The sounds of December 25, 2001

Avant-garde composer Phil Kline

The Beat

Christmas CDs 2001

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 16, 2001) – Most Christmas CDs by popular music artists stick to the tried-and-true formula of classic carols, hymns and holiday- or winter-oriented pop tunes in glitzy arrangements that tangentially at best suggest some connection to the musician’s usual style of music. This year’s crop of holiday releases includes a few innovations, some new superstar compilations, several formulaic approaches by individual artists and a few all-time greatest-holiday-hit packages.

Phil Kline’s Unsilent Night (Cantaloupe) is by far the most inventive holiday release, but it may also be the one that best captures the mysticism that underlines the season. A kind of “movable sound sculpture,” the recording is a rendering of Kline’s annual “electronic Christmas carol written for boombox choir,” in which Kline prepares over 50 cassette tapes of sounds and distributes them to volunteers who carry them around in boomboxes playing them throughout New York’s Greenwich Village.

The recording – a composite of several live recordings with material rerecorded in the studio -- features all kinds of ringing, tinkling, shimmering bells and percussion, plus voices and synthesized notes ebbing and flowing in waves of rhythm and color that speak of and to the wintry season. Composer Kline has long been associated with avant-garde ensemble Bang on a Can, who produced the album, and in the best tradition of the avant-garde, Unsilent Night resonates as both an urgently contemporary yet timeless piece of music. Imagine Philip Glass writing Christmas music for bells and triangles and you get an approximate idea of what Unsilent Night sounds like.

From the Pioneer Valley-based Signature Sounds record label comes Wonderland: A Winter Solstice Celebration. The 15 tracks on the album feature artists associated with the label and some special guests on a program that includes traditional numbers, novelty tunes and a hefty dose of never-before-recorded original tunes by singer-songwriters including Richard Shindell, Nerissa Nields and Mark Erelli.

The album kicks off with a well-chosen version of Joni Mitchell’s “River” by Peter Mulvey. While Mitchell’s song isn’t typically thought of a Christmas tune, indeed the first line is “It’s comin’ on Christmas, they’re cuttin’ down trees, puttin’ up reindeers and singing songs of joy and peace…..” This sort of out-of-the-box thinking is typical of an album that includes Erica Wheeler singing Gordon Lightfoot’s “Song for a Winter’s Night,” Louise Taylor singing Jesse Winchester’s “Let’s Make a Baby King,” and Pete Nelson rendering Dr. Seuss’s “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

Rani Arbo delivers a shimmering, softly swinging version of the traditional English ballad, “I Saw Three Ships,” while Erelli’s “Ain’t No Time of Year to Be Alone” is a rootsy bit of acoustic holiday rockabilly. Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer contribute “American Noel,” an original tune by Carter that updates the Christmas story for contemporary America, highlighting the efforts of relief workers. The multi-tracked harmony voices of Nerissa and Katryna Nields were made for singing choral Christmas music, and Nerissa Nields’s new “Christmas Carol” is a worthy addition to the repertoire.

Pete Nelson’s “Grinch” is subtle and understated, letting the lyrics and melody do the work, while Erin McKeown’s “At the Christmas Ball” is a bluesy rag strut. Former seminarian Richard Shindell has always had a gift for turning parts of Christian theology into folk songs, and his “Before You Go” continues in that vein, imagining what G-d or an angel might have said to Jesus before he was born.

The songs on Wonderland are all tied together by a rootsy, acoustic aesthetic. Proceeds from the album will benefit the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

Slaid Cleaves’s five-song Holiday Sampler (Philo) CD is also rootsy, but with more of a Texas country-rock feel to it. The handful of songs include a couple of originals that seemingly have nothing to do with the holidays, and three tunes that do. “November Skies” by Mark Farrington is a bit of childhood nostalgia suited to the season. “One Good Year,” co-written by Cleaves and Steve Brooks, is a country song that looks at the redemptive qualities inherent in this time of year. Cleaves offers his own cartoonish take on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” in an accordion-inflected version given an additional twang by dual baritone guitars.

If the song choices on A Nancy Wilson Christmas (Telarc ) are less than inspiring, the jazzy arrangements on familiar chestnuts like “Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” featuring the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All Star Big Band, featuring trumpeter Jon Faddis, more than make up for it. Wilson swings the vocal and Faddis reaches for his trademark high-Cs. The Gillespie band also backs Wilson on “Silver Bells” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” the latter of which includes saxophone solos by James Moody and Jimmy Heath. The New York Voices are also on hand for several vocal numbers, and Herbie Mann lends his jazzy flute to “White Christmas” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” on Wilson’s first full-length album of Christmas tunes.

