Monday, 23 December 2013

Art Garfunkel "The Animal's Christmas" (1986)




"That holy child that shall be born, ever shall be called, forever he'll be called the son of God!" "The creatures in the field waited in the silence of Gabriel's departing, and in the meadow kneeled, still but for the sound of a frightened faun starting" "On the coldest night of the year, at a pub called 'the elephant's ear', Incredible Phat, the innkeeper's cat, was having a saucer of beer" "It's the warmest place in town on the coldest night of the year" "Not born to the forest are we, not born to the plain, to the grass and the shadowed tree"

Art Garfunkel and Amy Grant "The Animal's Christmas" (1986)

The Annunciation/Creatures Of The Field/Just A Simple Little Tune/The Decree/Incredible Phat/The Friendly Beasts/The Song Of The Camels/Words From An Old Spanish Carol/Carol Of The Birds/The Frog/Herod/Wild Geese


Well here we are again, dear readers, near the end of another year when thoughts turn to mistletoe and wine, even if for the musical among us, it's how to get 'mistletoe and wine' off the bleeding radio. Alas, after five years of yuletide favourites, this is the end of an era. Unless the likes of Neil Young or Paul McCartney surprise us in the future (stranger things have happened after all), we only have one more AAA Christmas album to bring you, dear readers and it's this one: Art Garfunkel's well received but poor-selling album which is quite unlike any other Christmas album you'll ever hear. It was entirely written by Art's friend and regular songwriter Jimmy Webb and is a whole new reading of the nativity play, not from Mary and Joseph or even Jesus' point of view, but re-telling the story of how the animals of the kingdom saw the birth of Christ unfold. Taking in cats, camels, frogs and geese, it's probably safe to say it doesn't feature the animals you're expecting either (what, no little donkey?!) Written as a 'favour' from Webb to his local church in Tuxedo, New York (not all that far away from where Garfunkel grew up), 'The Animal's Christmas' was never intended to be a 'public' album and so is as far removed from all the other 'pop' albums Garfunkel made as you can imagine. Part pure grand opera, part pure 'Captain Beaky' (contemporary Jeremy Lloyd and Keith Michell creations that mix Beatrix Potter and the Bash Street Kids), it has a sound and solemnity quite far removed from our other AAA entries ('Beach Boys Christmas', The Moody Blues' 'December' and various Beatles Christmas fanclub records).

Interestingly the project wasn't written for Arty directly, even though he and Jimmy Webb were and are good friends and Arty is one of the few pop/rock singers disciplined enough to tackle what is in essence a work closer to an oratorio. The early 1980s were a difficult one for Garfunkel, who'd spent far too much time and effort working on a 'new' Simon and Garfunkel album that never came out and a reunion concert in Central Park that was a nice idea that got too huge too quickly for the pair of them (not having a great time himself, Paul decided that the first draft of 'Hearts and Bones' was too personal and thought he'd be better off singing it solo, wiping months of his partner's work without actually telling him). Vowing that he'd never be 'sucked in' by the commercial end of the music business again, Art vowed that from now on he was going to concentrate on music for the sake of it, a vow he kept with his deliberately un-commercial 'Scissors Cut' album, the predecessor to 'Animal's Christmas'. Originally this project was to be performed at the local church once, perhaps the next few Christmases too if it was successful, and Art felt a real 'connection' with Webb who was also turning his back on music for money-making ends. Throwing in his lot, he agreed to perform the main roles (the narrator and 'Angel Gabriel', who more than one fan reckoned Art resembled anyway), turning up as a 'surprise' guest at rehearsals.

