[I may not have been blogging in December, but I couldn't stop writing. I grant that this review is too old to have stopped you from making a horibble mistake in 2005, but I hope it will serve you well 11 months from now.]
Aw, jeez. How do I approach this . . .
Let’s try metaphor, in the form of a true story:
Imagine, if you will, that it is the holiday season, getting close to Christmas, in fact, and, one day, as you sit in front of the television while channel-flipping, you chance to come across whatever equals the “religious channel” on your cable listing. (Many of you are aware of this channel as its owners – or whatever – are the ancient Dennis Weaver-ish guy and his freaky, pink-haired wife.) Now, you’re flipping through fairly quickly, but your brain tells you that the contortions and passionate squinting and the cramp-indicative doubling over of sweaty bodies and the jittery wavings of blown-dried mullets and permed hair pieces aren’t, in fact, being performed by an audience of faith-seeking donors – the suits and jewelry and various wigs/toupees worn by these circus contortionists are far too expensive. No – what your brain registers is that the station’s regular musical personalities are all grouped together doing . . . something; confessing sins? Experiencing The Rapture? Whatever it is, it is deeply intense.
So you stay tuned to the channel, and turn the sound up.
And discover they are singing.
It’s hard, at first, to know what they are singing. A couple of issues get in the way of quick recognition.
First, there is the fact that eight (or so) voices that are being wielded by singers not used to taking, oh, let’s call it a supporting role, are just not going to sound good together. Listen to any duet or group effort that involves Willie Nelson or Celine Dion and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Worse, all eight voices are SHOUTING their music, every note sung with not merely a vocal exclamation point, but an accompanying muscular twitch of the body – eight white, epileptic James Browns, but without the sexiness. It is simply the most unmusical thing you can imagine being performed that doesn’t involve Yoko Ono. The entire effect of this performance style is to obfuscate important things like words and notes. This slows down the recognition process.
Second, there is the fact that you’ve heard most of these clowns do their road-show-on-the-studio-sound-stage thang before, and you know exactly what kind of soulless, manipulative, cookie-cutter, pre-recorded pop-gospel faux-musical garbage makes up the entirety of their collective repertoire; thus, you are not equipped by prior experience to believe what you are hearing.
But eventually your brain registers that what you are hearing them mangle – no, callously abuse is the more appropriate word here – what you are hearing them abuse is Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from the Messiah.
And then morbid curiosity turns into a frank astonishment not felt since that day in your long-ago youth that you first saw a real small male dog being physically amorous with an oblivious, large female dog’s back legs. I mean, that’s pretty funny stuff at any age, but when you’re a kid, it’s like, woah.
And a slow ‘ya gotta be kiddin’ me, Pyle!’ grin begins to appear on your face as you both listen and watch this hideous display on your TV set and discover that some perms can gesticulate. It’s more gut-churningly fascinating than the first time you watched professional wrestling.
And then, when you think your smile can’t get any bigger, you are proven wrong as they get to the windin’-up part, and, O Lordy, every single man and woman is hunched over like they’re both passing kidney stones and trying to keep in bad diarrhea, one hand in the air all testifyin’ ‘n stuff, the other hand with a white-knuckle grip on the microphone, and each singer has his or hers eyes closed really, REALLY tight, and it is just really, truly equal parts the funniest thing you’ve ever seen and the most musically-insulting thing you’ve ever heard. (If anyone has this performance on videotape or DVD, you must send me a copy.)
Ok. Got that picture in your mind?
Any one song on Il Divo’s Christmas album makes that religious channel travesty seem like “Silent Night” being performed by a Presbyterian choir under the direction of John Rutter on Christmas Eve in a small, Cambridge chapel.
I tell you, kind readers, that Il Divo’s “The Christmas Collection” is easily the most obnoxious, arrogant, infuriating Christmas album that has yet been produced. I bought a copy pretty much for this reason and it gets a special place next to Shatner’s “The Transformed Man,” that’s how bad this thing is.
Needless to say, Barnes & Noble has assigned it to in-store play for the Holiday Season.
For the heck of it, co-worker D. and I decided to put all the really bad Christmas stuff in the store CD player this afternoon, just to get it out of the way and give us complainin’ rights. I almost fell on my knees laughing when I heard what they did to “White Christmas.”
“My Gosh!” I said a little too loudly. “It’s just a song from a Bing Crosby movie – it ain’t freakin’ opera!” Then I laughed and got dirty looks from customers, too many of whom watch Oprah and therefore think they actually like this noise because they have long since given over their ability to make critical decisions about what they do and don’t like to that horrible woman and if she says “I like Il Divo,” then they think “Well, I LOVE Il Divo!” and so we’re gonna sell lots and lots of Il Divo this year because people are idiots.
