Holiday sounds
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 27, 2003) –This year’s crop of holiday-themed releases includes a surplus of alternative approaches beyond the usual superstar-singing-carols approach – most notably several significant efforts by folk singers.

For example, New England folk-rock mainstay Carol Noonan, perhaps best known as a member of the erstwhile band Knots and Crosses, has released “Carol Noonan Christmas” (Noonan Music), a very traditional-sounding collection of carols and a few original compositions. Noonan, who attended New England Conservatory as a classical voice major and who performs at the Iron Horse in Northampton on December 10 with Susan McKeown and Johnny Cunningham, is accompanied on the CD by instrumental all-stars including guitarists Duke Levine and Kevin Barry and violist Frank Gallagher. Among songs like “Away in a Manger” and “O Holy Night” are new songs including “Christmas of ’64,” which tells the story of the auspicious day when she was presented with her first guitar, and “Two Hours to Maine,” which recounts a wintry journey home. Noonan sells her album directly through a toll-free phone number, 866-CAROLCD.

Art-folk singer-songwriter Jane Siberry’s “Shushan the Palace (Hymns of Earth)” (Sheeba) is one of the most unusual and most beautiful efforts of its kind. The nine songs include chamber orchestra arrangements of several hymns from Handel’s “Messiah” as well as Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” and works by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Rossetti and Holst. Siberry’s singing is already heavenly, and on many of the songs she multi-tracks her voice so that she sounds like a choir of angels.

Comic folk singer-songwriter Christine Lavin teamed with a group of vocalist friends she dubbed the Mistletones for an all a cappella album called “The Runaway Christmas Tree” (Appleseed), featuring traditional hymns and a few contemporary novelties. There’s also a subversive vocal version of the Pachelbel Canon, rechristened “Tacobel Canon,” with lyrics about guacamole and fajitas, and plenty of rounds, or what are now called “vocal loops.” Approach with care – this material can grow tiring very quickly.

Carly Simon has added two new tracks to her previously released “Christmas Is Almost Here” (Rhino) album – a version of “White Christmas,” featuring piano and vocal accompaniment by Burt Bacharach, and “Forgive,” a new song she wrote and recorded with harpist Andreas Vollenweider. The album, which was produced by Don Was, includes several other original songs, including one by her sister Lucy Simon and another by her ex-brother-in-law, Livingston Taylor, and features guest vocals by Willie Nelson on a version of his classic, “Pretty Paper” and keyboards by Billy Preston and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty’s band. Simon’s voice has grown in character over the years, and it has a sensuous rasp that she flaunts to great effect on her own composition, “The Land of Christmas.” She also turns in an impassioned version of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” that channels the inherent sarcasm of Lennon’s original.

If an entire album by a single folksinger seems too much of a commitment, then “Singers and Songwriters: Christmas Songs” (Legacy) might be just the ticket. The new CD compiles 18 tracks by folk-pop singer-songwriters of the last 30 years, including Rosanne Cash, Dan Fogelberg, Kenny Loggins, John Denver, Jim Croce and Linda Ronstadt. Highlights include Art Garfunkel’s “O Come All Ye Faithful,” Carly Simon’s new, languorously jazzy version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (which is also on her own album), and Don McLean’s surprisingly swinging version of “Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” The album also features selections by country artists including Willie Nelson, Crystal Gayle and the Judds.

Country singer Kathy Mattea kicks off “Joy for Christmas Day” (Narada) with “Christmas Collage,” a pastiche of traditional holiday hymns in a dazzling, dramatic arrangement. The rest of the album features mostly new and original Christmas songs by the likes of Bob Franke, Marc Cohn, Melissa Manchester and the Grammy-winning Mattea herself in rich arrangements that cling more to the folk-pop than the country axis.

Ethnic-themed Christmas albums are available in the form of “Comfort and Joy: A Christmas Celtic Sojourn” (Rounder) and “Winter Kolednica: Seasonal Carols from Slovenia” (Naxos World). The former, co-produced by Boston public radio station WGBH, features an all-star lineup of traditional Celtic folk talent, including clear-voiced Maddy Prior, Waterson-Carthy, Boys of the Lough and the all-female group, Cherish the Ladies, while the latter, produced in collaboration with the Slovenian Institute of Ethnomusicology, explores traditional Slovenian kolednice, or carols, as well as instrumental folk tunes and dances with seasonal themes.

For a dizzying, global experience of the holiday, Putumayo World Music has produced “Christmas Around the World,” which journeys from Haiti to Cuba to Barbados to the American Appalachians to France to Cajun Louisiana to Puerto Rico to Martinique and back in search of the answer to the question, what is the sound of Christmas?

The Blind Boys of Alabama have been testifying for more than 60 years but in all that time they never recorded a holiday-themed album. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” (Real World) rectifies that omission in a rousing program of hymns, carols and seasonal pop songs, in an all-star effort that includes the likes of Mavis Staples, Shelby Lynne, George Clinton, Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Solomon Burke, John Medeski, Duke Robillard, Tom Waits, Michael Franti, Aaron Neville, Richard Thompson and the Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, among others.

Jazz fans have several reasons to celebrate this season, including Eric Reed’s “Merry Magic” (MaxJazz), featuring a baker’s dozen swinging versions of seasonal favorites performed by the pianist’s quartet, with a few vocal turns by Paula West and Erin Bode and even one by the Wynton Marsalis protégé himself. “A Cookin’ Christmas” by the New England Jazz Ensemble features big-band jazz versions of pop songs about reindeer and snowmen as well as an attempt at the Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn chart of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.”

Harry Connick, Jr., kicks off “Harry for the Holidays” (Columbia) with a New Orleans second-line march rhythm underneath “Frosty the Snowman.” The album features big-band arrangements of several original Connick compositions, as well as familiar holiday favorites including “Silver Bells,” “Blue Christmas,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night.”

But the most swinging album of all might be the Brian Setzer Orchestra’s “Boogie Woogie Christmas” (Surfdog), featuring the former Stray Cats’ guitarist’s trademark licks and a brassy horn section in jump-blues versions of favorites like “Jingle Bells” and “Winter Wonderland.” The album also includes a duet with Ann-Margret on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and a big-band, swing version of the “Nutcracker” originally done by Les Brown in the 1950s.

Legends Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley get the re-release treatment on a trio of albums. Haggard’s “Goin’ Home from Christmas” (Epic Legacy) mostly features his original holiday songs first recorded in 1982. “Christmas with Johnny Cash” (Columbia/Legacy) features a dozen songs recorded by the late singer between 1962 and 1980 by the austere Man in Black. “Christmas Peace” (RCA) is yet another repackaging of Elvis Presley’s holiday music, this time in a two-CD set pairing 20 Presley Christmas songs with another 20 gospel and inspirational numbers.

Other seasonal novelties include Jeff Ball’s “Songs of Winter” (Red Feather), featuring instrumental, acoustic new-age arrangements of hymns and standards – with John Lennon’s “Across the Universe” thrown in for good measure – featuring Ball’s wooden American Indian flute, and “December” (Universal), a surprisingly original collection of mostly new, holiday-themed songs written and performed by the Moody Blues, with an Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”), a John Lennon (“Happy Xmas”) and a bit of Bach thrown in for good measure. And on “Xmas Vol. 1,” Digital Activity, the brainchild of computer programmer Geoff Westen, turns nine holiday standards, including “Have a Holly Jolly Xmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Xmas,” into generic electronic mush.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 28, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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