Sound Check

Reviewing Christmas music isn't easy. Where do you start, for instance? Of the umpteen Christmas releases churned out annually for years on end, which should be considered? Neil Diamond's? (Too predictable.) Brave Combo's? (Already an established classic.) If we review only new Christmas CDs, have we bowed to a corporate consumption culture that says only the latest thing is worth consideration? And if we review only old Christmas CDs, do we risk the journalistic bugaboo of untimeliness?

Solution: Treat holiday releases as what they actually are -- a crapshoot. You might get a great one, you might get something that can be smelled from the curb. Thus the titles reviewed here have been chosen almost at random. But even if we're willing to settle for randomness in which CDs are considered, there remains the question of just how to consider them. Normal review-and-critique rules don't apply; you can't fairly look for signs of artistic progress in the consecutive Christmas CDs of a particular artist, and nobody with sense would look for emerging musical trends to show their faces here first. And how might, say, a Cajun Christmas Sampler be usefully compared and contrasted to, say, A Star Wars Christmas? And God only knows if we should include the new Festival of Light collection of contemporary Hanukkah music from the likes of Jane Siberry and John Zorn's Masada Strings.

Here's my solution to that second quandary: Treat Christmas releases not in terms of artistic grappling and commercial striving, but in terms of mood. I hereby hold that Christmas music -- like elevator music, supermarket music and Quiet Storm -- is in essence mood music. Its purpose is to encourage particular behavior. In supermarkets, the encouraged behavior is consumption; in elevators, from the sound of things, the encouraged behavior is cannibalism. If you don't know what behavior the sounds that fall under Quiet Storm is designed to evoke, you probably still believe in Santa Claus and aren't old enough yet to buy your own CDs. And Christmas music? That's meant to encourage suddenly close-quartered families to refrain from carving one another up with meat knives.

The following selection of Christmas CDs is discussed and graded, therefore, on the mood provoked in an average listener (our staff "average listener" was sick, so I filled in). The discs were listened to and evaluated on separate days, one CD per day, on the proven theory that multiple Christmas CD ingestion within a 24-hour period produces in the listener a blinding pain, documented in published studies as comparable to the sensation of one testicle trapped in an active garlic press. (If you've got knives and/or family, don't test this theory at home.)

I gave the best shot, mood wise, to the new Bending Towards the Light: A Jazz Nativity, listening to the whole thing straight through while baking oatmeal cookies, which ought to help mellow anyone out. But damned if it didn't turn around and mock my friendliest intentions with a do-good-inspired embarrassment of all that might be holy. Rule One: Never buy a jazz CD with a picture of Charles Kuralt on the cover, even if it's only the back cover. Kuralt introduces this civic-minded congregation with some fatuous words about the spirit of the thing before a semi-all-star lineup snores through the pop-Christian origin myth, from "Silent Night" to "Joy to the World." The live performance, Three Kings costumes and all, is an annual event in New York City, and apparently people dress up and buy tickets to go applaud politely. I don't know what kind of people these are, but tell them to call home.

The CD -- which includes the squandered talents of Lionel Hampton, Tito Puente, Dave Brubeck, Ron Carter, a few other players near their caliber and a bunch of B-names -- was culled from performances in '87, '92 and '93. If the first half of the 21-track disc doesn't put you to sleep, there's some comparatively interesting a cappella work toward the end. But it's not enough to salvage the memory of the beginning, where Kuralt intones about jazz being a distinctly American art form, thereby suggesting (to me) that between this CD and Macy's, American crap has pretty well ruined the holiday. Kuralt also says something about the spirituality of Christmas and the parallel spirituality of jazz. That first proposition started losing steam years ago, and Bending Towards the Light may kill his second point, too. A standing reference point in its terribleness. (*)

There's not as much to say about Star of Wonder: A Country Christmas Collection, another '96 release, except that Alan Jackson, Brooks and Dunn, Diamond Rio et al. play the standards pretty straight with a little faux-twang tacked on. Brett James's "What Child Is This" is so epicly overblown it feels like the soundtrack to an action/ adventure flick, and doesn't Radney Foster have something better to do with his time than "The Christmas Song"? (At least it's a Mel Torme tune.) Jackson does worse with "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer."

This CD shares the same problem that plagues Towards the Light: a hard-to-mask incompatibility of style and subject. In the case of jazz, the music's emotional palette is just too broad to shrink-wrap around the strictures of scripture without sounding deflated. And country ... well, country music, if it's any kind of country music at all, has to be at least a little bit about drinking, fucking and fighting. And that, you know, t'ain't fittin' for the holidays. Still, Star of Wonder's too innocuous to push you over any irreversible edges. (***)

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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Brad Tyer