Some chestnuts deserve to burn on an open fire Season's Bleatings

THE BALTIMORE SUN

So" said Dr. Headley, motioning me to the couch. "I understand you're suffering from seasonal anxiety."

"Tell you the truth, doc, I got no problem with Christmas."

"Now, now," the psychiatrist chided, "denial is no way to face your problems."

"But it's not Christmas itself that bugs me -- it's Christmas music. See, I review albums for a living, and every year I wind up with a huge pile of new Christmas albums. Country Christmas, jazz Christmas, funk Christmas -- you name it, I get it. I even have one album that's got cats singing Christmas carols."

"Cats?"

"That's right. Cats. Jingle Cats, to be specific. They've got an album called 'Meowy Christmas' (Jingle Cats 41226), and it's them meowing stuff like 'Deck the Halls' and 'Silent Night' and 'Good King Wenceslas.' "

"I see," said Dr. Headley, scribbling furiously.

"No, really! Obviously, they're not really singing -- it's all done with digital sampling. But to tell the truth, after four or five carols, even my cat was bored with it."

"Go on."

"Admittedly, most of what I get isn't anywhere near as goofy as that. Some of it is so square it hurts. Like David Foster's 'The Christmas Album' (Interscope 92295). This one comes on like one of those old-time seasonal specials, all big stars and overdone arrangements. Trouble is, that formula doesn't always work these days.

"Sure, Johnny Mathis breezes through 'It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,' and Michael Crawford actually makes 'O Holy Night' seem exciting. But Bebe and Cece Winans' 'The First Noel' comes off like 20 pounds of ornaments on a 2-foot tree, while Tammy Wynette's 'Away in a Manger' should've been left back in the barn.

"As for Gloria Estefan's 'Christmas Through Your Eyes' (Epic 57567), the problem there is that she can't decide whether to be slick and salsa-fied or sappy and sentimental. The answer's simple: Stick with the rhythm stuff. Doesn't Estefan understand how out-of-place she sounds singing against those Wonderbread back-up choirs?"

"Wonderbread?" asked the shrink.

"You know -- hokey. Unhip. Completely Caucasian. Funny thing is, if you go back and listen to real Eisenhower-era extravaganzas, they actually sound cool in retrospect. I mean, the best stuff on Johnny Mathis' 'The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis' (Columbia/Legacy 57194) are the older selections, like 'Winter Wonderland' and 'White Christmas.'

It needs seasoning

"But that sort of singing requires a kind of taste and intelligence no one seems to have anymore. Just listen to Harry Connick Jr., whose 'When My Heart Finds Christmas' (Columbia 57550) boasts the worst 'Little Drummer Boy' on record.

"Connick's big mistake is in assuming that it's easy to make Christmas music swing. It's not. Even Ella Fitzgerald had trouble rising to the challenge. There's a wonderful reissue of 'Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas' (Mobile Fidelity 586) that boasts great sound, a swinging band, and some of the hokiest backing vocals ever recorded.

"There's some nice stuff on Gregg Karukas' 'Home for the Holidays' (Nightowl 44441), particularly the piano trio numbers; the guy can really swing. Unfortunately, the singer he works with, Shelby Flint, is of the Claudine Longet school, with one of those breathy, kittenish voices that enhances these songs about as well as lemon juice brings out the flavor of milk.

"Still, she's no worse than Kathie Lee Gifford, whose singing on 'It's Christmastime' (Warner Bros. 45346) is so goopy and over-sentimentalized that listening to it is like having a half-gallon of warm mush poured into your ear. And as for her duet with Regis Philbin on 'Silver Bells,' well . . . some people really should be seen and not heard."

"Weren't there any singers you liked?" asked the doctor.

"Well, Aaron Neville, of course. What he does with 'Silent Night' and 'Please Come Home for Christmas' makes hearing 'Aaron Neville's Soulful Christmas' (A&M; 31454 127) one of the season's most heavenly experiences. Granted, stuff like 'Louisiana Christmas Day' is not what most people would consider traditional Christmas fare -- unless you're used to having a fais do-do every December 25th.

"Of course, part of the reason people buy rock, soul and country Christmas albums is that they don't want string-drenched, Johnny Mathis-style carol settings. Fair enough. But why does the alternative end up seeming just as stilted and hokey as the old stuff?

They're forgettable

"Take the Boyz II Men album, 'Christmas Interpretations' (Motown 37463 6365). It's very pretty, with lush harmonies and warm, well-crafted arrangements, but apart from 'Silent Night,' there isn't a tune in the bunch you'd remember for more than 15 seconds. On the other hand, you'll easily recognize every song on Dion's 'Rock n' Roll Christmas' (Right Stuff 66718) -- it's what he does to 'em that'll bore you to tears.

