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Fresh Snow: The latest in Christmas Music

Ross Boissoneau - December 15th, 2008
As always, there’s a surfeit of seasonal releases this year. Some deservedly become hits, some don’t. Some are by big names, some aren’t. And sometimes the best ones come out of left field, while the biggest names fail to ignite.
Among the releases this year: with just a couple exceptions, country star Faith Hill’s Joy to the World (Warner Bros. Records) is surprisingly untwangy, with big band accompaniment. Jazz icon Bob James enlists the aid of his daughter Hilary and her husband, Kevin DiSimone, for Christmas Eyes (Koch Records), putting a contemporary jazz spin (naturally) on a handful of Christmas classics and originals. Tween-pop group pureNRG have been the darlings of contemporary Christian music, but the Hannah Montana/High School Musical wannabes’ A pureNRG Christmas (Fervent Records) is simply annoying. Who wants to hear faux-electropunk versions of “The 12 Days of Christmas” and “Away in a Manger”?
Then there are the digital-only offerings at iTunes and similar online stores. At the top of the list – not sure which list – is A Colbert Christmas, by Stephen Colbert and friends, including Feist and Willie Nelson, an occasionally amusing take on the season by the blowhard, who surprisingly actually can sing. Christian modern-worship outfit Fee’s “All Creation Sing” is a slightly adapted pop-rock version of “Joy to the World,” and then there are new compilations from country/contemporary-Christian label Curb Records, which include alt-popster Plumb’s recordings of “Silver Bells” and “Merry Christmas Darling.” Unfortunately, though folk/pop chanteuse Maren Ord is widely underestimated, it would be hard to underestimate her new EP, My True Love Gave to Me. Pomp-rockers the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Night Enchanted is just boring, and Christian rock singer Josh Wilson’s Sing: A Christmas EP leaves room for several questions, not the least of which is “Why?”
More of this year’s releases in both physical and digital formats include:

Mary Chapin Carpenter
Come Darkness, Come Light: 12 Songs of Christmas (Zoë Records)
There is more darkness than light on this disc, from the lyrics to the unfortunately melancholy melodies. Holiday music shouldn’t be a downer, but Carpenter’s alto suggests seasonal blues rather than happy holidays. Her original songs dominate the disc, and she’d have been much further ahead to include some regular holiday fare to up the happy quotient. Carpenter typically weaves an engaging mix of country, traditional and pop sounds, but this disc is likely to offer reasons to pout and cry. Santa won’t be stopping at her house this year.

Mandisa
It’s Christmas (Sparrow Records)
“The joys of this season are countless,” says Mandisa in the liner notes, and the sound of her album mirrors that joy. The former American Idol finalist gives us a refreshingly different version of “Feliz Navidad,” eschewing the typical mariachi-band arrangement, and “What Christmas Means to Me” is energetic, jazzy power-pop. “Silent Night” is beautifully simple, and Mandisa’s duet with Michael W. Smith, “Christmas Day,” should have been a smash single at Christian radio. But the highlight of the album may be the swinging interpretation of “Silver Bells” as part of the “Christmas Bell Medley.” It’s Christmas does what few holiday albums can, mixing genres from pop and adult contemporary to jazz and soul while maintaining continuity.

BarlowGirl
Home for Christmas (Fervent Records)
Christian rock trio BarlowGirl have created an unexpectedly tender Christmas album. The album shows no traces of rock; instead, it closely resembles the holiday recordings of Amy Grant. Home for Christmas opens with a lush, string-heavy arrangement of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” then continues with sentimental versions of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” The group’s bassist, Alyssa, takes lead vocals on most songs, supported by drummer Lauren and guitarist Becca, and three-part harmonies haven’t sounded so sweet since Wilson Phillips. Home for Christmas is undoubtedly one of the best Christmas releases of the year.

