CHRISTMAS CD REVIEW 2009
by Gerry Grzyb
It has been a lean year for new Christmas CDs, perhaps reflecting an economy struggling to get back on its feet. But the reduced number fit well with the late start date for my radio program, occasioned by the late end of the fall semester at UW Oshkosh. In any case, you can hear generous selections from virtually all of them on my show. If you can’t listen every minute (who can?) consider learning how to record the streaming audio from WRST so that you can play it back at your leisure. It’s easy!
JAZZ & BLUES
In November Lawrence University’s Jazz Series featured an exciting performance by the Wisconsin Homegrown Jazz Quintet, composed of five musicians with Badgerland roots who have made it in the wider world of jazz. But there are more than five in that category, and two have released highly recommendable Christmas CDs.
Milwaukee native Eddie Allen is noted for his ability to play trumpet in a wide variety of styles, jazz and otherwise. “Jazzy Brass for the Holidays” finds him in a brass quartet (two trumpets, French horn, and trombone, plus bass and drums), allowing him to mix the sonorities of traditional Yuletide brass ensembles with jazz. On a typical cut, the theme of a Christmas standard is stated with Salvation Army streetcorner straightness, but soon solos take the music into more interesting places.
Vocalist Typhanie Monique proves that if you take the girl out of Stevens Point, she can excel in the jazz clubs of Chicago. “Yuletide Groove”, made with regular partner Neal Alger on guitar and other fine supporting musicians, is a thoroughly enjoyable vocal jazz disc. Highlights include a Latinized “Santa Baby”, a beatboxed “Little Drummer Boy”, and several intimate duets with Neal.
Boston’s Krisanthi Pappas clearly has the glow of Christmas in her sensual voice on “You and Me by the Christmas Tree”, featuring lightly jazzy versions of standard Christmas fare plus the original title cut. This is my choice for guests-have-gone, children-are-asleep, fire-is-just-embers music. It’s for you and your honey--if you’re in love this disc will get lots of spins.
Canadian Johanna Sillanpaa rounds out this trio of musically wise women bearing pipes of gold. Aside from a very expressive pop/jazz voice, the Swedish-born songstress’ “One Wish” features mostly unfamiliar tunes, some of which she wrote. The disc concludes with four Swedish songs, including the hauntingly beautiful “Jul, Jul Stralande Jul”, also sung in an English translation earlier on the CD.
Neither Django Reinhardt nor Stephane Grappelli ever recorded an entire Christmas album, and I can’t even think of any earlier Christmas CDs in the gypsy swing or “hot club” genre. “Every Kind of Christmas” from The Texas Gypsies fills the vacuum quite nicely with the characteristic fire-fingered guitar and soulful violin, which are at a particularly high temperature on tracks such as “What Child Is This.” The Hot Club of San Francisco has been making this kind of music for over a decade. Highlights of their “Hot Club Cool Yule” include a “Don Rodolfo” tango (about a certain red-nosed critter), a double time “March of the Toys”, “Djingle Bells”, and probably the hottest “Auld Lang Syne” ever.
Another older style of jazz marks “Christmas in New Orleans” by the Dukes of Dixieland, with such treats as a blues-drenched “Away In a Manger”, a Bourbon (St.)-drenched “O Tannenbaum”, and a stride “Sleigh Ride. The CD is also long enough to qualify as having lagniappe.
Historical Christmas recordings unknown to most white Americans comprise the 2-disc, 44-track (plus thoroughly detailed booklet) “Blues, Blues Christmas Volume 2 - 1926-1958”, subheaded “In the Blues, Jazz, Boogie-Woogie and Gospel Spirit.” A few of the names are familiar--Lightnin’ Hopkins, the Moonglows, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Orioles--but mostly this is a collection of fascinating discoveries for folks who thought Christmas back then was only Bing and Nat and Judy G.
The blues are certainly in the sound and lyrics of the title cut of “An Awful Christmas and a Lousy New Year” from Swamp Dogg. The problem--no surprise to the blues-savvy--is that SD fell in love with another man’s wife, so she won’t be with him at Christmas. But that mood is later countered with the revelation that “Santa’s Just A Happy Fat Fart.” The stylish voice of Brenda Kaye Pierce provides the main attraction on the modern R&B “Gift Wrapped” , also on Swamp Gogg’s label. She manages to make a dozen mostly standard tunes sound fresh.
