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Music Review: Lisa B – Christmas Time is Here (and Chanukah and the Solstice)

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I interviewed poet and singer Lisa B (Lisa Bernstein) back in December of 2009. She and I talked about her background in everything from classical piano to show tunes. Her melding of poetry and singing didn’t come easy, but she’s never been afraid of a risk – even during the holidays.

Christmas Time is Here (and Chanukah and the Solstice) is a vibrant, diverse holiday record that sees Lisa B working through a number of Christmas standards, originals, and Jewish tunes with an energy is enchanting.

The disc is Lisa B’s fifth, and it isn’t a traditional holiday record even as it contains tracks like “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow!” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Along with the usual fare, the San Francisco Bay-based performer engages with the Hebrew hymn “Hine Ma Tov” and Matisyahu’s “Miracle.”

There is a lot of value in exploring various traditions, especially at the holidays, and Lisa B’s take is refreshing and unique.

The album opens with “Christmas Time is Here,” a work of surprising dissonance that finds co-producer Jim Gardiner providing a big orchestral vibe complete with sleigh bells and Henry Mancini-style sweeps. At times Lisa B’s voice gets lost in the grandeur of it all and can be a little hard to pick out. Still, her sense of melancholy as the song pushes toward its conclusion is an interesting touch.

The risk-taking continues with the aforementioned “Hine Ma Tov.” It is another orchestral number accented by bells, but the arrangement is more subtle and Lisa’s vocals stand out more.

“Miracle” uses the multi-track guitar work of Andre Bush. Lisa B varies her tone a number of times and matches the tricky cadence well, digging out new meaning from the Matisyahu tune while maintaining the original’s sensibility.

Where things really get interesting is “Holiday in Oakland,” a track with an old-school hip hop beat and a melody that really sings. The song hits a slightly difficult patch when Lisa B raps the names of some Oakland musical legends and the metamorphosis in tone may stun some listeners, but it’s a spirited move that mostly pays off.

“The Flame” is another unique piece that features the spoken word talents of Lisa B. It is the most stimulating track on the record; while it takes some getting used to, it really presses forward with the intensity and life of the holidays. Lisa’s sense for the theatrical makes the somewhat political lyrics pop with heat and intelligence.

Christmas Time is Here is not a conventional Christmas album, but it doesn’t have to be. It is a courageous, risky, considerate record that ventures easily between the orthodox and the eccentric in the full spirit of all the holidays.

About Jordan Richardson