Record Reviews


WILL TAYLOR

A Peaceful Christmas

D.I.Y. meet J.A.Z.Z. Got yerself a holiday? No problem, just have the ol' master stringman and arranger, Will Taylor, slap a little here, dash a little there -- maybe an overdub or two -- and presto! Instant 6-song Christmas tape. And it's still better than those other reindeer games. The long suffering ache of Taylor's viola, combined with Steve Zirkel's very blue trumpet playing on "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" or Julie Noble's icy cry on "Silent Night" stills the mood quickly -- as do the other four laments -- laying a carpet of snow at your feet and the smell of pines in the air. Ever hear Lorenna McKennit's Christmas EP? Envelope yourself in its Canadian winter landscape? Taylor finds that same clearing -- here in Austin.
(3.0 stars) -- Raoul Hernandez


FESTIVAL OF LIGHT

(six degrees)

Because there's a traditional dearth of Chanukah-specific music, this holiday-inspired compilation starts with timelessness on its side -- particularly since the theme here is more often overall Judaism than mere seasonal celebration. And yet, given instrumental talent such as the Klezmatics and Masada String Trio, it's somewhat surprising that Festival of Light's non-specific approach works best on the few vocal performances. In fact, Marc Cohen's fresh, neo-folk take on "Rock of Ages," and an original Peter Himmelman and David Broza deep blues duet ("Lighting Up the World") not only bookend the album, they also hint that Festival of Light might have been better served as a Triple-A split single. Together, the pair of uplifting tracks are the adult vaccine to the self-hating alternative radio pox of Adam Sandler's "Hanukkah Song." Unfortunately, the producer's dutifully sandwich nine mostly forgettable Klezmer, folk, and classical compositions, plus an awful Jane Siberry throwaway. Don Byron's semi-moving "Oi Tata" and the Klezmatics somber "Dybbuk Shers" almost salvage things, and while Festival of Light is generally not a bad listen, it's also eight days short of permanently filling the celebratory Chanukah void.
(2.5 stars) -- Andy Langer


ETHAN JAMES

The Ancient Music of Christmas (Hannibal)


Yes, Virginia, there was a Christmas before "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Even before "We Three Kings" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Seasonal music dates back a lot longer than jolly old St. Nick and holiday bags of M&M's. Played on such archaic instruments as the hurdy-gurdy, hammered dulcimer, harmonium, and saz, this collection of Christmas music is, at the very least, something different. It's a trip back to when Christmas was still shrouded in the mystery of faith and hymns still contained a hint of trepidation; that yes, Jesus was born, but the nights were still dark and the wind still howled. Mostly a collection of lilting melodies played over a bagpipe-like drone (courtesy of the hurdy-gurdy, surely one of the oddest instruments ever devised by man), The Ancient Music of Christmas evokes a different time and a different age. Though melodies like "Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella" and "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" survive, the purity of this music, celebratory but lonely, is now as archaic as the instruments that once made it.
(3.5 stars) -- Christopher Gray


¡ESQUIVEL!

Merry Xmas From the Space-age Bachelor Pad (Bar None)

On one hand, this is a fine collection of holiday atmosphere, loaded with sleigh bells, string sections making those great bootstomps-in-the-snow sounds, other-worldly classics, members of Combustible Edison, and fine mixed boy-girl Fifties jingle choruses. But jingle in this context feels more like Jingle/advertising than "Jingle All the Way." And for that reason I can only recommend it to three types of folks: 1) The lover of ¡Esquivel! and all things lounge -- this is your true pledge of allegiance; 2) For the wacky risk taker who yearns to perpetually re-live the end of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, Manhattan, circa 1962, or; 3) For the schlub who wants to impress, if not weird out, his parents. Just slap this baby on and after daddy gives mommy her little pill, your grandparents'll embrace your return to the flock and brag to the neighbors that "Junior's combing his hair, tucking in his shirt, and doesn't listen to that awful heavy metal anymore." Ultimately, this is a Christmas record. Zu-zu-zoom carefully.
(2.0 stars) -- Kate X Messer


A CLASSIC CARTOON CHRISTMAS

(Nick at Nite/Epic)

What's not to like about songs from Dr. Seuss and Vince Guaraldi that not only are true Christmas classics, but haven't been burned directly into your ears through decades of overplaying? It's quite handy to have the three tunes included here from A Charlie Brown Chrismas, since the remainder of that soundtrack, while prime Guaraldi, isn't really Christmas music. Add a healthy dose of selections from How the Grinch Stole Christmas and several Rankin/Bass holiday chestnuts and you're left with just one query: since when are the Muppets (represented here twice) cartoon characters?!? Even the album's liner notes address (but don't answer) that burning question.
(3.0 stars) -- Ken Lieck


CHRISTMAS ON DEATH ROW

(Death Row)