On the cover of a third CD from the label, Moogstar looks like a visitor from avant-garde jazzist Sun Ra’s planet, but “Christmas with Moogstar” is much more accessible and enjoyable piano jazz. Moogstar claims inspiration from Thelonious Monk above all, and although he doesn’t reach Monk’s exalted level of creativity, his disc is much more interesting than some of the other piano jazz CDs out there. A final CD on the label comes from Charles Hayes. Entitled “The Knight Before Christmas”, it is pleasant R&B, although not as innovative as I would like.
I often find smooth jazz so uninteresting as to induce sleep faster that a Christmas turkey dinner. But that simply wasn’t the case with efforts of a variety of artists on “Smooth Soul Holiday” from NuGroove Records. It will be in the changer when I’m driving around to look at holiday lights. The same can be said for a similar collection entitled “The Very Best of Christmas” on Trippin ‘n’ Rhythm Records. It is generally a touch more laid back, and perhaps a bit better suited to the late evening.
I suppose the music on “How the Groove Stole Christmas” from Pittsburgh-based Dr. Zoot could be described as contemporary swing, but that would mask the variety that makes it such a kick to hear. Highlights include an intensely swinging “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and the beloved children’s song (?) “Rudolph’s Jamaican Vacation”, wherein said reindeer deserts the jolly old elf in favor of tall rum-based drinks and a calypso beat.
There’s quite a bit of swing too on “Peace on Earth” from German-immigrant-turned-Indiana-U-prof Monika Herzig. Monika’s instrument is piano, and judging from what’s on this disc, the students in Whoville--I mean, Hoosierville--are learning a lot about how to make quality mainstream jazz. In addition to a handful of fine originals as well as classic carols, the disc ends with the story of the mysterious artist known as the Schneebrunzer, whose art involved making yellow decorations in the snow. It’s a male thing.
The most mainstream jazz CD of the season is the second from drummer Tobias Gebb’s piano-centered Trio West combo, simply called “Trio West Plays Holiday Songs Vol. 2.” Like the disc that preceded it, this one too is a goodie bag, with such treats as a swingin’ “Jingle Bells” for bopping on down the lane, “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World” done samba style, and a salisified “O Tannenbaum.”
ACOUSTIC, CELTIC & PIANO
The words “acoustic” and “simple” often go together in music, and at Christmas time it is acoustic music I turn to most often. It’s hard to top the simple beauty of an unaccompanied acoustic guitar, and this year’s prime example, “O Tannenbaum”, was recorded by Minnesotan John Black not far west of La Crosse. Voices and instruments mix on “A Small Town Christmas”, the third Christmas CD from Minnesota’s SimpleGifts with Billy McLaughlin, one of the country’s finest acoustic guitarists. Recorded in Marine-on-St. Croix, just a long toss over the river from Wisconsin, it contains both old and new Christmas standards performed with exceptional sensitivity. The earlier CDs “A Simple Gift” and “Winter Songs and Traditionals” (by Billy alone) are equally deserving of your attention.
Yet more gentle Minnesota music comes from Neal (Hagberg) and Leandra (Peak) on their second Christmas CD “Angels and Fools.” The combination of Neal’s guitar and vocals, and Leandra’s singing (reminiscent of Kathy Mattea’s alto), is absolutely magical on Christmas standards and originals.
I’d like to believe that I’d know from the spare arrangements on Marius Noss Gundersen’s “Merry Christmas to you” that this solo guitarist was a Norwegian. He has the sound of the snow-covered landscape out my window as I write this just after the big December 9 storm. Even after battling the drifts with El Toro (the Red Bull), I can still appreciate the beauty of the fluff stuff, and with Marius’ superb CD on the stereo, I feel very much at peace with Mother Nature…even if she did just try to kill me again..
