Music for the Holidaze

Digging out from a blizzard of seasonal CD releases.

Another reissue of note is Christmas With Chet Atkins (Razor & Tie), which teams the guitar innovator with fabulously goopy background vocals from an anonymous choir. Atkins gets in some jazzy licks on "Jingle Bell Rock," "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" and "Blue Christmas" and wisely resists the urge to showboat on the rest of the lineup. Even groovier is Christmas With the Louvin Brothers (Razor & Tie), an effort that finds Charlie and Ira Louvin, arguably country's greatest harmony duo, in fine voice. The first twelve songs, originally issued in 1961 as Country Christmas, are traditionals that the Louvins handle with austere reverence: I was particularly taken with "Good Christian Men Rejoice" and "The Friendly Beasts." Capping the package are two intriguing Louvin originals: the nearly mournful "It's Christmas Time" and the peppy, wonderfully nasal "Santa's Big Parade." All the last song lacks is a bridge about the Barney balloon popping. Oh, well...

Here come the contemporary Christian performers again, trying to sneak their way into the record collections of you church-avoiding types. Rebecca St. James, who's being hyped as the next Amy Grant (eeesh), checks in with Christmas (Forefront), and it's surprisingly tolerable. "One Small Child," "O Holy Night" and the opening track, "Sweet Little Jesus Boy" have a Kate Bush quality about them, and the production (by Tedd T.) is somewhat more interesting than is typical in the contemporary-Christian universe. Crossing over seems like a possibility. Less intriguing is God With Us: A Celebration of Christmas Carols & Classics (Sparrow), a paint-by-numbers affair. Contributions from Twila Paris ("Silent Night"), Steven Curtis Chapman ("O Come, O Come, Emmanuel") and Michael W. Smith ("Anthem for Christmas") are smack dab in the middle of the road--right where you'd expect them to be. At least "Joy to the World" by Anointed and "All Is Well Tonight," by CeCe Winans, sport a little soul power; everything else is as white as the driven snow. Fortunately, soul is present in abundance on Donald Lawrence's Hello Christmas (Crystal Rose), a pop-gospel CD. Lawrence is more straightforward a performer than Kirk Franklin, of God's Property fame; his try at a hip-hop "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is a big miss. But his "Little Drummer Boy," supplemented by the exhortations of the Tri-City Singers, is unexpectedly thrilling, and "I Can Hear the Angels," "Soulful Noel" and "Absent From the Body/In the Presence of a King" are almost as good. Lawrence is the genuine article: a thinner, more handsome Barry White romancing the Holy Ghost.

Most holiday albums fit into easily defined groupings; the following don't. Home for the Holidays, by Bonfiglio (StreetSong Music), is the work of Robert Bonfiglio, who renders fourteen seasonal numbers on harmonica. But instead of honking and blowing like Junior Wells, Bonfiglio plays "Do You Hear What I Hear," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" and the rest in a cautious, sleepy fashion. Bland beyond belief. The Night Before...A Celtic Christmas, by Dordan (Narada), isn't scintillating, either. Rather than infusing its songs with the jaunty, lively touch that marks much of the best Celtic music, Ireland's Dordan polishes them up for the benefit of the Muzak crowd. Some of the pieces survive anyhow: "Leanbh Ghil Mhilis (Bright Sweet Child)," with vocals by Martina Goggin, is lovely, and "Christmas Eve Reel" and "Ding Dong Merrily on High" don't die on the vine. Still, even Celtic-music aficionados may find the treatment on The Night Before to be far too restrained.

Caribbean Christmas (Oglio) isn't as dreary if only because of its concept--wintertime cuts infused with an island beat. You won't come away from the recording wowed by its authenticity; aside from steel drummer/percussionist Vince Charles, the band seems to consist mainly of interchangeable session players. But the steel-drum chorus on "Joy to the World" is engaging, and "Mary's Little Boy Child" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" are distinguished by reggae beats that make them superior to most of the other numbers on hand. A Window Shopper's Christmas, by 5 Chinese Brothers (Prime CD), is something else entirely: a modest country-rock concoction by a little-known member of the No Depression movement. The members of the combo, led by guitarist/vocalist Steve Antonakos, won't make you forget Wilco, but they display a facility with both peppy novelties ("Rockin' in the Manger," "Honky Tonk Christmas") and modest mid-tempo narratives ("Making Angels in the Sand," "Christmas on Interstate 80"). It'll grow on you. Quirkiest of all is Valley of Christmas, by Andrei Codrescu (Gert Town Records), a commentator familiar to most for his frequent appearances on National Public Radio. On this recording, he folds social commentary, radio theater (guest actors play various roles) and off-kilter jazz by Mark Bingham into the shaggy tale of a boy named Almond Joy. To explain further would take up the rest of this article, so suffice it to say that Valley isn't a standard Christmas album--which is precisely why it's so good.

You know the type of practically invisible holiday music that you occasionally hear playing quietly at overpriced restaurants this time of year? Here are three discs' worth of it. On Songs of the Season, by Peter White (Columbia), White's acoustic guitar is backed by keyboard programming that's the aural equivalent of being wrapped up in an electric blanket while inside an overheated room. Some will regard "Greensleeves (What Child Is This)" and the rest of these drippy undertakings as sweet and reassuring, but they struck me as suffocating. Ditto that for Enchantment: A Magical Christmas, by new-age kingpin David Arkenstone (Narada). Wave after wave of synthesized glop congeal on "Do You Hear What I Hear," "Angels We Have Heard on High" and the rest of these pomposities, many of which have appeared on previous Narada compilations. Pianist Randall Atcheson's Christmas by Candlelight (RCA) uses standard instrumentation to a similar end. "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and twelve more are slathered with melodramatic flourishes that would have made even Liberace blush. But by the same token, there's something reassuring about Atcheson's old-fashioned schmaltz. Listening to the disc is like spending Christmas day at your great-grandmother's house, sans the candy that's been around since the Eisenhower administration.

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