Sound Check

Christmas Chants, a '96 offering brought to us by the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo De Silos, doesn't suffer the same fate. Working with the vastly more constricted musical format of celebratory and devotional song, the monks weave a vastly more compelling tapestry. Towards the Light might run (disconcertingly) through garish splashes of orange, purple and red, but the monks delineate a dozen or more shades of brown. Of course, the inspirational quality of holiday music has a lot to do with the sincerity behind the expression, and the fact of the matter is that the Benedictine Monks have got a lock on the sincerity angle that Alan Jackson just can't fathom.

It helps also that these selections, recorded in 1958, draw on reconstructed Roman Catholic liturgical texts, adding layers of mystery to the proceedings. You can't sing along with it (if you can, please come to my house for the holiday), but you can either sink deep into it or leave it chanting in the background, as suits your mood, with equally great effect. (****)

One of the great joys of 1963's A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector comes at the very end, when, with "Silent Night" moaning softly in the background, a boyish voice cuts into the tape and says, in Hallmark tones, "Hi, I'm Phil Spector ...." He goes on, in this good-bye announcement, to claim paternalistic pride in his artists -- Darlene Love, the Ronettes, the Crystals and Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans -- and wish, you know, to all a good night.

On the face of it, there's not much to distinguish the Spector disc from Towards the Light or Country Christmas. All three rely on the "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" school of Christmas tuneage, and all three adapt the songs to a particular stylistic genre. But in Spector's case, the stylistic genre isn't anything as amorphous as jazz or country, it's the Phil Spector Sound. And unlike the producers of the previously mentioned CDs, Spector had a vision all his own -- one that was strong enough to link these renditions into a reason for being.

Listening to these relentlessly upbeat tracks, you hear an innocence that's absent on many other holiday CDs, and you have to wonder if it wasn't part of Spector's genius to understand that America's version of Christmas, like American pop music circa 1963, is a relatively shallow phenomenon to be milked for good times.

In Christmas Gift's liner notes, Spector wrote, "Because Christmas is so American, it is therefore time to take the great Christmas music and give it the sound of the American music of today." His "sound of the American music of today" comprised, not surprisingly, his entire contemporary roster of artists. But then, humbleness apparently isn't part of the American Christmas experience, and a lack of it doesn't take a thing away from the fact that Christmas Gift remains the standard-bearer in the field of Christmas CDs. It's one of a very few holiday releases that you wouldn't mind playing long after Christmas is over, and the relatives have made their safe ways back to whatever rocks they crawled out from under. (*****)

-- Brad Tyer

***** Kiss Santa Claus
**** Hug Santa Claus
*** Kick Santa Claus
** Kill Santa Claus
* Eat Santa Claus

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