By Team Backbeat
By Amber Taufen
By Jon Solomon
By Tom Murphy
By Jesse Livingston
By Alejandra Loera
By Stephanie March
By Tom Murphy
Condemned jailbirds who manage to survive a dose of Loggins may not be as lucky when it comes to Donny Osmond's Christmas at Home (Nightstar), a similarly toxic disc. Osmond--who co-hosts a staggeringly dull talk show with sister Marie that has given America a new appreciation for Jerry Springer--occasionally alludes to the shlocky pop that once buttered his bread: For instance, he covers "I've Been Looking for Christmas," co-written by ex-Scandal frontwoman Patty Smythe. But the faux-funky "Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?" and a reggae-fied rendition of "Deck the Halls/Hark the Herald Angels Sing" are somewhat less soulful than William F. Buckley, and "My Grown Up Christmas List" could rot teeth from a distance of twenty yards. Go away, little boy.
Merry Christmas...Have a Nice Life!, by Cyndi Lauper (Epic), doesn't achieve such a high degree of awfulness; indeed, it actually contains one memorable song ("Minnie and Santa," a drunken chant in which the Man in Red and a willing woman shag the night away) and several satisfactory ones (specifically, the dumb yet jaunty "Christmas Conga" and the sweet "New Year's Baby [First Lullaby]"). But the rest of the material, much of it by Lauper and longtime collaborator Rob Hyman, is mediocre, and the project as a whole has an air of desperation about it that becomes even more obvious when it's juxtaposed with 12 Songs of Christmas (Private Music), an entertaining session by blues mama Etta James. The accompanying musicians, including pianist Cedar Walton, drummer Billy Higgins and tenor saxophonist Red Holloway, are accomplished but cautious: Too often, they settle for tastefulness when brashness would have been preferable. But James is as sassy as ever, giving "Winter Wonderland" a well-deserved goose, ripping through a sultry "Merry Christmas, Baby" and wringing every drop of juice from "Joy to the World." Clearly, James deserves to be back in the record bins--unlike a few other artists I could mention.
ODDS AND ENDS
Discs that defy categorization can be among the most enjoyable seasonal efforts. But not always. Take Jingle Bells: Swingin' Barnyard Christmas (Oglio), a collection of songs built from animal sounds--meows, woofs, quacks and so on. Don't get me wrong: I thought each tune was funny...for about ten seconds. But after sitting through the lion's share of twelve (count 'em, twelve) editions of "Jingle Bells" as performed by "groups" such as Chicken Feed Bluegrass, Dobbin's Equestrian Orchestra, the Moo-Tones and Electric Sheep, I was ready to kill someone, and I didn't care who. Archbishop Tutu, the Dalai Lama--hell, if Mother Teresa was still around, even she would have needed to be looking over her shoulder.
To Life! Chanukah and Other Jewish Celebrations (Rhino) is far more tolerable, but it can't match the richness of the heritage it intends to honor. The problem is performer/ producer Jay Levy, who monopolizes 18 of the 27 tracks here (other tracks feature folks such as Theodore Bikel and Nell Carter). While presenting "The Dreydl Song," "Shalom Aleichem" and others, Levy sounds like a children's performer explaining Judaism to a gaggle of preteen goyim on an episode of Sesame Street; he's earnest, wide-eyed and just a little patronizing. He should have emulated Alex Schub, who blurts out "Hop Mayne Homentashen" and "Tayre Malke" like the proudest uncle at a Bar Mitzvah.
Just as unrestrained is The Christmas Attic (Lava/Atlantic), by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, whose 1996 salvo Christmas Eve and Other Stories was a left-field smash. Like its predecessor, Attic is an exercise in so-called symphonic rock--meaning that "Boughs of Holly," "The March of the Kings/Hark the Herald Angel" and "Joy of Man's Desire/Angels We Have Heard on High" are characterized by bombastic arrangements, numbskull riffing and the wankiest guitar solos this side of a Deep Purple concert. But rather than leaving it at that, the Orchestra has gilded the lily on Attic by putting such tunes at the service of a rock opera about "the Lord's youngest Angel." The storyline is moronic, and no amount of pomposity can pump life into the mostly lukewarm originals. There's too much Andrew Lloyd Webber and not enough Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush to make it a guilty pleasure.
Gifted former Denverite Tim O'Brien is a prominent participant in A Christmas Heritage (Koch), and his cohorts--banjoist Alison Brown, violinist Darol Anger and guitarist Mike Marshall among them--are just as talented as he is. But for all the skilled instrumentalists on the roster, the album itself is fairly humdrum. Only a snail could describe most of these songs as up-tempo, and far too many of them dissolve into empty prettiness. There are a few mildly stimulating moments here--"It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" has a nice, easy feel to it, and the second half of "Shalom Aleichem/Breakin' Up Christmas" shows signs of life--but not nearly enough. Ditto for A Christmas Card, a CD on Atlanta's Southern Tracks Records credited to Michael Dyke and Friends. Several songs have promising titles, but "Ain't Nobody Got the Blues (Down in Christmas Town)" doesn't exactly qualify as down and dirty; "Set the North Pole on Fire" fails to strike any sparks; and "Sexy Little Christmas Thing" is a potentially cute rocker that builds up to nothing much. Dyke himself comes across as a poor man's James Taylor--a description that sends a chill down my spine.
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