Despite the Usual Christmas-Music Crap, a Few New (and Old) CDs Stand a Chance of Making Spirits Bright
No less than 15 of the batch of seasonal CDs received here at the City Paper offices are niche-market various-artists compilations, including Capitol's Christmas with the Rat Pack, A Windham Hill Christmas, Hip-O's by teens/for teens School's Out! Christmas, and Signature's nigh-wiccan-folk outing Wonderland: A Winter Solstice Celebration. For some reason, four of these various-artist outings are Xmas bluegrass compilations. It makes you wonder if label execs believe that Appalachians have nothing better to do on Christmas day than have a hoot and hollering hoedown.
But Kenny G's Wishes: A Holiday Album (Arista) proves you don't have to corral a grab bag of artists to lack personality. After John Coltrane cosmically proved that the soprano sax could be as evocative as the tenor or alto, the curlicue-haired G has devoted his career to making the soprano as distinctive as a yawn. That whitewashing is embedded in his favorite approach here: the medley. This soprano man can move from one song into another without ruffling a daydream, let alone your collar. His Muzak lines and Prozac tempos smooth "Deck the Halls" into "The Twelve Days of Christmas," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" into "Frosty the Snowman," flattening the arrangements until all that's left is his feathery handling of the melodies.
Most heinous, however, is G's "Auld Lang Syne (Freedom Mix)," which makes the inescapably sentimental tune even more heartstring-tugging by adding a slipstream of sound bites from the 20th century. That alone is suspect enough, but it places predictably iconic moments--such as snippets from speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. or John F. Kennedy--and pleasant serendipity (radio announcer Russ Hodges' legendarily jubilant 1951 radio call, "The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!") alongside yesterday's tabloid headlines (Ellen Degeneres coming out or the O.J. Simpson trial) and still-tender scars (Columbine, Sept. 11). When it's over you want to delouse. And it's not the most shamelessly manipulative music on a 2002 holiday album.
That crown goes to Cledus T. Judd--who comes across as trying to be the love child of Jeff Foxworthy and Weird Al Yankovic--and his Cledus Navidad (Monument/ Sony Nashville). A so-called "comedy" country Christmas album, Cledus is the worst of all worlds: unimaginative country pop underlying stereotypical farm-boy humor ripe with intolerance, homophobia, and racism that--surprise--totally forgets to bring the funny.
Over 10 tunes, Judd dispenses one-trick jokes such as "Stephon the Alternative Lifestyle Reindeer," Don't Serve Beans," and "All I Want for Christmas Is Two Gold Front Teef," in which Judd announces he wants to be "a real OG like ODB and then my record sales would triple." That anybody put something this insipid out would be unforgivable were it not for the fact that nobody--not even hard-core Toby Keith fans--is going to waste hard-earned cash on it. Sony Nashville, this Bud's for you.
Such crass shenanigans make the mild pop of Barry Manilow's second holiday album, A Christmas Gift of Love (Columbia), and Johnny Mathis' sixth, The Christmas Album (Columbia), feel downright refreshing. Opting for lush orchestral arrangements and lively, bouncy interpretations, these total pros nail their holiday cheer by playing to their strengths. Mathis' big, romantic tenor snuggles comfortably into the popular quasi-sacred songs "Joy to the World," "Away in a Manger," and "O Little Town of Bethlehem." And he even picks up the pace during a jaunty "Frosty the Snowman," arranger Bob Krogstad using a brassy Elmer Bernstein approach to the lively tune.
Despite what you may think about right down Manilow's middle-of-the-road pop, he enjoys the sort of vanilla musical ubiquity he does for good reason: He knows exactly what his audience wants--sunny, soaring, jubilant songs about feeling good and how everything's gonna be all right. Hence snappy, jazzy takes on secular classics like "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," "(There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays," and Rogers and Hamerstein's "My Favorite Things."
The traditional route isn't always a sure thing, though. New Age pianist Jim Wilson's My First Christmas With You (Hillsboro) takes already languid songs such as "Little Drummer Boy," "Greensleeves," and "O Holy Night" and renders them soporific by painting them in plaintive piano lines over a wind-chimes wash. It's even more listless than Plus One's Christmas (Atlantic), which at least has Christianity as an excuse. And to make matters worse, once you hit Wilson's rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" you encounter those two words synonymous with a narcoleptic episode: Dan Fogelberg.
