Music News

Xmas Marks the Spot

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Maybe This Christmas (Nettwerk), meanwhile, goes the adult-album-rock route to good effect. The CD mixes lighter-side stuff like Ben Folds's "Bizarre Christmas Incident" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," as covered by Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan, with torchier turns by Coldplay, Ron Sexsmith and Bright Eyes, whose "Blue Christmas" is a woozy bummer to remember. Also memorable is Christmas Greetings From Studio One (Heartbeat), a slew of cheerful reggae brought to life at Studio One, a landmark Jamaican recording facility. Vintage songs by Toots and the Maytals ("Christmas Feeling Ska") and Bob Marley and the Wailers ("White Christmas") are joined by newer merchandise, like the Silvertones' charming "Bling Bling Christmas."

'Cause it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that bling.

Nostalgia is the lure of Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town/ Frosty the Snowman, on Turner Records/Rhino. The disc delivers the complete audio tracks of two animated TV specials from the medium's more innocent past: Santa, starring Fred Astaire, Mickey Rooney and Keenan Wynn, and Frosty, "told and sung" by Jimmy Durante. The liner notes are full of interesting facts, but they leave one out: Seeing and hearing the shows is more fun than just hearing them.

The Time-Life Treasury of Christmas, a Time-Life Music product, doesn't bear an "As Seen on TV" sticker, but it might as well. This two-CD set gathers plenty of songs by the likes of Nat "King" Cole and Bing Crosby that have been sold for ages via late-night commercials. Christmas-music aficionados doubtless own most of what's here, but novices will be glad to find it all in one place. That's also the draw of Christmas With the Rat Pack (Capitol), a generous sampling of holiday fare by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Snappy studio toss-offs make up the majority of the disc, but it's capped by a couple of live cuts from TV shows. Frank and Dino's "A Marshmallow World" is an appropriately sodden display, with inexplicable audience laughter left in, whereas the duo's "Auld Lang Syne" ends with Dean delivering a moral. "Put your troubles away until tomorrow," he slurs. "If you're lucky, someone will break into your house tonight and steal 'em."

Make mine a double, barkeep.

Not all seasonal songs can be found on seasonal albums. For instance, country singer Steve Wariner recently released "This Christmas Prayer" as a single intended to build interest in Steal Another Day, a non-holiday CD not due until February 2003. But the tune, an industrial-strength tearjerker about deprived children the world over who need to know that "God's shining star always leads you to someone who cares," had the opposite effect on me.

Still, a couple of other new CDs feature Christmas songs that are as unexpected as they are unique. On the moody, gorgeous album called And Their Surrounding Mountains (Merge), for instance, Radar Brothers dole out "This Xmas Eve," a tale filled with looming malevolence: Vocalist Jim Putnam promises to "keep the demons away as everyone sleeps." And on The Pawnbroker's Wife, a wonderfully lurid disc on the Catamount label, singer-songwriter Johnny Dowd unleashes the weirdest version of "Jingle Bells" imaginable.

Listeners will either love it or hate it -- just like all the best Christmas music.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts