Celtic Christmas Iv
L'ENSEMBLE CHORAL DU BOUT DU MONDE
Noëls Celtiques: Christmas Music from Brittany (Green Linnet)
We claim snobbery about Christmas music in the Moser household -- and the sheer number of Celtic Christmas music discs strewn under the tree warrants it. There's a lot of Celtic crap out there, which is why it's a pleasure to be able to recommend both Celtic Christmas IV and Noëls Celtiques. Windham Hill's Celtic artist roster alone assures the quality of their annual sampler, but as always the standouts are too good to pass up: Máire Breathnach's crystalline voice on "Derdriu," Mícheál -- Domhnaill and Paddy Glackin's raucous reel "Sweeney's Buttermilk," and Patrick Cassidy's wistful instrumental "Kitty Magennis." As decidedly non-secular as Celtic Christmas is, Noëls Celtiques is exquisite religious music, sung in the Breton tongue, as rare a Celtic language as Manx or Cornish. Accompanied by little more than church organ and guitar with occasional flute, bagpipes, percussion, and bells, Brittany's L'ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde sing a program of 12 hymns, translated into both French and English as well as Bretonic in the accompanying booklet. Neither as overpowering as the Mormon Tabernacle choir or clichéd as the standard religious recordings, neither novelty nor commercially viable, Noëls Celtiques is that all-too-rare Christmas album, a reminder that underneath the ethnic and cultural rainbows we now drape over the holidays, faith and hope are among the most precious gifts we have.
(Celtic Christmas IV) 3.0 stars
(Noëls Celtiques) 3.5 stars -- Margaret Moser
Holiday Songs and Lullabies (Columbia)
From the very first notes of "In the Bleak Mid-Winter," summoned gently from a piano by producer/pianist/co-arranger Doug Petty, it's unthinkingly obvious that this collection of traditional songs is a thing of beauty. Before that, even. The cover, the insert, and the case art of the CD are wonderfully illustrated by Maurice Sendak (who's responsible for Where the Wild Things Are), full of grainy and ancient-feeling images of children watching the skies and sleepwalking in nightshirts. The album evokes familial bliss to be sure, made more poignant as the project is dedicated to Caledonia, Colvin's new baby daughter. "Christmas Time Is Here" is stirring, a more sparse arrangement than the other tunes, leaving Colvin's clear and wispy vocals to fill the echoing space. There's "Silent Night" and "Little Road to Bethlehem," convincingly inspired by the holiday spirit they celebrate. "Windy Nights" sets the words of Robert Louis Stevenson to the familiar-feeling, traditionally rendered music of Alec Wilder, while "Seal Lullaby" does the same with passages from Kipling's The Jungle Book. While this CD definitely carries the feelings and the signs of the Christmas season, don't be surprised when you find yourself listening to it and enjoying it repeatedly come summertime.
3.5 stars -- Christopher Hess
Merry Christmas ... Have a Nice Life (Epic)
Surprisingly enough, a decade and a half hasn't dulled the pre-Spice Girl, coming-of-age feminist charm of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," the song that unleashed Cyndi Lauper (as well as Captain Lou Albano) on an unsuspecting nation of MTV tune-ins and prisoners of Top 40 radio. Frigging "She Bop" still gets a rise out of some, and maybe, just maybe "True Colors" deserved a better fate than becoming a Kodak commercial (then again ... ). Twelve Deadly Cyns, Lauper's greatest hits collection from several years back, even proved she was four or five hits up on Katrina & the Waves. Fine. Merry Christmas ... Have a Nice Life, however, is too much. Now she's just flaunting the fact that she was never banished to the land of Christopher Cross; we never made her a pop culture outcast. Ingrate. The white-girl, hip-hop mulch of "Early Christmas Morning" with its classroom kiddie chorus, the Casio Karaoke sounds of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," the cruise boat conga of "Christmas Conga" -- if they don't make you put the axe to your loved ones, you're obviously made of ice and snow and called Frosty. The little girl coo of "December Child" at least sounds sincere, but if you can actually get within two songs of the CD's end without cutting your own head off, then you really have experienced the miracle of Christmas.
