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The Boston Phoenix Jingle Bell Schlock: New Seasonal CDs

Roasting this year's holiday chestnuts.

By The Boston Phoenix music critics

SWV

A SPECIAL CHRISTMAS

(RCA)

After getting sidelined by their guest rappers on their most recent album, you'd think the three Sisters with Voices would take the opportunity to warm up these holiday chestnuts with all the skill and invention they posses. But whether the material is classic pop (Irving Berlin's "White Christmas"), classic R&B (Gamble & Huff's "Christmas Ain't Christmas") or just plain classic (Public Domain's "Silent Night"), the production is too slick, the singing too forceful and fancy, the attitude too blankly ingenuous. Given all the hip R&B chord changes and diva-esque glissandos, the whole thing is also oddly soulless. Like Whitney Houston's pre-Babyface work, it reduces the awesome tradition of African-American singing to a mere show of power and style, deracinating it in order to broaden its appeal. As Babyface and many others before him know, reaching out needn't necessitate that kind of condescension.

-- Franklin Soults


RuPaul

VH1 PRESENTS RuPAUL: HO HO HO

(Rhino)

All Christmas records are annoying to one extent or another, but few are as out-and-out irritating as this. Although it's unfair to expect subtlety from RuPaul, he's capable of better than this indignity: a selection of holiday covers treated to horrendous disco renditions played on a synth that sounds one step up from a Tamagotchi, and smothered with camp clichés. RuPaul has got a couple of decent jokes left in him ("I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus," ba-da-boom), and he gets credit for digging up Little Steven's "All Alone on Christmas" and Dolly Parton's "With Bells On," but not for treating them this shabbily. When he tries to sing outright (as on "Santa Baby"), he can barely hit the notes, and when he takes a stab at being serious, with the interminable "Christmas Nite," it's like fake nails on a chalkboard. Perhaps the best use for Ho Ho Ho's novelties will be to drive people away when the Christmas party is over.

-- Douglas Wolk


Roomful of Blues

ROOMFUL OF CHRISTMAS

(Bullseye Blues)

If your white Christmas isn't perfect without screaming blues guitar and smooth hipster crooning, this 10-song CD from Rhode Island's famed little big band is your ticket to a très cool Yule. Except for "Good Morning Blues," "I Told Santa Claus," and a few others (penned by the likes of Lowell Fulson and Fats Domino), these are the standard standards. Which is good. I want to hear "White Christmas," "Let It Snow," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and "Run Rudolph Run" every December. Often. And Sugar Ray Norcia makes all these performances a pleasure. He vocalizes with such zesty élan that his take on "The Christmas Song" actually holds up against Nat King Cole's definitive performance. The horns and the rhythm section swing. The arrangements are perfect. Leave this one on "repeat," settle in with your baby, and heat up the rum toddies.

-- Ted Drozdowski


Mannheim Steamroller

CHRISTMAS LIVE

(American Gramaphone)

At their best, Chip Davis's synthesizers-and-kitchen-sink ensemble (any orchestra instrument you can think of plus krummhorns, camel bells, dry ice, and more) make Christmas carols swing and rock. But when they take on the likes of "Jingle Bells" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," it sounds like mere new-age doodling. This live album doesn't offer much that's new -- mostly it's tracks from their three studio Christmas releases, sounding pretty much the way they always do. Still, you get more of their best here than on any one of the studio efforts: "Angels We Have Heard on High," "Wassail, Wassail," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," and "Stille Night" (where you can just about hear the lonely, windswept plains of Nebraska, where Davis is based). Sadly absent: "Deck the Halls," "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," with its lilting trumpet, "The Little Drummer Boy" (redeemed from Andy Williams), and "O Holy Night," moving even without Luciano.

-- Jeffrey Gantz


Hanson

SNOWED IN

(Mercury)

This is exactly what kids like Hanson should be doing -- making Christmas albums. Keeps 'em off the street and in the studio making music that's meant to be corny and contrived. Keeps 'em away from trying to write serious material about aching hearts and soul searching, two things we really don't need to hear about from a trio of teens. And keeps 'em focused on something they do well, which is light (as in white) soul- and R&B-flavored pop as cute and cuddly as Rudolph and his little red nose. In the tradition of the big-pop-sensation Christmas album, Snowed In relies primarily on genre classics, from the Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick" to Irving Berlin's "White Christmas," all done up in the style of Phil Spector's jolly juggernaut. And it's peppered with a handful of originals, the best of which -- "Everybody Knows the Claus" -- makes Santa out to be some kind of bad-ass with a big appetite in amusing couplets like "His cookies and his milk are his pride/Or anything that can be deep fried/Don't get me wrong now he's a nice guy/But you don't want to get on his bad side." Told you, Christmas songs are right up Hanson's alley.

