Geezinslaw Christmas Double (Step One)
This two-song Yuletide sampler CD finds Sammy Allred and friends stripping down to a less caustic shade of country-fresh sarcasm for the holidays. While "Lighten Up It's Christmas" won't make you laugh out loud like "Help, I'm White and I Can't Get Down," the sentiment does exude a certain obvious charm, especially with Allred's unmistakable drawl. The bluesy "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" is also a fun ride, even if it doesn't scream "Geezinslaws!" like the former tune. If you're looking for a last-minute stocking stuffer, and Only Deals has run out of 50-cent Hulk Hogan CDs, this might be just the ticket for the goof in your tribe.
2 Stars -- Greg Beets
Come on Christmas (Reprise)
It's Christmas in L.A., and Dwight Yoakam starts Come on Christmas in a proper holiday mood: "Come on Christmas, embrace me with some joy/Until the last few lonely moments of this year have been destroyed." This delightful bit of holiday dysfunction concludes with "Santa Can't Stay," in which Saint Nick (who drives a sleigh suspiciously resembling the narrator's father's car) hurls a present at the now ex-Mrs. Claus' new paramour. In between, Yoakam applies the musical schizophrenia of his adopted hometown (and his last album Gone) to seasonal standards old and new. "Silver Bells" gets a full trumpet/accordion mariachi treatment, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" rewrites Al Green's "Love & Happiness," "Here Comes Santa Claus" becomes spare and reflective, "Away in a Manger" goes straight-up country, and "The Christmas Song" borrows a page from Harry Connick, Jr.'s arrangement book. Also included are a couple of traditional readings of rock & roll carols, and although "Run, Run Rudolph" is a bit stiff, Lieber & Stoller's bluesy "Santa Claus is Back in Town" is friskily suggestive -- not hard when "Santa Claus is comin' down your chimney tonight" is perhaps the most overtly sexual Christmas lyric ever. And hey, if he keeps that up, Yoakam might have a happy holiday after all.
3.5 Stars -- Christopher Gray
CHRISTMAS WITH THE LOUVIN BROTHERS
(Razor & Tie)
It's against my religion to listen to Christmas records, but in light of a recent epiphany involving Sand Mountain, Alabama's beloved country bluegrass sons -- The Louvin Brothers -- let John Tesh murder music in Jesus' name so long as the Loudermilk brothers (their real name) will give it their all. Christmas With... has all the classic carols you've heard before, but never quite like this: "Dayck the hawls with bowels of hawly. Faw law law law law law law law;" "Hark the hayrold aingels seeing, glawry to the newbarn kang," and "Away in a maynger, no crib for a bayud. The little lard Jesus layd down his sweet hayud." What really pushes this living account of spending the holidays with crooning hillbillies over the top are the two bonus carols penned by Ira and Charlie's own twisted hands; "It's Christmas Time" and "Santa's Big Parade" fit nicely into the Loudermilk canon that already includes "The Family that Prays" and "Shut in at Christmas," a true classic: "Ding ding dong what a big parade, ding ding dong what a big parade, ding ding dong what a big parade when Santa comes to town."
4 Stars -- Taylor Holland
I'LL BE HOME FOR KWANZAA (Bagel Label)
YULE BE BOPPIN' (Blue Note)
'Tis the season. On the local front, here's a Christmas jazz album whose title refers to an African-American holiday celebration and which was released by a record label whose name and symbol is a bread stuff of Eastern European Jewish origin. Diversity, anyone? By far the most significant aspect of this pleasing set of holiday standards -- recorded live at Top Of The Marc -- is the CD debut of so many of Austin's most gifted jazz artists. Most notable in this category are vocalists Pam Hart, Hope Morgan, and Judy Arnold, trumpeters Martin Banks and Ephraim Owens, and gospel-inspired pianist/singers Margaret Wright and Ernie Mae Miller. Despite the strong roster, however, pianist Fredrick Sanders is easily the most noteworthy performer here. Still riding high from his recent debut, East of Vilbig, Sanders, with the able-bodied help of bassist Edwin Livingston and drummer J.J. Johnson, provides the most consistently satisfying playing across the board. The trio's performance on "Blessed Name" is perhaps the highpoint of the entire album. The live recording means you get your fair share of clams, but the spontaneity sure makes it feel more like a warm, intimate Christmas party among good friends than just a sterile recording session. The Grinch in me would have preferred a more challenging song selection rather than the well-worn standard holiday fare offered here. That's certainly not a problem on the latest Blue Note Christmas album, Yule Be Boppin'. In fact, the label's formidable roster of young, progressive musicians seem to have gone out of their way to find obscure hipster classics of yore. Louis Armstrong's "Cool Yule" and "Zat You Santa Claus" are resurrected by Kurt Elling and Miles Griffith, respectively, while Bob Dorough's update and extrapolation of the curmudgeonly "Blue Xmas," which he originally recorded with Miles Davis 35 years ago, draws a mixed review here. Best of the lot is Babs Gonzales' ultra-cool "Be-Bop Santa Claus," which has new life breathed into it by the deep-voiced Sweet Daddy Lowe, replete with a sample from vintage Dizzy Gillespie. Other favorites include trumpeter Jack Walrath and saxist Bobby Watson on a moody reading of "Cristo Redentor" and saxman Joe Lovano with vocalist Judi Silvano giving an edgy reworking to "Carol of the Bells." Even when the fare does turn standard, Dianne Reeves, sounding Ella-ish, manages to put a fresh coat of paint on "Jingle Bells." True to the Blue Note tradition, this is the hippest of Christmas jazz out there this year.