Jerry Douglas is the most important dobro player of the last 50 years. But although that instrument is strongly associated with country music, Jerry has always had all kinds of music ideas, and “Jerry Christmas” provides ample evidence. He is one of those few musicians who can make the old standard Christmas fare sound completely fresh, and this CD is easily one of the very top new instrumental Christmas CDs. Fans of the related slide guitar will enjoy hearing Tom Mason take on 10 Christmas standards on “A Slide Guitar Christmas.”
The postman brought 2 discs apiece from two violin-centered groups. The Annie Moses Band is primarily 8 members of the Wolaver family, and this year their “Christmas with the Annie Moses Band” PBS special ought to get them much-deserved attention. Unfortunately, the special isn’t being carried by Wisconsin Public television, but if you buy the CD, you’ll also get a DVD of the show. It is high energy, Mannheim Steamroller meets bluegrass meets string quartet meets Alison Krauss stuff. There isn’t a better, more enjoyable live CD out this year. By the way, Annie Wolaver’s violin is the dominant instrument, but Annie Moses is the kids’ great-grandmother. The family also sent along their “Christmas Bright and Beautiful” from 2007. While they claim inspiration from the “lush harmonies” of the Fifties, what they sound like is a really hip string quartet--more classically flavored than the current year’s offering.
“Do You Hear What I Hear” is violinist Aaron Meyer’s contribution to the 2009 yuletide platter pile. His group is about the size of the Annie Moses outfit, but the sound is much more pop/rock, with drums and percussion playing a much larger role on most of the tracks--there’s a bit of Trans Siberian Orchestra here. “The Holiday Spirit”, a 2008 release with the same instrumentation, has a thoroughly TSO track--“Vivaldi Concerto in B minor for Four Violins and Rock Orchestra.” Vivaldi wrote for many different instruments, but I had no idea “rock orchestra” was one of them!
I probably judge Christmas harp CDs by the extent to which they remind me of the sparkle and shimmer of a well-decorated Christmas tree. On “Joy to the World” Cynthia Cathcart delivers the gleam in abundance, using a wire-strung Gaelic clarsach and a medieval Scottish gut-strung harp on a generous 17-song selection of beloved carols. “Angelsong” features Joanna Mell on the concert harp, a much bigger instrument found in orchestras. Her versions of ten carols are fairly straightforward, but with the addition of the glissandi and other effects characteristic of this instrument. It’s the music of the clouds (the puffy white kind, not the evil dark gray ones).
Multi-instrumentalists/vocalists Michael Lewis and Denise Wilson are the talented folk/Celtic duo Traveler’s Dream, and “Cold Blows the Day” is their seasonal CD. They use enough overdubbing to make for a bigger, more interesting sound, and the results are an unqualified success. You’ll wish these two were playing at hearthside in your house. Sandra Tiemens and spouse Aaron Turner form a more unusual duo known as the Timberline Players…unusual because Sandra plays concert flute and piccolo while Aaron adds interesting percussion in the form of the marimba, drumset, djembe, snare drum, and steel drum. There’s even an Appleton connection since local cellist Matt Turner and Colorado Springs bassist Mark Neihof provide those deep supporting sounds on “Colors of Christmas” But for me, the real shiny ornament here is Sandra’s flute playing--what a gorgeous tone hath she!
With a CD entitled “Nollaig: An Irish Christmas” from Carroll Brown and Harry O’Donoghue, you’d expect Celtic flavor, but it mixes with folk, country, and even Jamaican tastes on this basically guitar-and-vocal release. My favorite tracks included the storytelling “A Christmas Childhood” and “Kerry Christmas Carol.” Harry’s leprechaun-ish voice (or what I think they’d sound like) will remind you of the Irish Rovers and “The Unicorn.” Frank Emerson is joined by Carroll and Harry on “The Christmas Postcard”, an earlier release that is more folk and less Celtic.
Michael Lingg, Patrick Durr, and Bruce Johnson constitute Home Grown, another folk trio. While none has a voice worth writing home about, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Their harmonizing is a delight to hear, along with the fine guitar-based arrangements, on “A Home Grown Christmas.” “The Ghosts of Christmas Past” contains a generous selection of mostly familiar tunes played by George Simonovich on acoustic instruments with supporting synthesized sounds from him and Harry Kopy. Everything is at a very slow tempo, so don’t put this on unless you’re looking to really unwind.
There may be Uilleann pipes and bodhrans on “In the Spirit of Peace: An Irish Holiday Celebration” from Inner Splendor Celtic Christmas Music, but it is about as far removed from a traditional Celtic Christmas CD as I’ve heard. The spacey arrangements, plus Ann Malone and Sarah Warwick’s vocals, create a trancelike atmosphere on many of the eleven tracks, with a “Celtic improv” on “Carol of the Bells” coming from the moon or beyond.
“December Peace”, by pianist Stanton Lanier, was produced by William Ackerman, founder of the famed new age label Windham Hill. The disc fully delivers on the promise of its title. Stanton’s feel for the music is perfect, and he quickly gets you into a blissful reverie. Do NOT listen to this one in the car unless you’re stuck in a snow bank and just trying to remain calm while waiting for the tow truck.
The first disc through the mail slot this Christmas was a beautiful solo piano effort by New England’s Dana Cunningham, appropriately titled “Silent Night.” Dana’s performances are purposefully contemplative, and just innovative enough to provide the slight sway in a continuously glowing candle flame. Dana has also been the recipient of high praise from Mr. Ackerman.
An intentionally sleep-inducing CD was the gift for a newborn that found me just as I needed to find it. I became a great uncle for the first time a few weeks ago, and shortly after, I learned of the O’Neill Brothers “Christmas Lullabies.” The New Prague, Minnesota brothers are experienced Christmas CD performers, but this time out they combine familiar Christmas tunes with equally familiar lullabies, medley-style. The titles give it away: “Hickory Dickory Old St. Nickory”, “Hush Little Drummer Boy”, “Are You Sleeping Away In A Manger?”, “Hark The Herald Angels Sing Around the Rosy”, and more. With Tim and Ryan at the keys, great nephew Oscar is going to be having sweet dreams indeed.
CHORAL & CLASSICAL
The music on “And Glory Shone Around” by The Rose Ensemble is the vocal equivalent of acoustic music. This honored 11-member group specializes in early vocal music, and the content here is “Early American Carols, Country Dances, Southern Harmony Hymns and Shaker Spiritual Songs.” Download this recording into your iPod, and listen as you tour Green Bay’s Heritage Hill or the state’s Old World Wisconsin--it’s the Christmas our American ancestors knew. The group also produced “Celebremos el Nino-Christmas Delights from the Mexican Baroque”, full of music that I find more interesting and accessible than that of the more familiar German Baroque, perhaps because of the greater rhythmic interest. You can almost always envision common people dancing to it. By the way, The Rose Ensemble too hails from Minnesota, a disproportionate source of great Christmas discs.
Speaking of Minnesota, one of the greatest series of Christmas recordings ever is the annual Christmas at St. Olaf releases. The 2008 edition is entitled “My Spirit Sings of Wondrous Things”, and it is just as must-have as its predecessors. A little of Minnesota must have rubbed off on Iowa as well, because “Christmas at Luther 2008” from that college in Decorah is the latest in a series that is nearly as well-known and accomplished.
Another of the great collegiate choral groups, the 45-voice The University of Utah Singers, delivers a lengthy and varied program on their latest Christmas release “Carol of Joy.” While in Utah, mention must be made of the most important ancestor of the big choral CDs, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The music from their 2008 televised concert, with multiple Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, is on “Ring Christmas Bells” and it is the kind of classic over-the-top presentation we expect and love from the MTC.
The best Christmas presents I receive are the discoveries of new ensembles performing Christmas music at a high level. This year I got to add the Southwestern Seminary Oratorio Chorus and the Fort Worth Chamber Orchestra, who together have produced two excellent discs, “The Majesty of Christmas” and “Christmas Tidings” .
Both are very full discs, featuring carols and arrangements that will be familiar to those who have attended modern carol concerts by the best choirs. The first disc offers two particular favorites of mine, Rutter’s “The Very Best Time of Year” and John Ferguson’s “Night of Silence.” The second includes excerpts from my favorite classical Christmas work of all, Vaughan William’s “Hodie”, including its final “Ring Out Ye Crystal Spheres”, which will raise any roof you have that needs raising.
