Jingle bells, Jingle sells

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

--Alex Magocsi

I'll Be Home for Christmas
Phil Sheeran
Passage Records

Contemporary guitarist Phil Sheeran delves into childhood memories for inspiration on his first Christmas album, but this effort comes across more as soundtrack fodder for shopping at the mall than an evocation of memories formed on St. Nick's lap. That's not necessarily bad. For every traditional classic like "Silver Bells" or "What Child Is This?" that has been needlessly padded with up-tempo keyboard and drawn-out flute, Sheeran offers soothing takes on others like "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "O Christmas Tree," where his strumming proves to be the album's strength. Unfortunately, clocking in at just under 40 minutes of running time, I'll Be Home for Christmas makes for all-too-brief background music for your holiday memories.

--Howard Wen

Quad City All-Star Christmas
Various Artists
Big Beat/Atlantic Records

Mrs. Claus has gone to a holiday crab boil, but before she took off she made the old man a holiday mix tape to play as he goes about his rounds: that's the premise behind Quad City All-Star Christmas, a surprisingly seamless blending of hip-hop and holiday that manages to keep rap's social consciousness, urban witnessing, and flow while at the same time fufilling the narrower seasonal requirements like hope, wishing for the future, and community. Made by mid-level artists like the Quad City DJs, UndaAged, and the 69 Boyz, All-Star Christmas roams the range of soulful flavors, from sultry R&B (two surprisingly direct and un-ironic versions of "White Christmas" and "Alone," a song told from the perspective of a woman left behind when her man reunites with the mother of his child) to jumpy, jeep-ready numbers (just about everything else). Perhaps the funniest and most touching cuts are "What You Want for Christmas"--a takeoff of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" that lampoons greed and finds the singers wishing for everything from "f-i-i-ive months free rent" and "eight gold teeth" to "a Cadillac to put it all in"--and "Where Dey at YO!" ("Where the real men at?"), bridged by "Wish List," wherein a giggling group of homegirls compare their holiday hopes. Surprisingly effective and affecting.


Festival of Light
Various Artists
Six Degrees/Island Records

Clarinets, violins, and guitars give this collection of Hanukkah songs--interpreted or created by contemporary artists--an atypical cohesion. Folk singer Marc Cohn ("Walking in Memphis") opens Festival with a faithful rendition of "Rock of Ages"; jazz clarinetist Don Byron (Klezmer Conservatory Band, The Mickey Katz Project) leads a contemplative interpretation of "Oi Tata," which he discovered on a vintage Klezmer 78; Dutch folk-classical-Celtic quartet Flairck infuses the traditional melody "The Emigrant" with African and Indonesian percussion and Peruvian panpipes, while Jane Sibbery sings the ancient Shepherd's lament "Shir Amami"; and John McCutcheon covers the Israeli love song "Erev Shel Shoshanim." The Covenant, a studio manipulation project a la Enigma and Deep Forest, combines samples of traditional music with live and programmed instrumentation; here Cantor Ben Zion Kapov-Kagen sings "Kiddus Le-Shabbat" (a performance from Rabbi David Neiman's collection of 78s) over electric bass and violin, tablas, didgeridoo, and drum programs. The Klezmatics perform their somber "Dybbuk Shers"; jazz experimentalist John Zorn his anachronistic "Bikkurim." Excluding the high-spirited R&B of Peter Himmelman and David Broza's "Lighting Up the World," Festival of Light is uniformly melancholy, reflecting the reverential ambiance of the holy days.


A Swingin' Christmas
The League of Decency

A mediocre swing band performs spiritless versions of hackneyed Christmas songs: "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman," "Greensleeves," "Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow," "I'll Be Home for Christmas"...You get the idea: Grampa after one too many eggnogs.


Frosty the Bluesman
Michael Powers

Usually an artist can only guess who the audience is and what they might be doing while listening. Christmas albums are different, basically intended to put us in the holiday spirit. Accordingly, Christmas songs have a complex role to fulfill: they must be nostalgic, reminding us of happy seasons past, but they must also seem fresh--the right mix of old and new carols may be the trickiest piece of Yuletide legerdemain. Can you think of "The Christmas Song" and hear anyone but Nat King Cole sing it? Even hokey (sometimes ghastly) little numbers like Andy Williams singing "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" or the Partridge Family's "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree" have staked whatever claim they have on our collective conscience by closely identifying their interpretation with the song itself. Guitarist Michael Powers tries to put his own stamp on 14 different songs, and while there is merit to many of them, it is not earned from producing well-crafted Christmas music.

Frosty the Bluesman is subtitled "Holiday Favorites from a Bluesman's Perspective," but that's only partially true. First, while there's a jazzy influence present in every song, few have a classic 12-bar blues structure, and what is there tends more toward Hendrix than Holiday. Second, some of the songs seem only tangentially related to the tune that inspires them: in addition to the title track, there's "Mississippi Strummer Boy," "Deck de Halls, Mon," and "God Rest Ye Funky Gentleman"--precious renamings that--as arranged--don't exactly emphasize the Christmas spirit; Powers' version of "Greensleeves" is especially off-putting. Powers isn't working inside the limitations of the format, finding songs whose components serve his musical tastes, but forcing his own style on Christmas songs. The album has good music on it, but it does nothing to illuminate the meaning of the season--it's hard to imagine who Powers thought his audience would be. Frosty the Bluesman's sin is of omission: there are many carols or would-be-carols that could be collected on a legitimate blues album. Imagine the shadings "God Bless the Child" could convey, or a gospel version of the "Hallelujah Chorus" or "O Holy Night." It's a shame Powers doesn't deliver nearly as much as his title promises.

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