The marvellous reaction from everyone present on opening night came as a shock to everyone, as 'Animal's Christmas' isn't that easy a work to understand. There are no real melodies, what 'fun' and less solemn lyrics there are seem often buried behind obscure Biblical-type speak and although the story sticks probably closer to the original Bible source than almost every other re-telling of the story the emphasis is on human ignorance and stupidity rather than sweet talking animals as the name of the album suggests. There are no famous carols, no 'nicked bits' from popular Christmas songs and not one sleigh bell in sight - in fact I'd go so far as to say this is the last real genuinely traditional biblical project of the 20th century (if you can think of any exceptions, by all means send them in to our comments section). Encouraged, Webb decided to make the work bigger and better for 1984, developing much of the middle section of the album and giving Garfunkel a much bigger role than before. Shocked, everyone involved found word of mouth about the year before had made 'The Animal's Christmas' an even bigger hit and suddenly record companies were flocking up to record the project.

Not wanting to make any 'real' money from it, both Webb and Garfunkel were reluctant at first. It speaks volumes that the recording of the album was split in two, with 'sections' taped during December 1983 for a quick release, but only really starting up in earnest in December 1984. The fact that the album missed it's Christmas deadline and actually came out in January also suggests that no one involved was trying that hard to have a festive best-seller, which is a good thing: while not the flop you might be expecting from the description, 'The Animal's Christmas' wasn't a great success either and it's one of those albums whose good points are al the better for being uncovered unexpectedly, from an album you weren't expecting much from. The bad news is that 'Animal's Christmas' is one of those semi pop-classical music hybrids that grows on you with each repeated playing - which isn't something you're likely to do with a Christmas record between February and November every year. 'The Animal's Christmas' gets overlooked very easily, both by accident and design, and lies almost forgotten now in the discographies of both Webb and Garfunkel, despite the fact that the pair arguably spent more hours on this project that any other across the 1980s. Officially there has been a CD release for it, in the late 1990, although I haven't seen it anywhere and - perhaps because of the festive connotations - nothing from it has appeared on any Art Garfunkel compilation yet either. Alan's Album Archives is the home of lost and forgotten music, so it doesn't surprise us that we're reviewing an album hardly anybody bought and even less people played - the question is, do we recommend going out of your way to search for a record that's mighty difficult to track down?

Well, as ever, the answer is yes and no. Taken as a whole this might well be one of the dullest albums of your life on first hearing. There's nothing to break up the monotony of the London Symphony Orchestra rising and falling, seemingly at a whim with nothing to do with what the King's College School Choir are doing. At times Art's voice is strained past the point of recognition and although the 'extended' parts of the album are clearly better built for his soaring soprano, he gets precious little space to show off what he can actually do. The story that the songs tell is at once over-familiar and oblique, mixing the stories about the immaculate conception and no-room-at-the-inn with new cameos for camels and 'incredible phats the cat' that seem almost blasphemous against such holy musical surroundings. sadly none of these characters are given much of a chance to develop themselves, either, and if the ultimate goal of this work is to show that there is a better side to humanity after all then it's a shame that the cantankerous inn keeper and nasty King Herod come across as more interesting characters than any of the 'nice' animals who actually believe that Jesus is the son of God. Jesus himself is barely mentioned - which is a brave thing to do for such a religious work - usually referred to as 'the baby' and only occasionally as 'The Son Of God'. It would be like singing a whole book of Christmas carols without using the words. The children's choir is also a lot closer to 'Grandma We Love You' than, say, the one that appears on 'Another Brick In The Wall' and even though the words the children sing are often quite dark and daring for this sort of thing, it always comes out sounding too sweet. Even at its best this album has bitten off more than it can chew and there's nothing here to approach with the best work of wither Webb or Garfunkel and if Art is struggling with his vocals then that's nothing to the problems promising but less extinguished singer Amy Grant has with the piece.

