Thursday, November 9, 2023

Lisa Biales: “At Christmas” (2023) CD Review

Don’t let this album’s cover fool you. This is a cool, swinging and bluesy holiday album, and it features mostly original material, most of it written or co-written by Lisa Biales. It might not be your typical holiday fare, but it will certainly fit in with your holiday celebration. There is a lot of joy and a lot of fun in these tracks. Joining the vocalist on this release are Johnny Lee Schell on guitar, Chuck Berghofer on bass, Jeff Paris on piano and organ, and Tony Braunagel on drums, along with special guests on various tracks. Lisa Biales is based in Ohio, but the album was recorded and mixed by Johnny Lee Schell at Ultratone Studios in Studio City, California. It was produced by Tony Braunagel.

The album opens with “At Christmas,” which has a delicious groove and features a horn section. Mark Pender is on trumpet, Jerry Vivino is on saxophone, and Garrett Smith is on trombone. Lisa Biales’ vocal delivery is strong. And when she sings, “Middle of the night gonna bring you something nice,” you can decide for yourself just what she has in mind. Same goes for the line “Santa gonna bring you what you most desire.” There is a good little jam at the end, which should help get your Christmas party in gear. David J. Carpenter plays bass on this track, and Maxayn Lewis provides backing vocals. This song was written by Tony Braunagel, Jeff Paris and Lisa Biales. It’s followed by the album’s only cover, “Shake Hands With Santa Claus,” which was written by Bob Hilliard and Milton DeLugg, and originally recorded by Louis Prima And His Orchestra. The horn section contributes to this track too, and this time Jerry Vivino plays both saxophone and bass clarinet. Jeff Paris plays glockenspiel in addition to piano on this track. The band delivers a wonderful rendition, with a bright energy, particularly to Lisa’s vocal performance. She changes the line (but not the title) to “Shake hands with Mrs. Claus.”

“That’s What I Like About Christmas” was written by Johnny Lee Schell. It’s a fun number about being with the one you love on the holiday. “Well, I never cared much for Christmas turkey/I’d rather have some red beans and rice/But when my baby looks at me and whispers Merry Christmas/Well, that’s when I start to feel real nice.” Joe Sublett joins the band on saxophone on this one, delivering some good stuff. And check out that great work on keys. Lisa Biales slows things down with “When The Snowflakes Fall,” a song she wrote with Tony Braunagel. The subject here is a little different, about a woman working the Christmas tree sale, and about her family. “Two old gray horses worked sleigh rides that year/Her shepherd Rex played with a blinded mare/A simple life was heaven beyond compare/When the snowflakes fall, when the snowflakes fall.” This track features a passionate vocal performance and some nice work on guitar.

“The Boy I Met For Christmas” is a sweet and playful number with a cheerful sound, particularly in its rhythm and that work on piano. It also features some nice touches on harmonica. That’s Jeff Paris on harmonica, as well as piano and glockenspiel. “Wrapped up under the Christmas tree/A handsome present that’s just for me/And when he whispers into my ear/Well, it makes my whole world disappear.” This track is a total delight. I love when Lisa Biales exclaims “Oh!” after being danced under the mistletoe, but everything about this one is wonderful. It was written by Lisa Biales and Tony Braunagel. That’s followed by “Lulu Magoo,” which starts off slowly and gently, but soon kicks in to become another fun tune. And just when you think this song can’t get any more adorable, there is a wonderful clarinet lead by Jerry Vivino, and then a cool trumpet lead by Mark Pender.

“Mary’s Little Baby Boy” is a bluesy rock number featuring some good guitar work at the beginning, setting the atmosphere before Lisa Biales comes in on vocals. Her vocal delivery here is different. Gone is that sweetness. There is more attitude in her tone, though the lyrics are about the birth of Jesus. It’s interesting. I’m not sure if the music and the lyrics quite fit together, but I enjoy the sound too much to worry about it. I especially love the guitar. David J. Carpenter plays bass on this track, and Jerry Vivino adds some nice touches on sax at the beginning and end. Lisa Biales then gets adorable again on “I Like You Mister Claus,” in which she sings, “Hey Santa, you’re getting kinda frisky/If we carry on, things could get risky.” I love the male backing vocals responding in that section. And check out these lines: “You like drinking eggnog out of my shoe/I like pink martinis, but not before two/I like the way your sled can take us over the moon/I like you, Mister Claus.” How can you help but love lyrics like those? This track also features a good lead on bass, and a cool guitar lead. This song was written by Lisa Biales, Tony Braunagel and Jeff Paris.

“Christmas Record” tackles a different subject, and has a different vibe. It’s about trying to get into the spirit early in the year to record a holiday album. I suppose that is something all artists have to face, because, unless it’s a live album, a Christmas record is most likely not recorded in December. This song has something of a theatrical vibe, her vocals supported mainly by piano. In the second half, strings are added, which is wonderful. Doug Hamilton is violin, and Michael G. Ronstadt is on cello. The album then concludes with “Christmas Cheer,” a fairly fast-paced blues number, featuring another strong vocal performance. “I’m gonna wait for Santa Baby/And catch him under the mistletoe.” Yes, Santa gets quite a lot of action on this album. And I suppose that makes sense. After all, you don’t have to worry about what to say to him the next day or about taking him to your friends’ next dinner party. He brings a little magic and then disappears for a year. Jeff Paris delivers some great stuff on both piano and organ, and Maxayn Lewis provides some good backing vocal work. It’s a fun ending to an excellent holiday album.

CD Track List

  1. At Christmas
  2. Shake Hands With Santa Claus
  3. That’s What I Like About Christmas
  4. When The Snowflakes Fall
  5. The Boy I Met For Christmas
  6. Lulu Magoo
  7. Mary’s Little Baby Boy
  8. I Like You Mister Claus
  9. Christmas Record
  10. Christmas Cheer

At Christmas is scheduled to be released on November 10, 2023.

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