It’s not clear what happened to the other four days, but Destiny’s Child’s Eight Days of Christmas (Music World/Columbia) will please fans of the soul vocal trio with its contemporary r&b versions of classics and a handful of originals, including the title track. There’s a lot of conspicuous gift-giving in Beyonce Knowles’s original songs, including expensive cars and jewelry, and mistletoe seems to be hanging every few steps, leading to plenty of opportunities for stolen kisses.

In keeping with his reputation as a social and political activist, Irish singer-songwriter Tommy Sands kicks off To Shorten the Winter: An Irish Christmas with Tommy Sands (Green Linnet) with “Like the First Time It’s Christmas Time,” a new song of hope for peace in Ireland in the season. The album includes mostly originals, such as “Down by the Lagan Side,” which Sands wrote to celebrate the opening of Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, and “The Bushes of Jerusalem,” a song that ties the story of Jesus into contemporary Middle East politics, underlined by North African polyrhythms and an Arabic accordion riff. The most surprising number, however, is an acoustic version of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.” Sands is joined on the album by members of the famed Sands family, as well as vocalist Dolores Keane, Liam O’Flynn on uillean pipes, guitarists Steve Cooney and Art McGlynn, keyboardist Rod McVey and percussionist Liam Bradley.

Christmas Memories (Columbia), Barbra Streisand’s first holiday album since her 1967 classic, A Christmas Album, favors semi-obscure, seasonal-minded songs like Buck Ram’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and a jazzy version of Frank Loesser’s “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” It also includes numbers by Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Johnny Mandel and Stephen Sondheim, as well as a rendition of Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” The orchestral arrangments are vintage Streisand, and her voice is powerfully dusky.

As hard as it is to believe, Olivia Newton-John has never released a full-length Christmas album of her own. Olivia Newton-John: The Christmas Collection (Hip-O) rectifies that omission with a dozen mostly new holiday favorites, including duets with Vince Gill, Kenny Loggins and Clint Black.

The Very Special Christmas series that has benefited the Special Olympics to the tune of $50 million since its inception in 1987 with superstars from pop, rock and r&b doing versions of Christmas classics is now up to number five with A Very Special Christmas 5 (A&M). It kicks off with the Donny Hathaway-penned “This Christmas” as rendered by soul singer of the moment Macy Gray. Wyclef Jean contributes a medley of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Hot Hot Hot,” and Jean teams with Stevie Wonder for a funky rendition of “Merry Christmas Baby.” There are plenty of rockers on hand too, with Eve 6 offering a neo-punk version of “Noel Noel,” SR-71 with a grunge version of “Christmas Is the Time to Say I Love You,” Sheryl Crow kicking up a boogie-rock version of “Run Rudolph Run” and Jon Bon Jovi doing his best Elvis Presley imitation on “Blue Christmas.”

There are several new multi-CD packages of Christmas favorites including Now That’s What I Call Christmas! (UMG) and Season’s Greetings (Hip-O). The former, a two-CD set, includes 36 selections ranging in time from Bing Crosby’s 1954 “White Christmas” to Elvis Presley’s 1964 “Blue Christmas” to Britney Spears’s 2000 “My Only Wish (This Year).” It might be worth the price for hard-to-find versions of the Bing Crosby/David Bowie duet, “Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth,” Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” John Lennon and Yoko On’s “Happy Xmas,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” and “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” the superstar-studded effort credited to Band Aid and featuring Bono and Boomtown Rats’s Bob Geldof.

The sprawling, three-CD set, Season’s Greetings, digs deeper into classic pop and jazz, with tunes by Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Durante, Mel Torme, Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald, and plenty of ’60s and ‘70s r&b, with numbers by the Jackson 5, Chuck Berry, the Temptations, Gladys Knight and the Supremes. Also offering 36 tunes in all, Season’s Greetings includes country hits by Kathy Mattea, Amy Grant and Vince Gill and more recent tunes by Dru Hill and Angela Winbush.

Fans of country music can have an all-country Christmas courtesy of A Country Superstar Christmas 4 (Hip-O), with a dozen tunes by George Strait, Toby Keith, Vince Gill, Dwight Yoakam, Dolly Parton and Travis Tritt, among others.

In the 1960s and ‘70s Motown artists perennially cut Christmas singles, many of which are collected for the first time since 1973 on A Motown Christmas Volume 2 (Motown), featuring rarely heard tunes by the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Jackson 5, the Miracles and the Funk Brothers. And The Best of the Temptations Christmas (Motown) collects a dozen tunes from that group’s Christmas albums of the 1970s and ‘80s.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 21, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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