Thursday, December 07, 2006

Holiday Roundup

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.


Karen said...

i love George Winston's music in general, but specifically his December album.

I think the Sufjan album is more cringeworthy than not. Then again, I am not a fan. :)

John McCollum said...

I love Klezmer. Itzhak Perlman's "In the Fiddler's House" and the Klezmatics' "Jews With Horns" are two of my favorite albums. A Klezmer Christmas? Dos gefelt mir! I need to get my hands on that one.

A very Sufjan Christmas? I actually kind of agree with you on this one, too. There really are some great moments. But the dreadful tracks are really, really, really bad. I actually became angry the first time I heard his "O Holy Night." The second and third time, too.

I also like George Winston's December quite a bit.

jackscrow said...
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jackscrow said...

It's "old" now, 12 yrs? or so, but my consistant favorite, the one I give as a gift, and the one that gets me away from the persistant, sickly sweet elevator muzac of the whole season, and hopfully into the right frame of mind is Bruce Cockburn's "Christmas".

It includes the best version of "O Little Town Of Bethlehem".

The slight pauses before and after "Where meek souls will receive Him (pause) still (pause)" grab me every time.

Andy Whitman said...
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Andy Whitman said...

I agree, the Cockburn Christmas album is a great one.

That album actually got me in trouble, though. My family insists on playing Christmas music while decorating the tree. No problem. So I pulled out the Cockburn Christmas album and we started stringing the lights. Midway through I had a rebellion on my hands. The Christmas tree decoraters went on strike, demanding Christmas music that didn't include 17th century Huron Indian Christmas carols. What are you gonna do? I quickly rushed out and bought Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. Everybody was happy but me. But the tree got decorated.

Anonymous said...

Regarding your last comment, Andy, it's hard for me to imagine any of your immediate family members as traditional.

With regard to Sufjan, as you know, Jan and I are not particularly turned on by his best stuff, let alone his not so good. So, we'll pass on his Christmas album.

I'm kind of intrigued by the new Bootsy Collins Christmas album. Have you heard it? I was going to seek it out for purchase, but was warned off by family members who suggested it might show up in my Christmas stocking. I can't imagine Bootsy making any kind of album that would not be entertaining at least.

Andy Whitman said...

Oh, Bill, where to begin ...

First, they're all fairly traditional when it comes to
Christmas music. No Cajun Christmas, which I love. No "Pimp My Sleigh." No "God Rest Ye Merry, Jazzmen." It's too bad. It's strictly Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole, and Frank Sinatra, at least when they're around. When they're gone ... it's "Pimp My Sleigh" and Elvis (Hang up your stockings/Turn out the light/Santa Claus is comin' down your chimney tonight."). Have a lascivious, leering Christmas.

In other areas, surely you must know that Rachel is an iconoclast, and that, at least in religious matters, she's all about tradition, liturgy, etc. She bought a rosary, for God's sake. Which is fine, by the way. It's just very different from our normal Central Vineyard experience.

John McCollum said...

My favorite Christmas Album is a compilation called Noel, produced by Derry Daugherty and Steve Hindalong. Not a favorite of critics or consumers, it went out of print a loooooong time back.

Anonymous said...

the vince guaraldi "charlie brown christmas" is our favorite. we do dig the cockburn album, too.

i just learned (and, perhaps modified a bit) "down in yon forest" and the minor key version of "it came upon a midnight clear" for next week's performance with cello and violin.

the minor key thing is beautiful. i often listen to cockburn and hear his admiration for miles davis in the music.

so much to enjoy.

merry christmas!

Anonymous said...

As a follow-up on my earlier comment, I did receive the Bootsy Collins CD Christmas is 4 Ever from daughter Jessica as a late birthday present. It's awesome! Guaranteed to drive Kate and the girls screaming from your house. Also picked up a new George Winston-December CD, since we only had it on tape, and we're not sure where it is, and it's Jan's all time favorite Christmas album. Also picked up an Al Green Christmas album - disappointing. And finally an updated version of God Rest Ye Merry Jazzmen with extra tracks that don't measure up to the originals. However, not a traditional CD in the bunch.