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Music for the Holidaze

Digging out from a blizzard of seasonal CD releases.

Do folks actually buy new Christmas albums annually? Many must, because each year brings with it a pile of recordings intended to exploit the spending mood in which so many of us find ourselves come December. What follows is an overview of the latest crop, with the prizes and the lumps of coal clearly identified for your shopping convenience.

AND THE JINGLE BELLS WENT "KA-CHING"
Predictably, artists of note have leapt into the seasonal disc racket, with the aim either of cashing in on name recognition or of resuscitating a career that's gasping for breath. My favorite in this category is Come On Christmas, by Dwight Yoakam, a country performer who's not afraid to let down his hair (or at least what hair he has left). Among the highlights in this well-chosen package, issued by Reprise Records, are a sloppy, rocking "Run Run Rudolph," a Tex-Mex "Silver Bells," a rendition of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" accented by Al Green-style horns, and a bluesy, insinuating run-through of "Santa Claus Is Back in Town." You'll have fun, fun, fun till your daddy throws the tree in the dumpster. Hill Country Christmas--credited to Willie Nelson and his sister, Bobbie Nelson, and released by Denver-based Finer Arts Records--is considerably more sedate. An original called "El Nino" doesn't cause much of a storm, versions of "Away in a Manger," "Joy to the World," "Silent Night" and "Deck the Halls" are spare and ultra-relaxed, and "Here Comes Santa Claus" is an ostensibly live number that sounds for all the world like Willie singing along with an old recording of Gene Autry, who is duly credited for his contributions. The uninitiated will likely be bored by the platter, but Nelson fans should warm up to it nicely.

I wasn't nearly as captivated by Ray Stevens's latest, Ray Stevens Christmas: Through a Different Window (MCA). The disc is so relentlessly corny that after listening to alleged chuckle-fests like "Guilt for Christmas," "Redneck Christmas," "Xerox Xmas Letter" and "The Annual Office Christmas Party," I found myself in the mood to watch Schindler's List two or three times. Ho Ho Ho, by RuPaul (Rhino), who's parlayed his/her celebrity into a VH1 talk show, is nearly as annoying. Perhaps it's a personal failing, but I wasn't exactly convulsed with laughter while suffering through a rewrite of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in which the star of the show sings, "RuPaul, the red-nosed drag queen." Fortunately, there are a couple of redeeming moments--notably, a convincing "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" and "Christmas Train," a balls-to-the-wall disco medley of "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and other chestnuts. (Apologies to anyone upset by references to balls and nuts in a RuPaul review.)

Christmas at the Biltmore Estate, by Judy Collins (Elektra), a companion piece to an A&E special, couldn't be more different from the two previous offerings. Bill Clinton's favorite warbler offers extremely orthodox readings of the usual Christmas suspects ("Joy to the World," "What Child Is This?," "The First Noel") accompanied by the Charlotte Children's Choir. Senior citizens will love it, but anyone who doesn't keep his or her teeth in a jar should beware. Turn instead to the Dramatics' A Dramatic Christmas (The Very Best Christmas of All) (Fantasy), an old-style R&B workout by the veteran vocal quintet. Ditties such as "The Days Before Christmas," "The Christmas Song" and "All I Want for Christmas Is My Baby" are ideal for smooching with your sweetie in front of a roaring fire. So track down a mate and a book of matches and get started already.

As for Snowed In (Mercury), by the girly-boys who call themselves Hanson, it's not just for the trio's key demographic (females between the ages of ten and twelve). Isaac, Zachary and Taylor contribute three originals, and although two of them ("At Christmas" and "Christmas Time") are lugubrious, the third, "Everybody Knows the Claus" is a partial rewrite of "MMMBop" that, like much of the rest of the disc, suggests the reincarnation of the DeFranco Family. For many readers, this last sentence might sound like a threat, but it's not meant that way. You boomers still harboring a guilty affection for the Partridge Family, the Brady Bunch and Bobby Sherman should climb off your high horses and join the Hanson parade. By the way, you can probably get their posters at your local Sam Goody outlet.