"Carnie and Wendy Wilson -- the two non-blondes from Wilson Phillips -- are also ultra-boring on their new one, 'Hey Santa!' (SBK 27113). Almost every song on the album follows the same pattern: A breathy-voiced intro, 24 bars of softly-warbled mush, and then the drums kick in. Hey, girls! Maybe you should get Santa to bring you a new arranger!

"Then there's 'Christmas at Luke's House (Luke 205)."

"Excuse me," said Dr. Headley, "but who's Luke? That soap opera character?"

"Not hardly, doc. This is Luke Skyywalker, a.k.a. Luther Campbell, the man behind 2 Live Crew."

"Dear Lord!" gasped the shrink.

"Yeah, I know what you're thinking -- it'll probably give a whole new meaning to the phrase 'Ho, ho, ho!' But it's really nothing like that. Instead of putting the 'X' back into Xmas, Luke and his pals play Christmas straight, offering nothing more risque than H-Town's 'Knockin' Boots for Christmas.'

"But that's generally the way these things work. Any time you expect something outrageous, what you actually get is appallingly respectful. Thank goodness RuPaul comes through on 'Little Drummer Boy' (Tommy Boy single), giving that moldy oldie a fierce house treatment."

K? "You said something earlier about country Christmas music."

Country Christmases

"Gee, doc, didn't know you were a fan. 'Cos if you are, there are plenty of new Christmas albums by country stars this year. Only thing is, they don't always sound much like country music.

"Take Lorrie Morgan's 'Merry Christmas from London' (BNA 66282). It's nicely sung, but its big-budget orchestral settings evoke nothing so much as bad TV specials. And when she brings in the kids for 'Up on Santa Claus Mountain' -- puh-leeze! It's enough to make you forgive Vince Gill for dragging his daughter into the studio for the title tune on 'Let There Be Peace on Earth' (MCA 10877).

"Besides, Gill does understand how to balance country roots with Christmas tradition, offering a straight-up 'White Christmas' and cool, Western-swing take on 'Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.' And better that than the tear-in-my-beer stuff Alan Jackson does on 'Honky Tonk Christmas' (Arista 18736). Pardon me, but 'Please Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas)' is not my idea of a heartwarming Christmas tune."

"This Jackson fellow," said the shrink, perking up. "He comes from a dysfunctional family?"

"No more so than most. And frankly, his drunk-daddy song is hardly the season's worst lyric. John Prine has a number on 'A John Prine Christmas' (Oh Boy 011) called 'Christmas in Prison,' and pathetic as the title may seem, the song itself is no worse than his version of 'I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.'

Twisted, tasteless

"But then, tastelessness in the name of humor is a real perennial on the Christmas music front. Tell me, doc, do you remember 'Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer'?"

"I try not to."

"A reasonable reaction. Nonetheless, that single is the linchpin of Elmo Shropshire's career, and he's flogging the thing again this year with 'Dr. Elmo's Twisted Christmas' (Laughing Stock 1292). Not only is there a new version of 'Grandma,' but he adds spin-offs like 'Grandpa's Gonna Sue the Pants Off Santa.' Talk about beating a dead -- er, whatever.

"Along the same lines is 'I Am Santa Claus' (Atlantic 28548), by Bob Rivers & Twisted Radio. Rivers' idea of 'funny' generally seems the work of a guy who's read too many issues of Mad magazine, but there are some good bits here. I particularly like the way the title tune recycles Black Sabbath's 'Iron Man.'

"Besides, at least Rivers uses his imagination. That's more than can be said for Ren & Stimpy's 'Crock O' Christmas' (Sony 57402), which seems to assume that any Christmas carol can be made instantly funny by inserting the words 'shaved yak.' "

"Weren't there any albums that put you in the Christmas spirit?" inquired the doctor.

In proper spirit

"Sure. Not many, but there were some. Bruce Cockburn brings a fresh, folk-inflected approach to 'Christmas' (Columbia 53026), which not only boasts respectful renditions of familiar favorites, but includes lesser-known gems like 'Riu Riu Chiu' and 'Les anges dans nos camagnes.' And I was glad to see the reissue of John Fahey's 'The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album' (Rhino 71437). It's beautifully played and quite tasteful -- assuming you don't mind hearing a slide guitar version of 'Silent Night.'

"Being a sucker for medieval-sounding music, it was hard not to enjoy the merry-olde-Christmas sound Maddy Prior and the Carnival Band conjure throughout 'Carols & Capers' (Park 9). Of course, the purist in me much prefers 'Carol Album 2' (EMI 54902), which finds Andrew Parrott leading the Taverner Consort through a host of historically accurate, lovingly rendered carol arrangements."

"Could it be that you're just a traditionalist at heart, and having to deal with increasingly commercialized Christmas music year after year threatens your inner child's concept of the holiday?" asked the psychiatrist.

"Maybe. But if you want my diagnosis, doc, the real problem is that most Christmas albums just plain stink."

"You know, you may have something there," agreed Dr. Headley.

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