(Kwanzaa) 3 Stars
(Yule Bop) 3.5 Stars -- Jay Trachtenberg
A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS 3 (A&M)
How does this suck? Let me count the ways. Well, there are 16 songs, so 16 ways would be the answer. Put it this way: Hootie and the Blowfish are the least repulsive thing on this disc. Sure it's a band that has elevated blandness to an artform, but when listening to Darius Rucker becomes an aesthetic godsend, then you have done something special (and not in a good way). Of note: Smashing Pumpkins complete their transmogrification into Emerson Lake and Palmer with their original "Christmastime;" No Doubt's "Oi to the World" confirms that band cannot go the way of EMF fast enough; and the quasi-goth work up of "Ave Maria" by Chris Cornell and Eleven is just plain painful. Nevertheless, this collection could have been better if someone had thought to do one simple thing -- omit the last track, Patti Smith's "We Three Kings." I swear the spoken word intro to Spinal Tap's "Stonehenge" was the inspiration for her arrangement. Get out your pen and checkbook and send $15 straight to the Special Olympics, and skip this not very special Christmas. Everyone is better off that way.
1 Star -- Michael Bertin
THE TEXAS CHRISTMAS COLLECTION (The Bagel Label)
Like the old sweater that only comes off the dusty reaches of the closet shelf every year for the one winter week that begs for it, The Texas Christmas Collection has escaped the mothballs. Originally recorded and released back around 1982, it's been in hiding for years thanks to a lack of distribution. Now, Marc Katz has reissued it on his in-deli Bagel Label, and it turns out the album's long storage hasn't hurt it any. Willie Nelson does "Silent Night" solo acoustic, and this song alone is worth double the cost of the CD. It's pure Nelson. Eric Johnson, meanwhile, teams up with Van Wilks for a truly moving "What Child Is This?" that's also acoustic. Beto y Los Fairlanes, Marcia Ball, Jerry Jeff Walker, Steven Fromholz, Pressure -- the track list is impressive and the renditions well- done. For the yuletide curmudgeons who hate Christmas records, you'll play this one. And when next December rolls around, I'll be searching for this CD and the inimitable voice of Willie Nelson to renew faith in my fellow man.
3.5 Stars -- Christopher Hess
ANDREI CODRESCU AND MARK BINGHAM
Valley of Christmas: An Ancient Fable with Modern Appliances (Gert Town)
This is a radio serial-style Christmas story that contrasts traditional virtue with the fern bar liberalism of the NPR set to a subtle, humorous effect. Not to be confused with former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was executed on Christmas Day 1990, Andrei Codrescu weaves a fable similar to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in sardonic tone, closer to Capra in its be-careful-of-
what-you-wish-for moral underpinnings. The protagonist, a young man named Almond Joy who was born on Christmas, wishes to be forever young and is transported to the magical Valley of Christmas where three hot sisters cater to his every whim. Everything he wishes for comes true, but he can't make it stop snowing, and he can't go back to New Orleans to visit his parents. You can imagine what our boy decides to do then. Yet even as it revels in overused plot devices, the Valley of Christmas has a certain warmth and charm that keeps you involved. Mark Bingham's edgy, melancholy score goes a long way in this regard, as does the voice of White Panther John Sinclair as Almond Joy's '65 Thunderbird. While it's unlikely to leave you in the most festive of moods, Codrescu's fable is quite an elixir if you're searching for a respite from the joy-to-the-world mob.