Various Artists
Christmas A Go-Go (Wicked Cool Records)
This compilation of various holiday tunes is, well, wicked cool. It’s filled with rarities like Keith Richards doing “Run Rudolph Run,” Bob Seger with “Sock It to Me Santa,” Darlene Love with the E Street Band – yes, you read correctly – singing “All Alone on Christmas.” The Ramones, the Kinks, Roy Woods’ Wizzard (his post-ELO band) are along for the sleigh ride, as is the Brian Setzer Orchestra. Then there’s the really off-the-wall stuff, courtesy of Soupy Sales (“Santa Claus Is Surfin’ to Town”) and actor and closet musician Joe Pesci (“If It Doesn’t Snow on Christmas”). Wild, unpredictable, raucous, and occasionally tender, this has got to be the funnest holiday CD on the shelves this season.

Point of Grace
Tennessee Christmas (Word Label Group)
Tennessee Christmas is a compilation with tracks from 1999’s A Christmas Story and 2005’s Winter Wonderland, alongside one new recording, the title track (originally by Amy Grant). The track choices are peculiar, particularly since “When Love Came Down” from A Christmas Story, one of Point of Grace’s finest songs, was passed up for the 59-second, wordless rendition of “Joy to the World.” And while A Christmas Story was a spectacular album, Winter Wonderland was lackluster. On the new song, the harmonies are sub-par (likely due to the departure of Heather Payne, their strongest singer), and the women’s voices sound thin. Ultimately, A Christmas Story is a better buy.

Amy Grant
The Christmas Collection (Amy Grant Productions/Sparrow Records)
This collection includes four new tracks alongside several from past holiday records. Grant’s interpretation of “Jingle Bells,” based on Barbra Streisand’s version, sounds Christmassy enough, but its hyper-speed choruses and schizophrenically-paced second verse are annoying. “Baby It’s Christmas” fares much better, mirroring the 1999 album A Christmas to Remember, probably the most consistent of Grant’s holiday releases with its quiet instrumentation and sweet but restrained vocals. The clever “I Need a Silent Night” examines the fast-paced nature of shopping malls in December, and while Grant is not in her best voice, the lyrics make up for it. The older tracks are well-chosen, including both radio hits (“Grown-Up Christmas List” and “Sleigh Ride”) and standout album tracks (“A Christmas to Remember” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”). The Christmas Collection is probably the best of her holiday outings.

Yo-Yo Ma and Friends
Songs of Joy & Peace (Sony Classical)
The celebrated cellist enlists the aid of friends from across the musical globe: Diana Krall, James Taylor, Chris Botti, Renee Fleming and many, many others. Some of the best turns are his duet with Taylor on “Here Comes The Sun”; “The Wassail Song/All Through the Night,” with his Appalachian Trio partner Edgar Meyer and Chris Thile on mandolin; the Celtic-flavored “A Christmas Jig/Mouth of the Tobique Reel” with Natalie McMaster; and the very jazzy “Vassourinhas” with the Assad brothers on guitars. On the other hand, “This Little Light of Mine” is just a little too twangy. But for the most part, while it strays occasionally from the holiday theme, the variety of tunes are well-played and thoroughly enjoyable.

Spyro Gyra
A Night Before Christmas (Heads Up)
The smooth jazz veterans pull off a difficult task, creating a jazz holiday album that doesn’t give either genre short shrift. A lengthy “O Tannenbaum” is just right, and the band’s take on Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” is heartfelt and enjoyable. Contributions from Broadway vet Christine Ebersole on the original “It Won’t Feel Like Christmas” and Janis Siegel of the Manhattan Transfer on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” add greatly to the proceedings, and old friend Dave Samuels adds vibes on “Carol of the Bells” and “Winter Wonderland.” Saxophonist/leader Jay Beckenstein, pianist Tom Schuman and the band have come up with another winner.

Enya
And Winter Came . . . (Reprise Records)
Enya’s multi-tracked vocals, chilly synthesizers and echo-laden pianos are perfect for explorations of the frostiest season. But be warned, if you’re looking for typical holiday fare, this ain’t it. There are only two traditional tunes, the Celtic “Oíche Chiúin” and “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” which is mesmerizing, with its vocal choruses. The rest is original music by Enya and lyricist Roma Ryan, which has its pluses but lacks the warmth of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” or the sing-along familiarity of “Rudolph.” Perfect for sipping hot chocolate when you’re alone in front of the fireplace, but altogether inappropriate for any holiday gathering.

