Xmas Marks the Spot

A guide to new holiday discs, from surprise presents to Tannen-bombs.

YULE YUKS
No Christmas season is complete without the arrival of a couple of discs intended as gag gifts -- items meant less for listening than for making the recipient chuckle before he puts them in a drawer and forgets about them forever. Half of this year's quota is filled by Bob Rivers's White Trash Christmas (Atlantic), which offers up such timeless classics as "Aquaclaus" (a Santa-centric rewrite of Jethro Tull's "Aqualung"), "What If Eminem Did Jingle Bells?" (all the profanities are bleeped, damn it), "Osama Got Run Over by a Reindeer" and nine more examples of attempted wit. Most of these ditties are stupid in their entirety, while a few manage an amusing three or four seconds before progressing to stupidity. If your family and friends suspect you're a loser, put this on at a holiday party and they'll be convinced.

The Happy Holiday Hearth, a DVD put out by Rhino Records, is a slightly more subtle joke. The disc features 23 Christmas favorites as performed by an anonymous ensemble that's visually accompanied by a static shot of a crackling blaze intended to make the average TV set resemble a fireplace. Viewers/listeners can switch the crackling sounds on or off, but that's about it. An unsophisticated "continuous play" function doesn't allow skipping to specific selections -- although it is possible to jump backward to an especially nice FBI warning. My wife wondered if, in a tribute to Andy Warhol, another log might get tossed onto the fire at an hour or so into the program, but after about ten minutes, I decided I didn't care. So much for my membership in the avant-garde.

CHRISTMAS CLOSE TO HOME
Denver-area acts are apparently in the holiday spirit, since four of them have produced seasonal discs for 2002. Easily the oddest of the quartet is Ken Gorman's "It's a Cannabis Christmas," a recording put together by longtime pot-legalization advocate Ken Gorman; it can be ordered via his Web site, kg1.org. The production values aren't very high, but the performers almost certainly were. How else to explain good-humored but amateurish salvos such as "Don't Use Eggnog in Your Bong," a slab of faux-Beastie Boys complete with introductory bubbling noises, and the reggae-inflected "Need Weed Ye Merry Gentlemen." In his liner notes, Gorman announces that any profits from sales of the CD will be "dedicated to the outright legalization of marijuana for any purpose you see fit." Like, for instance, smoking it.

Christy Wessler's Christmas Wish, available at bighaired.com, isn't a prayer for kind bud. Rather, it's a familiar but pleasant folk-flavored survey of assorted standards supplemented by a pair of Wessler's own pieces. Nothing special, but Wessler's pristine voice provides good company. The same is true of the Denver Gay Men's Chorus, whose Songs for a Winter's Night is on sale at dgmc.org. No new ground is broken, but the selections go beyond the tried and true to encompass fresher material, like the somber Terre Roche composition "Star of Wonder" and the heartfelt "Welcome Home."

Lovelier still is Acoustic Eidolon's Joy to the World, at eidolonmusic.net, in which guitjo player Joe Scott and cellist Hannah Alkire serve up a fulfilling meal of Christmas instrumentals ("Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," and so on). The CD should appeal to those who enjoy new-age music, which sounds like a backhanded compliment. But Joy transcends the genre, thanks largely to Alkire, whose rich, bottom-heavy playing adds darkness and depth to tunes often treated superficially.

As they are in the next category.

SMOOTH SLEIGHING
In 2001, jazz artists weighed in with three of the year's standout titles: the compilations Jazzy Christmas and Justin Time for Christmas Three, as well as Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, by the Classical Jazz Quartet. But to the question "Will this year's jazz discs be just as strong?," I must answer with one word and a letter: Kenny G. Wishes: A Holiday Album (Arista), the G-man's most recent affront to humanity, isn't outwardly offensive. With the exception of "Auld Lang Syne (Freedom Mix)," which is introduced by a ham-handed sample of George W. Bush, the album is like invisible, unscented nerve gas that immobilizes its victims before they can defend themselves. Hope Saddam Hussein doesn't get ahold of this thing...

Two other mostly instrumental albums on this year's list are essentially jazz-free and could be described as "easy listening" if listening to them weren't so difficult. After I gave a spin to pianist Jim Wilson's My First Christmas With You (Hillsboro), the CD's title seemed more like a threat than a pledge. Dan Fogelberg, Stephen Bishop and Marilyn Martin (in a duet with Wilson) make cameos, but the disc is dominated by lachrymose, elevator-ready instrumentals such as a "Little Drummer Boy" medley sans drums. Clearly, Wilson doesn't have the beat...and neither do the participants in A Peaceful Christmas, a Time-Life Music collection of sleepytime specialists. John Tesh, Liz Story, Kitaro: The greats of insomnia relief are all here, ready to usher anyone within the range of their sound directly to the Land of Nod.

Trumpeter Chris Botti's December (Columbia) isn't quite as snoozy. Botti is a competent player who doesn't do much swinging, but he can sway when the need arises, as it does on a Brazilian arrangement of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." Most of the cuts, though, are tasteful to the point of somnambulance, and Botti's vocals on "Perfect Day" (co-written by the scary Richard Marx) represent bad Chet Baker impressions. In contrast, Steve Tyrell, whose Columbia Records release is called This Time of the Year, imitates Dr. John. Given Tyrell's feel for the New Orleans idiom, exemplified by a jaunty "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," that's not such a bad thing. Better a clone of something decent than a Kenny G gas attack.

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