KELLY CLARKSON GETS “WRAPPED IN RED” FOR DEBUT CHRISTMAS ALBUM

kellywrappedinred_zps322aae99There are two types of people in this world: those who love Kelly Clarkson and those who haven’t been blessed enough to see her light yet.

But thanks to the release of Clarkson’s first Christmas album, the number of unfortunate souls in the latter category is about to shrink rapidly. Hitting stores on Tuesday, Wrapped In Red is that rare record that you know is an instant classic before your first listen is even over.

“I’ve been dying to make a Christmas album,” Clarkson told Billboard for the magazine’s current cover story. “The thing about Christmas is that it almost doesn’t matter what mood you’re in or what kind of a year you’ve had—it’s a fresh start. I’m going to clear the air and take stock of the good that’s happened.”

That feel-good sentiment dominates Clarkson’s sixth studio album. Wrapped In Red also perfectly celebrates the artistic versatility that has made Clarkson one of today’s greatest pop stars. The record finds Clarkson belting out her signature pop/rock sound while also highlighting her country and musical theater talents. Then, of course, there are her unstoppable takes on American standards – something that lent itself heavily to her winning the inaugural season of American Idol eleven years ago.

A collection of brand new songs (all co-written by Clarkson), a breathtaking contemporary cover and an array of gorgeous renditions of Christmas classics, Wrapped In Red has all the makings to be an evergreen holiday season essential. And if your inner Grinch needs a little more convincing, you can tune into Clarkson’s upcoming Christmas special on NBC this December to melt your icy heart. Titled “Kelly Clarkson’s (Cautionary) Christmas Tale,” this one-night (but forever on my DVR) event will feature the singer performing selections from the new album, and will tell a full narrative story—while simultaneously continuing to demonstrate why Clarkson is the gift that keeps on giving.

Wrapped In Red reunites Clarkson with songwriter and producer Greg Kurstin, the man behind some of the singer’s finest tracks on her album, Stronger, and recent single, “People Like Us,” from Greatest Hits – Chapter One. In addition to producing the entire record, Kurstin also co-wrote its lead single, “Underneath the Tree.”

One of the album’s five original offerings, “Underneath The Tree” is that type of smash that comes around once every 10-15 years and immediately becomes a timeless holiday anthem. Not since Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has a new Christmas song been so explosive, unforgettably catchy and radio-friendly. The sugary, up-tempo track not only guarantees Wrapped In Red’s addition into the holiday album hall of fame, but will also keep the paychecks coming to Clarkson year round for decades to come. I mean, those infectious vocals mixed with sleigh bells, a soaring chorus and a saxophone solo?! You couldn’t go wrong with that formula if you tried.

But while “Underneath The Tree” may be the album’s golden ticket, the other four original songs don’t exactly pale in comparison. “4 Carats” is a cheeky “Material Girl”-esque jewelry wish list that Tiffany’s would be remiss to not use in their next holiday ad campaign. Clarkson’s lyrics are seldom this playful, and the song’s glittery chorus is sure to imprint itself into your shower setlist. “Every Christmas,” a bluesy throwback to the big band era, goes down like a full-bodied glass of red wine by the fireplace. The album’s title and opening track is an adorable ode to new love, and smoothly sets the warm and festive tone for the remainder of the record. And “Winter Dreams (Brandon’s Song),” featuring a 50-piece orchestra and written for Clarkson’s new husband (as of last weekend! Mazel tov!), serves as that fuzzy, romantic fairytale ending to the tumultuous love life that the singer’s been writing about for the past ten years.

Another standout from Wrapped In Red is “Just For Now,” a stunning rendition of a track from Imogen Heap’s immaculate 2005 album, Speak For Yourself. In typical Clarkson fashion, the songstress makes the song completely her own, and the result is the most somber and hauntingly beautiful track on the album. While the lyrics, “it’s that time of year,” are the only blatant qualifying markers for the song’s inclusion on a Christmas record, Clarkson’s equally vulnerable and powerful vocal delivery make it clear that to her, the song is about putting aside differences with loved ones in the spirit of the holidays.

