CD reviews: a few holiday offerings
December 14, 2011
Somebody call the CMA – and I don’t mean the Country Music Association. It’s Christmas Music Anonymous I need.I’m an addict, in deep ever since I heard John Cusack and that barfly sing “The Christmas Song” in that scene from “The Sure Thing.” (Yes, that is the proper name of the song people think is “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” – of course I know that. And my intimate knowledge of holiday music trivia only begins there. Betchya didn’t know that 63 percent of all hit Christmas songs were written by Jews.) I can hear the most horrendous sounds, sounds that would normally have me flying to hit the eject button – bells, cheesy faux-Celtic pipes, Mariah Cary’s voice – but for some reason, if I detect the melody of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the rhythm of “The Little Drummer Boy,” or hear mention of the name Good King Wenceslas, I’m hooked. Good taste and regard for my ears go out the window. I get an email in August from a publicist pitching “The Sing-Off: Songs of the Season” – whoa, gotta have that. Ummm, can you overnight it? Yes, in fact I was thinking of reviewing it this week. Got to give my readers four months lead time before making their Christmas music purchasing choices. Hey, this is important stuff. Can’t find my copy of “Natty and Nice: A Reggae Christmas,” with that smoking version of “Rudolph the Reggae Reindeer?” Heart palpitations.Here’s what showed up in my stocking this year. Little Lord Jesus and Vince Guaraldi help me.(Breaking news: Lyle Lovett has a Christmas EP out. There’s an original song: “The Girl With the Christmas Smile.” This is the holy grail. Gotta go.)
produced by Allen and Kumle Mwanga (Motma); and Marcus Roberts, “Celebrating Christmas,” produced by RobertsA singular and affecting take on Christmas. Jazz keyboardist Geri Allen is cool and avant-garde, without abandoning a familiar feeling of Christmas. Allen is the only instrumentalist here, adding electric keyboards to a base of acoustic piano. But she brings in a variety of interesting vocal bits – spoken word on “Journey to Bethlehem”; a sample of the Gee’s Bend Quilt Collective on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Even more interesting is how inventively Allen approaches the material. There are times when the melodies – all related more to Christ than to, say, Santa and Frosty – are unrecognizable, but she still captures the holy spirit.Only by comparison can you say that pianist Marcus Roberts plays it safe and conservative. His gentle-sounding “Celebrating Christmas” is more piano trio album than Christmas album; even though all the tunes here are ultra-familiar, from “Frosty the Snowman” to “O Came All Ye Faithful,” it’s possible at times to forget he’s playing holiday music. But throughout, it’s impossible to overlook that Roberts, joined here by bassist Rodney Jordan and drummer Jason Marsalis, is a thoughtful jazzman with an inventive touch.
produced by Doug Green & Weiland (ATCO)Yes, that Scott Weiland, singer of hard rock band Stone Temple Pilots. Though from the first sounds – the sentimental strings that kick off “The Christmas Song” – it’s obvious we’re not in STP-land here. Weiland starts off in good form, but it’s a sharp descent from there as he puts thick layers of vocal schmaltz on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “White Christmas.” But Weiland, a former heroin addict, knows about recovery. His solid, finger-popping take on “What Child Is This?” makes him an honorary member of the Rat Pack, and “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” in near-big band style, isn’t bad. But Weiland slides back every time he dips into a Latin feel: “Silent Night” and the original “Happy Christmas and Many More” both get cartoonish Latin backgrounds. By comparison, the Caribbean take on “Oh Holy Night” is almost tolerable.”The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is a mixed bag – like finding under the tree that sweet pair of jeans you’ve had your eye on, next to a hideous, obviously re-gifted, holiday-themed picture frame.
produced by Gary Paczosa (Sugar Hill/Vanguard)This might be a first for me – getting turned onto a group I really like through their Christmas album. I had “A Farmhouse Christmas” pegged as hokey country – the cover has singer Rory Feek in his overalls, his wife and partner Joey in a flannel shirt, both looking way over-groomed. But they get after it on “A Farmhouse Christmas,” which splits the difference between bluegrass and country. Joey + Rory dig to find lesser-known chestnuts (“What the Hell – It’s the Holidays”; Garth Brooks’ “I Know What Santa’s Getting for Christmas”; Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December,” with Haggard himself helping out on vocals) and several original tunes (though “Let It Snow (Somewhere Else)” isn’t going to resonate with Aspen listeners). It’s cheerful, tasteful, original and even funny (“I believe it’s gonna be another stressful, miserable, dysfunctional … wonderful Christmas,” Joey sings, with a wink, in the original “Another Wonderful Christmas”).
