Record Reviews: Christmas

JAMES BROWN

Funky Christmas (Polydor)

It's obvious Christmas cheer makes James Brown more soulful than the advertised funky. Still, Funky Christmas works surprisingly well anyway, mostly because Brown wisely sidesteps over-trodden Christmas standards and includes nine of his own tunes on this 17-track compilation - collected from three J.B. X-mas records: James Brown and His Famous Flames Sing Christmas Songs (1966), Soulful Christmas (1968), and Hey America (1970). On the soul material, excluding the brilliant and cliché-free "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto," Brown falls back on his own trademarks, left to scream and rap his way out of self-induced boredom with mixed results. But when Brown unleashes the funk, on the title tracks from the second two records, as well as on "Go Power at Christmas Time," "Tit for Tat" and "Christmas Is Love," J.B.'s effortless melding of rhythm, tempo, and bridges galore does the unthinkable - it makes this a James Brown collection worth pulling off the shelf in July. 3 stars - Andy Langer

TONY TRISCHKA

Glory Shone Around: A Christmas Collection (Rounder)

Too often this album reminds me of Tiny Tim. I personally don't want the spirit of a heart-rending little orphan boy in my music, but I know many people wait all year for the chance to conjure up such things. And as for Tony Trischka, he seems to have more than a nodding acquaintance with the lad. The thing is, he pours such virtuosity with the banjo into the whole thing you almost want to weep with him. A plum is "A Christmas Carol," with accompaniment he calls piano but has to be harpsichord. The treatment of "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" is pretty good; you can enjoy the banjo and the old chestnut. But there's trouble ahead: Whenever voices intrude, including a spoken-word story complete with winter sound effects, Tim is not so Tiny. An all-banjo treatment is a new way to do Christmas, but sentimentalism we've heard before. Tony tells us about his "white knuckled" approach to the recording process, winging the arrangements and all, but any terror I experienced was not cathartic. 3 stars - Kirven Blount

101X-MAS

Let's face it, by the time each New Year's clicked off another number for the ages, you're ready to store Christmas music with the tree decorations, holiday wreaths, and all the other crap you keep in the attic, store under the stairs, or cram into your closet. That is to say - away, far away. See you next year. And, who're we kidding? Listening to Christmas music in, say, August, is like having an Easter Egg hunt in December or Thanksgiving in February. It just doesn't happen. So, it's a damn shame that Ray Seggern, the deejay responsible for the classic-to-be, Deja-Phooey, on which mostly Austin bands pretended it was the Eighties and "New Wave" ruled the AM airwaves again, has wasted his time with another collection of mostly Austin bands, covering tunes like "Do You Hear What I Hear," and "Jingle Bell Rock." It's a crime that's he's conned bands like Sixteen Deluxe, El Flaco, Flaming Lips, Wannabes, and Flying Saucers to give up classic Christmas B-sides for this 18-song compilation. It's a frigging waste that Lee Ving rips through "Another Christmas Beer" or that Wammo raps "Christmas Cheer" right up against the Butthole Surfers' who-dosed-the-egg-nog? take on "Good King Wenceus" (sic). What guile did he use to get Michele Solberg's nice reading of "2,000 Miles," or Meg Hentges' "Christmas Time Is Here"? It's an outrage that an album on-par with Deja Phooey except for the noxious deejay greetings can only be played one month outta the year. Where's the justice? Take Seggern out, and flog 'im. And Merry Christmas to you, too, pal. 3 stars - Raoul Hernandez

ENYA

The Memory of Trees (Reprise)

LOREENA MCKENNITT

A Winter Garden: Five Songs for the Season (Warner Bros.)