3 Stars -- Greg Beets
LOVE IS A FOUR LEGGED WORD (SPCA)
Although the pace of material collected on this Humane Society benefit too often serves as a reminder that "yawn" is also a four-legged word, it's still a decent Austin sampler. Previously released tracks from Toni Price, Omar & the Howlers, Marcia Ball, and Tish Hinojosa make for a strong foundation, even if Gillman-Deaville's unintentionally hokey "Stay and Play" seems to have been licensed only because it's about dogs. The same could be said of Sara Hickman's Afro-pop take on the Turtles' "Happy Together" and one of Michael Fracasso's better Beatles impressions, "A Man and His Dog," and both ultimately serve any good compilation's master -- sequencing. Hickman's entry provides a quirky change-up out of Don Walser's new but predictable "Walk Through This World With Me," while Fracasso sets the table for the perfectly appropriate piano-driven closer, the Robert Kraft Quartet's "Eklelitkos" reading of "I'll See You in My Dreams." In between all this, however, is a middle passage of as yet unreleased gems that save Love Is a Four-legged Word from being gassed. Not only is Juliana Sheffield's first post-
81/2 Souvenirs recording a promising enough slice of Ella-meets-Bjork proto-funk, but Mr. Fabulous and Casino Royal's "Angel Eyes' shows some swanky promise that his live shtick may still translate to album. And yet, the real gem, in both songwriting and performance, comes billed as Charlie & Bruce Robison with Kelly Willis. Their graceful run through "You're My Best Friend," while serving some subtle canine overtones, single-handedly does something much greater: It turns this slightly above-average stocking stuffer into the first great Valentine's Day present of 1998.
3 Stars -- Andy Langer
MERRY AXEMAS -- A GUITAR CHRISTMAS (Epic)
On the surface this doesn't look like a Christmas album. Think about it. Which of the following doesn't belong: Jesus, Santa Claus, guitar wanker? Or, put differently, in the history of the world has this phrase ever been uttered: "Hey, mom and dad, Merry Christmas. Great to see you. Mind if I crank up the Joe Satriani?" Just looking on the surface, though, you'd be wrong. Steve Vai's warm-toned version of Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here" (think A Charlie Brown Christmas); Beck's (Jeff that is) simple and straight rendition of "Amazing Grace"; the totally blues workout of, appropriately enough, "Blue Christmas" by Aerosmith's Joe Perry; and Hotei's faithful take on John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" are all tastefully non-self-indulgent and fit for general holiday consumption. There are flashes and spots, of course -- nobody sings so they have to do something. For instance, even on the largely delicate handling of "The First Nowell," Eric Johnson can't refrain from throwing in a couple of bitching runs up the neck. Generally though, there's nothing on Merry Axemas that would turn off the non-wanker-wannabe. And save for Satriani's seven minutes of "Silent Night," nobody goes overboard.
2.5 Stars -- Michael Bertin
CHET ATKINS Christmas with Chet Atkins (Razor & Tie/BMG)
This reissue is a good excuse to give "Feliz Navidad" and "Merry Christmas (War is Over)" a much-needed rest on Christmas morning. Atkins' solid-but-unassuming electric and classical guitar work suits all 14 of these holiday favorites in snug perfection. Atkins celebrates Christmas with one foot in the hills around Nashville and another in the Waikiki sand, and it's hard not to feel a relaxed glow of contentment while this album is generating such placid imagery. Whether it's the jaunty numbers like "Jingle Bell Rock" and "Jolly Old St. Nicholas," or more traditional songs such as "O Come, All Ye Faithful," Atkins' wholesome delivery recalls the It's a Wonderful Life post-war American Dream with vivid precision and not a hint of cheese. Just put this album on repeat, close your eyes, and maybe you can see through the stress and commercialism enough to visualize the perfect Christmas without quite succumbing to those darn pathetic tears you still have to swallow every time Clarence gets his wings.