And yet, you can't dismiss this album too easily either. Taken as a whole, there's a real mood about 'Animal's Christmas' that makes it hard to understand but easier to respect: the whole piece, cameos and all, seem to be leading onto a natural conclusion that's all but inevitable, the will of God. There's a real sense of something 'bigger' at work when powerful rulers like Herod and larger than life characters step aside because they 'know' what Mary and Joseph says to be true. While none of the songs individually are all that memorable, the effect and impact of hearing the full song cycle does stay with you for some time afterwards and certainly has had far more thought and heart put into it than all sorts of grotty Christmas merchandise. Art is not anywhere near his best here, but it's fun to hear him so far outside of his comfort zone and he pulls of an almost operatic part far better than pretty much anyone else in the same position could. Stern as the narrator, sweet as any number of animals, Garfunkel certainly has the range for this demanding role, even if the harshness it often demands from him doesn't come naturally to him. After almost a year of working on 'Hearts and Bones' and having almost no input, you can almost hear the cogs whirring in his head as perfectionist Art tries to work out how to make this challenging part even better and at times he's the most controlled, comfortable person in the room - even if it's a sparkling towering majestic room far bigger than that usually open to him.

At its simplest and humblest, 'The Animal's Christmas' also does a good job at capturing the spirit of Christmas better than even the Beach Boys festive albums do (we're not going to mention the appalling Moody Blues one for now!) 'Just A Simple Little Tune' is just about the best track on the album, perhaps because it's closest to what Art normally sings, and it's clearly about so much more than that: quiet understated moments of affection to kith and kin make more sense than whole verses about Jesus' birth, even if Christmas is all about religion to the listener (Christmas Day was a pagan time of celebration long before Christianity, after all). Also, there's nothing there that would have sounded out of place several hundred years ago. This is traditional, from the very 'heart' of what Christmas means and has always meant, dating back beyond the Christmas tree (a Victorian invention), the Christmas cards (ditto) and Cliff Richard (circa the middle ages). The fact that a forgotten 12th century Spanish Carol can be included at the 'heart' (or at least the middle) of the work with not much work needed to adapt it speaks volumes about 'The Animal's Christmas' and it's quest not to bow down to the gates of commercialism or dumbing down. Whether you like it or not - and for a lot of the time I must confess I didn't, both when I first heard this album and when I dug it out of it's Christmas tinsel for this review - it's hard not to respect something that risks so much to tell a story properly.

The work got and still gets unanimously positive reviews, though, even from pop critics who never usually come across this sort of thing which rather makes me wonder: did aybody really 'get' this work? Is it a case of the Emperor's New Clothes? (gee it's got an orchestra, it must be 'good' for you and all cultural, so we'll give it full marks even though I didn't understand a flipping word!') If so, then that's a shame. 'The Animal's Christmas' tries so hard to do away with all the rubbish that people speak about religion and music, as close to the 'source' as it possibly can. It needs us to say when it falls downhill and where it most falls apart is this: like many things worthy, you feel you ought to be watching and taking in, it also manages to be dull. The Incredible Phat - a cat who 'runs' the stables whatever the innkeeper says and leads Joseph and Mary to their safe place for the night - is a close cousin of The Kinks' 'Phenomenal Cat' and TS Eliot's 'Old Possum's Book Of Cats', an extraordinary creature who sees more than mere mortals and ought to be the most memorable in a sea of fascinating creatures. Instead he passes by in the blink of an eye, having never actually done more than walk to a stable he always knew was there, despite the big build up his part in the story has. He's not actually incredible at all, he's an ordinary being caught up in an extraordinary story and that's what the whole work should have been about. Herod and co miss the real story unfolding before their eyes because they're too 'busy' talking about themselves and bigging up their own importance, leaving it to the humble animals to be more deserving and knowledgeable of what's really going on. Too often, though, each animal is introduced with a 'wow - how do they do that?!' persona they and us don't really deserve - had they been more like the nation's favourite Christmas animal the humble 'little donkey' and less like Mr Mestofeles, the amazing conjuring cat, 'The Animal's Christmas' would have got to the 'heart' of Christmas a little quicker still.

