By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
It's been looking a lot like Christmas here in the office since about July, when the first "seasonal" albums began arriving, presaging a time when the people of the world--or at least those who aren't Muslims, Jews, Jains, Bahais, animists, cargo cultists, Druids, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, or born-again pagans--celebrate the world's rebirth with a wash of overindulgence and commercialism. Without any further ado, here is the soundtrack to our garish, neon-lit holiday season, starting with the year's best:
You're All I Want for Christmas
Christmas parties tossed by the Kennedys and the Astors were yearly gigs for the Persuasions starting shortly after the group's formation on the street corners of Brooklyn's rough Bedford-Stuyvesant area in 1966. They continue to do good Yuletide work with You're All I Want for Christmas, one of the richest holiday CDs of 1997. Certainly it features some of the grandest singing. It's a cappella--a style the Persuasions have personified for 35 years, during which time they've cut over 20 albums.
"All that time, we never did a Christmas record!" says Jerry Lawson, the group's lead singer. "We were going in the studio to do a "Persuasions Do Elvis" album, and my bass singer Jimmy (Hayes) says, 'Lawson, why don't we do a Christmas album and a gospel album?' So, we went in and did both of 'em in eight days. The gospel one'll be out in March or so."
Spread the Word, a PBS documentary that airs in February, has abundant footage of Lawson and his singing partners (Hayes, Jayotis Washington, and Joe Russell) in impromptu surroundings, whipping off soulful renditions of everything from Men At Work's "Down Under" and Bob Marley's "Buffalo Soldiers," to "My Yiddishe Mama" and the theme song to the old Wyatt Earp TV show. Anchored by Hayes' rib-rattling bass vocals, their voices intertwine with the incredible precision that's awed fans and critics throughout their careers.
The Persuasions cut this Christmas album with new member B.J. Jones, who brings the group to a quintet for the first time since the death of long-term member Toubo Jones in 1986. It's Jones' baritone you hear leading "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
"B.J. came to us as a gift from God," says Lawson. "Jimmy got ill for a minute and we had to go to Europe. Jimmy knew B.J. was a fan of the Persuasions and knew our material. We got B.J. and didn't even slow down, man. He worked out so well when we did this Christmas CD. We were goin' to lunch, and I said, 'Jones, y'know any Christmas songs?' and he says, 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.' So we started singin' it right there in the parkin' lot, and it was so happenin', we went right back in the studio and cut it on the spot."
Instrument-toters the world over might envy the Persuasions' ability to rehearse whenever and wherever. One of the album's most touching selections is "The Jesusong," which Lawson had been trying to write for two years. The bridge had been eluding him, and when the muse struck, he started singing in that lustrous voice some have compared to great vocalists like Jerry Butler and Brook Benton. The ever-intuitive Hayes came right in behind him, followed by the other three members, and all of a sudden a full-blown a cappella session was under way--never mind that it was in an airport in Sweden.
"Everybody was standin' around listenin' to us, and that's when we stopped, 'cause it dawned on us--these people were probably missin' their planes!" laughs Lawson.
The Persuasions are agreeable men but they grow irritated at the mention of how badly they've been marketed in the past. They've had a 20-year running battle with Tower Records over the chain's insistence on stocking their product in "oldies" bins. They've had managers who bilked them on cockamamie "doo-wop" shows, putting them on the bill with faux groups like the Coasters, the Penguins, et al.--groups that are composed of singers unborn when the originals were around. They've done fine albums for major labels: Street Corner Symphony and the cunningly titled Still Ain't Got No Band for Capitol and MCA respectively; they have also recorded for A&M and Elektra. Unfortunately, there was nothing major about the promotion these outfits did for them. They've never had a hit or the attention that's come to certain Johnny-come-latelies. (Boyz II Men had a hit with their a cappella version of "In The Still of the Night," which has been in the Persuasions' repertoire for decades. Take 6 won a Grammy for an a cappella CD, while Rockapella and Color Me Badd also work in this genre.)
"Used to be, this was a dyin' art," muses Lawson, who finds the presence of such youngbloods heartening. "Now there's a cappella societies in Australia, Japan, and America. There was an A Cappella Summit concert in San Francisco the other night--had seven or eight groups on it. Every show we do, there's a group there wants to meet us, sayin' they sing a cappella. Boyz II Men was one of 'em. The guys from Take 6 were really nice, man. They said, 'When we were in college, we got Spread The Word [Capitol, 1972], and that's what turned us on to a cappella.'
