Review: “Christmas Wish” by Olivia Newton-John (CD, 2007)

Today’s Christmas Pop Rescue from an unknown fate, is 2007’s Christmas Wish – the twenty-second album by the late Australian actress and singer Olivia Newton-John. Will this album make all your wishes come true, or is it a greasy turkey? Read on…

Olivia Newton-John - Christmas Wish (2007) album
Olivia Newton-John – Christmas Wish (2007) album

This 22 track CD opens with gentle tinkling piano and pennywhistle of traditional song O Come All Ye Faithful, and Olivia’s delivery is rich, warm, and absolutely flawless. Briefly, you imagine Celine Dion joining in to tell you about her heart that goes on and on, but thankfully that doesn’t happen, allowing Olivia to shine in a wash of choral vocal harmonies with her backing vocalists. Eventually keyboards provide some sad strings, and a simple thudding drum adds some weight as contrast, but all together, it’s a great start to the album.

That’s followed by Angels We Have Heard On High (Interlude), which again sees piano lead us through this instrumental traditional song. It lasts a mere 1m 14s, but the piano delivers its majesty and joy perfectly.

Next it’s original track Every Time It Snows, which is a duet between Olivia and Jon Secada. Olivia shows off her soft and breathy vocals here, as the piano and string section playful dance around her. The contrasting vocals of Jon Secada are a perfect match, and this is probably the best I’ve heard him, and it just gets better as they reach harmonies. It sounds almost as if it belongs in a Christmas favourite animation.

Away In A Manger (Interlude) follows that, giving us another little interlude with piano and the richness of the mournful cello to carry this lullaby traditional song to it’s short but perfectly formed conclusion.

There’s mysterious sounds of cymbals and percussion at the start of next song We Three Kings, before Olivia takes the mic. She’s joined by a bansuri and some male backing vocalists, offering up a really nice sounding contrast high and low. She is sounding wonderful here against the delicately angelic backing track as it almost tip-toes along. The song builds slowly, even managing a key change as a rumble of military band styled drums arrive.

The First Noel (Interlude) is next, and the piano once again delivers this classic song perfectly.

That’s followed by A Mother’s Christmas Wish – another original song, this time featuring pianist and songwriter Jim Brickman. From the songs heard so far, this track sounds the most modern but no less Christmassy. The track gently plods along quite nicely, and Olivia does a great job of delivering it.

Next is Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring (Interlude) another traditional song. This time, the piano sounds like it’s joined by a harp. It’s quite a plinky-plonky song, but it’s soon over in 1m 24s.

That leads on to Angels In The Snow, a song written by Olivia’s backing singer (at least on this album) Amy Sky. The piano, cello, and accordion, work really well together, as they cross over each other tonally. Olivia’s vocal harmonies with herself gives us a really nice little modern song, and gives her a big final note to end on.

It’s time for another traditional song – What Child Is This? (Interlude) – which I had to check the sleeve notes for, as I thought of Greensleeves. Here, there’s piano, guitar, and some backing synthscapes. The guitar solo is brief but is a nice closing touch.

Canadian singer Jann Arden joins Olivia for the classic Silent Night, and as you’d expect Olivia delivers this with absolute perfection. The song is perfectly un-hurried, and Amy Sky and Steve Real join in to provide French (alongside Jann) and Spanish vocals respectively. This really helps to build the song nicely. It’s another nice plodder, and the inclusion of the guitar during the Spanish part just helps to build it nicely (no, there’s no accordion during the French bit). Olivia returns with English alongside a cello, and the loyal piano, to take the song to a soaring ending.

Another interlude this time with piano, it’s O Come, O Come Emmanuel (Interlude) and this time it’s not a track that I’m overly familiar with, still it sounds quite nice as it slowly evolves.

Next up is All Through The Night with American singer Michael McDonald joining Olivia on the vocal duties. His vocals are unmistakable here, and they offer a good clear contrast as the orchestra, harp and french horn all help the song to build up. Olivia is very much in control here, but her harmonies with Michael sound really warm and rich.

