Susie Arioli gets top billing on this acoustic jazz excursion, and why not? She's the singer, after all, and unlike many women who emote in whispery tones, she doesn't sound as if she's trying to disguise how little else there is where her whispery tones come from. But she'd probably sound washed out if not for Jordan Officer's gypsy-jazz guitar, which sets the lazy pace at which the semi-traditional program unfolds and creates a foil for Arioli's voice that functions like the nonverbal half of a semiprivate conversation.
One needn't be a fan of martinis, pink or otherwise, to be a fan of this album or the 10-member Portland, Ore., ensemble (11 if you count the "artistic director" Thomas Lauderdale). The recipe: Take seven Western seasonal favorites ("Little Drummer Boy," "Santa Baby"), intersperse them with six Eastern or otherwise exotic seasonal favorites ("La Vergine Degli Angeli," the Chinese-language "Congratulations [Happy New Year]"), vary the syncopation ("We Three Kings" in 5/4 time), and make sure the musicians never drown out China Forbes, whose singing provides the sparkle.
The understandable but deleterious kid-gloves caution with which Susan Boyle was handled on her first album has all but vanished from this collection of Christmas carols ("O Holy Night," "Away in a Manger," "O Come All Ye Faithful") and holiday favorites ("Auld Lang Syne"). To the extent that it lingers (until Boyle starts to sing, you'd think every song was Angelo Badalamenti's "Theme from Twin Peaks"), it's soon enough superseded by a purity and fullness (in that order) of sound that's at least some people's idea of angelic.
Jazzy a cappella acts often wear out their welcome because they can't resist coming on cute, and these 10 men are no exception. Granted, if you're going to do something called "Christmas Can-Can," opening with it is the way to go, but following it three songs later with a pointlessly funky "Let It Snow" then an outright novelty ("Donde Esta Santa Claus") is to gild the lily. Still, when the impeccable technique becomes more a means than an end, even "Who Spiked the Eggnog?" goes down easy.
It's hard to imagine Susan Boyle listening to Lou Reed's album Transformer, but whether she discovered "Perfect Day" there herself or had it chosen for her by Syco/Columbia, she couldn't have found a better vehicle with which to open The Gift or to showcase her icy, monochromatic soprano, which, like "Perfect Day" itself, treads the fine line between the sentimental and the melancholy. Her slowed-down version of Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over" has a similar effect and works almost as well. And although the world needs no more renditions of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," at least Boyle's version excises the uncomfortably gauche verses that Cohen added circa 1988.
Of course, one might well wonder what songs by Lou Reed, Crowded House, and Leonard Cohen are doing on a Christmas album in the first place. Breaking up the over-familiarity of the other seven songs for one thing. Widening (if not necessarily deepening) the emotional parameters of the holiday experience for another.