When Death Row's greatest hits was released last month, it screamed, "I'm the ultimate novelty stocking-stuffer." Suge Knight obviously thought the same thing, so he's taken the dark humor one step further by rounding up what's left of his roster, throwing them into the studio, and commissioning cover art that depicts Santa in the label's classic executioner chair and mask ensemble. But fear not, Christmas on Death Row isn't sacrilegious, it's just boring. While Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Santa Claus Goes Straight to the Ghetto" may score points for rhythmically besting anything on The Doggfather and lifting an Isaac Hayes melody in the process, it's also devoid of any deep holiday thoughts or real punchlines. Even less fulfilling are nearly a dozen new jack snoozes, with pathetically classical translations of holiday standards from newcomers like BGOTI, Danny Boy, and Michel'le. Should you make it to track 16, there's a rewarding version of Smokey Robinson's "Christmas Everyday" by Guess, but by then it's too late to make Christmas on Death Row anything other than yet another exhibit of Suge Knight's guilt. In fact, pipe this record into his jail cell and see how much he likes it then.
(1.0 star) -- Andy Langer


THE VANDALS

Oi to the World: Christmas With the Vandals (Kung Fu)

If anyone still needs proof we're four years away from the millennium and in need of serious help, look no further. Thanks to the Vandals, we can now add "Christmas Time for My Penis" to the pantheon of Yuletide carols. Apparently, it's not a very merry one either, because two songs later comes "My First Xmas, as a Woman" and its refrain, "Chop it off! Chop it off! Chop it off!" Christmas should be the perfect punk-rock holiday (when else can you get to vent about God, capitalism, and commercialism while taking a week off work?), but here it comes in a spray of mixed messages. Singer-songwriter Warren Fitzgerald can't seem to make up his mind, defending his Xmas booty with "Stay the fuck away from my crap or I'll bust a cap in your ass" one minute, then speaking of Santa, "his corporate image forced upon the blinding masses, to enslave the lower classes with obligatory gifts to cleanse a year of guilt and shame" the next. Talk about guilt and shame; Fitzgerald closes the album with "Hang Myself From the Tree." By track 12, though, he's not the only one thinking that.
(1.5 stars) -- Christopher Gray


JUST CAN'T GET ENOUGH: NEW WAVE XMAS

(Rhino)


They're finally onto something here. Cross nostalgia with tradition and they cancel each other out. In a good way. See, 15 volumes of Rhino's "Just Can't Get Enough" series was fun in shuffle mode on your CD carousel, but one too many songs by Men at Work Without Hats can push a guy over the edge. It's the same with Kiss, Cheap Trick, and the Brady Bunch; ha, ha, very funny for five minutes, but let's move on, shall we? By now, the same goes for Xmas albums; you can put one on at the Christmas party or during Secret Santa, hum along to the Grinch song for a few brief minutes (da-whoo dooray, da-whoo dooray), but at 12:01am December 26, no one wants to hear "Winter Wonderland" for another 11, frozen-tundra months. Now, Los Lobos doing "Rudolph the Manic Reindeer" on the other hand, I could handle in -- say -- February. The Pogues' and Kirsty MacColl's "Fairytale of New York" has definitely been heard on my stereo in the Spring, and hearing Chrissie Hynde croon "2,000 Miles" is a lullabye any time of year. I could do sans Bowie and Der Bingle's "Little Drummer Boy," but here, Timbuk 3, Wall of Voodoo, They Might Be Giants, Captain Sensible, and Sun 60 are like the holidays themselves -- a welcome, once-a-year deal.
(3.0 stars) -- Raoul Hernandez


O COME ALL YE FAITHFUL:
ROCK FOR CHOICE

(Columbia)

JUST SAY NöEL

(Geffen)

Can we no longer count on our alternative rock heroes to be heathens? With two records of Christmas cheer, apparently not. Nevertheless, on O Come All Ye Faithful... we can still count on our rock stars to be pretentious (Bush), predictable (The Presidents of the United States), self-righteous (Henry Rollins), and sullen (the Cranes). And while Shudder to Think's quaint reading of the traditional Hebrew "Al Hanism" nicely repents for the sins of Wool, Mike Watt, Deep Forest, and Juliana Hatfield, only the Dance Hall Crashers inject some irony into the proceedings with the hilarious "I Did It for the Toys," a rollicking ode to a horny Santa. Geffen's Just Say Nöel, meanwhile, may only draw from one label's roster, but it's still the less disposable of the two -- beginning with Beck's psychedelic Chanukah anthem and ending with a painfully straight Ted Hawkins reading of "Amazing Grace." In-between, the Posies, Southern Culture on the Skids, and Elastica fall into nice, but forgettable, Christmas grooves, although nobody on either volume is as beautifully irreverent as The Roots and Sonic Youth; the former lowjack De La Soul's "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa," while the latter pull a sick `n' noisy reading of Martin Mull's "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope." Actually, Just Say Nöel does say something about the state of alternative rock: Like, how pathetic it is that a Christmas record has three or four more passable tracks than most of the contributing artist's real records.
(O Come All Ye...) (2.0 stars)
(Just Say Nöel) (3.0 stars) -- Andy Langer


KWANZAA PARTY!