MARTINI TIME
In last year's Christmas roundup ("Christmas Seasoning," December 12, 1996), I noted that the neo-lounge craze had inspired the issuance of a couple of holiday efforts, even though it wasn't what you'd call the freshest trend. However, it seems to have had some staying power, because another pair of discs that fit into this pigeonhole have just landed. A Christmas Cocktail, by Jaymz Bee and the Royal Jelly Orchestra (Milan), is an attempt by contemporary musicians to capture the magic of vintage smarm, and they do a good job of it--"Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" display all the rudiments of the genre. But because the presentation is tongue-in-cheek rather than utterly sincere, much of the allure of the real thing is lost. Far preferable for that very reason is the almost identically titled Christmas Cocktails Part Two (Capitol), a collection that's part of the popular "Ultra-Lounge" series. I was fondest of Lena Horne's persuasive "Jingle All the Way," Jimmy McGriff's organ-heavy "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," Dean Martin's intoxicating "Baby, It's Cold Outside," and the out-of-place-but-still-groovy "Frosty the Snowman" by the Ventures, but even most of the lesser cuts are cheesy in all the right ways. Bottoms up!

CALLING BIRDS THAT FLOCK TOGETHER
Of the latest seasonal compilations based on styles of music, A Country Superstar Christmas (Hip-O) is perhaps the most lukewarm. Because so few of today's C&W celebrities have much to do with C&W, you're left with a lot of tracks like Trisha Yearwood's "The Christmas Song"--pleasant, but little more than that. There are a few standouts (George Strait's "Merry Christmas Strait to You," the Tractors' "Santa Claus Is Comin' [In a Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train]" and the Mavericks' "Santa Claus Is Back in Town"), but the majority of the music is com-mercial in a very predictable way. Acid X-Mas, an electro-music platter put out by Miami's Streetbeat Records, is quite a bit livelier but extremely spotty. Plenty of the backing tracks are diverting, but when the dial manipulators are finally forced to utilize the familiar melodies, the results are often just plain silly: D.J. Demonixx's "Carol of the Bells (A Demonic Christmas)," D.J. Rob E.'s "Jingle Bells" and George Acosta's dreadful "Jingle Bell Rock" are cases in point. The best moments here are "Frostie's X-Mas Dub," by D.J. Friction and D.J. Spice, "Little Drumma's Dub," by D.J. Voodoo and Mr. Knight-life, and Acid Factor's "Acid X-Mix," none of which sound all that much like Christmas music in the first place. And doesn't that sort of defeat the purpose?

Merry Axemas: A Guitar Christmas (Epic) is also erratic, but it's not a complete washout. Some of the current scene's best-known instrumental wankers are on hand, and though a handful of tracks (like Eric Johnson's "The First Nowell," Joe Satriani's "Silent Night/Holy Night Jam" and Richie Sambora's "Cantique De Noel [O' Holy Night]") are tedious and pretentious in equal measure, more cuts than I had anticipated hold up to repeated listens. Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the Brian Setzer Orchestra and Joe Perry wisely turn up the heat on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Jingle Bells" and "Blue Christmas," respectively, and Jeff Beck ("Amazing Grace") and Alex Lifeson ("The Little Drummer Boy") get decent mileage out of their showcases. More problematic is Angellica, a CD that brings together opera and rock with often nauseating results. It's not strictly a Christmas album: Although "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," "Ave Maria" and several numbers with religious overtones are on hand, they are juxtaposed with secular ditties from Rigoletto, La Boheme and the like. But despite the skills of Steve Vai, Steve Stevens, Dweezil Zappa and the aforementioned Eric Johnson, the production and arrangements put together by project mastermind Clif Magness manage to bastardize both genres. My guess is that it will appeal only to numskulls convinced that having it in their collection will impress their girlfriends. Don't fall for it, ladies.

