Official URL: https://www.heart-music.com/
Score: 10/10 Stars
Once heard, very few music-lovers can forget the powerful, “hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck” vocal presence of rock goddess Ann Wilson. Together with guitarist sister Nancy they front the legendary rock phenomena known as “Heart”. The band was originally based in Vancouver, Canada until debut album “Dreamboat Annie” and follow up “Little Queen” brought them global success. Heart continued topping the charts through the ‘80’s and ‘90’s with huge hits like “These Dreams,” “Alone,” “What About Love,” “If Looks Could Kill,” and “Never,” to name only a few. As a result of this phenomenal success, the Wilson sisters were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013, receiving recognition for their contribution to Rock music. The band also comprises Ben Smith on drums, Craig Bartock on guitar, Debbie Shair on keyboards and Dan Rothchild on bass.
2014 sees the release of their Christmas album entitled”Home for the Holidays”. A distinctly American-flavoured collection of festive songs, which begins with the serenely gentle “The River”. A synthesized backdrop provides the texture, over which Ann warms up quickly with that very distinctive and powerful voice. The vocal just screams “IM BACK” as Ann glides effortlessly between delicate husky tones and the contrast of those soaring high notes smoothing into her delicately placed vibrato. This is her signature and has now become instantly recognizable. By the second track “Seasons” it’s clear that the album is going to be a rollercoaster of emotion and festive revelry. Ann is joined by Nancy on acoustic guitar and what is immediately apparent is the musical chemistry between them. Gradually the rest of the band join in and the piece slowly builds to a full and rich sound, expertly arranged and expressively dynamic.
The first of many guest appearances begins with the third track, when the band is joined on stage by Shawn Colvin for “Rocking” and “Love Come Down at Christmas”. Pop sensation Richard Marx brings his distinctive voice to the sixth track when he joins Ann on “All Through The Night”. His simple harmony part really brightens the song without muscling in and taking over. Legendary rock singer Sammy Hagar appears next on a duet with Ann up front and center stage for “All We Need is An Island” a shuffle beat with a calypso feel, which dovetails oh so nicely into the next song, the Hagar penned “Santa’s Going South For Christmas”. This is a light-hearted rock n roll number, complete with walking bass line and country guitar adding in some more Americana flavors.
“So mystically atmospheric I thought it had started to snow!”
Perhaps my favorite track on this album is the tenth song “Remember”…a Harry Nillson number and a total surprise for this album. This song stands out due to the interplay between piano and vocal. Here Ann is fragile and delicate, her voice seems on the verge of cracking and this apparent vulnerability only adds to the intimacy. To be sat in the audience and hear that live and in front of you must have been truly breathtaking. This is so mystically atmospheric I thought it must have started to snow outside!
Track eleven launches into “Barracuda” – perhaps the most famous song from Heart’s back catalogue. And without a shadow of a doubt, Ann and Nancy prove that they can still rock out like the news kids! This is quickly followed up with another Heart Classic “Even It Up” and we are no longer in any doubt that this is the band we’ve come to know and love. My problem here, is that although they are really great songs – and sound just as vibrant and impressive today as they did in 1977 and 1980, they don’t really feel like they belong on a Christmas album and it seems like they actually detract from the emotional vibe of the CD… Just my opinion of course, but I think they would’ve been better placed on a bonus CD. I can imagine die hard Heart aficionados across the world shouting so what?
The saving grace is the Heart version of the Led Zeppelin classic “Stairway to Heaven”. Whilst certainly not a Christmas song, it does fit in with the vibe due to the emotional elements and the mystical imagery penned by Plant and Page. The Heart version has now been made famous by their performance at The Kennedy Centre last year, when Jimmy Page, Robert Plant and John Paul-Jones were each moved to tears at their rendition. That same emotion is still present in this live recording and it certainly represents the pinnacle of this CD. Ann adds her own unique style and vocal presence atop an excellent performance from Nancy and the band (including a superb guitar solo. The choral backing from the “Total Experience” gospel choir elevates the song to never-before reached heights and really does make those hairs stand up on the back of your neck! A truly outstanding rendition!
Most of the guests return to the stage for the final song, “Ring Them Bells” superbly backed by the choir and giving the CD a very Christmassy feel to the end of the disc. On the whole this is a superb collection of songs that is guaranteed to get you in the mood for Christmas. I love the melancholic tones and the whole atmosphere, but there is also a beautiful nostalgia running through the work as if these were all ancient classics dusted off and recompiled to bring the essence of the festive season back into our hearts and homes. It is so very easy to produce a gimmicky or contrived Christmas album and Heart have managed to avoid this – serving up a beautiful and timeless collection that will no doubt endure for decades. In England we would say “Home for Christmas” but today I feel like Heart is certainly bringing me home for the holidays. Enjoy!
Neil Thomas www.neilthomas.co.uk
Approved by Senior Editor Cyrus Rhodes (Seattle, WA)