An equally big sound emanates from the multiple choirs, organ, orchestra, and brass ensemble assembled for “Hear the Christmas Angels” at the Washington National Cathedral. The fare is mostly familiar arrangements of favorite carols, including five from modern carolmeister John Rutter. “Sing In Exultation”, featuring the Cathedral Choirs of Men and Girls and of Men and Boys, aims to provide a musical tour of carols as well as the different acoustical spaces of that same D.C. landmark. There’s plenty of musical diversity here, including instrumental and organ pieces that make for a welcome freshness.
Washington makes a good departure point for crossing the Big Pond to Europe, where another excellent choir of men and boys will be found after landing in England. “Carols by Candlelight” from The Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford is a classic English carol service, and even if you have one or two, this recording would make a nice addition. The massed forces of the City of London Choir and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Hilary Davan Wetton get credit for another of the most enjoyable choral CDs of the season, “In Terra Pax: A Christmas Anthology.” The program is thoroughly British in origin, from composers Finzi, Holst, Howells, Leighton, Rutter, Warlock, and Vaughan Williams. Finzi’s “In Terra Pax” and Vaughan Williams “Folk songs of the four seasons--Winter” were the most rewarding to my ears.
Britain is one of two nations foremost in our land’s Christmas music traditions. The other is Germany, and this year’s best representative is the huge Munich Bach Choir. On “German Romantic Christmas” we are taken on a “musical fantasia” emphasizing the musical era in which the choir specializes. As such it provides an interesting parallel as well as contrast to the British carol services, since each seeks to tell the Christmas story, but in a somewhat different musical tongue. The Heinrich Schutz Ensemble of Munich focuses on music of an even earlier time, and this year their 1994 recording of namesake Schutz’s mid-17th century “Christmas Oratorio (Weihnachtshistorie)” has been re-issued on a mid-priced label. The RIAS Kammerchor (the Radio In the American Sector Chamber Choir, founded in Berlin in 1948) also specializes in the Baroque era as well as contemporary music.. “Stille Nacht… presents a generous selection of carols, all sung in German of course, but you’ll be amazed at how many are familiar on these shores.
When I asked the good folk at Naxos for some of the Ars Musici Christmas CDs, I wasn’t expecting it when they “backed up the truck” and dropped off seventeen discs from that Freiburg, Germany label. They are all re-releases of recordings made between 1984 and 2005, and all would qualify as serious, sacred, mostly choral music. They also share the characteristic of high quality. I don’t have space to list them here, but one telling fact is that eleven are from the boys choirs of cathedrals in Freiburg, Essen, Augsburg, Hannover, and Regensburg. I’ll be devoting several hours of my program to these fine recordings.
In Wisconsin the roots of many folk may be British or German, but the roots of a good many more are Scandinavian, and some of the most beautiful choral singing and composing now comes out of the countries of Scandinavia and those immediately southwest along the Baltic Sea. Norway’s Grex Vocalis (“The Singing Flock”) serves as a fine example on their “Magnum Mysterium” (Great Mystery). The particular treats here are five settings of “O magnum mysterium”, the opening words of Midnight Mass, by 16th century composers Palestrina and Victoria and their modern counterparts Lauridsen, Poulenc, and Busto (whose setting positively shimmers and glows).
And in the same country there were “Silverboys” -- Solvguttene (Norwegian Broadcasting’s Boys Choir). Their latest Christmas CD “Julemesse” presents music of the season in the form of a Mass, with its constituent parts, plus carols. The singing is simply beyond belief and their dedication to perfection surrounds every note.
Back to college. If you have enough choral recordings of much-recorded Christmas fare, “A Chatman Christmas” from the University of British Columbia Singers is for you. The content is the wonderful Christmas music composed over two decades by one of Canada’s finest composers, longtime UBC professor Stephen Chatman. Much of it deserves to get into the Christmas concerts of other choirs. “The World’s Desire: Christmas at Loretto”, a second Christmas recording from the South Bend Chamber Singers, is also filled with less familiar music. In this case, though, the songs are from the pens of 15 contemporary composers and arrangers. The concluding work, Sir Malcolm Sargent’s warmly enveloping version of “Silent Night”, may finally be getting some of the attention it deserves.
