delivers what it promises

Aaron Neville's Soulful Christmas (A&M)
Aaron Neville

By Allen Howie

If ever a record lived up to its title, this one does. With a voice like those the shepherds heard in their starlit field, Neville offers masterful interpretations of some beloved Christmas classics. But unlike so many artists who radically rework holiday standards, Neville stays in familiar territory, letting his remarkable voice work its magic.

The record is evenly divided between secular and sacred material, and Neville proves equally adept at both. His version of Charles Brown's "Please Come Home for Christmas" will probably become the standard by which other renditions are measured, with Dean Park's tasty guitar and a subdued horn section falling in behind the pleading vocal. "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)," with its lush arrangement, is an elegant, affectionate tribute to Nat "King" Cole, while a jazzy "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow" bounces and swings.

"White Christmas" glides along on an understated string arrangement and the delicate chime of Neville's tenor. "Such a Night" is a fun, funky frolic, but it's surpassed by the toe-tapping Cajun groove of "Louisiana Christmas Day."

But the songs here that truly inspire the holiday shivers are the Christmas hymns, beginning with a reverent, rhapsodic "O Holy Night." When Neville's voice caresses the words to "O Little Town of Bethlehem," the gentle "The Star Carol" and the calm reverie of "Silent Night," you'll swear you see him standing in front of a choir at Midnight Mass.

The only song here that isn't an absolute gem is "The Bells of St. Mary's," which, pretty as it is, tries to bring secular and spiritual styles together, and loses the focus that breathes life into the rest of these songs. But that's a small thing on a record as well-conceived and perfectly-executed as this one. Aaron Neville's Soulful Christmas earns a place on everyone's holiday music shelf.