Through her brassy twist on the showtune classic, “My Favorite Things,” Clarkson channels the inner jazz house sensation that she’s previously exposed on tracks like “Walking After Midnight” and “Lies” (from her flawless The Smoackstack Sessions EPs, which I reviewed here and here). This unique and masterful take on the Rogers & Hammerstein staple is sure to give fellow Idol Carrie Underwood a run for her money when she tackles the song in her upcoming starring role in NBC’s live Sound of Music telecast. It also serves as a nice preview of Clarkson’s rumored 2014 Broadway album.

With the exception of two tracks, Wrapped In Red is a largely secular release. The only exceptions come in the form of the chilling, almost mystical “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel,” and the country-tinged rendition of “Silent Night,” featuring mother-in-law Reba McEntire and Trisha Yearwood.

As far as the classics go, Clarkson takes a fairly conventional approach. There’s of course some of her signature flair sprinkled into places—like a deliciously unexpected octave leap in “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”—but for the most part, the songstress knows that people like to sing along to these songs the way they know them. That being said, I dare you to try to find a more gorgeous version of “White Christmas” or a toastier take on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.”

In fact, certain songs sound so authentic and timeless that it wouldn’t be difficult to believe that they were recorded back in the 1950’s and ‘60s alongside their original counterparts. Clarkson’s rendition of the immortal “Blue Christmas,” for example, breathes new life into the country holiday essential, while her energetic spin on Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” effortlessly shows off just how rock-and-roll the singer can be.

Meanwhile, “Please Come Home For Christmas (Bells Will Be Ringing)” feels like you’re watching the heart-tugging climax of your favorite holiday movie. And even though Clarkson’s inevitably angelic vocals make for a nice distraction, the Ronnie Dunn-duet, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” unfortunately remains as date-rapey and uncomfortable as ever…so it, too, is just like you remember it!

While Christmas may still be two months and two other major holidays away, it’s not difficult to be instantly transported into the mistletoe mindset with Clarkson’s new seasonal masterpiece. What else will you find under your tree this year? The answer: it doesn’t matter. With the release of Wrapped In Red, Clarkson has bestowed the greatest possible gift upon all of us.

Wrapped In Red is available for pre-order from iTunes and Kelly Clarkson’s official web store.

kelly-clarkson-2Originally published on PopBytes

KELLY CLARKSON RELEASES DEBUT EP, "THE SMOAKSTACK SESSIONS" (REVIEW)

by ALEX NAGORSKI

kelly clarkson smokehouse Kelly Clarkson Releases Debut EP, The Smoakstack Sessions
This week marked the release of Kelly Clarkson’s fifth album, Stronger. But then again, you already know all about that thanks to my good friend Bradley’s stellar review.

Fans who pre-ordered the album from Kelly’s official website were also given the option to treat themselves to her debut EP, The Smoakstack Sessions. Recorded at the Smoakstack Studios in Nashville, the 6-track EP is made up of alternate versions of select tracks from Stronger, a reworking of “If I Can’t Have You” and a cover of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”

Interestingly, the EP does not include Stronger’s lead single, “Mr. Know It All” or confirmed second single, the anthemic “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger).” And while I was disappointed to not see “Honestly” or “Dark Side” (which I reviewed upon its initial leak in July) make the tracklisting, I’m also appreciative that the EP is shedding a spotlight on some of Kelly’s lesser buzzed about tracks.

I have to admit that as a whole, I actually prefer the EP recordings of these songs to the versions included on Kelly’s albums. Allow me to guide you through each track to explain why.

1. “Hello”
Often times when Kelly performs her music, she downplays the pop element and increases the grunge factor. While on Stronger, “Hello” is a quirky song full of energetic handclaps and infectious pop/rock flavor, here it shines as both a grittier and more soulful track. Removing much of the original’s instrumentation, The Smoakstack Sessions’ “Hello” is the perfect melding of Kelly’s adoration for both rock and blues.

