CD reviews: Musings about Christmas music
December 9, 2010
To Donald Rumsfeld’s not exactly pithy quote about known knowns and known unknowns, I add this: There are things that we know we will never know.To wit: I will never know what about Sandra Bullock is attractive. I will never know how to operate all the functions available on my cell phone or on my cable TV; I will never even know what all those wonderful functions are.Most of all, I will never have the slightest bit of insight into my fascination with Christmas music. The song lists are repetitious; for decades, holiday music albums have focused on the same core of familiar songs. The albums are exercises in commercialism, not art. Have I mentioned that I’m Jewish? And that I don’t even really like the music? That most Christmas albums are flat-out awful, over-the-top with cheesiness?Yet, come late October, when I start getting alerts about which musicians are going to be releasing holiday albums, I get a tingling anticipation: Aimee Mann has a Christmas record? That could be cool. Bla Fleck is making a Christmas record? Hmmm, I thought he was Jewish … but hey, it’s a Bla Fleck album. “A Chipmunk Christmas” by Alvin & the Chipmunks? Oh man, I’ve got to hear what horrendous sounds are being made in the name of Jesus Christ. (Conclusion: And you thought being nailed to a cross was painful.) I collect the CDs on a special shelf, awaiting that moment in late November when it is finally appropriate to listen to Christmas tunes. And I am remarkably conversant about the music. The most popular Christmas song of the last decade or so? Easy – “The Christmas Song” (the one that starts with “Chestnuts roasting …”). Everyone does it. (Or already did it – there’s a notable shortage of versions this year.) I can tell you which albums rise above the genre (Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “The Christmas Album,” Bla Fleck & the Flecktones’ “Jingle All the Way,” Dianne Reeves’ “Christmas Time Is Here,” the compilation “A Winter’s Night: The Best of Nettwerk Christmas Albums.”) I can correct the idea that Sting’s “If On a Winter’s Night” is a Christmas album; it’s actually a winter-season album. I can eloquently argue why the Dirt Band’s version of Steve Goodman’s “A Colorado Christmas” is the best holiday song ever (with John Lennon’s original version of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” not far behind).I even delve into trivia about the music. When readers are introduced to Johnny Fontaine, the barely disguised Frank Sinatra-inspired character in the novel “The Godfather,” he is about to start recording a Christmas album. The best part of the 1985 romantic comedy “The Sure Thing?” When John Cusack’s character joins a bunch of drunks at the bar in singing “The Christmas Song.”And my favorite bit of trivia: What do “White Christmas,” “The Christmas Song,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and “Silver Bells” have in common? All were written by Jewish composers.
produced by Peter Collins (Vanguard)Rare is the artist that uses holiday music to actually stretch themselves musically, but the Indigo Girls are a rare treat (as they showed in their Aspen debut at Belly Up last April). The Girls – Amy Ray and Emily Saliers – use “Holly Happy Days” to go more string band than they ever have, enlisting top-shelf pickers like fiddler Luke Bulla, bassist Viktor Krauss and banjoist Alison Brown, plus guest singers Brandi Carlile, Janis Ian and Mary Gauthier. They come out ripping on a bluegrass version of “I Feel the Christmas Spirit.” The customary standards are mostly absent here; instead there are little-known finds like Woody Guthrie’s “Happy Joyous Hanukkah,” Beth Nielsen Chapman’s “There’s Still My Joy,” and the tender traditional, “Peace Child.” The Girls add their own tunes to the repertoire: Saliers’ statement of individuality, “Your Holiday Song,” and Ray’s “Mistletoe” and “The Wonder Song.” The package is wrapped like a gift, and comes with several ornaments (cardboard, alas) that you can actually hang on a Christmas tree.
produced by Fred DeFaye (Verve)The Puppini Sisters sound a bit more naughty than nice here. The London trio of Marcella Puppini, Kate Mullins and Stephanie O’Brien, which mines ’40s-era harmony girl groups – think the Andrews Sisters, with a modern wink at the retro style – basically come on to Santa with their sultry, doo-wopping version of “Santa Baby.” Not to worry; they don’t get overly suggestive with the “Here Comes Santa Claus” that follows, but they make even “O Holy Night” sexy. The version of Elton John’s “Step Into Christmas” is high energy; their “White Christmas” is dreamy and a little twisted.
produced by the Superions (Fanatic Records)Fred Schneider, best known as frontman of the B-52s, has said that his big early influence was nutty Christmas songs. But it’s questionable whether any of those were as nutty as the ones Schneider has created with his current band, the Superions, on this album of all original songs. Schneider, with keyboardist Noah Brodie and programmer Dan Marshall, brings B-52-style loopiness to “Fruitcake” (“Artificial color, artificial flavor/ Your family don’t want it, give it to a neighbor”), the lascivious “Jingle Those Bells” (“I like those presents Santa gave you/ Unwrapped”), and “Teddy and Betty Yeti,” about a bigfoot couple wreaking some drunken havoc on Santa at the North Pole.And yes, the instruments and rhythms are just as offbeat as the words.
