Jingle bells, Jingle sells

The industry aims for the heart of Christmas-- with a shotgun

The Trans Siberian Orchestra's gorgeously overproduced album may be the least traditional of this year's Christmas fare, but musically it's one of the most vibrant. You might not expect an electric guitar solo to work quite so tastefully on "O Come All Ye Faithful" as it does here, and the acoustic beauty of a suite from The Nutcracker is dazzlingly in its unexpected simplicity--until it segues into an acid rock version called "A Mad Russian's Christmas." What's remarkable about Christmas Eve and Other Stories is how song after song seems fresh, appropriate, and yet wholly spiritual. The throaty alto vocal from "The Prince of Peace," set in part to the melody from "The Holly and the Ivy," seems as heartfelt and expressionistic as a carol is likely to get.

--Arnold Wayne Jones

Tiny Tim's Christmas Album
Tiny Tim
Rounder Records

The knee-jerk reaction to this album will be steeped in kitsch, crooked fingers putting quote marks around everything, and isn't-it-funny, wink wink nudge nudge? Idiots who indulge themselves so ignore a number of things, primarily Tiny Tim's utter devotion to popular American music (literally, music that's been popular in America since there was an America) and his belief that the emotions expressed therein--laden as they may be with "Just Before the Battle, Mother" sentimentality--are but our imperfect expressions of very real truths: hope, travail, disappointment, and joy. Laugh if you will at his vibrato-heavy Rudy-Vallee-channeling-Bela-Lugosi delivery, but if you can honestly listen to it, this album is full not of camp but commitment--witness his trenchant and very affecting comments during his rendition of "Silent Night," when he notes that in fact that our silent nights are not on Christmas Eve, but all the other nights of the year when we ignore the faith we so piously profess when seasonally convenient. On Christmas Album his blending of traditional religious favorites like "O Holy Night" and secular pop numbers like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," atypical but appropriate numbers like the Salvation Army standards "Throw Out the Lifeline" and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," and completely unexpected nuggets like Donnie Brooks' 1960 hit "Mission Bell"--complete with a Tiny Tim-style rapping interlude--is perhaps the best summation of the conflicted mix of the sacred, the commercial, and the downright profane that we've made the holidays into. Masterful, even without the sentimentality stirred up by Tiny Tim's recent passing.

--M.W.

Christmas Island
Jimmy Buffett
MCA Records.

Jimmy Buffett is only now pushing 50--he was born on Christmas Day 1946--but he was writing about pirates looking at 40 in his 20s and has somehow seemed to linger near middle age ever since. Although younger than my dad, Buffett's far more likely to allow misty feelings about bygone days than my old man. I've often been puzzled by songs like "Pencil-thin Moustache"--his most whimsically unapologetic piece of retrospection--wherein he waxes nostagic over '40s icons like Andy Devine and Boston Blackie, pop figures before Jimbo was a fetus. Maybe his shelf-life for fond remembrances is just longer than mine. You might expect a Christmas album by a sentimental sod born on December 25 would be one long syrupy journey, but the appeal of Christmas Island is its paradox. The album has Buffett's trademark cheekiness--you can tell by the album cover not to expect too traditional a collection of carols, and in fact there are four all new songs--but he also a healthy respect for the music of the season. It's possible to tolerate the steel drums, and you might even grow to be charmed by the fun he's having. Buffett's faithful version of the John Lennon-Yoko Ono ode "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" passes muster while a four-minute version of the inexplicably popular "Jingle Bells"--the poisonously dull holiday perennial--nearly tanks the album before it has even begun. Buffett eventually scores, though, when he wears his heart on his sleeve, as on the langorously melancholy masterpiece "I'll Be Home for Christmas." He sings the song without artifice, as it was intended: a straightforward wartime elegy to lovers physically separated but joined in spirit. The greatest canniness lies in knowing when to turn off the playful sarcasm and deliver a song (or carol) with heart.

--A.W.J.

Just Say Noel
Various Artists
Geffen Records

When you're standing around the fire feeling warm and fuzzy you don't necessarily want to put up with tentative efforts, experimentation, and tracks that don't work. That's the problem with many of the efforts to update seasonal fare--they end up reminding the ear primarily of the artist and are as evocative of the season as the sound of a lawn mower. Although Just Say Noel advertises itself as proof that today's young, hip acts can produce music that "glow(s) with all the spirit and warmth of time-honored classics" it actually makes a pretty good case for the opposite. The tracks that work come from acts already in some way aligned with Yuletide requirements: neo-classicists like the Wild Colonials, craftsmen like XTC and Wendy & Lisa, or soulful artists like Ted Hawkins (an affecting "Amazing Grace") and Southern Culture on the Skids (a deliciously greasy "Merry Christmas, Baby"). There are some surprises--most notably the Roots' remake of De La Soul's urban carol "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa"--but the other songs stink in a way that's almost insulting. Who the hell wants to trim the tree while Sonic Youth grinds and screeches their way through Martin Mull's "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope," a formerly funny song? (By the way, Santa has elves, not dwarves.) Elastica does a bored, sneering "Gloria"--lifted from a dusty B-side--and Beck mumbles about "da funk" throughout his "The Little Drum Machine Boy" like a tranquilized transient. He tells us that he's "keepin' it real like a spray-snow tree," but spray-snow trees aren't real, and the folks at Geffen apparently don't know the difference. Humbug.

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