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Tucson Weekly Soundbites

By Stephen Seigel

NOVEMBER 30, 1998:  LET'S TALK TURKEY: You're probably sitting on the couch right now, bloated from cramming turkey and stuffing down your gullet, plotting just how you're gonna navigate your way to the nearest shopping mall to buy overpriced crap for your loved ones, all in the name of Jesus (or the menorah, or whatever the pagan infidels are celebrating these days). That's right folks, it's Thanksgiving--the busiest shopping weekend of the year, and the first inkling local merchants have of how much green will be passing through their doors this holiday season. Everyone's out for your cash right now, and record labels and the artists that pay the bills are no exception. It's the time of the season when your local record stores are chock full of the latest Christmas albums by just about everybody who's ever recorded a note of music for popular consumption. So in an effort to make your holiday season a happy one, with just the right seasonal music to set the mood of those family get-togethers we all love so much, here I sit, wading through the latest batch of Christmas platters...so you don't have to.

There's the brand new Vince Gill, Breath of Heaven (MCA), in which the smooth country crooner sings the usual Christmas fare--"Winter Wonderland," "Silver Bells" and the like--over orchestral arrangements by Patrick Williams. If I didn't know ol' Vince was a country singer (or what passes for country on the airwaves these days), I sure as hell wouldn't have guessed it from this too-tasteful-to-be-at-all-interesting collection. Can you say crossover?

Fresh off their live-in-concert spectacular on the Disney Channel (what, you missed it?), squeaky-clean Caucasian b-boy wannabes 'N Sync offer up Home for Christmas (RCA), a document of just how bland recorded music can be. To their credit, the harmonies are nice and they get bonus points for attempting to broaden the canon of holiday songs by putting mostly new tunes on the disc, rather than just recycling the usual suspects. (Does anyone really think they're gonna do an interpretation of "Silent Night" that makes us hear it like we've never heard it before?) But when the music is as shitty as this, what's the point?

Due to the overwhelming success of last year's surprise holiday hit, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has released a follow up called The Christmas Attic (Atlantic), apparently the second part of a planned trilogy. Trans-Siberian founder Paul O'Neill has previously produced such big-name rock bands as Aerosmith, and was responsible for penning the 1995 rock opera Dead Winter Dead, which was performed by now-forgotten hair-metal band Savatage. Although the record's press kit describes Attic as "combining elements of rock with the majesty of symphonic instruments, Broadway voices and echoes of traditional holiday favorites," I'd describe it as the original cast recording of an insipid Christmas off-Broadway musical with pseudo prog-rock band Asia sitting in the orchestra pit. It'll probably outsell it's predecessor two-to-one.

Other notable releases include Merry Axemas Volume 2 (Sony), the follow-up to last year's wildly successful release in which technical guitar virtuosos interpret Christmas classics in an attempt to see who can cram the most noodling into the shortest of space. This year's batch includes such shredders as former Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens, Zakk Wylde, jazzman Al DiMeola, and world-renowned naturist Ted Nugent.

North Carolina's Squirrel Nut Zippers have just put out Christmas Caravan (Mammoth), one of the more promising releases of this year's holiday crop. Combining eight original Christmas songs (hooray for originals!) and two standards stamped with the Zippers' hot-house meets ragtime style, these guys and a gal can do no wrong so far, and I don't suspect Caravan to be an exception to that rule.

Yet another newly released compilation of standards, Ultimate Christmas (Arista), combines classic tunes by Sarah McLachlan, Boyz II Men, and Whitney Houston, with dead musical giants such as Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole, not to mention the occasional selection by living artists that should be dead (I'm sure Kenny G's interpretation of "Silver Bells" is riveting). And to confuse whatever demographic they're shooting for on this one, add to the list Luciano Pavoratti, Judy Garland, and Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass.

Evolving out of Darol Anger's acclaimed 1997 "new acoustic" music project, Heritage, comes A Christmas Heritage (Koch), which includes contributions from guitarist/mandolinist Mike Marshall, mandolinist/vocalist Tim O'Brien, banjo virtuoso Alison Brown, pianist Philip Aaberg, and bassist Todd Phillips, in addition to Anger's fiddle. This one's a sure crowd-pleaser amongst the folkier set.

And I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention in passing a few of my holiday faves, even though they aren't new. While its legend only seems to grow with every passing year, 1963's Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector is considered by many the greatest Christmas album ever made. Showcasing Spector's famous "wall of sound" production, as well as the vocal talent of such Spector protégés as the Crystals, Darlene Love, and the Ronettes, the record is a pop masterpiece that's withstood the test of time.

Another oldie I've always cherished is James Brown's Funky Christmas, in which the Godfather of Soul grunts and screams his way through a collection of standards in a way only the inventor of the "goodfoot" dance could. Funky, indeed.

A couple of recent favorites include Just Say Noel (Geffen), which sports an eclectic roster of contemporary off-the-beaten-path artists doing original seasonal tunes (with the exception of deceased folk-soul crooner Ted Hawkins' beautiful rendition of "Amazing Grace"). Highlights on this one include Beck's "Little Drum Machine Boy," in which the cross-cultural genius celebrates his Jewish heritage by throwing a Hebrew prayer in the background; rap gods The Roots covering the De La Soul classic "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa"; and one of the best titles you'll find on a Christmas album, Sonic Youth's "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope".

But the album that's rescued me from the holiday blues for the last few years has to be Punk Rock Xmas. A compilation spanning old-schoolers like the Ramones ("Merry Christmas (I Don't Wanna Fight Tonight)") and The Damned ("There Ain't No Sanity Clause"), with new-school progenitors like Pansy Division ("Homo Christmas") and The Frogs ("Here Comes Santa's Pussy"), you'd be hard pressed to find a more offensive and fun holiday album.

And finally, in the "Who's Actually Gonna Buy This Crap?" department, there's a company in Burbank, California called P.S. I Love You! that will record a personalized Christmas song for a loved one for as little as $39.95. I wish I had the space to print their entire press release, but here are some choice excerpts:

"This Christmas, imagine that special someone in your life being serenaded by singers who have performed with such artists as SERGIO MENDEZ, BETTE MIDDLER (sic), RINGO STARR, VICKI CARR and many others. (P.S. I Love You! has) crafted beautiful songs and personalizes each one for that special person in your life, so it sounds like the song was written and recorded just for them. If you were to hire our professional singers and songwriters, and rent a recording studio, you would spend thousands of dollars!" For once, I am speechless. If you're a sucker, call 1-800-725-SONG.

Happy Thanksgiving and happy shopping!

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