)

Today’s POP RESCUE from a festive fate unknown, is the 1994 album Holly & Ivy by the late American soul singer, Natalie Cole. Will this album bring out your festive cheer, or will it leave you prickly? Read on…

Natalie Cole - Holly & Ivy (1994) album cover
Natalie Cole – Holly & Ivy (1994) album

The album opens with sleigh bells, before a jazzy brass section bursts in. Tinkling piano join in as Natalie does a roll call of the reindeer in Jingle Bells. Natalie’s vocals are bright and cheerful here, and perfectly suited to the up-tempo jazziness of this cover version. You swiftly get the impression that she is having a wonderful time singing this song, as she shows off her vocal agility. The album is off to a fantastic start.

Next up is Caroling, Caroling, whoever she is. This is a song that Natalie’s father Nat King Cole had previously recorded (one of a few here), and this version is wonderfully light. The orchestra helps to lift her vocals higher, as a chorus of children sing along with her. It’s unmistakably Christmassy.

The First Noel follows this, and it sees Natalie’s vocals set against brass, with strings joining in the second verse. Natalie shines here perfectly, with space given to her to shine even more. Some synths join in, but they don’t intrude, leaving the real heavy work to the vocals, brass, and strings. It’s a fairly traditional rendition, with soaring vocals towards the end.

Next up is the only original track on this album, No More Blue Christmas’. Electric piano leads into this mid-tempo Christmas ballad. Legendary songwriter Gerry Goffin takes a co-writer credit here, and to be honest I could almost imagine Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin taking this song on too. Despite this, Natalie released this as the sole single

Christmas Medley follows this consisting of Jingle Bell Rock, Winter Wonderland, Little Drummer Boy, I’ll Be Home For Christmas. All versions here are fairly standard, with Natalie sounding again like she’s having an absolute ball throughout. She gets some gets some great vocal opportunities in Winter Wonderland. The orchestra really throws in some wonderfully warm and rich layers for the ‘ruh puh pum‘ section of Little Drummer Boy.

A jazzy, perhaps sultry, introduction leads us into Merry Christmas Baby, and Natalie has just the vocal style to match it. You could imagine this playing in some smoke-filled darkened jazz club. The guitarist gets a really nice swaggering solo before Natalie gives us some big vocals to lead us towards the door.

Joy To The World follows this, led by a huge brass section, before suddenly switching to a wonderfully fast set of tamborines and a breathtakingly fast singing gospel choir. Natalie even manages to not run out of breath as she belts out this classic song, in what is probably the fastest and most foot-tapping version of this song i’ve ever heard.

Time for a much slower track, in the form of a cover of Vera Lynn’s The Little Boy That Santa Claus Forgot. The orchestra is rich here, with soaring strings and brushed snares sounding like a 40’s film soundtrack. Unlike most other Christmas songs, this is actually a sad one.

A Song For Christmas follows this, a cover of Ida Zecco’s hit. I’m not familiar with it, but it’s a nice plodding song. Again, the orchestra is filled with strings, double bass, and piano. Natalie rarely competes with them here, allowing her to lead this song with ease.

Old favourite, Silent Night, follows this. Here, Natalie gives us some really simple vocals, with the string section almost hesitantly nudging her along with some sinister lurking notes, until the woodwind section joins in. She’s joined by a haunting choir, who offer her a deeper contrast to her own vocal. The brass and string sections are allowed to flourish as the song pushes to the finale. It is here that Natalie and the orchestra unleash their power.

The penultimate track is a cover of another one of her father’s hits The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire). This is a contrast in sound to Silent Night, and remains bright and cheerful. The orchestra returns but this time are filled with warmth. It is a pretty faithful cover of her father’s version. It’s a lovely addition.

Traditional and titular song The Holly & The Ivy closes the album. The orchestra are back again in full force, and thankfully they give Natalie all the time and space to sing this wonderful little Christmas song without competing with her in this simple song. It’s the perfect ending.

Natalie Cole’s lead single ‘No More Blue Christmas’

Verdict

Over all, this album is a really nice, safe, and genuinely warm Christmas collection. The choice of songs gives you enough variation to keep your interest and appeal to a wider audience. The Christmas Medley feels like a rarity now, saved only for Christmas albums or dance tracks via a ‘megamix’, so to my ears, it jars a little because of it’s now novelty style.

Natalie’s vocals consistently sound like she’s smiling throughout the recording process, and she gets plenty of opportunities to try out a few different vocal styles.

The highlights of this album are clearly the whirlwind gospel fuelled Joy To The World (I challenge you to sit still during that), Jingle Bells, and Caroling, Caroling. Despite being one of the most well known songs here, Silent Night is probably the lowest point – the string section is dark and sinister at times as it stumbles around in low notes like a Jaws movie theme, and unfortunately it is also one of the longest tracks here.

Over all, Natalie’s album is a comfortable warming collection of Christmas songs.

Rated 3 stars - Give it a go!
  • POP RESCUE 2020 RATING: 3 / 5
  • 1994 UK ALBUM CHART PEAK: Did not chart.
  • POP RESCUE COST: £3.27 from an eBay seller.

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