produced by Chris Goldsmith (Surfdog)Zany – but not Fred Schneider zany – is the hip, deadpan Dan Hicks. Backed by his Hot Licks formula – a pair of girl singers, a violin and some swinging rhythms, Hicks fires up the left-of-center repertoire: “Somebody Stole My Santa Claus Suit,” a scat take on “Carol of the Bells,” and two original songs – the light, clever “Santa’s Workshop,” and “I’ve Got Christmas by the Tail.”
produced by Neal Pawley and Thomas FoyerStill more holiday music wackiness. 11 Acorn Lane – British-born Neal Pawley and native Swede Thomas Foyer – mix techno, salsa, classical, big band and more to create a constantly shifting soundscape (emphasis on constantly) on Christmas songs, mostly of the Euro variety. Perfect for the ADD kid on your shopping list.
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produced by Lynne (Everso)Bad-ass, devil-may-care singer Shelby Lynne doesn’t strike me as the holiday-spirit type, and she proves it here. Start with the uninspired title – and I mean, you can’t even spice it up with an exclamation point to feign a little merriness?Lynne sounds only somewhat more inspired on the music. Her version of “Silver Bells” drags; her own “Ain’t Nothin’ Like Christmas” is nothing special, just the usual rundown of presents, yule logs, snow outside. She does get in gear on a hopping country-rock version of “Christmastime’s A-Coming.” But on the slow, bluesy original “Xmas,” Lynne sings “Christmas makes us sad/ Everybody’s being bad,” which more or less captures this album.
(Surfdog Records)The undisputed musical king of Christmas is a Jewish guitarist from Long Island with a thing for rockabilly. “Christmas Comes Alive” is the fifth Christmas CD from his big band, the finely honed Brian Setzer Orchestra (not counting the 2005 DVD, “Christmas Extravaganza”). For those who remember the previous incarnation of Setzer, as leader of the Stray Cats, there is, incongruously, a version of his “Stray Cat Strut” here, which segues into “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” The orchestra does best when sticking to the rock tunes – “Run Rudolph Run,” Setzer’s own “(Everybody’s Waiting For) The Man with the Bag.” When the band moves into “Angels We Have Heard on High,” it’s a little weird.
produced by Wilson and Matt Balitsaris (Palmetto)Through the first half of the opening track, “Winter Wonderland,” it seems as though drummer Matt Wilson and his instrumental Tree-O, woodwinds player Jeff Lederer and bassist Paul Sikivie, are going to play this real safe, sticking close to the familiar melody. And then Lederer’s sax starts wandering, the trio goes off into their own world, and by the time they get to the second tune, “The Chipmunk Song,” it’s just three high-level jazz musicians jamming. Wilson brings an inventive rhythmic twist to John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” and of course, he shines on “Little Drummer Boy.”
produced by Bruce Walker and Jacques Richmond (Saguaro Road)If you’re going to spend Christmas with the O’Jays, you better be ready for some cheese. The soul group goes grandly, unabashedly schmaltzy here, with bells and strings and dramatic phrasings. The one original tune, “I’m What You Want This Christmas,” only layers on the cheese. The rest of the song list is as predictable as it gets.
produced by Barnett (Rounder)Mandy Barnett’s take on Christmas songs is so traditional, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that her “Winter Wonderland” was the soundtrack to the actual birth of baby Jesus. How is it possible that Barnett is only 35, when this album apparently was recorded in 1957?
produced by Carey and Randy Jackson (Island)Mariah Carey takes this Christmas stuff seriously. This is her second holiday album; the music is meticulously produced down to the last layered note; and she contributes four new, original songs to the repertoire, from the hand-clapping, catchy “Oh Santa!” to the melodramatic ballad “Christmas Time Is In the Air Again.”
(Warner Bros.)Highlights of this disturbingly eclectic, digital-only collection: Neil Young and his wife Pegi joining Ben Keith, Neil’s late bandmate, on “Les Trois Cloches”; Devo’s original tune “Merry Something To You”; Regina Spektor’s “December”; and the Goo Goo Dolls’ acoustic take on “Better Days.”
And from the archives, a pair of local albums: “Merry Christmas Aspen” (from 1984) features the Aspen Community Chorus and Orchestra, conducted by Ray Adams, performing the Christmas choruses from Handel’s Messiah, plus songs from the Snowmass Dickens Carolers and the Aspen Children’s Christmas Choir. The late John Denver was part of the music-making on both parts of the album. Also: “No Place Like Aspen For the Holidays” (2006), with the recently retired Dickens Carolers on classics like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” “Carol of the Bells” and “Good King Wenceslas.”Thank God that’s over with. Now bring on next year’s firstname.lastname@example.org