Still, if this album falls well short of the perfection it aims for then that's more because of how far it over-reaches itself. We've often said on this site that a poor album that has a go at trying something new is always preferable to a bland album that offers the same tired old things we've heard lots of time before and so with this album. Art himself called this work 'a gothic Cathedral of an album' and calls it 'the type of work that would have been given a papal commission long ago'. An album well out of time (1986 was perhaps the most commercialised year in the whole of music, what with the de facto tinny synth sound that seemed to be on everything back then and the sheer list of atrocious albums released that year, even by AAA members who should have known better), it's one of the few albums from the 1980s not to sound horribly dated to modern ears. The aim of this record soars way outside any of the musical boxes even the greatest of our AAA albums are naturally contained within and on that score releasing such an uncompromising uncommercial album as this one is one of the greatest achievements on our whole list. It's just a shame that, after such hard work and having been made for so many of the right reasons 'The Animal's Christmas' couldn't be just a teeny tiny touch more musical and a soupcon more joyous, so that even those of us who came to this album for Arty's voice rather than the music could find something deeply enjoyable to take away with us through the new year and beyond.

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'The Annunciation' is a rather noisy opening. Art, an angel Gabriel, crashes in noisily on Mart's slumber without a by-your-leave with a rousing cry of 'hail!' Amy Grant makes for a rather sultry version of the Virgin Mary compared to normal, while Art is called on to shriek and shout so much it's a wonder he doesn't lose his voice. The 'twist' in this re-telling of the familiar tale is that Mary isn't just a virgin - she's never even had a boyfriend (Joseph isn't on the scene until later). Musically, this isn't so much a song as a recitative set to music. I seem to be alone amongst music fans here, but I don't feel that these sort of genres work that well in the context of albums. Pete Townshen'd written a few too over the years and to me it just sounds like someone singing a part they should really be speaking. The music is very much an afterthought and is constructed to fit round the words - you can understand why given the importance of the 'plot' to the album, but if you're listening to hear melodies as well then this is a particularly raw deal. There are also no animals in this song - you'd think the Angel Gabriel would be surrounded by a few birds or something wouldn't you? Bah! Humbug!

'The Creatures Of The Field' is closer in style to the rest of the album, telling the story of a concerned owl whose got a soft spot for Mary and wants to know why she's crying (how he slept through the sudden crash of 'Hail!' when the Angel first appeared goodness only knows). Alas the sheep don't know. We leave the song with Mary pacing up and down her room, unable to take the news in - and who can blame her? - and staring up at the stars. The owl's response is to sing her a lullaby to lull her off to sleep (that's ironic - most nights I'm kept awake by a nearby owl hooting with the strength with which Gabriel sings 'Hail!' on this album - perhaps I should lend him a copy of this album?) There is a decent tune here this time, finally giving Art something to get his teeth into and a lovely french horn part that double his lines that adds much texture and 'sorrow' to the scene. The children's choir are a little in the way here, though - clearly meant to be a sort of 'heavenly chorus' who can see things that we mere mortals can't, the way the song is structured means that they keep interrupting Arty whenever he's trying to sing.

'Just A Simple Little Tune' is my favourite moment on the album, the best mixture between the children-friendly animals and the adult-friendly religious fervour of the album. In a pre-cursor of the animals at stable who can offer nothing but their song, this is a cameo by the smallest, humblest creatures around to see events, determined to do their part in helping Mary's pregnancy. A cricket plays his legs, a nightingale sings harmony and 'a flop-eared hare dances a jig with a raccoon' , which isn't a passage I'm quite sure made it into the bible! This song is indeed 'just a simple little tune', but it actually has a tune at least and it's charming detail and quiet humble eloquence make it 'work' in a way that the rest of this occasionally high-brow album doesn't. This song might not be central to the plot as such and you could miss this song out without telling the story, but really it's integral: Nature is celebrating the birth of Christ even while mankind lies ignorant is the theme of this album and nowhere is that better explored than with this song.

