Two new Christmas albums and one old favorite.
Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas
You’ve got to be at least a little suspicious of a man so enamored with exclamation points. Here, everyone’s favorite banjo/oboe player offers sprightly holiday originals such as “Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time!,” “Come On! Let’s Boogie to the Elf Dance!,” and “Get Behind Me, Santa!,” and more traditional exclamatory fare such as “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming” and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” In spite of such decidedly insistent titles, the music is often quiet and contemplative.
It is what it is: five years’ worth of Sufjan screwing around, not trying too hard, and making holiday music for his family and friends. But when you’re a certified indie superstar, your every festive fart must be released to the demanding public. The end result, captured on 5 EP-length CDs here, is wildly uneven, sometimes dreadful, and occasionally brilliant. But the brilliance ultimately wins me over. For every half-assed, under-rehearsed song (and there are a lot of them here), there are stunning arrangements of “What Child is This?” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” Even better, Sufjan understands that the light of the stable shines brightest in the darkness, and the darkness is reflected in both the choice of traditional carols (“O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” with its minor-key melody and mournful longing) and in the sometimes disarmingly honest originals such as “Did I Make You Cry on Christmas Day? (Well, You Deserved It!)” which, in spite of its ponderous, exclamatory title, is one of the saddest Christmas tunes written since Joni Mitchell wanted to skate away on a frozen river. In the end, and despite my aversion to the kitsch, I have to pronounce it as Pretty Good!!!
Various Artists – Oy to the World! A Klezmer Christmas
Only one exclamation point in this one. There is the star of wonder, and then there is just plain wondering: in this case, about a Christmas album recorded by Jewish klezmer musicians. So I am left to wonder.
But what is here is an absolute delight: classic Christmas carols (“Deck the Halls,” “Away in a Manger,” “Carol of the Bells”). Originals with titles such as “Santa, Geh Gezunder Heit” (Yiddish for “go in good health”). Wailing clarinets. A quote from Nino Rota’s “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” interjected into the middle of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.” A surf instrumental haphazardly appended to “The Little Drummer Boy.” Fans of Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole should probably cover their ears. But for irreverent, and decidedly non-stereotypical fare, this is both as traditional and as odd as it gets.
George Winston – December
Have you ever noticed that people who are attracted to the Druids – New Agers and Metal Heads – are generally into crappy music? Most reviews will tell you that December is a New Age album, and that George Winston is a New Age pianist. And that pains me because it’s a label that conjures visions in my mind of people listening to blissed out, boring Jazz Lite as they meditate at Stonehenge. In other words, Druid lovers.
So let me detonate the stereotype. Druids would not like this music. New Agers wouldn’t really like it, either. It’s lovely all right, but in places it’s complex and knotty, and Winston’s originals zig when you expect them to zag. They are consistently surprising, and the improvisation he employs, particularly on well-known classical pieces and carols such as Pachelbel’s “Canon in D” and “The Holly and the Ivy.” reflect the heart of a restless experimentalist. Operating somewhere near the nebulous intersection of folk and jazz, Winston created a work of stark, minimalist beauty, and twenty-five years after its release, December sounds as fresh and vital as ever. This is still my favorite holiday album, and if you own only one non-New Age/Druid Fest release, this should be the one.