The title of the Peninsula Women’s Chorus “Winter Patterns” hints that it too is not just standard Christmas fare. The music is from some of the greatest choral composers of the last 100 years, including the title piece by the Estonian Veljo Tormis, a suite by the Finn Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Welshman William Mathias’ “Salvator Mundi.” And the singing, as on the PWC’s earlier Christmas CDs, is first-rate.
The eight members of Asheville, NC’s mixed-voice Pastyme make a much smaller but quite beautiful sound. While all of the pieces on “Es ist ein Rose” were written in honor of Mary, most have appeared many times on Christmas CDs. The Quink Vocal Ensemble from the Netherlands is even smaller--two sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass-but it is one of the best small a cappella groups in the world. They’ve made stops in Appleton and at UW Oshkosh in the distant past, and they even had a Christmas CD out on the respected Telarc label. Fortunately, their second Christmas CD “a un nino llorando - Christmas with Quink Vocal Ensemble” is well worth the too-long wait. The program is a trip through time, from a 13th century piece by Laudario di Firenze to “Have yourself a merry little Christmas” (in a particularly fine arrangement done for them by Peter Gritton), with a stop in the middle for a large group of English, French, and Dutch traditional carols. If this quintet would ever be found caroling at my door, I’d give them every cookie in the house!
A much bigger choral group, the Century Men, is composed of 100 Southern Baptist ministers of music. Their Christmas recording “Beautiful Star” has been around for over decade, and it is one possibility if you like the all-male choral sound. The other option--and there’s quite a bit of irony here--is “A New December” from Kansas City’s 125-voice gay male Heartland Men’s Chorus. Their program is less traditional, but sounds at least as spiritual as that of the ministers.
There weren’t any purely instrumental discs in the classical Christmas bin this year, but “Rejoice! Another Christmas with the Lesters” comes close. It is the fourth Christmas disc from Hood College music prof and pianist Noel Lester, and this time around violinist spouse RoseAnn, soprano daughter Marie, and double bassist son David are gathered nearby. The beautifully performed music is primarily of the classical or classically-influenced variety one might have heard in a late 19th century music parlor, with the exception of the 20th century “Nativity Scenes” from impressionist Federico Mompou (which was new to me). Other delights include an extended version of “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” arranged by Hood’s organist Wayne L. Wold that really shows off Marie’s voice.
The world-class voice of Montreal tenor Marc Hervieux is on full display on “Le Premier Noel.” The program is much like what is usually presented by the great tenors, including such voice-stretching showpieces as “Panis angelicus”, “Minuit, chretiens”, and “Gesu bambino.” Marc won’t make you entirely forget Pavarotti or Domingo, but neither would you be feeling you shouldn’t have bought another tenor Christmas CD after buying Marc’s.
POP, ROCK, CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN, & BEYOND CATEGORY
LDS recording star Hilary Weeks has one of best pop vocal CDs of this season. Entitled “Christmas Once Again”, it showcases her strong voice in sacred and secular standards, plus two of her own originals. The style is contemporary pop--the kind of thing you might hear from Trisha Yearwood, or Barbra Streisand.
If you want your voice to blend with others, you’ll find it’s easiest if the others are you. That’s what Tina Lambert does on “Christmas in A Cappella”, overdubbing herself to provide the harmonies on her own arrangements of 15 popular carols. Her voice isn’t as secure in the lower notes as it is in the soprano melody line, but the overall effect is still quite nice, and reminiscent of the “lovely Lennon sisters.”
Christy Jefferson’s “Merry Christmas, with love” is perhaps the most unpretentious CD of the season, right down to its brown cardboard packaging. It’s mainly Christy with her sweet little voice and acoustic guitar, presenting 10 familiar sacred and secular tunes and one original, with minimal support from other instruments. Simply put, it works--I was completely charmed by it. “A Holiday to Remember” is a lightly swinging affair from Audrey Malone and Michael Evans. Audrey provides the vocals (and, of all the strange things for a singer, acoustic bass) while Michael provides the right guitar touches on an all-original set.