And although this version of “Hello” undergoes the least amount of changes between album tracks and the interpretations of them found on this EP, it still manages to stick out as one of the edgiest cuts from the Stronger era.

2. “The War Is Over”
The same way that Kelly’s acoustic version of her previous hit “Already Gone” took an already pretty song and made it something remarkably gorgeous, this bare version of “The War Is Over” towers over its album counterpart.

On Stronger, Kelly sings this song with a tone of confidence and defiance. Yet on The Smoakstack Sessions, “The War Is Over” becomes a desperate plea in which Kelly is painfully trying to convince herself of the truths she’s singing. Her raw vocals add layers of rasp and honesty missing from the polished album version. Thus, the vulnerability displayed adds a hauntingly gorgeous sense of fragility to the song.

3. “You Love Me”
On Stronger, “You Love Me” is a bouncy and upbeat track that’s fun to bop your head and burst your bubblegum to. This EP version, however, replaces the album’s sunshine infused ‘80s pop sound with aggressively dark rock.

Amplified by minor chord progression, the lyrics of the song don’t just cut you deeper than the version you’re used to – they stare into your eyes as they do so. The rage Kelly was channeling as she wrote the song comes full surface as every “I’m not good enough” is infused with a venomous sting of betrayal.

This brash take on the song may as well be dubbed the “My December Remix” because it’s the first time we’ve heard Kelly truly release the angry rock star out of her pop cage since that album’s release.

4. “The Sun Will Rise”
Sticking to her Texan roots, Kelly has always been a public supporter of country music. Don’t think she has the chops for it? Just listen to her duets with Reba McEntire, Jason Aldean and Rascall Flats or her live cover of Carrie Underwood’s “I Know You Won’t” from her Los Angeles show last week. Convinced yet?

On this reworking of the final track from the deluxe edition of Stronger, Kelly premieres her first true solo country effort. Thankfully getting rid of Kara DioGuardi’s lackluster vocals that are featured on the album version, Kelly’s country tinged voice takes center stage as she croons over the accompaniment of gentle strings and crescendo-ing percussion. The result is not only a testament to Kelly’s wide range and genre flexibility, but will also have you reaching for sweet tea from the rocking chair on your front porch after the first listen.

5. “If I Can’t Have You”
Originally released on Kelly’s fourth album, All I Ever Wanted, “If I Can’t Have You” was a synthesis of pop/rock and dance music in the vein of The Veronicas’ “Untouched.” Yet when she performed it on the “All I Ever Wanted Tour,” Kelly shook the glitter off of the song and drastically slowed down its tempo.

On The Smoakstack Sessions, this stripped version of “If I Can’t Have You” has finally become available for those fans that fell in love with it after seeing Kelly live. In the place of synthesizers is a fusion of electric guitars, drums and even an organ, which significantly enhances the song’s melancholy mood. Vocally, Kelly cranks up her riff dial as she experiments with the song’s melody. The final product is a refreshingly organic spin on an already fantastic track.

6. “I Can’t Make You Love Me”
When Kelly Clarkson covers someone else’s song, it’s always hard to believe that she is not the original musician behind it. Whether she’s singing songs by Aretha Franklin, Patsy Cline, Aerosmith, The White Stripes, Patty Griffin or mashing up Alanis Morrisette with Kings of Leon, Kelly always injects the music with a passionate fervor and makes it uniquely her own.

On this cover of Bonnie Raitt’s classic “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Kelly sticks true to the original while simultaneously grounding the song for a more contemporary audience. The intimacy and tranquility of Kelly’s sweet and smooth vocals effortlessly evoke images of her recording by candlelight on a cool spring evening. Anyone looking for a reminder of why Kelly was crowned America’s premiere Idol need look no further than here.

PS: If you haven’t already, make sure to enter MuuMuse’s Stronger giveaway! Ends on November 2.

The Smoakstack Sessions EP is currently available exclusively from Kelly Clarkson’s official web store. Stronger was released on October 24. (Kelly’s Official Store) (iTunes)
Originally published on MuuMuse