"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."
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).
'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.
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.
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.
Something Warm for Christmas
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.
The Texas Christmas Collection;
I'll Be Home for Kwanzaa
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.
(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
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.
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.
Roomful of Christmas
Roomful of 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.
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.
SWV: A Special Christmas
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.
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.
Many acoustic guitar geniuses are such virtuosos that they're no fun, but Clary's self-penned "Christmas Blues A-Comin'" is just that. It's a rollicking guitar rag that chugs along as happily as a Lionel train with new smoke pellets, bearing the gift of scene-stealing harmonica work from bluesman Phil Wiggins. This CD gets high marks for musical excellence and its ability to warm the heart.
A Very Special Christmas 3
Christmas compilations like this should have been outlawed years ago, yet they apparently remain because they raise money for worthwhile charities. The premise is simple: gather a group of today's top pop stars (The Smashing Pumpkins, No Doubt, Sheryl Crow), throw in a couple of the usual suspects (Sting, Tracy Chapman, Natalie Merchant), and have them all record Christmas songs. Pure gold, right? It sounds great in theory--in theory--but it rarely, if ever, works. This particular comp's merits are further lessened by the inclusion of the ubiquitous Sean "Puffy" Combs (can't you just picture the video featuring Puffy and his similarly ever-present buddy Mase mugging for the camera in patent leather Santa suits?) and No Doubt's version of "Joy to the World," horribly revamped as "Oi to the World." The only solid track on the album is Enya's beautiful rendition of "Oiche Chiun (Silent Night)," which is so good, it's a wonder it was included on this album. A word of good advice: Skip this compilation and donate $15 to your favorite charity.
Soul Train Christmas Starfest
Soul Train Christmas Starfest reunites 16 Soul Train all-stars on this collection of R&B Christmas classics. Opening with Boyz II Men's smooth harmonies on "Let It Snow," the CD follows up with the master crooner himself, Luther Vandross, in "Every Year, Every Christmas." Stevie Wonder's 1973 hit single "Someday at Christmas" blends without a wrinkle with Az Yet's 1997 rockin' rendition of "O, Come All Ye Faithful." Dallas/Fort Worth's hometown son, Kirk Franklin, appears with The Family on the gospel-inspired single "There's No Christmas Without You." The compilation smacks of consumer manipulation, but what the heck. 'Tis the season to spend, spend, spend. Stuff it in an R&B lover's stocking.
The Burns Sisters
There's something delightfully woodsy about the Burns Sisters. They sound extremely Tennessee (except when they're sounding Celtic), though they're in fact from Ithaca, New York. Their harmonies are incredibly close-knit and very sweet, but never cloying. Their Philo albums Close To Home and In This World have secured their respected stead in folk circles. They're lovely on traditional material: "Silent Night," "Little Drummer Boy," and a "What Child is This" so wintry it'll give you chill bumps. Acoustic guitar, dobro, fiddle, and the occasional cello provide appropriately folky accompaniment, and the production (by the Sisters) is gem-bright, but not poppy. Marie Burns penned the opening "Songs We Love," which is homey and familial, and though it's rather a surprise to hear them do the Yiddish "Shaloo Shalom Y'Rushalayim," they do it compellingly. They founder on a high-concept "This Christmas" that has too much of a "We Are The World" feel to it. Then comes a curve in the form of "Tibetan Prayer for Peace," which doesn't even have the Sisters on it, but is sung by a monastery full of Tibetans. Interesting, but a tad incongruous. The album closes with some kids singing a couple of "outtakes" that are gummy enough to gag Sandy Duncan, but all in all the Burns siblings bring solid fare to the holiday table.
Hymnes de Noël (Christmas Hymns)
The Greek Byzantine Choir
Dating back to the first centuries of Christianity, Byzantine music--or (after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, at least) the music of the Greek Orthodox Church--is an original construct, avoiding such Western ideas as harmony and counterpoint. Within its monophonic boundaries, however, the form has been so refined and so developed that the Western ear cannot help but feel the thrill of the wholly alien when listening to it. Anchored by a continuous bass drone and full of semi-tones, Byzantine music rings with the echoes of ancient walls. Less triumphal than the aforementioned pipe organ music of Richard Purvis and more spare (but no less beautiful) than the gorgeous harmonies of the Sistine Choir, the music of the Greek Byzantine Choir--formed in 1977 to preserve this form--is old and mysterious, and carries us to a completely different Christmas place that seems closer to the holiday's original form.