-- Matt Ashare


A VERY SPECIAL CHRISTMAS 3

(A&M)

This is the third in a series of contemporary holiday compilations to benefit the Special Olympics. The first, which most memorably featured Madonna's interpretation of "Santa Baby," came out in '87; the second appeared in '92. Pop's perennial patron of good causes, Sting, kicks round three off with a solemn "I Saw Three Ships"; jam bandits Dave Matthews and Blues Traveler offer up a couple of original tunes with "Christmas" in the title; and rappers Mase, Puff Daddy, Snoop Doggy Dogg, and Salt-n-Pepa gang up on "Santa Baby." There's also Enya's "Oíche Chiúin" ("Silent Night"), which is particularly appropriate since every song she does sounds a little like "Silent Night"; Smashing Pumpkins getting all solemn on Billy Corgan's "Christmastime"; and a Soundgarden-less Chris Cornell proving with an operatic rendition of Schubert's "Ave Maria" that if he put on a few pounds he could be the fourth tenor. It's all just another reminder of the holiday season's power to bring people from all walks of music and life down to the same blandly pleasant level.

-- Matt Ashare


MERRY AXEMAS: A GUITAR CHRISTMAS

(Epic)

Über-guitarist Steve Vai dreamed up the concept for this disc, which turns 11 six-string virtuosos lose on holiday material. You'd be within your rights to expect nonstop taste-free showboating, but Merry Axemas is surprisingly restrained. Although Kenny Wayne Shepherd's blues/funk rendition of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" sounds a tad generic and Steve Morse goes overboard with the contrapuntal shred choir on "Joy to the World," both players do justice to the spirit of their chosen songs. Better still are Eric Johnson's delicate, Aaron Copland-ized version of "The First Nowell," Vai's droll reading of Vince Guaraldi's "Christmas Time Is Here," and Joe Satriani's Hendrixian run through "Silent Night." Yet the two real highlights here are a gorgeous "Amazing Grace" played by Jeff Beck -- primarily on whammy bar -- backed by the London Choral Society, and "Jingle Bells," handled in blazing big-band style by the Brian Setzer Orchestra.

-- Mac Randall


The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra

AN AARDVARK CHRISTMAS

(9 Winds)

This 25-year-old big band, founded by composer/trumpeter/Methodist minister Mark Harvey, takes a typically offbeat look at the season. Not surprisingly, given their generally avant-garde outlook, the result has an African feel. Their "What Child Is This?" recasts "Greensleeves" with as much Coltrane as English folk song. "I Wonder As I Wander" is Appalachian folk given a deep spiritual reading by vocalist Donna Hewitt-Didham. "The Virgin Mary Carol" goes calypso. The African-American spirituals ("Go Tell It on the Mountain," "Sweet Little Jesus Boy") bathe Jerry Edwards's vocals in dark themes from brass and reeds. From here, the instrumentals turn more brooding and cacophonous, agitated by percussive cross-rhythms and given voice by declamatory reed solos (on the 15th-century French Advent hymn "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," as well as Harvey's original "Gloria in Excelsis Deo"). A New Orleans-style "Jingle Bells" makes for a lighthearted finale. If you can forgive the crude production, the disc is an emotionally satisfying musical pilgrimage. (Aardvark play their 25th annual Christmas concert this Sunday, December 21, at Old South Church. Call 442-9322.)

- Jon Garelick


Andrei Codrescu

VALLEY OF CHRISTMAS

(Gert Town)

A yuppie couple have a son thanks to the help of their Dominican maid. But the boy runs away, only to encounter a rooster who grants his wish in return for some goose-liver paté. And so begins dry-witted NPR commentator Andrei Codrescu's modern-day update of an ancient holiday fable. The Romanian-born Codrescu, whose radio pieces have been called "sweet and sour satirical gems" by Spalding Gray, writes and narrates the sinister story of Almond Joy, a boy who sets out on his 18th birthday in search of eternal youth. The backing music by Mark Bingham appropriately follows the tale's moods -- from a wickedly comical beginning where Almond Joy's parents keep failing to conceive to the boy's all-too-sweet days in the bucolic Valley of Christmas to a final dark ending. The moral: mass media and silly luxuries take us away from reality and one another; but running away only takes us further.

-- Mark Bazer


Allen Toussaint & Friends

A NEW ORLEANS CHRISTMAS

(NYNO)

If anyone's qualified to deliver a New Orleans-style Christmas album it's the city's legendary producer/songwriter Allen Toussaint. He uses the occasion to boost his NYNO label, giving at least one track to everyone on the roster. Resident bluesman Wallace Johnson puts some real-life detail into "Christmas Comes But Once a Year" ("It might take six months to pay these bills/Every time I think about it, it gives me chills"); and the New Birth Brass Band steal the show with a second-line version of "Jingle Bells." But other tracks lean toward a laid-back brand of '70s retro-soul, especially the two by Raymond Myles -- who's usually the Little Richard of gospel but here keeps his flamboyance too much in check. It's too bad Toussaint didn't write any tunes for the occasion -- a real New Orleans Christmas would have more of Toussaint and less of his friends.

-- Brett Milano


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