In this corner, wearing the clear blue soprano and weighing in at 22 minutes and 30 seconds, from Canada, the challenger, Loreena McKennitt. And in this corner, in the misty-grey wail, weighing in at 43 minutes and 53 seconds, from the land of the Druids, the champion, Enya. Now frankly folks, Enya was in better shape to go up against McKennitt's hard-body little stocking stuffer last Christmas, when she had her own holiday tunes (or is that runes?) EP out. But the champ's camp says it's confident that Enya can slug it out with the Christmas tide of reissues and holiday collections to go her first serious 12-rounder in years (last year's The Celts copped out as "primarily a soundtrack"). The bell rings. McKennitt comes out feeling her way with the "Coventry Carol" while Enya dances around with her usual instrumental sparring on the title track. Round Two goes to McKennitt for her pounding uppercut on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," a smoking, eerie take on the standard. Enya holds on with an actual song, "Anywhere Is," which could land a solid hit on radio. Round Three - oh, there's a knockdown in three, ladies and gentleman. And the match has been called on a technical. It's all over folks. McKennitt is the new champ. There'll be appeals for sure, since McKennitt isn't really in Enya's same weight class - being more Clannad and Maire Brennan (Enya's sparring partner and sister) than Enya - but since this is the "if you like this, you'll probably like that" category, McKennitt wins easy. Her clear, ringing voice enchants and bewitches like fog on the moors, casting spells in an instant. Enya, on the other hand, for her first full-length since 1991's Shepherd Moons, has gotten fat and lazy and forgotten to write songs. Instrumental swirls of synthesizer and strings don't an album make. A few good ones, sure - "China Roses," and "On My Way Home" - but the rest of the time she just assumes her cult will be fooled by filler. Nope. Don't think so. Until a rematch, Lorenna McKennit is new heavy-weight champion. (The Memory of Trees) 2 stars

(A Winter Garden) 3 stars - Raoul Hernandez

JAZZ TO THE WORLD

(Blue Note)

Like the philanthropist who gives money all year round, a Christmas donation is still appreciated, but, really, it's just a drop in the bucket. This drop missed the bucket. The sponsors of the finest jazz, Blue Note, have thoughtfully given to the holiday music fund with a 16-track collection of tunes done Chrismas-style, only to have the bland likes of Herb Albert, Michael Franks, Herbie Hancock, Holly Cole, and Chick Corea ruin the party with spirit-free eggnog. Making out by the copier with Cassandra Wilson's "Little Drummer Boy" was fun, and caressing Anita Baker during the "The Christmas Song" got us going - Dianne Reeves and Lou Rawls sounded like they were having fun in the corner - but, really, the party was a bust - elevator stuff all the way. Shame, too, because Blue Note usually throws such elegant soirées. Oh, well, they're still the Vanderbilts of jazz. 2 stars - Raoul Hernandez

IGGY POP & JAMES WILLIAMSON

Jesus Loves the Stooges (Bomp!)

PUNK ROCK XMAS

(Rhino)

I've always found it hard to work up a good head of holiday cheer in a climate that encourages beach outings on Christmas Day. After all, how Irving Berlin can you get amidst the dunes? Maybe this is why I collect rock & roll Christmas records: In the blind hope I can suck something merry and bright out of something sonic as I sip some lemonade and put on a little more sunblock. `Tis fortunate there's now a holiday pogo party in the works with these two items, too. The holidays have long been a fave skewing subject of the spiky set, from the Boys' notorious Xmas LP on down. The Iggy item's an odd one, essentially a gospel piano romp padded with tracks from Kill City and coupled with a photo of a dead donkey sent as an audio Christmas card from Bomp! Records in the late Seventies: not an actual Christmas record, per se, but close enough. The Rhino package ties up many punk chestnuts-roasting-over-an-open-fire (The Damned's "There Ain't No Sanity Clause," The Dickies' "Silent Night," The Ramones' "Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight)") with stuff which should become chestnuts, like the Humpers' V-8 cover of Chuck Berry's "Run, Rudolph, Run" and El Vez's "Feliz Navidad," which sounds oddly similar to the first weird Public Image, Ltd. single. Wrapped in a sub-Gary Panter sleeve, this should look suitably bloody in someone's stocking. (Iggy) 2 1/2 stars

(Punk Xmas) 3 stars - Tim Stegall

LENA HORNE

Merry From Lena (Razor and Tie)

Most Christmas collections are rehashes of the same carols and hymns, and it's generally just a matter of time before your favorite artist will warble his/her version. Sometimes, though, life can be kind, and redemption comes unexpectedly. If simply gazing at Lena Horne's heart-meltingly beautiful face isn't pleasure enough, her rich, velvety voice soothes the rough edges of trouble and pain with the comfort of holiday tradition. Maybe the world doesn't need another version of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" or "Silent Night," but when the pressure of the season begins to weigh heavily, the sublime tones of Lena Horne are not bad relief. 3 stars - Margaret Moser

NASHBORO NATIVITY: A CHRISTMAS GOSPEL COLLECTION VOLS. 1 & 2

(Nashboro/AVI)