Christmas at the Biltmore Estate
Judy Collins makes you feel good about yourself: Even if you get drunk and puke wassail all over Mom's Christmas linen, you won't have disgraced yourself as badly as Collins does by singing. She essays some of the dippiest holiday songs ever written in a quavering simper that's tonally somewhere between Molly Shannon and Minnie Mouse. The banter between songs doesn't help.
Rebecca St. James
There's admittedly scant room for maneuvering within the realm of traditional Christmas songs, but this album perfectly illustrates the danger in pushing the boundaries too hard: the results just don't sound like Christmas. Here young contemporary Christian poster-gal Rebecca St. James plays against squeaky-clean type and delivers a collection of revamped favorites ("O Come Emmanuel") and current originals ("Sweet Little Jesus Boy"), treating all with a smear of vaguely hippity-hoppity (whoops, wrong holiday--but who can tell?), techno-ish beats and startling grunge-o-riffic loud/soft, fast/slow contrasts that aren't very soothing, heartwarming, or inspiring. Certain songs are nearly bulletproof--"What Child is This" didn't last hundreds of years because of anybody's interpretation--but when she unleashes her inner Gloria Gaynor on "O Holy Night," she (unlike RuPaul) can't make Christmas-'neath-the-mirror-ball sound anything but inappropriate. However, that failure pales next to whatever it is that she does with the Lennon/Ono classic "Happy Christmas." While St. James deserves credit for ambition, she overplays her hand.
Hot Rod Holiday
The Right Stuff
My mom saves the best ribbons and bows from Christmas gift-wrapping to use again in future years, and albums like this are the musical equivalent of that practice. Capitol-EMI's reissue division, The Right Stuff, has been compiling collections of '50s and '60s music under the imprimatur of Hot Rod magazine, and this doubly conceptual set actually works for the most part by leaning heavily on the best artists: three songs by the Beach Boys; two each by Fats Domino, The Ventures, and Dion; and Chuck Berry doing his classic "Run Rudolph Run."
But it's discs like these that also make a good case for programmable CD players, so one can separate the wheat from chaff like Bobby Vee doing a saccharine "White Christmas" or Bobby Helms' limp take on "Jingle Bell Rock." Even Dion and The Ventures have their one better tune (Dion gives "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" a Bronx swagger, while The Ventures take "Jingle Bells" to another wonderful planet) and one lesser (a so-so "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and a rather slight version of "Frosty The Snowman," respectively). The Beach Boys, however, have that lovely choral mix perfectly suited to the sound, songs, and spirit of the season, and Fats Domino sings his two holiday numbers (the venerable "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "I Told Santa Claus") like the funkiest angel in heaven bringing tidings of great joy. "Merry Twist-mas" by The Marcels is a groover, and Gary U.S. Bonds delivers a nice, soulful plea on "Call Me for Christmas."
I still can't imagine anyone saying: "I love the smell of hot-rod exhaust in the morning; smells like...Christmas." But if that's you, here's your holiday album. As for the rest of us, Hot Rod Holidays is a somewhat groovy little spin down the seasonal road.
Celtic Christmas III
Windham Hill Records
Celtic music really has no middle ground: either people love it, or it bores them to tears. Similarly, Celtic Christmas music will only appeal to a select number of the buying public. Very few people who are not already into this type of music will pick up Celtic Christmas III, and they shouldn't. This compilation is a good change of pace to some of the more overdone songs of the season, but only serious fans of Celtic music (i.e., people who own more than one Enya or Clannad album) will enjoy it. Because--apart from its title--there is nothing on the album that evokes the feeling of Christmas; strip away the title, and it is simply another album of traditional Celtic songs.
Nascent fans of Celtic music would be better served buying Jonn Serrie's Upon A Midnight Clear. It is not a Celtic album per se, but it has the same kind of atmospheric sound normally associated with the genre. Serrie tackles a number of traditional carols ("The First Noel," "What Child is This?," "Little Drummer Boy") and imbues each with a serene beauty that perfectly captures that Christmas-morning feeling. This is a great album for those who aren't quite ready to make the transition to Celtic music full time, but don't want to hear the same tired versions of traditional Christmas songs.
