Deck the malls

This season's Christmas album offerings

--M.W.

Roomful of Christmas
Roomful of Blues
Bullseye Blues

Here's another step in the degeneration of a once-proud R&B unit into a joke band. Most of the blame goes to singer Ray Norcia, who has more ham than Hormel, but pin some on Chris Vachon, a guitarist so pedestrian that it's hard to believe he's in the spot Duke Robillard once occupied. There are a couple of R&B selections (like Fats Domino's "I Told Santa Claus" and Lloyd Glenn's "Christmas Celebration") that are handled competently, but "Let It Snow" and "White Christmas" are DOA from ROB.

--T.S.

The Rykodisc Tradition reissues

The Massachusetts-based Rykodisc label has built its reputation not only on presenting odd and unusual musical endeavors, but on reissuing the product lines of defunct labels. In 1995, it acquired the Tradition label's catalog. Tradition was a well-known label in the '50s and '60s, issuing albums by Odetta, Coleman Hawkins, Carlos Montoya, Woody Guthrie, and Charlie Parker. Ryko began reissuing those titles in early 1996, and this December has worked its way around to Tradition's holiday offerings, most of which date from the mid- to late '50s.

Anyone who--say, after exposure to the Ray Stevens Christmas album--has been considering conversion to Shintoism may find the proper tone of Christmas restored by these discs. Music for Christmas, by Richard Purvis, is a full-press evocation of liturgical majesty played on the mighty Aeolian-Skinner pipe organ and carillon located in San Francisco's Grace (Episcopal) Cathedral. So intense is the voice of this organ--consisting of 5,794 pipes that range from 32 feet long (producing a note of 16 cycles per second) to the size of a pencil (16,000 cps)--that when seasonal songs like "Joy to the World" and "Cortege et Litanie" burst forth, you may find yourself unconsciously rising to your feet and fumbling for your hymnal. Augmented by the carillon--actual cast bells hung in the church towers--this is definitely an album that sounds better on higher-end stereo equipment, but even on a jambox the essential majesty of organist and Master of Choristers Richard Purvis' playing comes through clearly.

Not quite as imposing--but every bit as beautiful--is Christ is Born, by the Roman Catholic Church's Sistine Choir. This music--originally recorded as soundtracks for the films Christ is Born and Christ is Risen, which told the story of Jesus through the great paintings of history--combines voices of every imaginable timbre and tone, creating a flowing, changing, living thing that moves across the listener as the wind upon lush grass. The songs are drawn from old masters ("Pastores Dicite," or "Speak, Shepherds"), Gregorian chants ("Rorate Caeli," or "Song of Advent"), contemporary adaptations ("Ave Maria, Verigne Fiore"), and traditional favorites ("O, Come All Ye Faithful").

In 1959 Jean Ritchie was a member of the Singing Ritchies of Kentucky, perhaps the best-known traditional American folk singers of the time. She had previously recorded American Folk Tales and Songs for Tradition. Her Carols for All Seasons occupies the place where American rural tradition and its European (mostly English) folk antecedents are hard to distinguish, drawing on both old mountain tunes ("Brightest and Best"), trans-Atlantic roots ("The May Day Carol"), and old familiar carols ("I Saw Three Ships"). Singing in a clear, pure, and unadorned voice and accompanied by harpsichord, dulcimer, and recorder, this collection makes evident the lines that connect our own folk songs and their European roots.

Tracing those lines back even further is English Medieval Christmas Carols, by the New York Pro Musica Antiqua, a vocal septet formed with the mission of faithfully presenting works from the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. Closer to the source than Jean Ritchie's New World variations, this vocal-only album covers songs like "Marvel Not, Joseph," and "Tibi Laus, Tibi Gloria." Equally important is the tributary represented by A Festival of Jewish Song by the Effi Netzer Singers. With its piano (and sometimes a very odd-sounding electric organ) accompaniment and group vocals alternating with solo voices, there is something almost vaudevillian--or beer hall--sounding about the songs on this album, but a quick perusal of the words reveal that these are far more folk than commercial pop (although it should be noted that in the Jewish community in the early part of the century, 78s of popular cantors enjoyed an almost pop-like presence). Full of entreaties to the divine and hopes for a return to Jerusalem, the structures of these songs are strongly evocative of modern klezmer music.

--M.W.

SWV: A Special Christmas
SWV
RCA Records

Christmas just ain't Christmas without some hip-hop soul, and SWV doesn't disappoint with A Special Christmas, the female trio's contributions to this year's holiday cheer. Interspersed with mainstream traditionals like "My Favorite Things," and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," originals like "Give Love on Christmas Day," and Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" put a soulful spin on this spicy holiday ornament.

--M.S.

Holiday Guitar
Dan Clary
Sugar Hill Records

Soul-stirring melodies and comforting nostalgia are what move us about Christmas, but modern-day instruments and singers in Santa caps often detract from that. Dan Clary's mostly instrumental CD offers stirring versions of some of the grandest of Yule tunes, with his dazzling acoustic guitar sometimes embellished by lute, mando-ukelele, and harp. His renditions of hallowed tunes like "O Holy Night," "Little Drummer Boy," and "Carol of the Bells" are gorgeous. (The last is filled with finger-picking flurries that'll evoke wind-blown snow to all but the least fanciful.) "Coventry Carol/Patapan" is a combination of two renaissance tunes--wintry, mysterious, and spiced with lute and flute-like gemshorn.

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