It's much easier to deal with sacred Christmas music as opposed to another version of "Jingle Bell Rock." If nothing else, the pageantry and majesty of choirs and orchestra lend a regal touch to Those Same Old Christmas Songs (sometimes "Crappy Songs"). In the two volumes available from the old Nashboro label archives, many of TSOCS are rehabilitated through the glory of our Lord, for it's the faith in Him and His Word that's in the heart of classic Christmas tunes as diverse as Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" (two versions between the two volumes) and hymns such as "Silent Night" (three versions in two volumes) that the idea of faith seems somehow less daunting. And after hearing Rev. Cleophus Robinson do "Joy to the World" or Brother Joe May singing "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," it's clear that faith and talent can indeed be otherworldly things. Many of the tracks on these two volumes are smothered by Seventies over-production, but voices always redeem even the most saccharine of arrangements. And no matter how unfashionable it is, there is a deeply believing Christian segment of this world for whom this music is gospel. Let it shine, all the time, let it shine. 3 stars - Margaret Moser

THE JINGLE DOGS

Christmas Unleashed (Jingle Cats Music)

'Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the town, the air was alight with the seasonal sounds / Of carols and bells, and of one sleigh embarking to deliver CDs of Christmas dogs barking. / They woofed and they howled with tongue-wagging cheer, when to no one's surprise the Jingle Cats did appear. / Mewling and pining through the carols of old, these festive animals cared not what they sold./ For them, this CD was a labor of love, and their sounds matched the hymns like the snuggest of gloves./ As the dogs and the cats lifted their voices to high, their barks and their purrs filled the December sky./ Of course they weren't there for any good reason, but to show the pure joy critters feel in the season./ And if dogs and if cats can sing together in peace, then we humans should do just as much - at the least./ For the animals say with every bark and meow, "Merry Christmas to all! And to all a bow-wow!" 3 stars - Christopher Gray

EVEN SANTA GETS THE BLUES

(Pointblank Classic)

If even Santa gets the blues, is there any hope for the rest of us? Well, yes, of course, but don't look for it here. This Christmas CD falls squarely into the "been there, heard that" category, and yet it's hard to fault it. Oh, sure, like you don't already own four or five CDs with Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby" on it, and while Hadda Brooks serviceable-if-routine renditions of "White Christmas" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas" won't exactly knock your stockings off, they won't make you spew your eggnog either. Otherwise, Isaac Hayes contributes two lushly orchestrated songs to the record that make you wish for "Christmas With Shaft," if indeed there ever were such a thing, and Johnny Winter's "Please Come Home for Christmas" redeems itself (if not the record) with a nice turn by the backup singers. Really, though, if you like your Christmas music shot through with R&B, as many people do, then add this to your collection. If not, while away the hours between now and Christmas Eve thinking seasonal thoughts, like "How would this record be different if it was called Even Satan Gets the Blues?" 2 1/2 stars - Christopher Gray

GENERATION X-MAS

(Monkey Boy)

Oh, the sweet opening number from the True Light Beavers might trick you into thinking that this is something that the family ordered off the TV, but that illusion grinds to a halt as soon as Gut's entrance with "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." From then on, you're in for a cacophony of rap (Korngarten featuring MC 900 Ft. Santa), brass 'n' samples (Brown Hornet), the thrashin' sounds of Myra Manes' "X-mas is Very Uncomfortable in Hell" and Liquid Mice's drunken-organ-grinder take on "Frosty the Snowman." I would say that the Pocket FishRmen's "Santa Claus is Coming..." was the standout cut, but it doesn't actually so much stand out as intrude. Instead I'll give that honor to the Fuck Emos, if only because they manage to get halfway through "Do They Know It's Christmas" before bringing in the Deep Voice. 3 stars - Ken Lieck

BARNSTORMERS UNCLASSIFIED CHRISTMAS

(Barnstormers)

Actually, the full title on the cover is given as Barnstormers Unclassified Original Austin Christmas, and that's a better description of what's up here. With a surprising shortage of the usual traditional trappings (aside from Ky Hote and Friends' largely instrumental, Spike Jones-in-a-reflective-mood take on "Twelve Days of Christmas") this batch of blues and folk numbers still manages to capture the spirit of the season. In other words, this is Christmas music for those who could go the rest of their life without hearing another #@!*!! carol. Nicely varied instrumentation keeps the album chugging along (a little Emily Kaitz here, a touch of Tomas Ramirez there), as do nice lyrical bits like Danny Dollinger's references to the "red nosed wino" in his tune "Rudy" (proceeds from the album benefit HOBO, I might add), but you may want to stop the tape before the finale - Beans and Bacon's noisy "No-One Dies on Christmas" - burns out Grandpa's hearing aid. 3 stars - Ken Lieck

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