The Christmas Album
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Rising Tide Records
When you look at the rest of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's career, it doesn't seem possible that they could have produced 1972's groundbreaking Will the Circle be Unbroken. When they revert to Circle's formula of surrounding themselves with real-thing pros--as they did in 1989 with Circle's second volume--they can still recapture the old magic, but for the most part, they've trafficked in the basest kind of country-pop sentimentality. Naturally, Christmas brings out the very worst of these tendencies, and The Christmas Album doesn't disappoint: Pleasant arrangements and innocuous songs about the Colorado snow, how it doesn't seem like Christmas in Southern California, and a Christmas-in-the-kitchen menu-song straight outta Hee-Haw all combine to form a collection of treacle best thought of as Seasonal Country Lite.
A Winter's Solstice VI
Windham Hill Records
Even people who don't get real Christmas trees know you can't beat the smell of one. Windham Hill music, by contrast, is odorless and colorless. All 15 cuts here feature the label's trademark immaculate musicianship and production, and would be perfect accompaniment for staring at a photo of snow while plowed on Xanax. You could nod to jazz lite from soprano saxist Marion Meadows (who makes Kenny G sound like a hardass), passionless piano from George Winston, and gutless guitar from Michael Hedges. A particularly puerile composition is by guitarist W.G. "Snuffy" Walden, who probably calls himself that because "Sweet N Low" was already in use. Pass this by.
Merry Texas Christmas, Y'all
Asleep at the Wheel
High Street Records
There's something a bit weird about putting a regional spin on Christmas--"It's the birth of the Son of God Himself, Redeemer of the World--Texas style!"--as if the original formula could stand improvement. Theology aside, though, Merry Texas Christmas, Y'all at first blush seems like yet another exercise in shtick extension from Ray Benson, the man who can wring more life out of "The House of Blue Lights" than anyone ever thought possible. Fortunately, Benson is as skillful and smart as he is relentless: Texas Christmas is a jumpy, swinging transformation of holiday standards and originals that is truly a regional reflection of the season. Full of fiddles, sax, and Western swing arrangements, Texas Christmas also benefits from guest spots by Tish Hinojosa, Willie Nelson, and Don Walser.
Carols of Christmas II
The latest CD in the successful Windham Hill Sampler line, this holiday offering is largely a reverent and peaceful ode to joy, and one that updates the holiday staples without disturbing them much. Liz Story, Leo Kottke, and many other WH favorites are present here, and most of the cuts are finely crafted, easy on the ears, vibrant in feeling, and, ultimately, safe. The exception is Loreena McKennitt's valiant reading of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," as she conjures a droning Celtic trance full of life and fire. Steve Morse's "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and George Winston's "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" are also among the best cuts here, but with no fancy stuff, just a warm guitar sound and a little taste of each artist's virtuosity. The one truly annoying track is Steve Lukather's "O Tannenbaum," in which the ex-Toto guitarist's in-your-face plucking kicks up some annoying fret buzz as he manhandles the classic. The rest of the CD is full of familiar touchstones that Windham Hill fans will love, and others may find as exciting as warm milk.
Home for the Holidays
There is a particular harmonica sound that was very popular in '60s pop--winsome, almost wishful, as on Henry Mancini's "Moon River." This sentimental sound is all over harmonica virtuoso Robert Bonfiglio's Home for the Holidays, and it works: primarily because of a wise mix of songs and Bonfiglio's skill in disguising the harmonica's distinctive sound. Bonfiglio mixes churchy faves like "Ave Maria" and "Silent Night" with sprightly fare like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and "Let It Snow," which in combination strike just the right note of reverence and celebration. The vocals are a bit less than studio quality, but in this case, they end up sounding homey and quaint rather than substandard.
Jaymz Bee, author of Cocktail Parties for Dummies (the degenerate terminus of what started out as computer-help books), applies the same lowest-common-denominator philosophy to Christmas songs in a cocktail mode. The results are unoriginal and uninspired, in the end sinking beneath too much velour and not enough vitality. If this kind of music is what you crave, check out the much better efforts of Esquivel or Arthur Lyman.
