Reviews

Celine Dion
These Are Special Times
(Sony 550 Music)

Having spent 15 years in both the French Canadian pop ghetto and the adult contemporary star machine, Celine Dion is a survivor. But more than that, she's a revolutionary. No, really: When she entered the drive-at-5 pop world in the early '90s, she came to rescue a dying genre. Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler had moved into film, while Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston were still spinning their singles to younger crowds. So while Dion doesn't know much about vocal phrasing, she knows market niches, and the AC Radio Diva role was one she happily filled -- filled with her big voice, her big-name duets, and her big damned song for that big damned movie about that big damned boat.

None of which has anything to do with talent, a minor point anyway when you own 25 or so platinum records. Dion approaches the love song the way punk rockers approached their instruments -- if you can't do it well, at least do it loud and cover your tracks. Dion doesn't hit notes; she body-checks them, and years of growing sales have only made her more confident about getting louder. That's enough to validate the existence of her Christmas album, These Are Special Times. Since Dion sings in essentially two modes -- Whispery Warble and Jet Takeoff -- she has a knack for making even the most subtle holiday tune end as if it were the 1812 Overture. That's not an absurd concept when it comes to "Ave Maria," but when she attempts "O Holy Night" -- which wasn't exactly written as a show-stopper -- she tries to bury it in voice the way a punker uses feedback. "Noel, damn it," the overwrought intensity of the song seems to suggest. "Noel!"

The ostentation becomes increasingly clear on a misbegotten stab at John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," as well as the synth-happy originals concocted for the project. Dion's at her best when she hires ringers who are attuned to her booming voice: The album includes duets with professional loudmouths from Andrea Bocelli to R. Kelly, and she's enlisted adult contemporary tune commandos like Carol Bayer Sager and Diane Warren to come up with the appropriate lines to belt out. And while it's hard to criticize her for enlisting her family to sing backup on two tracks, making sure that her voice gets mixed up top isn't exactly in the spirit of giving.

-- Mark Athitakis

 
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