Anyway, during the next song, Ave Maria, the manager on duty came up and said, “What is this crap? Are we, like, obliged to play this right now? This is HORRIBLE!” We just laughed at her, because we’re jerks.
But during song number four, even I’d had enough – I was at work, after all, and was getting a headache – and I skipped to the next CD: Kenny G’s Christmas album, which I can now tell you is also not great. And, as if you couldn’t guess already, Barbra Streisand’s ain’t too hot, either. I TOLD you we put in all the bad stuff today. (Note: Michael McDonald’s Christmas album – what little I heard - seems indistinguishable from any other musical endeavor of his, save that it is funnier because as he ages his singing voice gets more and more alien and inscrutable.)
But, you know, as bad as Streisand and Kenny G are, they sounded downright musical in comparison to the FULL-THROATED PASSION that is Il Divo(!).
If the goal at the outside of this project (now into its second album) had been to find four voices that had the least ability to sound like they were meant to sing together, then the producers succeeded grandly.
I believe that when it comes to art, one way of gaining a better appreciation of what is well-done is to experience something along the same lines, but that is poorly-done. Like, if you want to more fully see the excellence of Kenneth Branagh’s wonderful performance of the Henry V ‘Saint Crispin’s Day’ speech, one could listen afterward to William Shatner’s performance of the same on his truly amazing “The Transformed Man” record. “Ah!” you’ll say to yourself. “Branagh really got it right! I can totally see that now, because Shatner is really, really bad.”
Il Divo is classical music’s very own collective 60’s-era Shatner – a quartet of utterly self-impressed blowhards, making everything else sound better simply because they have so deeply buried the bar that the excellent-by-comparison Andrea Bocelli was heretofore only able to lower to ground level. (In fact, I think I’ll start calling them SC – the Shatner Collective, like the Groove Collective, except that the SC’s suck really bad whereas the Groove Collective involves actual musicians.)
I highly recommend listening to Il Divo even to a few seconds. Just pick any track – they’re all the same.
But for those of you too chicken to do that, here’s a kind of play-by-play of – oh, let’s pick Ave Maria, easily one of the most-abused religious songs EVER in musical history. Here are my notes as I listen to it for the first time (thank God for the pause button):
[0:00] Right out of the gate you suspect you’re in trouble. Harps and oboes and lush strings all together can be used quite nicely in the hands of someone who loves music, but because we know going into this that Il Divo is not remotely about music we can take it for granted that the normally unthreatening pluckings of the harp instead signal the approach of something ominous.
[0:20] Said ominous thing begins its arrival in the form of one of the most unpleasant, weird vibratos you will ever hear sung through a tenor’s nose. It’s like he’s actually licking his vocal chords as he sings, and that’s why the tones can’t get past his lips and instead have to move up and out through his nostrils, which means he must have nostrils as manipulative as any tapir’s if he’s forming words through them, so I suspect that it’s the guy in the striped coat. As all instruments but the harp have dropped out to make room for this guy you find yourself thinking that, hey, that oboe obligato wasn’t too bad after all – wish they’d bring it back.
[0:51] And here’s the second tenor, or perhaps baritone(?). This guy ain’t too bad – if he’s a baritone, he’s got a good, lyrical upper range. Just a hair too sloppy, too pop-ish, but not badly so. The arrangement still calls for piano – pardon me, for quiet singing – at this point so this second tenor is doing a light, perhaps too-florid job. I’d give him a B-, but because he’s involved with Il Divo he gets a D on general principle, the jerk.
[1:15] And SC #2 must have been a baritone because now the third SC is singing a line, and this must be their token American. You can tell from the light “pop-swoop-grace-note” he seems unable to erase from his technique. A little too much breath. Not surprising for what was originally a Simon Cowell production, this kid just screams “American Idol.”
[1:33] What the heck? Is this is the bass? No – baritone. They have no bass. Ah.
Eh. He’s bein’ all fancy pants. I’m going to guess that this guy is the one who comes closest to looking like a leering Dean Martin on the record cover.
[1:51] Okay; they’re still singing more or less at piano, bu . . .
HOLY CRAP! [1:58] Somebody hit that baritone in the head with a lead pipe! Great Googly Moogly! Roland Corporation produces, like, fifteen voice processors, any one of which could have corrected in post-production the fact that this guy’s a full quarter-tone flat! These guys are making money hand over fist and they hire Helen Keller as their engineer? BAH!