Jazz musicians jokingly say that the first order of business in performing standards is to get the melody line out of the way so they can begin playing. Saxman Dave Koz can hardly dispense with the melodies on holiday chestnuts, but he does tweak them a bit, making a gift of creativity not only with his fluid, almost-playful lead lines but also in his arrangements. Acoustic guitars (both nylon and steel-stringed) figure largely in his accompaniment, lending a folksy feel you don't often get behind saxes. Flattop guitar strumming opens and gives a bluesy twang to "Winter Wonderland," while lap steel and a very Western waltz tempo makes "Little Drummer Boy" seem like it should've been played that way all along. "Silver Bells" and "Eight Candles (A Song For Hanukkah)" are engagingly played, and "O Tannenbaum" is beautiful. Unmentioned in the track listing but hinted at in the liner copy is a funny beat-poetry take on "'Twas The Night Before Christmas" with Phil Hartman at the mike and appropriately hipsterized backup from Koz and company.
You probably bought this when the group was known as the Jackson Five, who made a pretty indispensable Christmas record themselves way back when. This throwback--or throw it back--is more of the same-ol'-same-ol' from the band that conned grade-schoolers out of their lunch money a few months ago; nothing screams Merry Christmas, suckers! like a Christmas record as the follow-up to your billion-selling debut. Sort of puts the "ho" in ho-ho-ho. Not that Snowed In doesn't have a few charms up its silk sleeves: "Little Saint Nick" is what the Beach Boys might have sounded like if they had formed in 1987, and "Run Run Rudolph" has more bite than all these boys' baby teeth put together. Still, the "Silent Night Medley" is candy-cane cloying, and the rest of this CD would make even Jesus weep.
A Very Green Christmas
Artists For Earth
Instrumental Christmas albums often function as the background music to holiday settings, but this one is worth a more deliberate listen. Class artists of the genre such as Paul McCandless, Suzanne Ciani, Spencer Brewer, Kate Price, and Georgia Kelly lend their talents to this compilation, and though stretches of this CD will indeed lull you into that semi-dream state where the glow of the flickering tree bulbs begins to leave psychic messages on the ceiling, there is also enough jazz influence and variety here to keep one from nodding off in the eggnog. Michael Pluznick and Joel Lindheimer's version of "Little Drummer Boy" is especially noteworthy for the strong use of acoustic percussion and shadowy undertones, and Spencer Brewer's version of "Angels We Have Heard On High" is light as a Twinkie, but with just the right bit of melancholy for those who prefer their holidays a little less giddy. One dollar from the sale of each CD goes to the Trees Foundation, an organization that works with various environmental and animal preservation groups in Northern California.
Christmas with the Louvin Brothers
The Louvin Brothers
Razor & Tie
Maybe it's my legacy as a youthful choirboy, but in my book, holiday music is made for harmonizing; and when it comes to country harmony, Ira and Charlie Louvin were probably its greatest practitioners. Hence this reissue of their album of traditional Christmas fare (coupled with two Louvin holiday originals from a separate single release) sounds wonderful and fresh some four decades later. Given the spiritual concerns and influences in the Louvins' oeuvre already, it would only seem natural for the brothers to lend their awesome backwoods vocal mix to the songs of the season. And if you're a fan of traditional country and also happen to like Christmas songs, you've probably never heard "O, Come All Ye Faithful," "Silent Night," "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear," "The First Noel," and other standards sound so humane and delightful. Especially enchanting are their takes on such classically rooted songs as "Good Christian Men Rejoice" and "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks." "The Friendly Beasts" takes what could be hokey and makes it as heartwarming a holiday selection as you're ever likely to hear.
The simple old-school Nashville arrangements suit the sentiments here beautifully. Ultimately, this disc reinforces the notion that Christmas carols are basically folk music, and within the supple grip of the Louvins' talents, these songs play to my ears with a spirit made anew, which befits the message of Christ's birth. One of their originals, "It's Christmas Time," has a heavenly sweetness, but the other, "Santa's Big Parade," is little more than a piece of holiday cotton-candy fluff, charming as it is. The only other flaw here is the occasional chorus of "proper" singers trading with and backing up the Louvins, but it only underscores the genius and appeal of their naturalistic country-folk vocal blend by comparison. To me, Christmas music has rarely sounded so sweet, sincere, and deep as it does here.
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