(Rounder)


In the last couple of years, Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan's love affair with Western rock & rollers has proved that real alternative music isn't on Geffen (try Columbia). Instead, Real World, Hannibal, Corason, Shanachie, Xenophile, and Puta Maya are all labels specializing in excursions to far-off lands. The nice people at one of the better travel agencies, Rounder, recommend their tours of Africa, especially around the holidays when people wanna get away from Westernized seasonal celebrations of love and joy -- the type that gives rise to those little ornaments where Santa's kneeling at the manger. At the Kwanzaa Party! ("an African-American holiday dedicated to honoring the best in people of African descent," reads the brochure), you won't hear "White Christmas" or "Frosty the Snowman." Instead, you'll be treated to the Afro-Caribbean jazz of Orchestre Super Mazembe's "Shaure Yako" or Boukan Ginen's Haitian a capella call-and-response, "Ede M Chante." Trinidad, Havana, South Africa, Brazil -- those are the places to be this Christmas. That is until the Staple Singers summon you back to Chicago with "I'll Take You There." That's when you realize whose stamp is on your passport.
(3.5 stars) -- Raoul Hernandez


ARTHUR LYMAN

With a Christmas Vibe (Rykodisc)


Barring the good fortune of a winning Lotto ticket or a rich uncle, this is probably as close as most of us will get to spending Christmas in Hawaii. Lyman cut his exotica teeth doing birdcalls and vibes for Martin Denny's combo on Waikiki Beach. He formed his own combo in 1957 and even rivaled Denny's commercial success for a time. Although Lyman's vibraphone-intensive style is not quite as innovative or unique as Denny's, his mainland jazz leanings work just fine for this yuletide luau. It sort of sounds like the Vince Guaraldi Trio away on an island vacation. If the music doesn't put sand between your toes, there's also a list of authentic island recipes in the liner notes. With a Christmas Vibe is just the elixir for holiday revelers who prefer pineapple to roasted chestnuts and mai tais to egg nog.
(3.0 stars) -- Greg Beets



TINY TIM

Tiny Tim's Christmas Album (Rounder)

Recent Tim albums (there's been four or five in the last two years) have been of varying quality, but overall have focused on reminding people that the large-beaked tulip tiptoer has not only been around since 1969, he's been a performer much longer than his 15 minutes in the spotlight might suggest. Part of the secret has been letting Tim do what he's always done best -- sing the pop songs of the early part of this century. As best realized on last year's Girl, Tim strove to keep alive the memory of lost favorites from before your mother was born. Christmas Album is better suited to those who see Tim as nothing more than an unpleasant joke. Of course you've heard all these songs before, sung by the greatest voices of several generations. Here, the aging Tim's warbled falsetto is almost gone, and coughing fits and rambling sermons are left intact. Though I'm sure the producers of this album (released mere weeks before Tim's death) were sincere, the end result is an album that seems to mock its singer behind his back.
(2.0 stars) -- Ken Lieck


JAZZ FOR JOY:
THE VERVE CHRISTMAS ALBUM

(Verve)

The major jazz labels seem to alternate from year to year as to which one puts out a Christmas album. This year it's Verve's turn to dust off the cobwebs. What makes for a special holiday treat here is the label's triumvirate of jazz singing grande dames -- Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, and Shirley Horn -- who lend their incomparable touch of class to the whole affair. Otherwise, this is a warm, listener-friendly and, yes, predictable gathering together of the Verve family, featuring predominantly young, neo-bop instrumentalists playing a stocking-full of straight-ahead yuletide standards. Nothing particularly adventurous or surprising here save for bassist Christian McBride's solo turn on "Double Decker" (Deck the Halls), which was issued exclusively for radio airplay last year. The label's big gun, saxophone giant Joe Henderson, is conspicuous in his absence and could have provided the set with a needed kick in the butt. Oh well, maybe if you jazz fans are well-behaved throughout the year we'll be treated next time to a Xmas album that's both a little naughty and nice.
(3.5 stars) -- Jay Trachtenberg


CYRUS CHESTNUT

Blessed Quietness: A Collection of Hymns,
Spirituals and Carols
(Atlantic)

Because Ebenezer Scrooge decreed his scribes could no longer put quill to parchment over matters of sacred music, he was visited by three spirits. The first, the Ghost of Christmas past, took Scrooge back to a simpler time, when a neighborhood choir would stand on the fresh snow below his window and fill the air with holiday cheer. The second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present, took ol' Eb down to the drag, man -- Tower Records -- and stuck Jimmy Buffet's Christmas Island in his face. "Look at this, man! Fuck this!" said the spirit, getting in the geezer's face. The third spirit of the night, The Ghost of Christmas Future, a large jolly fellow by the name of Cyrus, took his cynical charge to a dimly lit basement tavern, The Elephant Head, and played him the Blessed Quietness of Christmas; the hyms, the spirituals -- "Jesus Loves Me," "Walk With Me Jesus," and "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" -- solemnly, on the piano. The next morning, Ebenezer Scrooge awoke to a new world, one full of wonder and joy. Dressing quickly, he hastened to Bob Crachet's house, bearing with him a feast. And it was in the middle of much merriment that the Crachet's youngest child, little Tiny Tim, stood up and in his wee voice announced, "Jimmy Buffet can blow me. Cyrus is dope. God bless us everyone."
(3.0 stars) -- Raoul Hernandez

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