I mean [2:00] they’re still holding that note and he’s STILL FLAT! He’s not even doing that annoying lounge singer thing where a guy starts flat but then brings it up to pitch as he lets his vibrato kick in. No – this guy starts flat, and HOLDS IT, like he’s PROUD OF IT! “Hey, look at me!” he’s saying. “I’m-a singing flat! Have-a some more wine while I sing-a the flat note!”
[2:09] Two descending notes later tonal equilibrium is more or less achieved by the group. Yeah – let gravity do your work, guys. Brah-freakin’-vo.
[2:10] Instrumental bridge to the next round of singing. It’s garbage, of course.
[2:24] And as the second portion begins, so, too, are we introduced to a drum machine giving the song a trap/hat beat.
A drum machine beat in Ave Maria, I kid you not, people.
Only two voices, don’t ask me who. I think Unpleasant Vibrato is the guy in the falsetto register because he’s warbling around up there like an old lady whose voice wore out a few decades ago. You know that Old Person vibrato I’m talking about? The sine wave as deep as the ocean and as high as mountain peaks? A roller coaster of tone? Yeah – that’s the one.
Oh no. Please, no. [2:34] Finger snaps.
Got that? FINGER SNAPS! On every other “one.” Lord help us all. (KICK!, cymbal, cymbal – SNAP!, cymbal, cymbal – KICK!, cymbal, cymbal – SNAP!, cymbal, cymbal – ad infinitum.)
[3:34} Ok. Standard tag-team duet stuff up to this point because each singer needs mathematically equal amounts of “on” time, but now Mr. Pulled From The Part-Time Opera Company To Give This Group A Whiff Of Legitimacy Baritone is starting to light it up. And – oh, yeah! Tympanies backing him up on the forte. Inflate them gonads, bubbas, and let ‘em explode in musical passion!
Okay – that was gross, and I apologize.
[3:44] Fake! Dramatic Musical Pause after the build up. Tenor comes in at mezzo-piano.
[3:54] Fake! Tympanies come up with tenor to create the forte he couldn’t build on his own because he’s so obviously a wimp and here we get our Shatneresque Pique of Operatic Climax. And, oh my, this not-terribly successful blend of voices is being buried by the “orchestra” and drum box. Good luck trying to hide the sheets, Mr. Conductor, but we all know what just happened.
[4:20] What do you get when four guys all try to out-sing each other on the final round of “AVE!!!!! MARIA!!!!!!!!!!!!”? You get what’s happening at 4:20. I just about snorted my Dr Pepper out of my nose.
[4:50] Whew! Well, it ended quietly, thank goodness. But – oh, golly – this was really bad.
I mean, only two of these guys can actually sing loudly, and you can hear the problems of recording this group in the mix: the two loud guys sound like they’re singing from as far away as Antarctica and the two American Idol contestants sound like they’re singing a lullaby right next to you – I mean, these are guys who’d need microphones to sing in a small bedroom - and yet they all manage to sing equally loudly thanks to Helen Keller’s lucky engineering guesses.
Well, that, plus they’re being buried by the hideous orchestra. And I have to say that without something like that for them to be hidden behind this would have been so very, very much worse, and so very, very much more funny.
Hang on – gotta check out Silent Night . . .
Will this follow the same formula? It seems to as it begins with Mr. Unpleasant Vibrato. I think they just like to get his obligatory solo out of the way early.
Ooh! Here comes American Idol: “’Round yon virgin, multher and mild?”
“Multher.” – Yup. I just listened again – he’s mangling the word so badly that “mother” comes out as a pulpy, throat-squeezed “multher.”
Wow. Do you have any idea how bad your technique has to be to do that?
“Tender ‘n mild.” Not “and.” “’N.”
“Tennnnnnnnder ‘N miiiiild,” he just sang, like he’s doing an ad for KFC.
And Jesus wept.
Over to SC #2:
Sle-e-e-e-e-e-e-p in h-e-e-e-e-E-E-E-E-E-ven-ly pe-e-e-e-e-e-E-E-E-E-E-EACE”
[listens some more – skips ahead]
Yup. They open up a Big Ol’ Can of Opera on this song’s hinder for the last verse, just like Ave Maria.
I repeat: Wow.
And when the heck did “Over The Rainbow” become a Christmas song? I mean, that’s just weird.
For collectors of bad music, I can’t recommend this CD highly or lowly enough.
This is the Cranky Reviewer, logging off.