Deck the malls

This season's Christmas album offerings

"By the grace of God, we keep hangin' in there," says Lawson. "'Course, after 35 years, you're not gonna beat the Persuasions doin' this," he adds with a laugh. "I'm not gonna let it happen."

The Persuasions have been unbeatable not only because of their matchless singing but also for the sense of adventure that informs their repertoire. They do soul, gospel, and ballads as you might expect, but they also do something they call Zappapella, concerts of Frank Zappa material performed with the symphony orchestras of Portland and Seattle. An album will likely result, and they're planning a similar foray into the Grateful Dead songbook.

Jerry Lawson claims that signing with a major label that won't promote you is nowhere near as good as getting with a fair-sized indie like Bullseye. (For that label and its parent, Rounder, they've cut four albums, including the mid-1997 release Sincerely.) He's not beyond hoping for the wealth and renown the Persuasions deserve, but finds glee in touring (some 250 dates a year), creativity, his new home in San Francisco--and Christmas.

When he speaks of the holiday he halts a time or two, fearing that he's sounding platitudinous. But then he surges forth, as sincere a talker as he is a singer.

"Christmas means love," he says. "It means joy to our neighbors and helping the disabled. It's a celebration of havin' Jesus in your life and, if you're not with your family, knowin' that you have a family that's thinkin' of you. All this has been said a bunch of times, but when you know it and feel it and really live it--that's when you have yourself a merry Christmas."

--Tim Schuller

The Gift
Jim Brickman
Windham Hill Records

You hate to use sweeping generalizations, but forgiveness is a common Christmas theme, so why not indulge yourself (another seasonal motif) and go ahead and note that Jim Brickman specializes in what guys used to call "date music": gentle and emotionally affecting tunes, perfect for setting the right mood and never thought of again--except, of course, for those result-oriented situations. Brickman's solo piano reveries are the perfect soundtrack for that late-night, tasks-all-done cuddle under a big heavy blanket in front of a dying fire. Bear in mind, however, that nobody ever seems to stay awake under these circumstances for a period longer than, say, oh, 170 seconds. So avoid putting this disc on too early, lest (almost-yawn), lest Brickman's meditative originals and (full-fledged yawn) soothing treatments of old faves (another, bigger, yawn) subtract momentum from, uh, from, (head beginning to bob involuntarily) the progress of your, um, your day and the things tha, tha, that you--(sound of human head impacting plate of turkey and dressing).

--Matt Weitz

Ho Ho Ho
Rhino Records

'Tis the season for an album from America's favorite drag queen, but would Bing Crosby have given it a hearty 'you-go-girl'? Well, no. David Bowie, however, would surely enjoy it, if for no other reason than the fact that RuPaul had the gall to make Jesus' birthday bawdy. If carolers sing "All I Want for Christmas is Some Liposuction" on your doorstep this season, it's because of this album. Ru covers and twists a number of seasonal standards, but also contributes many originals to this album of campy disco carols. The throbbing "Christmas Train," his throw-down version of a holiday medley, is destined for dance-floor immortality, as is the aptly titled "Funky Christmas." "Christmas Nite" is a dramatic bit of testifying, though Gladys Knight might not have said "Every night of the year, you've gotta be shacked up with someone who loves you." But the best thing here is the groovin' version of "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch," a great fit, as it turns out, for RuPaul's brassy delivery. On the downside, one liners and chatter clutter the CD, and overall it suffers from too much lip and not enough attention to the actual music. With better arrangements and a little vocal coaching, this could have been truly cool, instead of a likely cutout-bin item on December 26.

--Robin Myrick

Come On Christmas
Dwight Yoakam
Reprise Records

Dwight Yoakam hasn't been country in a long time. He's far bigger than the moribund tradition, too chilly to stand in Buck Owens' shadow any longer. Now, he's somewhere between Glen Campbell and Dean Martin and '60s AM radio, his voice sporting a powder-blue tux jacket over skin-tight leather pants and suede boots. Always a throwback but never retro, Yoakam has become, all of a sudden, a bona fide crooner; he wraps himself around a song and moans it into submission, like Sinatra with a smile. He can sing, and he knows it--rarely has anyone ever sounded so impressed with the sound his own voice makes.

A Christmas album is a natural for him, a way for Dwight to show off how versatile he has become in the years since he preached the hillbilly deluxe. Come On Christmas isn't too different than Yoakam's Gone, his homage to the Tijuana Brass, British Invasion rock, and Bakersfield country; it's an amalgam of styles--Chet Baker blues one minute (the title song), farfisa rock the next ("Run Run Rudolph"), and border-town conjunto after that ("Silver Bells"). Come On Christmas isn't just a cash cow that'll make Reprise a little spending money every holiday season; it's bigger and better than that, an experiment dressed up in holiday finery.

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