By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Sugar Hill Records
This eclectic collection of songs by Sugar Hill artists in celebration of the Christmas season is, as one would expect, a stocking stuffed with country-flavored tunes. Though the emphasis is on second-tier Yuletide fare, with nary a Jingle or Silver Bell to be found, the ability of the musicians and singers to give the material that proper seasonal aura is admirable indeed. Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen are effectively poignant on Buck Owens' "Blue Christmas Lights," Mollie O'Brien is snowfall-pristine on "In the Bleak Midwinter," and Robert Earl Keen is painfully hysterical on his own "Merry Christmas From the Family" (a song particularly close to those of us who have spent time in a mobile home or attended special Christmas matches at the Sportatorium). A beautifully crafted sampling of seasonal bluegrass, folk and country.
Capitol Nashville Records
Troy Aikman's favorite country boys, Shenandoah, add a faint twang to Christmas standards like "White Christmas," "The Christmas Song," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Raindeer" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." With upright bass and subtle instrumentation they try to capture the warm feeling of yore and manage to create a cozy feeling of yawn. The saccharine level runs so high you could probably skip dessert when this disc's in the changer, and the Marty Raybon-cowritten original "There's a Way in the Manger" is not very easy on the teeth either.
With a Christmas Twist
Arthur Lyman was a member of the Martin Denny Combo and is in fact the guy playing vibes and making the bird calls heard on Denny's "Quiet Village," the 1959 Top Ten hit that signaled the advent of Kon-Tiki cool. First released in the early '60s as Mele Kalikimaka, Lyman's tropical covers--accented with marimba and ukelele--of beloved standards like "The Christmas Song" and "White Christmas" (not to mention the former title track) conjure up images of the first Noël in Polynesia, or Trader Vic's at the very least. It's a union of supposed opposites perfect for Dallas, where you're likely to celebrate the season not in a sleigh but shorts and a T-shirt. The muted, gently throbbing sound of the vibes and marimba--and the rest of Lyman's sound effects and rhythms--make this album a perfect player for late at night, whilst cuddling and waiting for the kids to go to sleep.
O Holy Night!
Christian superstar Sandi Patty has a wonderful if overwrought voice, and the array of both secular and more devout Christmas tunes on this record is admirably diverse. The orchestration is irritatingly bombastic, though, as if it had been John Philip Sousa who'd been born in a manger instead of Jesus. But the big news is that Sandi won't be leaving any cookies out for Santa on Christmas Eve; she's on a diet. And how do we know that? Because--and I'm not joking, here--Sandi enclosed a glossy "I'm losing weight" testimonial card in the jewel box, which entitles the bearer to a $25 discount at Jenny Craig! I'm sure the kickback on those babies will make Ms. Patty's Christmas very profitable, indeed. Truly evil.
The Benedictine Monks of
Santo Domingo de Silos
This Yuletide we have two things to thank the monks of the order of Saint Benedict for: their excellent brandy, which can ward off winter's chill (but consumption of which should be closely monitored lest it suggest certain events--say, riding lawn mower races or the ignition of fireworks--best left unstaged), and now the massed voices of 60 of their number on this album. The monks singing here are from the Castilian monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, instrumental at the turn of the century in restoring the Gregorian chant to a place of prominence. Accompanied only by a very low-key foot-treadled organ, their singing of the Gregorian repertory for the first three liturgical seasons of the church year--Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany--resonates with a history and a purpose that harkens back to a holiday untrammeled by elves, retail sales, or Arnold Schwarznegger and Sinbad. Recorded in 1958 and digitally remastered, these chants are joyous but still carry the weight of the ineffable mysteries that Christmas at its heart points to.
Christmas music is, by nature, traditional. We do not, for the most part, wait around to see what new Christmas songs the Stone Temple Pilots, George Strait, or Flavor Flav are going to come up with each December. No, we want our chestnuts roasting over an open fire, Mama kissing Santa Claus, and good King Wenceslas tossing back the grog as he oversees the feast of Stephen. On this Patti LaBelle record, though, we are mostly subjected to a batch of laid-back R&B tunes custom-written for the Christmas market. Though some of it's okay, the overriding feeling here is as though some Quincy Jones-style producer soaked his candy canes in hash oil and cranked out this undifferentiated assembly line stuff.
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