Deck the malls

This season's Christmas album offerings

Still, at heart, Come on Christmas is all Como and Crosby, a silky ode to chestnuts roasting on an open fire that's filled with promises to be home by Christmas and other bits of holiday cheer. It's yuletide goo wrapped in crushed velvet, familiar carols dour (especially "Away in a Manger," dressed in overalls) and dear (a swinging "The Christmas Song", bookended by two originals--the moody, cool jazz-touched "Come On Christmas" and "Santa Can't Stay," which is an intriguing mix of horns and honky-tonk. In the end, Come on Christmas is a damned spiffy little monument to Yoakam and partner Pete Anderson's range and vision, the sort of record you can listen to for more than four weeks out of the year without feeling like an idiot.

--Robert Wilonsky

Something Warm for Christmas
Jeffrey Osborne
Modern Records

Sexy balladeer Jeffrey Osborne serves up the TLC on Something Warm for Christmas, the former LTD lead singer's Yuletide debut. Collaborating with George Duke ("Can't Wait For Christmas") and Paul Mirkovich ("Just A Little Snow") on two original singles, Osborne fuses fresh material with the traditional on this dreamy holiday CD. Christmas standards "Little Drummer Boy," "O Holy Night," and "Silent Night" evoke images of Nat King Cole caroling for your lover's pleasure. Planning to add a little romance to your festivities? Don't forget the mistletoe.

--Muriel L. Sims

The Texas Christmas Collection;
I'll Be Home for Kwanzaa
Various artists
Bagel Label

Austin restaurateur and club owner Marc Katz started the Bagel Label earlier this year to showcase Austin talent, and the company's first two releases bode well for both his ear and his label's ability to bring great artists together. The Texas Christmas Collection is interesting mostly for the presence of certain celebrities with Austin ties such as Eric Johnson, Van Wilkes, Willie Nelson, Marcia Ball, Steven Fromholz, and Jerry Jeff Walker. Arthur Brown contributes a typically wiggy and spirited version of "Lord of the Dance," and Willie's "Silent Night" finds him at his most wonderful warble. While I didn't agree with the liner notes' proclamation that this is as "panoramic and exciting as our Lone Star State," it is solid throughout, and likely a must for collectors of any of the artists involved.

I'll Be Home for Kwanzaa is a holiday compilation featuring African-American blues, jazz, and gospel performers, again from the Austin scene. T.D. Bell, Martin Banks, and Hope Morgan are among this stellar collection of artists captured live during a two-day showcase at Katz's Top of the Marc nightclub. This is one of those records that reminds you why live music is such a vital part of life. In every town there is fantastic African-American talent like this that goes unnoticed, and it's nice to see an Austin indie label committed to something other than the alternative band of the week.

--R.M.

(Bagel Label, 618 W. 5th St., Austin, TX 78701, (512) 472-3360. Proceeds from the CDs go to AIDS Services of Austin and Diverse Arts, an organization dedicated to supporting and preserving African-American music and art.)

A Window Shopper's Christmas
5 Chinese Brothers
1-800-Prime CD

New York's 5 Chinese Brothers are among the most charming bands making music that falls under the "alternative country" rubric (though they'd been doing so for many years before the term was coined). But that charm wears a little thin on A Window Shopper's Christmas, where they offer 12 mostly original holiday songs. Two of those tunes--the tongue-in-cheek holiday suicide song "And to All a Good Night" and the touching slice of real life that's "Christmas on Interstate 80"--already appeared on 1994's Santa Claustrophobia limited-edition EP (which also included five non-holiday songs by the Brothers). But what was winsome and winning on a pair of Christmas tracks can't quite go the full long-playing distance, though the band deserves ample credit for trying to come up with some new twists on the seasonal spirit.

There are certainly some wonderful moments here: "Make the Rafters Ring" is a genuinely sweet appreciation of seasonal music; "The Fruitcake Song" mocks that inedible holiday confection to a Bo Diddley beat; and "Dept. Store Santa Claus Strike" gives its theme a humorous, Woody Guthrie-styled folk-music take. There's even a lovely solo electric guitar snippet of "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Such other tunes as "Rockin' In the Manger," "Making Angels in the Sand," and "Age-Old Story" are fun and witty, but the creative gas seems to run low on "Missing Miss December," "Dear Santa," and "Christmas In Manhattan." Even if the contents of this particular stocking are a bit mixed, most anything 5 Chinese Brothers play is eminently likable. Some of the lesser cuts still manage to elicit a chuckle, and there's a tangible sincerity here that befits the holiday spirit, though they do twist that sentiment around. As is so common with commercial Christmas ventures, a full album here of the group's own Christmas songs is overkill, while an EP of the best stuff would have clearly been a winner.

--Rob Patterson

Through a Different Window
Ray Stevens
MCA Records

Think of Tom T. Hall without any self-restraint whatsoever (a statement made with full awareness of 1974's "I Love") or perhaps a Gene Simmons-class cheese-seeking-missile's sense of what passes with the masses for funny, combined with Rip Torn's unbridled Beastmaster-era penchant for scenery-chewing, and you--regrettably--end up with Ray Stevens. Stevens has always been able to get away with ever-deeper excursions into a particularly loathsome, dumb-ass, antler-hat-wearing hell, where Mama's Family seems to be the most successful TV show ever and Jim Varney is Oscar Wilde. A feeling persists that Stevens did something, somewhere, that makes up for the rest of his output, although a quick historical retrospective reveals only "Gitarzan," "Ahab the Arab," and the sniper-inducing "Everything is Beautiful" as improbable explanations for this tolerance. [Because it's Christmas, we're not even going to address "Bridget the Midget (the Queen of the Blues)" and "The Streak."] This holiday offering from Stevens is a unique blend of the derivative and the cretinous.

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