Not quite standard yuletide fare but rather a lounge club act centered on the Christmas spirit, Merry from Lena zips and swings with Lena Horne’s trademark sultry and jazzy vocals and bits of adult-oriented humor to give it plenty of flavor. “Jingle All the Way,” a reworking of “Jingle Bells,” sets the tone for the rest of the record, and it’s snappy and grooves along with a ring-a-ting vibe that wouldn’t sound out of place among the Rat Pack. It’s in these moments that Merry from Lena springs to life the most.
Listen to how punctuated and emphatic a sultry invitation she makes out of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” She swings along on the groove and delivers well known lines like “I brought some corn for popping” in completely fresh and engaging ways. It sounds like a cozy party with cocktails, humor, and maybe something more under her direction.
Then there’s “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which she mostly plays straight until dropping this joke: “I think he had a problem. I think he probably liked a little nip once in a while.” Her tongue is firmly planted in her cheek, and zips through the song as if it’s a riot of improbability and drunk humor. You can practically hear the wink she gives while delivering that opening joke and a few other phrase readings.
Much of Merry from Lena is made up of traditional ballads, these gives straight dramatic interpretations. Horne was one of our greatest vocal storytellers, able to build up a song’s interior life and dramatics through phrasing, pauses, and belts. “Silent Night” is gorgeous and melodramatic, “The Christmas Song” is unbearably sophisticated, and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” quakes with vulnerability and the sadness baked into the song.
Some of the album is just a pleasing showcase for her vocal styling, “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” and a extra-swinging version of “What Are You Doing on New Year’s Eve” are all pleasing if not exactly redefining. They play out indistinguishable as arrangements from numerous other versions with only Horne’s vocals being the thing that makes identifiable. Still, Merry from Lena is an enjoyable and fun trip through the season. And she manages to make “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” into a hepcat tune, not too shabby.
DOWNLOAD: “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”