The Ensemble Galilei takes traditional to the proverbial next level with A Winter's Night: Christmas in the Great Hall (on the Shady Side-based Maggie's Music label). And by traditional, we're talking 15th century. Recorded live at St. John's College's Great Hall in Annapolis, the ensemble--Liz Knowles (fiddle, viola), Deborah Nurse (Scottish small pipes, fiddle), Sue Richards (celtic harp), Carolyn Anderson Surrick (viola), and Sarah Weiner (oboe, tin whistle, recorder), with guest Kieran O'Hare (Uilleann pipes, flutes, and whistles)--makes getting medieval on your ass more engaging than it has any right to be. Whether it's a traditional Shetland jig like "Christmas Day I'Da Moorin'" or the 12th-century French piece "O Come Emmanuel," A Winter's Night feels as cozy as a wool sweater. I have no idea how faithful the Ensemble Galilei is to the traditional arrangements but, to steal a defense from Martin Amis, I admit that I may not know much about Early Music, but I know what I like.
No amount of ignorance excuses my enjoyment of Patty Loveless' Bluegrass and White Snow: A Mountain Christmas (Sony). Not only is it more interesting than this year's other country Xmas albums--Brooks and Dunn's It Won't Be Christmas Without You (Arista), Clay Walker's Christmas (Warner), and Charlie Daniels' Merry Christmas to All (Audium), the less said about the better--it's downright bubbly. Only Alan Jackson's Let It Be Christmas (Arista), which takes a 1950s no-frills country approach, nears Loveless' playful mix of unique interpretations of traditional material, songs by lesser-known figures such as Tex Logan and A.L. Phipps, and Loveless originals. Loveless swings her throaty voice into a panoply of mandolins that finger pick and strum skifflelike or weave an airy gossamer of notes and lines. And backing Loveless are some of the most distinctive female vocal chords on the planet in Emmylou Harris and Dolly Parton. It's not gonna make you want to go caroling, but it's also not going to make you cringe.
Unfortunately, too many cringes crop upon Nettwerk Records' Maybe This Christmas (Nettwerk), this year's indie holiday album entry. Thirteen different MTV2-friendly acts tackle holiday songs old and new for one uneven ride. Some good sprouts up in Bright Eyes' playfully stumbling take on "Blue Christmas" and Jimmy Eat World's ethereal "12/23/95." But they don't make the bad (Phantom Planet's "Winter Wonderland," Ben Folds' "Bizarre Christmas Incident") or the ugly (Sense Field's painfully earnest hug of John Lennon's already granola "Happy Christmas [War is Over]," Coldplay's self-pitying piano pitter-patter take on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas") worth enduring.
Of course, the two undisputed masterpieces of the genre are almost 40 years old, and haven't aged a day. The Vince Guaraldi Trio's 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas (Atlantic) is the most unlikley--a completely instrumental evocation of Christmas' many moods, both high and low, nailing its Hallmark mundaneness and inexplicable giddiness. But even it can't touch Phil Spector's 1963 A Christmas Gift for You (ABKCO). Featuring Darlene Love--whose version of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" is what all Christmas songs aspire to--the Ronettes, and the Crystals, Spector's Gift is the Platonic ideal of the theme compilation album. Long before Clive Davis and Lou Pearlman, Spector realized that the one surefire pop bet was dropping ecstatic youthful longing into a bombastic three-minute epic that filtered out all emotion save ululating euphoria. Then Spector performed a Christmas miracle by making that formula work for a holiday album. So if you have a Scrooge bah-humbugging around the house, it's the lone Christmas album that holds any chance of turning Yuletide jeers to cheers.
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide
The Gifts That Count (11/18/2009)
The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts
The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford
Unnatural Wonders (7/7/2010)
Soledad Salamé's works become more persuasive through distortions
That Nothing You Do (6/23/2010)
Will Eno embraces the banality of everything
All Eyes on Him? (6/16/2010)
John Potash's The FBI War on Tupac Shakur and Black Leaders offers a different version of the slain rapper
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