'The Decree' is nice and melodic too, closer to the folk-rock of Art's own albums than anything else on this LP. Angel Gabriel seems to have more manners about him this time, entering subtly to view on Mary's progress without any cry of 'hail!' and actually caring for her feelings and how mankind might view her pregnancy out of wedlock, which didn't seem to have occurred to him before. Unfortunately, at the same time, Caesar Augustus is issuing a decree of his own concerning an extra tax and sending Mary and Joseph and others home to pay it (although this song's claims that he 'taxed the world' is a bit overstated: I doubt the American Indians, for instance, ever knew about it). The song tries to get dissonant and scary on the lines 'while she was great with child travelled through a country dark and wild', but at heart this is a happy song with the feeling that God's spiritual light will more than be enough of a match for man-made material darkness. Sadly there isn't an animal in this song, apart from the fact that Mary 'only had a donkey to ride'. Given his importance in the story, you'd think the poor donkey would get a full song of his own to sing?

'Incredible Phat' is a bit of a weird one. Forget what you thought you knew about the inn-keeper: he might think he's in charge but the inn was really run by his cat, the one with the weird name. A close cousin of the Kinks' 'Phenomenal Cat' and Pink Floyd's 'Lucifer Sam', this is a mystical, magical cat who comes alive at night and sees things his poor mortal owners will never see. On paper this cat should be the single most incredible character of the story, sensing who this mysterious stranger is long before anyone else out of earshot (although given Gabriel's booming 'hail!' he probably woke up half the country anyway). Unfortunately he's barely mentioned, except in the last verse when he leads the party to safety and 'the warmest place on the coldest night of the year' - most of the song is taken up with the stupidity of the inn keeper, who cares more for the 'sheikh with three wives and the moneylender' because they have more money to pay. Well, Phat was having a 'saucer of beer' when we meet him - maybe he's a bit intoxicated and can't get his words out!This song's interesting detail not actually in the bible: the inn's name was 'The Elephant's Ear'. Did they have elephants in Bethlehem? I think not! Camels yes, elephants no. Sounding not unlike 'Breakaway', this song adds some nice guitar to the mix and Art sings with himself in harmony. The effect is one of the better sounding songs on the album, even if this sudden lurch from pure Christianity into pure novelty is a bit sudden and unskilfully handled.

'The Friendly Beasts' rounds out the first side with a traditional song that inspired the project, telling the story of the animals in the stable when Jesus was born, the first earthly creatures to greet him. The donkey, sheep, cow and dove all look after him and speak in turn of their vows of dedication to him and what they have to offer. Like many Victorian carols the result is awfully repetitive to modern ears and awfully earnest, but sweet all the same. The song (or maybe carol is a better term?) has easily the best melody on the album, however, soaring and beautiful and tinged with the melancholy of the story yet to come as well as the joy of the moment. Sadly, though, Art doesn't get much to do with this song, which is largely given over to the children's choir which makes the effect a little too cloying for its own good. Again, having done all the work, you'd expect the donkey to have a little bit better send-off from the story (isn't carrying Mary all that way slightly more important to the story than the Doves coo-ing baby Jesus off to sleep?) I'm also puzzled by the title - surely the animals in this song have proved themselves to be more than 'beasts', recognising their new savour long before the humans do (or is that the point, that the humans are really the 'beasts'?) And why has nobody looked up into the sky and gone 'gosh that star's big tonight innit?!'