3.5 Stars -- Greg Beets
CELTIC CHRISTMAS III: A WINDHAM HILL SAMPLER (Windham Hill)
A WINTER SOLSTICE VI (Windham Hill)
WINTER ON THE MOORS (Lifescapes)
A SCOTTISH CHRISTMAS (Maggie's Music)
Tired of the same damn Jingle Dogs barking through the snow? The beauty of Celtic music is that even the most benign reels and lustful ballads mesh nicely into the Christmas category, a none-too-subtle reminder that most of our traditional holiday music comes courtesy of the British Isles -- nobody does lush dreamy Christmas sounds quite like the Gaels. Aside from saddling the umbrella term "Celtic" over an almost exclusively Scot-Irish material and performers, Celtic Christmas III: A Windham Hill Sampler is the year's nicest offering, 12 beautifully wrapped Christmas songs that are barely recognizable as such. Instead, its airy base floats by on harps, whistles, strings, bodhran, and occasional percussion, shuffling nicely on the CD player with A Winter Solstice VI and the two previous Celtic Christmas albums; A Scottish Christmas, from '96 makes a good companion to the more Muzak-y but soft-as-a-snowdrift Winter on the Moors. Both are instrumental albums, the combination of familiar and sacred songs rendered with fiddle, harp, and pipes a refreshing change from church choirs and Gap ads. While scouring Waterloo for Celtic music, I recently stumbled across another instrumental album, Maidens of the Celtic Harp, and Celtic Angels, a collection of voices such as Sinead O'Connor and Maighread NiDhomhnaill that works like a charm on shuffle mode with the above discs just when you think you can't take one more round of "Greensleeves."
(Celtic Christmas III) 3 Stars
(A Winter Solstice VI) 2 Stars
(Winter on the Moors) 2 Stars
(A Scottish Christmas) 4 Stars -- Margaret Moser
ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL
Merry Texas Christmas Y'all (High Street)
It takes more than slapping a Santa hat on an armadillo and some fiddles on "Silent Night" to make a Texas Christmas. Ray Benson knows this. It requires at least two Willie Nelson guest shots, a suitably tongue-in-cheek reading of "Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow," and plenty of other Christmas tales told through Lone Star lens. "Merry Texas Christmas Y'all" hopes "all your days are sunny and bright;" "Twas the Night Before" assembles Bob Wills, Tex Ritter, Stevie Ray Vaughan, T-Bone Walker, Buddy Holly, and Janis Joplin for a Yuletide jam session in an anonymous bunkhouse; "Swingin' Drummer Boy" tells of the difficulties of finding a proper timekeeper on Christmas Eve; and "X-Mas in Jail" is self-explanatory. Tish Hinojosa and Los Pinkys' Bradley Williams drop by for a spicy "Feliz Navidad" (we're multicultural down here, you know) and later, Nelson (who also revisits "Pretty Paper") and Don Walser offer a suitably humble "Silent Night" before Asleep squeezes the old carol into Wranglers and Ropers for an album-closing slide around the dance floor. Anyone want some Pearl beer egg nog?
3.5 Stars -- Christopher Gray
Hill Country Christmas (Finer Arts)
MERLE HAGGARD & THE STRANGERS
The Land of Many Churches (Razor & Tie)
When it comes to reviewing Christmas albums, nobody, and I mean nobody bitches more than the Chronicle music staff. Jesus, you never heard such moaning. Like they were the Dallas Cowboys. Except for Greg Beets. He never complains, bless his heart. And Louis Black. No one complains louder -- or longer -- than ol' LB. Wait 'til Nanci Griffith puts one out, chief. Then again, why shouldn't they all raise a cry like wounded snipe? Most Christmas albums suck harder than getting underwear from Santa. Take Merle Haggard's The Land of Many Churches. Though not a Christmas album, per se, Razor & Tie's reissue of Hag's first religious album is part of their Xmas album snow storm. Not even bothering to include the album's original release date, this 70-minute aural fruitcake collects portions of three different Church services. Hag is young, so his voice is still suede-soft, smoothing over "If We Never Meet Again" ("my daddy's favorite song"), "I Saw the Light," and "On the Jericho Road." Unfortunately, there's more service than singing, and one time through is about as much as anyone can stand. Willie Nelson's Hill Country Christmas, on the other hand, is proof that sometimes we all desperately need underwear and socks from Santa. Utilizing the same basic set-up he used for Spirit -- a small jazztet of real pros -- Nelson does 'em quick and clean. "Joy to the World," and "Deck the Halls" are the only sour notes in the eggnog, with standards like "Away in the Manger," "O' Little Town of Bethlehem," and "Silent Night" sounding more like Nelson catalogue candy than candy canes. And "El Niño," with its simple piano/guitar duet of Nelson and sister Bobbie, must be a Spirit outtake. Nelson being the musical shaman he is, it's really no surprise that Hill Country Christmas is as good as it is; he could sing the entirety of A Christmas Carol -- as Mr. Magoo -- and make it sound good. As for Nelson's ol' buddy Merle, well, he'll just be getting a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Music Past.
(Land of Churches) 1 Star
(Hill Country) 3.5 Stars
-- Raoul Hernandez