produced by Bob Gaudio (Rhino)With one stroke, “Seasons Greetings” gives a bad name to three things that don’t really need it: Christmas music, New Jersey and Broadway shows. The standards are given the over-the-top Broadway pop treatment. And when the album nods to Frank Valli & the Four Seasons, the subject of the Broadway musical hit “Jersey Boys,” it gets even worse: “Santa Medley,” sung in Valli-esque falsetto, and with little kids voices spliced in (“Is that Santa?” “How’d he get down the chimney so fast?”), would drive the Prince of Peace to violence. Just as bad is when they move into biblical territory; the medley of “Holy Night/Rise Up Shepherd” is an unholy mess.
Every few years I get a Christmas album that makes me say, Dang, I wish this wasn’t a Christmas album because it’s so dang good I want to listen to it year-round. A few years ago it was Bla Fleck & the Flecktones’ “Jingle All the Way.” This year, discriminating listeners will want to find “A Very She & Him Christmas” under the tree. The duo of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward breathe intimate, hip life into “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”; their version of “Christmas Wish” should become a seasonal standard. They manage to add an edge to the music without going over the edge.(I’m using ‘dang’ instead of ‘damn’ out of respect to the season. But if I have to listen to “A Jersey Boys Christmas” again, I take no responsibility for what comes out of my mouth.)
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produced by Standring (Ultimate Vibe)In the realm of female singer/male guitarist duos with new Christmas albums, Chris Standring & Kathrin Shorr aren’t as hip as She & Him – but they do come close. On “Send Me Some Snow,” Standring & Shorr make cool, snappy jazz that follows traditions but feels up-to-date, thanks to Shorr’s playful voice and Standring’s smart arrangements that blend jazz and pop. And give the pair credit for coming up with all their own songs, many of which – “I’ve Got a Thing for Jack,” “Someone’s Gonna Get Something For Christmas,” the title track – deserve to become standards.
“This Warm December,” the 2008 album which collected tracks from artists on Jack Johnson’s Brushfire label, gets a play or two each Christmas. Volume 2 is more of the same good stuff – mellow, acoustic-oriented, slightly quirky, with a generous helping of original material. G. Love (who has a two-night stand coming up at Belly Up, Dec. 28-29) contributes a pair of Delta bluesy numbers, “Christmas Cookies” and “Christmas Blues,” while surfer-strummer Johnson matches the output with two of his own, “In the Morning” and “Angel (Holiday).” Bahamas adds a slow, funky cover of the Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight.”
produced by O’Connor (OMAC)Mark O’Connor is remarkably gifted, capable of doing most anything with a fiddle – which he proceeds to do most everything with it here. As this is an album about the birth of Christ, that makes this, technically, a holy mess. O’Connor, joined by a mish-mash of guests (James Taylor, Rene Fleming, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Yo-Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer), wanders from Texas swing to orchestral, Celtic to New Age, quiet to bombastic. Despite the title, much of it has nothing to do with Appalachia. Some of it has nothing to do with Christmas. There are fine moments: Taylor’s reading of “Ol’ Blue”; “Appalachia Waltz,” an exquisite duet with guitarist Sharon Isbin. But there are bad ones, too, like a sugary and caffeinated country pop take on “Sleigh Ride.” But the biggest problem here is the lack of a through-line.
produced by Ric Blair and Donnie Boutwell (Celtic Isle)Badly over-produced, pretentiously Celtic sounds; Old World spiritual tunes taken from Scottish, Irish and Latin traditions, and then done in a way that would make the people who invented this music cringe. We Jews have a name for this: dreck.
produced by Phil Ramone (Chicago Records)See “Christmas With the Celts,” eliminate the Celtic part of it, and take the “Old World” reference to mean ’70s AM radio, and you’ve got “O Christmas Three.” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is an embarrassing example of old guys showing they still know how to email@example.com