Kristin Chenoweth
A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas
(Sony Classical)
Chenoweth may be an acquired taste, with her squeaky voice and slightly wacky persona. But there’s no denying the talent of the star of Pushing Daisies, The West Wing and Wicked, for which she earned a Tony nomination. Both the talent and the schtick are on display here. The opening “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is a tender and engaging take on the holiday classic, but the following “Christmas Island” opts for novelty. And so it goes, one to the good (“Do You Hear What I Hear,” beautifully voiced with lush orchestration), followed by one not-so-much (a “Sleigh Ride” too heavy on schmaltz and giggliness). Chenoweth has a lovely voice when she sings from the heart, without trying for cutesy.

Sara Groves
O Holy Night (Sponge Records/INO Records)
The classic carols included on Christian folk-pop chanteuse Groves’s first holiday album show her voice as softer and warmer than previous recordings. Her original compositions are more upbeat, particularly “It’s True,” which includes Biblical passages read by Groves’s young son Toby (results as good as these almost never come from musicians bringing their young children on board). Her lyrical skills are evidenced by “Toy Packaging,” which decries the amount of plastic enveloping Christmas presents, and “Peace, Peace.” “O Holy Night” might not be exciting, but it’s lovely background music for the season.

Al Jarreau
Christmas (Rhino)
Jarreau has been one of the nonpareil singers of the last 30 years. That said, this is one of the most disappointing discs of the season. It’s more Jarreau the jazzer than a Christmas record, which is a problem when virtually the entire program is familiar holiday fare. Interesting sometimes, as on “Carol of the Bells,” but clinkers like his version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” prove the difficulty of melding jazz and Christmas music.

Anna Wilson
Yule Swing! (Transfer Records)
This is that rarest of holiday albums, one with nothing but originals. That makes it easier for the artist to do whatever he or she wants, but there isn’t anything for the listener to immediately grab onto. That said, listeners who give this a chance will find some fresh, jazzy sounds that could gain a place alongside holiday classics like “The Christmas Song.” Wilson sings effortlessly, and her band swings with abandon. Though the sound is a bit tinny, it won’t keep listeners who enjoy jump swing from enjoying themselves.

Ledisi
It’s Christmas (Verve Forecast)
R&B soul sister Ledisi has created a splendid record. “Children Go Where I Send Thee” sounds like Mary Mary with a funk edge. “Give Love on Christmas Day” showcases Ledisi’s impressive voice against instrumentation similar to “Children,” while “Be There for Christmas” sounds like a cross between Taylor Dayne and Anita Baker. The album is heavily influenced by gospel, and some tracks mirror sounds from the ’60s and ’70s. It’s Christmas would never work as quiet background music, being far too loud and brassy, but it’s highly original and is likely the year’s best holiday release. At any rate, it’s certainly destined to be a keeper from year to year.

Sixpence None the Richer
The Dawn of Grace (Nettwerk)
The duo of singer Leigh Nash and instrumentalist Matt Slocum is either wonderful (the #1 hit “Kiss Me”) or artsy and awful (the rest of their eponymous album). This release falls between the two extremes, leaning more toward the latter. “Angels We Have Heard on High” is sweet traditional-sounding holiday music, but “Carol of the Bells” is grating, and most of the rest of the album is bland. Nash’s voice is thinner than it was on the group’s last physical release (in 2002), and Slocum’s performance is less inspired. While the group’s fans will undoubtedly rush to get their copies, others should leave it off their lists.

Harry Connick, Jr.
What a Night! A Christmas Album
(Columbia Records)
Connick can be an engaging singer and deserves praise for helping keep the big band sound alive. But his arrangements here tend toward the lowest common denominator, and Connick the singer gets lazy on some tracks, swooping and dropping his G’s. And when he introduces his daughter Kate as his vocal accompanist on “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” it comes off as cheesy and self-indulgent. Connick is a fine musician and has a big heart, but stay away from this disc.

 
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