Christmas Seasoning

Hark! The Herald Angels are practically the only group without a holiday CD this year.

Of all the major record labels, Geffen is the one that most frequently puts out artist compilations--most of which bite the big colostomy bag. But Just Say Noël is an exception. The lead track, Beck's "The Little Drum Machine Boy," is an inspired catastrophe: After promising to drop some "Hanukkah science," our diminutive hero leads a merry crew through a chipper deconstruction of the season in general--but he does so in such an upbeat way that only a Scrooge would be offended by it. Also groovy are Sonic Youth's chipper, distorted version of the Martin Mull novelty "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope"; the Roots' revival of the De La Soul favorite "Mille Pulled a Pistol on Santa"; a suggestively smarmy "Merry Christmas Baby" by Southern Culture on the Skids; "Gloria," in which Elastica imitates the Waitresses; the XTC chestnut "Thanks for Christmas"; and "Amazing Grace," sung with singular delicacy by the late Ted Hawkins. A keeper. O Come All Ye Faithful: Rock for Choice (Columbia) is less consistent, but it, too, has its moments. Henry Rollins's reading of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" is awesomely stupid, and efforts by Dance Hall Crashers, Sponge, Juliana Hatfield and Bush (whose poorly recorded "Good King Somethingorother" should have remained on the cutting-room floor, where it belonged) come to naught. But these minuses are balanced out by Shudder to Think's melodramatic "Al Hanisim," Wool's punky "Xmas It's Christmas," Luscious Jackson's enigmatic "Queen of Bliss," the Cranes' creepy rendition of "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," and "Christmas Piglet," a throwaway tossed together by the Presidents of the United States of America. Oh, yeah--the album's for a good cause.

The only cause slated to benefit from Ghost of Christmas Past (Resounding) is Flash Cadillac, an oldies combo that uses Colorado Springs as a home base. Recorded last December with the Colorado Springs Symphony Orchestra and the Colorado Springs Children's Chorale, the album features "All Alone on Christmas," "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," "Sleighride" and other tracks meant to bring back memories of Phil Spector. To put it mildly, Phil doesn't have much to worry about, but the project is listenable and inoffensive. Many of you would use different words to describe Christmas With the Vandals: Oi to the World! (Kung Fu Records), but not me; I think it's swell. The Vandals--punks from the old school--have come up with scads of future classics for this CD, including "A Gun for Christmas" ("I will use my new weapon in self-defense and sport/And to keep the carolers off my goddamn front porch"); "Grandpa's Last X-Mas" ("How come he always calls me 'Kate'/And forgets his dentures on his dinner plate?"); "Thanx for Nothing" ("Thank you for the knife/You stabbed me in the back with"); "Christmas for My Penis" ("You'll get the attention you need.../We'll get whores and pornography"); and "My First X-Mas (As a Woman)" ("I won't have to tuck it behind me/Since I got my brand new vagina"). Includes a lyric sheet so you and the kids can sing the songs together.

Why has 1996 seen an avalanche of seasonal CDs from performers in the jazz genre? Hell if I know--but jazz buffs wishing to supplement their libraries will find no shortage of discs from which to choose. Bending Towards the Light: A Jazz Nativity (Milan) is certainly the most ambitious: Narrated by retired newsman Charles Kuralt, this live recording finds jazzers Lionel Hampton, Grady Tate, Jon Faddis, Dave Brubeck and many more embroiled in a rendering of the Christmas story. Given the lineup, it's no surprise that the playing is extremely traditional. However, much of it is also gorgeous: I particularly enjoyed a version of "Silent Night" featuring tenor saxophonist Bob Kindred and a showy take of "We Three Kings" with Tito Puente on timbales. Quasi-operatic singing mars a number of tracks, but prudent use of your player's programming feature turns A Jazz Nativity into a fairly good time. A Swingin' Christmas (Intersound), by the League of Gentlemen, features fewer big names--okay, it features no big names--but the presentation is modest and good-humored enough to make it reasonably diverting. Vocalist Tommy Dean is a congenial host, the rest of the band proves that journeymen can occasionally rise to the occasion, and the song selection is adequate, if a bit unadventurous. "Greensleeves" bops along nicely, but "A Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" are peppier and more fun. Boney's Funky Christmas (Warner Bros.) seems to promise more of the same, but its star, saxophonist Boney James, can't deliver. Instead of dishing out funk, James mainly operates in the gray area between jazz and pop music. The synthesizers and keyboards are too prominent, robbing "This Christmas," "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)" and "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" of any and all spontaneity. And jazz without spontaneity is like a comedian without any jokes--pretty damn unnecessary.

Also on the lifeless side is the Phil Sheeran presentation I'll Be Home for Christmas (Passage). Guitarist Sheeran is into tidy licks, and he surrounds himself with players who take the same too-subtle approach. He occasionally has good ideas--like the samba rhythm he imposes on "What Child Is This"--but overall, Home comes a little too close to Muzak for my taste. John Pizzarelli displays considerably more exuberance on Let's Share Christmas (RCA): Although the thinking man's Harry Connick Jr. is surrounded by heavy orchestration on all but one song ("Sleigh Ride," in which Pizzarelli is accompanied by his regular trio), he never lets himself get bogged down. His "White Christmas" is properly unabashed, "Santa Claus Is Near" zips along nicely under the power of a fine horn arrangement, and "Snowfall" is effectively atmospheric. I could have done without "Silent Night," which Michel Legrand slathers in strings and portentous blasts of brass; that Pizzarelli survives the pomp is a testament to his skills. This year's finest Christmas disc by a jazz artist, though, is Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns, Spirituals and Carols (Atlantic), by Cyrus Chestnut. Although Chestnut's piano is the only instrument heard on the CD, the tunes don't want for anything; the gaps between the notes are filled to overflowing with emotion. As anyone familiar with Chestnut's work knows, his fingers can fly--but instead of showing off, he goes for minimalism on the gorgeous "Jesus Loves Me," "The Old Rugged Cross" and most of the other ten numbers present. Only a master could have pulled off this gambit. Fortunately, Chestnut is one.

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