1.5 stars -- Raoul Hernandez
Here Is Christmas (b2)
Heart's Ann & Nancy Wilson, the Metal for Moms VH-1 Hair Band of the Eighties née Seventies Sylvan Spandex Sextuplet, have found their roots in the Lovemongers, the new combo best known for its righteous take of LedZep's "Ballad of the Evermore" from the Bridge Concerts and Singles soundtrack albums. Cleaning the crud from Heart's arterial sclerosis, the 'Mongers are Ann, Nancy, and longtime Heart songwriting collaborator Sue Ennis, plus two dudes. In early '98, they released a sweet little swirling dervish slumber-party of an album called Whirlygig, a batch of corny pop rock songs that your Aunt Connie might have written and performed back at her Seventies high-school talent show. What's amazing, considering the metal pedigree of this dog and butterfly show is, that as a viable, credible pop entity, the Lovemongers actually works. This Is Christmas is a collection of traditional, re-worked, and modern love songs, winking, blinkling, and nodding at gospel, celtic, classical, choral, sing-alongs, and even Burt Bacharach -- pure bliss for fanatics of Heart's dorkier, more endearing side. Ann Wilson's velvet vocals provide the type of blessed range necessary to pull off an updated take of "Ave Maria" and the band's Sweet Honey giftwrapped version of "O Holy Night" is pure four-part angel dust. Aunt Connie will totally dig it.
3.0 stars -- Kate X Messer
If there's one question that Christmas brings to mind, it has to be, "Gee, what has ex-Toto guitarist Steve Lukather been up to?" The second installment of Merry Axemas, this one bearing the subtitle Vol. 2: More Guitars for Christmas, could have been more appropriately named Vol. 2: Seasonal Employment Project for the Bandless. Joining Lukather on this collection of electrified Christmas classics are Journey stringer Neal Schon with an ultra-slick blues version of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel"; Billy Idol sideman Steve Stevens holding out for almost two minutes and 45 seconds before shredding "Do You Hear What I Hear"; Whitesnake/Thin Lizzy alumnus John Sykes outdoing Stevens by waiting only a minute and a half before turning "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" into a bitchin' metal guitargasm; and somewhere inside onetime Yes-man Trevor Rabin's creation is supposed to be "O Come All Ye Faithful." Is it a surprise, then, that the best performance on the album, a guitar album, comes from a bass player, that being Stu Hamm with a light and bouncy take on "Sleigh Ride"? If not for Robin Trower and Al DiMeola putting in appropriate and restrained performances of "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Carol of the Bells" respectively (as well as Ted Nugent's immature but damned good Ramones impersonation), Hamm's upstaging would an embarrassment for the six stringers.
2.0 stars -- Michael Bertin
Christmas With Babyface (Epic)
Given his track record for turning out sentimental schmaltz, it's little surprise that Babyface has been dreaming of a lite Christmas. The surprise is that R&B's most prolific and ambitious songwriter turned in such a lazy and unfulfilling effort. Rather than actually write an album of new jack cheer, Babyface rests squarely on the standards (save one Simon Birch soundtrack leftover). "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Check. "Silent Night." Check. "Winter Wonderland." Check. "The Little Drummer Boy." Check. And so it goes. The songs are familiar, alright, but they've rarely been delivered so soullessly. For the sorry song selection and sub-par vocals, blame Babyface. For the weak arrangements and sleepy production, point a finger at co-producer Walter Afanasieff (Celine, Mariah, Kenny G, and every other record on Wal-Mart's Top 10). For one of the sorriest albums in a season chock full o' sorry albums, blame Epic. After all, even if you never even considered buying Christmas With Babyface, you should still harbor resentment that albums like it exist at all; they're why lines at the return counters are so damn long the day after Christmas.