'The Song Of The Camels, which begins side two, is based on a poem by Elizabeth Coatsworth and yet it fits into the story very well indeed. With the three wise men riding on their back, the camels really are strangers in a strange land for this song, confused by the 'grass and shadowed plain and the splashing of rain'. As written originally, this song should have contained a 'surprise' ending whereby the camels carrying the most important men of their cities on their backs turn up, not at the palace as the camels expect, but at a lowly stable following a 'star'. Sadly the surprise is rather given away here, given the last 20 minutes spelling out the story! 'Camels'; is another of the better songs, however, fully engaging with seeing the world through animals' eyes, away from what the humans think and see, and frankly their story ought to be better known in the context of the nativity, especially the hardships they went through to reach Jesus. The last verse is especially descriptive as the camels drift back out of the story as mysteriously as the way they came: 'Back to the desert we paced our phantom state, and faded again in the sands that are as secret as fate, portents of glory and danger our dark shadows lay, at the feet of the babe in the manger...and then drifted away'. Musically this is another recitative-style piece, although this one is slightly more forgivable given how long the piece existed as words without the music, although it's a shame that Webb has chosen to replace a proper melody with awkward dynamics, that leave half the piece shrieking and the other half too quiet to hear.

'Words From An Old Spanish Carol' is next, the last of the album's songs with a 'traditional' origin. This old carol is about the celebration of the birth of Jesus in the natural kingdom, as one by one the animals go past the stable to salute their new king (including fish, bees, lambs, oxen, bulls, goats and a white bird). The stables must have been in one of the busiest nature sites around, nearby to a river, fields, heather hedgerows and 'far hills'! Only then do the local children, intrigued by the star, come shyly to see Jesus and light a candle for him. Art duets with Amy again on this song, although both are swamped by the full children's choir which recounts the tale over and over until you want to scream - like a Spanish equivalent of the Teletubbies (or a Cliff Richard's Greatest Christmas Hits CD). The weakest of the three 'proper' carols, this song deserved to have been lost, without the charm and wit of the other two and without a memorable melody to go with the song again. At least the words fit, though, with nature again much sharper on the uptake than mankind, who only notice Jesus because of natural phenomena (like the stars and the fact that all the animals have suddenly started acting funnily). Of course, if this was the modern day people would film the scene of all the animals offering their respect by putting it on youtube or making a mint from 'You've Been Framed'.

'Carol Of The Birds' is the turn of the feathered kingdom to pay their respects, disturbed by the giant star in the sky. Bringing their music with them, they cry out their songs across the skies and pass on the news of Jesus' birth ever further. Fittingly, 'Birds' is an upbeat piece, the most celebratory-like on the album and there are some neat touches from the woodwind section who do a god job of mimicking birds in flight. However, there's also a ghastly church organ playing most of the way through that nudges the whole piece uncomfortably down the religious route and a string section that sounds as if it's playing simply to try and drown out everyone else. Again, Arty's missing for much of this song, leaving the children's choir in command and the result is what should have been a light, fluffy song of joy buried underneath far too much weight. Had Art sang this song solo, or with just the woodwind, this might have been delightful: as it is it's a wonder Mary and co can sleep at all with all that racket going on just above their heads!

Do you remember a frog in the bible version of events? Me neither - RE lessons would have been a lot more fun has the 'Animal's Christmas' been a set text I have to say! The longest song on the album, at 5:15, this feels like more than a cameo too, with the plot of this song another of those incidental details that's actually the full story. Surprised by what's going on, and keen for the frog kingdom to play their part too, the frog gets a bit too close to the newborn infant and outrages everyone present. Laughing at him for his ugly features and his un-tuneful croak, the poor frog is made to feel most small and undeserving, but Jesus finds the frog's gifts of laughter and joy greater than any of the prettier songs the birds sing. Light from the Heavens then shines not on the bigger, prettier animals but on the humble frog, who is praised for doing his best and briefly given the gift of song, chosen out of all the animals as the 'voice' of nature to fill in the baby on life on Earth. Another of the album's better songs, 'The Frog' is a better parable than any that are actually in the bible, showing how even the lowly and unappealing of us have a voice that deserves to be heard and a beauty that works to our own ends. Sadly this song is another recitative-type, which means the that melody exists only to further the words and is instantly forgettable if indeed you ever noticed what it was doing in the first place. But here, at least, the use of a recitative is forgivable because the words are so strong and the story so integral to the plot. Interestingly this unknown frog is a lot better drawn as a character than any of the 'named' creatures, even though he doesn't strictly appear in the piece until a fair way through. Art is at his best here, too, clearly 'getting' this piece more than the more operatic and religious songs on the rest of the album. sadly, though, he doesn't get the chance to do his croaking impressions!