Yancy’s “Have A Fancy Yancy Christmas” is an upbeat pop/rock effort from a self-described singer/songwriter and worship leader. Like so many other discs in contemporary Christian music, there’s little to distinguish this from the efforts of Yancy’s“secular” counterparts, even in song choice, but her performance is enjoyable.
Susan Bailey’s “Wait with Me” is much more openly spiritual, and she calls her music “an expression of her Catholic faith.” Unfortunately, though her voice is sweet, the words are not well-suited to music, and the style of music she uses is exactly the sort of uninspired folk rock widespread in the Catholic services that made many wish for Gregorian chant again. When music is this subordinate to words, the words themselves don’t get the attention they deserve.
“Christmas Is Easy When Love’s Around” is a short CD (as well as the name of both the first and final tracks) from Philippines-born Tey. Her sometimes breathy delivery at times sounds contrived, and at times I felt like saying “stop emoting and just sing”, because the voice beneath the style is quite beautiful. Still, I wouldn’t push the eject button on this one. I really looked forward to Connie Talbot’s “Holiday Night” because I was at least as shattered as Simon Cowell by the then-7-year-old’s performance of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on Britain’s Got Talent. The songs on the disc are heavily arranged, in part--one suspects--because Connie’s still child-sized voice cannot really carry an entire album. Nonetheless, I continue to be awestruck at her ability to hold pitch in a way very few children can, and hit some amazing high notes with strength. I only wish she hadn’t developed such a pronounced vibrato--a voice as pure as hers is hurt, not helped, by vibrato. Yet I can’t wait to hear her vocal abilities grow over the next decade or so, because she is truly an uncut diamond of tremendous promise.
Selections from Tey and Tina Lambert are included in a musically diverse collection entitled “The Sounds of Christmas 2009”, but there are also selections from more well-known musicians such as former Styx keyboardist Dennis DeYoung, Richard Marx, Stephen Bishop, and the wacky ACDC “tribute” band Hayseed Dixie. The CD is a mixed bag in terms of quality and interest, but the recitation of “Good King Wenceslas” by William Shatner that brings the whole thing to an end is beyond comment. Or comprehension.
Or perhaps Shatner is right in step in a year of strange vocal performances of Christmas fare. I suppose we can blame Mr. Dylan for that. The singing on at least some of the 14 standards on “For the Holidays” by Artful Touch and Duane Ingalls (who accounts for all of the vocals) is sometimes bizarre, notably on the opening “Up on the Housetop.” Let’s just say that sometimes Duane likes to find notes from below, and since he doesn’t do it on most other tracks, it is clearly done on purpose. But many other cuts on this folkish trio’s disc are just fine, with my more important criticism being that there is too little variation in the slow tempos used for just about every song.
“Noel” by Emmanuel shall come to thee is a different kind of quirky, largely because of the arrangements by Chicago-area handbell choir director Matthew Prins (whose CD this seems to be). Melodies and harmonies take unexpected turns, keys seem to change for a bar or two, and it doesn’t always work. Yet much of it is breathtakingly beautiful, such as Prins’ thoroughly fresh take on “Carol of the Bells” and the “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” that follows. Also noteworthy is Prins use of handbells in ways that depart from the usual handbell choir. They are so important to the sound of many tracks that this could almost pass for a handbell CD. This is one recording that really takes several listens to appreciate, and it is growing on me quite rapidly.
Exquisite and unusual electronic orchestral arrangements--typically surrounding unadorned, unreverbed vocals--are also the hallmark of “Salvation Is Created” from Bifrost Arts (“bifrost” is said to be the term in Scandinavian mythology for the bridge between heaven and earth). As explained on the CD’s webpage, the explicit aim is to make the familiar Christmas story appear again as the remarkably unusual story it is. Whether it accomplishes that or not, it is possessed of great beauty and peace. I will be sorely tempted to play the whole thing through on my radio show, which is something I do only rarely.
The fact that Linda Gray’s “Christmas” would probably be put in the same “contemporary Christian” musical pigeonhole shows how diverse the category has become. The 9 originals based on bible verses employ simple vocals--often a children’s choir--singing uncomplicated melodies supported by electronic orchestration. Musically, it just isn’t that interesting, but the spirit is evident, and underscored by the fact that Linda actually allows free downloads of the entire album and will mail out free copies of it. Now THAT is refreshing as we celebrate capitalism’s most sacred day.
