Dueling divas take on Christmas
By Brian Conant

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire... Jack Frost nipping at your nose... And this year the Yuletide carols will be provided by dueling divas as pop stars Amy Grant and Jewel. Both are hoping to deck your halls with some holiday cheer.

"A Christmas to Remember" is the third yule-flavored offering from Grant, who is obviously the veteran in these proceedings. Jewel's "Joy: A Holiday Collection" is her first holiday offering. But that doesn't mean the frosty- throated vixen can't play along with all the other musically inclined reindeer.

A Christmas to Remember
Amy Grant's
"A Christmas to Remember"

In fact, Grant's experience in some ways is the biggest detriment to her new effort. Having used up a good deal of the more cherished seasonal favorites on her previous two efforts, there is significantly less of a library for her to draw from than the rookie Jewel. Having done most of the favorites ("Silent Night" and "Jingle Bell Rock" are the only traditional tunes on the record) forces Grant to be original on this record - a feat that fails more often than it succeeds.

Take the "I-wanna-be-a-pop-song-for-Christmas" feel of her album's opener and moniker "A Christmas to Remember," which sounds like a tune Grant has had on lay-away since the early 80s. And while "Remember" is tolerable, maybe even likeable (in an REO Speedwagon-kind-of-way), the album's seventh track, "Mr. Santa," is best forgotten quickly -- and skipped over often. Stealing the melody and even a few lyrics from the 1955 tune "Mr. Sandman," Grant's tune keeps the barbershop feel, but morphs the lyrics into "Mister Santa / Bring me some toys..." All this amid a barrage of "bum-bum-bums," which is more annoying than a friend who brags about having their Christmas shopping done.

One new highlight, however, is "Welcome to Our World" which was penned by Christian rock wunderkid, Chris Rice. It is a sentimental tune that utilizes repetition and delicate orchestration - instead of kitch - to convey a welcome to the holiday's namesake. Grant also takes former fellow Christian pop star Michael W. Smith's "Agnus Dei" and makes a delicate delight.

Joy: A Holiday Collection
Jewel's
"Joy: A Holiday Collection"

Jewel, on the other hand, is new to the game and therefore has a full stock of Christmas tunes to use on her album - and use them she does. Of the album's 15 tracks, six are non-traditional, and of those one is a cover of Julie Gold's "From a Distance." Another is the peppermint-influenced remake of Jewel's own "Hands," (a single off her last album, "Spirit").

Yet the famous singer is not satisfied simply singing along to the hymns. She adds twang and yodel to Dick Smith's classic "Winter Wonderland" in such a way that it makes perfect sense, and her stripped-down almost a cappella take on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is a bizarre, but pleasant quandary. The rest of the tunes while diverse, do well to showcase the singer's voice amid choirs of children and refined instrumentation.

Both women use track three as a way of showcasing what is perhaps the most solemn of any Christmas hymn - "Silent Night." Though both do the tune justice, in comparison, Grant shines despite Jewel's golden pipes - a testament to the experience, which is her achilles, heal for most of the LP. While Jewel's version of the carol is solemn and deep, her version is also thick with orchestration and digs deep into the hymn's many verses. Grant, however, having played and sung this hymn countless times, knows to tone the instruments down, skip the extra verses and play the tune straight from the heart - and it unquestionably works.

Grant certainly suffers from a lack of inventory, but there is no lack of passion. While Jewel's sophisticated disc makes for a better sampler, it is also a disc of well crafted and sometimes less passionate displays of Christmas spirit.

There are a moments on Grant's album, though, which carry with them a pure passion - like the quiet poise of a choir on Christmas Eve, or the heartfelt tidings of a group of carolers who do not need the sheet music. She has worn these songs longer and, when she is allowed to, she shows that she knows them in a very personal way. Though they are random and much harder to find than on any of her previous Christmas tunes - these moments are more likely to be found here and make "A Christmas to Remember" worth keeping around, but only if you remember which tracks to skip.