'Herod' is back in the story now and, like most of the humans in this nativity, he's so sure of his own importance that the response of all the animals to someone other than himself is confusing to him. The song starts off like a Horrible Histories jig ('Herod the curious was furious!') but ends up as the most Biblical-heavy on the album, quoting from the texts largely verbatim (although only in this version does he have a cackling pet raven, who yet again gets a rum deal from writers despite being quite a sweet little bird - I call that discrimination based on the colour of his feathers). Herod is on their tail but the swift disappearance of the animals means that Mary and Joseph know something is up and they flee to pastures new, Herod on their tale. It's hard to forgive the closing line ('Judas Iscariot, safe from his chariot, casts his eye over the land...') and the rest of the song isn't much better, another of the album's weaker tracks. That said, at least there's a bit of turbulence and tension in this song which, after 35 odd minutes' worth of peace and tranquillity, does at least shake the album a bit.

The album then closes with 'Wild Geese', hardly the animal I expected the album to end with. Pointing their way to freedom and escape, the geese swirl around the frightened travellers and protect them from Herod's soldiers on their path. Circling overhead, they cry 'Amen!' and 'Hallelujah!', celebrating the son of God's triumphant birth and escape. A swirling, dramatic song with church organs a blaring and the choir 'ahhh-ahh'ing like they've been possessed, this finale sadly doesn't feature much Art Garfunkel either, belatedly giving Amy Grant a great deal more to do (she's at her best here on this, the most straightforward part she's been given). Considering the journey we've been on, it's a shame to leave the album a) just as the plot's hotting up and b) on such an empty song, made up of the smallest number of verses and without much real input from the animals as characters. Like the rest of the album 'Wild Geese' is frustrating because while the idea is a good one and a fitting end to the story, it's not all that likeable as a song in its own right, too fussy and unmelodic for most people's tastes.

That said, even at its worst 'The Animal's Christmas' is a festive album with a strong story at the centre of it (the animal kingdom's quick acceptance of their new King and mankind's sheer ignorance) and a number of very good ideas, the most 'animal-like' amongst the songs working by far the best ('Just A Simple Little Tune' and 'The Frog', the two pieces here that really do work at conjuring up an alternate view of the usual nativity story). The few times he's allowed to sing something rather than speak-sing it, Art Garfunkel too is perfect casting, soaring away with the angelic voice of old and only really coming unglued when the story expects him to act harshly or carry too much of the plot. 'The Animal's Christmas' isn't an easy piece to perform (which might be why, despite the generally strong reception, it hasn't been performed outside New York) and is an even harder one of the listener to get a hold of, juggling several ideas and songs that aren't so much a collection of songs as orchestral accompaniment to poetry. This work could and should be even more moving than it is already, forced to decide for good between being an austere re-telling of the nativity with scary shadowy figures or a sweet re-telling of the story via animals and characters. This record tries too hard to have it both ways and ends up pleasing fans of neither side. But that said - at least this album tries to add something to the 'Christmas' listening experience rather than recycling the same old hat and everyone involved is at least trying to make this work. So, as it's Christmas, I'll give this one a cautious thumbs-up to those wanting something rare to put under the Christmas tree for their Art Garfunkel fanatical family member or friend or alternately anyone who likes their Christmas music religious, traditional and with children's choirs attached. 'The Animal's Christmas' is not for everyone - it's very much made for adults despite the cutesy name and the pre-teens who do most of the singing - but approach this piece of music in the right way and it may nicely surprise you all the same. Overall rating - 3/10

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