HORNY HOLIDAYS
There are a lot of good, jazzy Christmas albums out there: Blessed Quietness, by Cyrus Chestnut, and Let's Share Christmas, by John Pizzarelli, both from last year, certainly fill the bill. But none of the four jazz CDs that have come my way in late 1997 are noteworthy; in fact, they're barely endurable. December Makes Me Feel This Way: A Holiday Album, by saxophonist Dave Koz (Capitol), is a blatant effort to jump on the Kenny G money train. Koz takes familiar compositions such as "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" and "O Tannenbaum (O Christmas Tree)" and smooths them out until there's practically no spark left in them. Wake me when it's over. On the Blue Moon/Atlantic release Christmas Present, trumpeter Rick Braun takes up Koz's cause, delivering fourteen instrumentals so concerned with being unobjectionable that they generally forget to swing. "Jingle Blues" has the right idea, and "Christmas in Gorgonia," with its classical brass voicings, sticks in your head, but the rest attain an almost supernatural dullness.

Breath of Heaven--A Holiday Collection, by Grover Washington Jr. (Columbia), doesn't sink to the same depths, but it certainly doesn't conjure up visions of Charlie Parker. "Away in a Manger" has some vigor to it, as does Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here," but "Christmas Day Chant," based on a Gregorian air, could have used a lot more darkness, and neither the vocal nor instrumental version of "Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song)" does more than take up space in a pretty but vapid way. That's also the story with Warner Bros. Jazz Christmas Party, an amalgamation of recordings by twelve different signees to the Warner Bros. imprint. Boney James ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), Kirk Whalum ("A Cradle in Bethlehem") and Mark Turner ("Pure Imagination") are more Chuck Mangione than John Coltrane, and vocal tracks by Al Jarreau ("Celebrate Me Home") and Michael Franks ("I Bought You a Plastic Star for Your Aluminum Tree") aren't much more adventurous. Bela Fleck survives a pairing with the extremely humdrum Bob James on "White Christmas," and Joshua Redman does "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" in an acceptable old-school fashion. But next time you want to throw a jazz party, gentlemen, make sure you include a little more jazz.

CHRISTMAS FLASHBACKS
Here are some nostalgia provokers for you. A Classic Cartoon Christmas, Too (Nick at Nite Records/550 Music) is a followup to last year's successful A Classic Cartoon Christmas. Like its predecessor, it skimps on liner notes, leaving you to plumb your memories for details of the programs from which its tracks are culled. Worse, the material is obviously second-tier. Whereas the first volume included prime-time stuff from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, this one can come up only with Burl Ives's "Silver and Gold" (from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer) and "We Wish You a Hairy Chestwig," from The Ren & Stimpy Show Crock o' Christmas. A treasure trove it's not. Instead, pick up What a Wonderful Christmas, by Louis Armstrong & Friends (Hip-O). In addition to Armstrong growling his way through "Christmas in New Orleans," "Christmas Night in Harlem" and others, there are also "Jingle Bells" by Duke Ellington, "Merry Christmas, Baby" by Lionel Hampton, and Eartha Kitt's timeless "Santa Baby," which is listed as track five but actually plays on track ten. Does that make it a collector's item? I thought not.

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...

FOR CHRIST'S SAKE
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.

ODD-SHAPED PACKAGES
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.

CHRISTMAS ON AN ELEVATOR
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.

