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A Loving Christmas
Mark Loving
Independent release

Mark Loving is a music critic's worst nightmare: a man who's always singing to himself around the house and at work, so family and friends finally prevail on him to make an album. Probably a really nice guy. Fingers tremble as the cellophane on the CD falls away. Please please please please don't suck.

While Loving is in no danger of being kidnapped and impressed as one of Stevie Wonder's backup singers, he certainly doesn't suck. Although he is a bit hesitant at times in his phrasing and enunciation, he carries in his voice--accent creeping in around the edges--an honesty and openness that is all too rare nowadays, simply the sound a person's throat makes when he or she feels like singing, direct and devoid of artifice. Not too impressive, unless you consider that something called plainsong has been with the Christian church almost since its beginning--2,000 years of hanging in there based on just such simplicity.

Christmas Harp
Cindy Horstman
Seahorse Records

Talk about your lead-pipe cinch--it's hard to imagine another solo instrument that sounds as Christmasy as the harp. It's almost unfair the way the delicacy of the plucked strings recalls older traditions laid down by lute and lyre, or the way it evokes the gently descending ambience of falling snow or end-of-year contemplation. Of course it's not just the instrument--Horstman has proven herself both proficient and knowledgeable enough to take the harp into previously unanticipated realms such as jazz and blues, and she certainly knows how to play into and reward seasonal expectations--but the combination of the two makes some tasty dressing for our various holiday turkeys.

--Matt Weitz

Simply Christmas
The Turtle Creek Chorale
TCC Records

The Turtle Creek Chorale--a nationally celebrated, all-male, mostly gay choir--has struggled for most of its history to balance an encroaching sense of mortality with artistic expression, the stuff of living itself. I've never been a big fan of the Chorale's show tune performances, but Simply Christmas raised goose bumps, if only because songs about hope, faith, and the preciousness of human life have never sounded so hard-earned. Keep a box of hankies close by for the stunning spirituals here--a silky, somber "Veni, Veni Emmanuel" and "I Wonder as I Wander," featuring an opening solo that eloquently captures this Appalachian folk song's restless isolation. TCC acquits itself so gracefully with some of the lesser-known numbers that you wish they'd ditched "Away in a Manger" and "The First Noel" in favor of less predictable fare. Still, there's something here for everyone who wants a little gravity in their holiday celebrations.

--Jimmy Fowler

 
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