1.0 stars -- Andy Langer
My favorite Christmas compilation of all time is Exxon's Sounds of the Holidays II. I bought this fine cassette after a fill-up about 10 years ago for the princely sum of $2.99. Paying more than $2.99 for an album I might want to listen to once a year didn't make sense then, and it doesn't now. Only wanton spendthrifts and people with a pathological jones for holiday trappings could possibly derive any lasting benefit from spending $32 on Rhino's Yuletide Soirèe. This 2-CD set is part of the label's "Party Pack" series, Rhino's new repackaging gimmick that pairs an oldies compilation with a complete guide for planning a theme party around the music. Everything you need for a paint-by-the-numbers Christmas party -- invitations, recipes, decoration tips, party game ideas, and coupons for overpriced specialty foods -- is right there in a festive three-ring binder. There's even a planning checklist that tells you exactly what to do from eight weeks out. It's as if Martha Stewart has taken over Rhino. The music, ostensibly the reason this collection came to be, falls just short of an afterthought under the weight of party plans. Fortunately, nothing could crush Booker T. & the MG's soulful, green-onionized take on "Jingle Bells," Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby," or Gene Autry's "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Selections such as Bobby Helms' "Jingle Bell Rock" and Jose Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad" are no-brainers, but less-obvious inclusions like Buck Owens' "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy" and Thurl Ravenscroft's "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" keep things interesting. There's also a selection of traditional Christmas songs at the end of Disc 2 suitable for caroling or karaoke. A vocal and non-vocal version of each song is included, though a single version with guide vocals on one channel would've sufficed; they could've used the extra disc space to include the Kinks' "Father Christmas," the Monkees' "Riu Chiu," something off the Phil Spector Christmas album and perhaps those dogs that bark "Jingle Bells." Anything but Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas." Let's face facts: consulting a record label for party planning is a little like hiring a band to plan your wedding. Moreover, Yuletide Soirèe forgoes Rhino's usual playfulness in favor of a semi-haughty tone designed for people who gear their lives to what the neighbors think. That might work for an office party, but not for a gathering of kindred spirits. If you really want to throw a Christmas party without spending $32 for this guide, download all the recipes and associated detritus from Yuletide Soirèe at http://www.rhino.com, check out some gas station, and put the money you save toward a keg of something cheap. Merry Christmas!
2.0 stars --Greg Beets
A Very, Very Yellow Christmas (Ras)
Leave it to the folks at Rhino to come up with the best reggae Christmas collection in many years. Compiled by veteran West Coast radio DJ Doug Wendt ("the Midnight Dread"), A Reggae Christmas celebrates the spirit of the season in the tropics with a cornucopia of holiday tunes spanning the spectrum of modern Jamaican music. Opening with a rare Lee "Scratch" Perry salvo from the mid-Eighties, the music jumps around to encompass the skanking of Granville Williams' "Santa Claus Is Skaing to Town," the slow-simmering rock steady of the Kingstonians' "Merry Christmas," the bubbling of early reggae with Toots & The Maytals' "Happy Christmas," and the rockers' delight of Johnnie Clarke's "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." Modern grooves are included as well with the high-steppin' Ini Kamozi leading the pack on the conscious ode, "All I Want for Christmas," followed closely by the Heavy Beat Crew's warning against drinking and driving on "Have a Happy Christmas." You're sure to have fun with this collection. DJ Yellowman, on the other hand, is an acquired taste in any season, let alone at Christmastime, and here he puts his own tongue-in-cheek spin on the usual array of seasonal classics: "Yellowman Is Coming to Town," "Children Saw Mommy Kissing Yellowman," "Yellow Christmas," etc. As you might expect, it wears thin rather quickly and the soulless, mechanized riddems only add to the tedium. This can only be recommended to hard-core Yellowman fans.
(Natty & Nice) 3.5 stars
(Yellow Christmas) 1.5 stars -- Jay Trachtenberg
Christmas With Tammy Wynette (Epic)
It is tempting to dismiss Christmas With Tammy Wynette as terrible after just 10 seconds of play. It opens, after all, with a horrid chorus of "Silent Night," a rendition as maudlin, morose, and saccharin as any you'll find playing at the mall this week. Keep listening, though, and you'll find that the first 10 seconds are deceptive: The rest of the album is even worse. This Christmas starts going downhill about the time the C&W bassline comes in under that "Silent Night" chorus, and picks up speed like a fat kid on a Flexible Flyer, whooshing past such substandard holiday clunkers as "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" and "Away in the Manger" on its amazing drive to rock bottom. The ride doesn't end until "Let's Put Christ Back in Christmas," the album's final cut and the linchpin that turns the effort from seriously misguided to certifiably wretched. A few times, the trademark Tammy twang threatens to break in and make things interesting, but any brief fits of honesty are quickly caramelized by the Twinkie aesthetic of the album as a whole. Originally released in 1970, it's tough to figure why they hauled this cheese platter out of the back catalog. The Wynette estate can't be that strapped for cash, can they? At any rate, Christmas With Tammy Wynette is an insult to her memory. Please, Lord, never again ...
0.0 stars -- Jay Hardwig