“Every Light That Shines at Christmas” from Ernie Haase & Signature Sound is one of the most traditional offerings this year. Their sound is a slightly updated version of the classic gospel quartet sound made famous in the near past by the Statler Brothers and the Oakridge Boys. And speaking of traditional, the one country superstar Christmas CD in my pile is “Joy to the World: A Bluegrass Christmas” from Charlie Daniels & Friends (who include Jewel, Aaron Tippin, and Kathy Mattea). From the opening “Christmas Time’s A Comin’”, which is practically mandatory in this genre, to Suzanne Cox’s “Silent Night” waltz, this is every bit a typical modern bluegrass CD, with none of the Nashville crossover characteristics that color so much of today’s country music. The whole thing ends in the delightful 16-minute “Carolina Christmas Carol” tale told by Charlie Daniels himself. A DVD of performances of this music is also included, no extra charge.
I’m not sure the Christmas Jug Band always has the same members, but they’ve been making their brand of holiday joy and foolishness for some time. “On The Holiday Highway” is their 5th seasonal CD, consisting of excerpts from live performances recorded in 2006 through 2008. Many of the songs are originals, and all are crazy fun, so if you prefer washboard and kazoo to handbell and pipe organ, here’s your CD. The Hipwaders too-short “A Kindie Christmas” was also made with fun in mind, but their sound is generally based on the guitars of early rock.
There’s both fun and seriousness in the excellent EP “Winterbloom: Traditions Rearranged” from singer/songwriters Natalia Zukerman, Antje Duvekot, Meg Hutchinson, and Anne Heaton. “Thanks for the Roses (Merry Christmas)”, a not exactly heartwarming song about dumping somebody, is my favorite new pop Christmas song, and you can see Antje sing it on YouTube, as recorded just last month in Evanston: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KA4IJPWdSt0. The title of this disc refers to the differing traditions each of these talented women has experienced, and the “rearrangement” is certainly exemplified by the fact that the first track is a reworking of a Yiddish folksong--not exactly your typical Christmas fare either!
While you’re at YouTube, check out “Merry FXmas” from Those Dreaded Gnats: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5XpImXOoXtc, another heartwarming song, about job loss and divorce. Oddly enough, the Gnats are the same two guys who made the serious Ghosts of Christmas Past CD noted earlier. But this disc is something else again. In their promotional material they recommended that first track for airplay--it contains what Ralphie called the “queen mother of swear words” (NOT “fudge”), and if I did play it on the air, the FCC would be on WRST like a collapsing chimney, and Dr. Christmas would be no more. “A Dreaded Christmas” continues with “Santa Takes Da Rap (featuring Ice Milk)”, and “Xmas Everyday for My Kids”, which complains about the little brats who get everything they want all year long and never lift a finger to help around the house. And so it goes, through such yuletide nonstandards as “Down with Xmas”, “Just Say No to Xmas”, “I’m Not Your Santa Claus” and 6 more tunes designed with the person who is really tired of the holidays in mind. The musicianship is also first-rate, not that it matters much.
Perhaps the most musically diverse pop/rock Christmas CD this season is the result of the efforts of a variety of Upper Midwestern musical acts, as recorded by Ron Engen in a converted garage studio on a little organic farm in Osceola (darn near in Minnesota). Called “Christmas Jam II” (there is a first volume too), it supports the efforts of Second Harvest and other area food shelves, and the musicians reportedly perform in return for one of Joanne Stearn’s dinners. Both of the Jam CDs remind me of just how much good music is made right here in our corner of the Fifty. And they’re a good way to end this review--in the spirit of Christmas, making music and helping others.
Over 30 CDs are still in their wrappers, and reviews of them will be added to a copy of the column maintained at the Christmas portion of WRST’s website.
Most of the links above are to the artist or label websites for each CD. Most of the CDs are also available through Amazon.com and CDbaby.com. Reflecting changes in the way we buy music, many CDs are also available as MP3 downloads.