As you’d expect drums turn up swiftly for Little Drummer Boy (Interlude), but the difficulty is that the vocal line is carried by the piano, which sounds quite nice, but it also loses some power in the relationship between lyric and the drumming… but before you’ve realised it, the 1m 5s is over and we’re moving on.

Underneath The Same Sky is next, and this is a shift in sound, leading us to some sort of missing Dolly Parton meets pop-rock song. This certainly sounds very modern, but then it is another original track. The track has beats, strummed guitars galore, and synthscapes helping to carry Olivia through from verse to chorus and back again. It’s a nice enough song, but it is quite a change in pace sat here amongst the rest of these songs so far.

Returning back to traditional, it’s the piano’s time to perform O Christmas Tree (Interlude). The piano takes this in its stride, delivering a rich and weighty classic sound.

That turns suddenly to Little Star Of Bethlehem, which begins abruptly with piano chords, before Olivia arrives with familiar lyrics. Whilst you might think that you know this song, here the track has a different arrangement courtesy of a song called Porcelain by the track’s pianist Stephan Moccio. This version certainly takes this song to new realms, and the piano and vocal harmonies sound almost angelic.

We return to the more familiar, with Deck The Halls (Interlude) giving us a jolly 59s of tradition with seemingly great ease and cheeriness.

Instrument Of Peace is next, as Marc Jordan joins Olivia on this song which as the sleeve art informs me, was ‘inspired by the words of St. Francis of Assisi‘. The strings swirl around Olivia as she effortlessly delivers this song, flanked by Marc’s well placed contrasting soulful vocals. Olivia really gets to shine here alongside the soaring strings with some fantastically big notes. Suddenly, a full song erupts complete with dramatic drum fills, before returning aptly to the ‘peace’ she sings of. A really lovely song.

What Christmas album could be complete without a rendition of the traditional We Wish You A Merry Christmas (Interlude), well, this one is no exception, except that it is instrumental here, so maybe she didn’t really mean it. Oh well.

Christmas On My Radio is the penultimate song, and we’re heading to that strange 1950’s Christmas land with a plethora of ‘doo wop‘ sound and oodles of backing vocals and harmonies. Shakin’ Stevens will be frothing at the mouth, but this is a fantastically playful and almost predictable track, and gives wonderful echoes of Olivia’s former Grease performances. It’s unsurprising that she co-wrote it, and it really should have been her Christmas single. I hope she enjoyed singing this, as it sounds like a lot of fun. There’s even a cheeky little saxophone riff from The Christmas Song. Superb!

We’re still in that 1950’s-esque Christmas land, as the album closes with Olivia’s duet with the legendary singer Barry ManilowA Gift Of Love. Barry takes the lead here, perhaps unsurprisingly as the song’s co-writer (Olivia is not), but he is soon joined by Olivia as they duel in vocal harmonies. This is a version of his earlier 2002 recording, seemingly with Olivia’s vocals added in. It’s hard to say whether he re-recorded his vocals, but the result is a nice song that makes more sense lyrically as a duet.

Olivia Newton-John’s ‘Instrument Of Peace’.

Verdict

Over all, this album is has a really wonderful air of Christmas to it. The frequent teasings of traditional Christmas songs works well, and the pianists really put their skills to use.

There are a couple of weaker tracks here, with Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring, and the easy Little Drummer Boy being the two most disappointing, but these are instrumental and therefore there’s no critique of Olivia. Her seemingly stick-on appearance alongside Barry Manilow feels precisely that.

Olivia absolutely beams throughout the rest of the album, and the precision, delicateness, and diversity in her voice is heard throughout the rest of the vocal songs. The wonderfulness of the more playful Christmas On My Radio is crying out for that to have been a single – I’m sure it could have provided a hit, coining in on the Grease era styling.

There’s plenty here for everyone – it ticks the religious and secular needs of a Christmas album, and is musically pretty sound. Give it a spin!

Rated 4 stars - You're missing a treat!
  • POP RESCUE 2022 RATING: 4 / 5
  • 2007 UK ALBUM CHART PEAK: Did not chart.
  • POP RESCUE COST: £1.99 from a Discogs.com seller.

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