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Celine Dion
These Are Special Times
Sony 550 Music

Having spent 15 years in both the French Canadian pop ghetto and the adult contemporary star machine, Celine Dion is a survivor. But more than that, she's a revolutionary. No, really: When she entered the drive-at-5 pop world in the early '90s, she came to rescue a dying genre. Barbra Streisand and Bette Midler had moved into film, while Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston were still spinning their singles to younger crowds. So while Dion doesn't know much about vocal phrasing, she knows market niches, and the AC Radio Diva role was one she happily filled -- with her big voice, her big-name duets and her big damned song for that big damned movie about that big damned boat.

None of which has anything to do with talent, a minor point anyway when you own 25 or so platinum records. Dion approaches the love song the way punk rockers approached their instruments -- if you can't do it well, at least do it loud and cover your tracks. Dion doesn't hit notes; she body-checks them, and years of growing sales have only made her more confident about getting louder. That's enough to validate the existence of her Christmas album, These Are Special Times. Since Dion sings in essentially two modes -- Whispery Warble and Jet Takeoff -- she has a knack for making even the most subtle holiday tune end as if it were the 1812 Overture. That's not an absurd concept when it comes to "Ave Maria," but when she attempts "O Holy Night," which wasn't exactly written as a showstopper, she tries to bury it in voice the way a punker uses feedback. "Noël, damn it," the overwrought intensity of the song seems to suggest. "Noël!"

The ostentation becomes increasingly clear on a misbegotten stab at John Lennon and Yoko Ono's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," as well as the synth-happy originals concocted for the project. Dion's at her best when she hires ringers who are attuned to her booming voice: The album includes duets with professional loudmouths from Andrea Bocelli to R. Kelly, and she's enlisted adult contemporary tune commandos like Carol Bayer Sager and Diane Warren to come up with the appropriate lines to belt out. And while it's hard to criticize her for enlisting her family to sing backup on two tracks, making sure that her voice gets mixed up top isn't exactly in the spirit of giving.

-- Mark Athitakis

Cry, Cry, Cry
Cry, Cry, Cry
Razor & Tie

Isn't the point of kicking off your songwriting career that you won't have to spend your set singing other people's songs?

Three folksinger/songwriters on the way up -- Dar Williams, Richard Shindell and Lucy Kaplansky (the woman who sang with Shawn Colvin but decided she wanted to be a psychologist, then decided she didn't) -- are touring to promote Cry, Cry, Cry, their new album of folk songs they didn't write.

Kaplansky and Shindell both have great voices, and maybe it was a good idea for them to start singing other people's songs. Their albums weren't as rocking and wonderful as Williams's; hence she gets top billing.

But this album was a bad idea. It's like a Best of Broadway compilation where all the songs sound pretty -- but they don't sound right.

The song that disappoints me most is the one I was most excited to hear. It's "I Know What Kind of Love This Is," off the Nieldses' first album, Gotta Get Over Greta. In an edgy, angry voice Nerissa Nields slowly, deliberately sings, "I know what kind of love this is / after all I was there when we made it." It's a song with a bitter, bitchy, fuck-you-don't-give-me-this-shit tone aimed at the asshole dumping her. It's not a harmonized barbershop quartet, but Cry, Cry, Cry sings it as a sleepy lullaby. (And it's not like they even tried to make it their own. They sing it in Nerissa Nields's off-key voice; they just take away her passion.)

The warm fuzzy feeling critics have for this album is that it gives exposure to obscure folkies who wouldn't be heard by the noncappuccino crowd. Whatever -- it's not tough to find these people. Williams herself has become compilation queen. She's on the New Folk Generation album, she's on Hempilation 2, she's on the Christine Lavine tribute album, she's on the Lilith Fair album -- it's not hard to hear her. Especially since last year's release, End of the Summer, was supposed to be her big crossover into the mainstream (she has a video on MTV). As for this album, Cry, Cry, Cry's first single is "Fall on Me" by R.E.M. Real obscure, guys.

Williams's other albums offer anthems for fucked-up, educated, not-so-happy women in crummy relationships, women who love men who leave them or men they haven't met. She doesn't write about shiny happy subjects, but she writes them with a positive, Prozac-pace. For instance, "What Do You Hear in These Sounds?" is an upbeat tune about being in therapy, putting together the jigsaw pieces of her past: "When I talk about therapy, I know what people think / That it only makes you selfish and in love with your shrink / But oh, how I loved everybody else / when I finally got to talk so much about myself."

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