ALL TOGETHER NOW
Samplers are a Christmas staple, but they're inconsistent by their very nature. Cherry-picking is the answer, especially on Xmas Marks the Spot, which pulls together various holiday curios issued over the years on the Rykodisc family of labels. "A Party for Santa Claus" by Lord Nelson and "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" by Joseph Spence are wonderful snippets from A Caribbean Christmas Party, a must-have from earlier in the decade; "Careless Santa," featuring John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, is worth cuddling; and Kristin Hersh's "Amazing Grace," available for the first time on an album, is as dark and intense as you'd expect from this Throwing Muse. There's also Big Star's "Jesus Christ," which really isn't much of a Christmas song--but when a song is as good as this one, why nitpick? Sounds of the Season (Columbia), whose proceeds are earmarked for the Children's Hearing Institute, is not quite as fresh; for instance, Bruce Springsteen's "Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town" and Willie Nelson's "Blue Christmas" have been around the block a time or twelve, and Tony Bennett's "Snowfall" comes from an album of the same name, reissued in 1994, that's worth owning in its entirety. But Shawn Colvin's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and B.B. King's "Merry Christmas, Baby" earn their keep, and Elton John's "Ho, Ho, Ho...Who'd Be a Turkey for Christmas," recorded in 1973, is a laughable but likable reminder that John used to be a lot more diverting. Better still is Hot Rod Rock: Hot Rod Holiday (The Right Stuff), a top-notch collection of Fifties/Sixties rock and roll with a seasonal theme. The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, Dion, Bobby Vee, the Ventures, the Statues and Gary U.S. Bonds are only some of the artists represented, and all of them excel. As a special bonus, the disc features on its cover a vintage racer and a couple of bikini-clad bimbos. You might want to hide it when your parents come over.

The Soul Train Christmas Starfest Album promises a lot simply by virtue of its title. But despite the presence of Soul Train vets Stevie Wonder ("Someday at Christmas"), Patti Labelle ("This Christmas [Hang All the Mistletoe]") and James Brown (the great "Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto"), most of the performers on hand are from the Boyz II Men school of R&B. The Boyz themselves swoop and whoop emptily throughout "Let It Snow," and Az Yet ("O Come All Ye Faithful"), Immature ("Santa Claus Is Coming to Town"), Total Commitment ("Silver Bells") and Rome ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") follow suit, to their detriment. Conversely, En Vogue's "Silent Nite (Happy Holiday Mix)," the Isley Brothers' "Special Gift" and "There's No Christmas Without You," by Kirk Franklin and the Family, work because--believe it or not--they actually exhibit some passion. Slow Jams: Christmas, Volume 2 (The Right Stuff) bats for a somewhat higher average than does Starfest. A few ditties, like Al Jarreau's "The Christmas Song," are weak, but "(Christmas Ain't Christmas, New Year's Ain't New Year's) Without the One You Love," by the Ebonys, is richly satisfying, and Brook Benton's "Soul Santa," Rotary Connection's "Christmas Love," Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas, Baby" and Al Green's "I'll Be Home for Christmas" aren't far behind.

A Home for the Holidays (Mercury) is a benefit for Phoenix House that is dominated by iffy artists: Bon Jovi, Gloria Estefan, Boyz II Men, Wendy and Carnie Wilson, and so on. But perhaps a third of the disc is worthwhile; I dug the hip-hoppy "My Christmas," by Tony Toni Tone, Redd Kross's "Mary Christmas," the James Browny "Sock It to Me, Santa," by Marshall Crenshaw with the Chisel Brothers, and "Go Where I Send Thee," rendered in fine blues-mama fashion by Joan Osborne. The memory function on your CD player will come in handy. Springsteen, Bennett, Estefan and Boyz II Men all turn up again on Epic's Superstar Christmas, which will earn money for the T.J. Martell Foundation. They're joined by Christmas-comp veterans John Lennon & Yoko Ono ("Happy Xmas [War Is Over]"), Mariah Carey ("O Holy Night"), Neil Diamond ("You Make It Feel Like Christmas") and Barbra Streisand, who sings "The Lord's Prayer" as if she's talking about herself. So is there any compelling reason to buy this disc? No--but spending your dough on things you don't need is a Christmas tradition. Thanks for keeping America's economy strong.

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