A little spin on tradition 4 Seasonal releases: more concept than Christmas

SOUNDS ADVICE

December 06, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

As I entered my fourth straight day of listening to nothing but Christmas albums, one thought kept creeping into my mind: Do we really need a new twist on Christmas music?

Somebody certainly seems to think so, because it seems almost impossible these days to find anyone willing to record familiar Christmas carols in old-fashioned arrangements. In the mood for a quiet choral rendition of "Silent Night" or a brass quintet reading of "Good King Wenceslas"? Tough luck, because you won't find anything so traditional or tasteful here.

Instead, what we get are concepts and gimmicks, as if some music industry Martha Stewart decided that what we really wanted was a theme for our Christmas albums. A country Christmas, for example. Or jazzy holidays. Or a rockin'-'round-the-Christmas-tree good time.

And on and on, until this year's pile of alleged seasonal cheer included Christmas blues, doo-wop carols, a "Caribbean Christmas Party," a collection of seasonal favorites as performed by sitcom stars, a collection of seasonal favorites performed on traditional Chinese instruments, a polka Christmas album, a porno Christmas album, and a gangsta rap effort entitled "Xmaz-N-the-Hood."

Ho-ho-ho?

Frankly, it's enough to turn any listener into a growling, griping Grinch. Mind you, it's not as if this current crop of Christmas albums is completely worthless, for there are a few glints of gold amid the seasonal dross. But winnowing them out may seem more trouble than it's worth.

Take, for example, the all-star album "A Very Special Christmas 2" (A&M 31454 0003). Like its predecessor, 1987's "A Very Special Christmas," this set is long on big names and good intentions, as everyone from Aretha Franklin to Extreme pitches in to raise money for the Special Olympics.

But it's maddeningly short on worthwhile music. Despite a few sterling moments -- the Luther Vandross version of "The Christmas Song," Tevin Campbell's incandescent "O Holy Night" most of the album is either boring (Wilson Phillips' snoozy "Silent Night"), gimmicky (Cyndi Lauper overdubbing herself Natalie Cole-style into a duet with the young Frank Sinatra on "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town") or lame (not even Tom Petty can enliven a song as hackneyed as "Christmas All Over Again").

Part of the problem with superstar Christmas albums is that they invariably involve superstar egos. Take Neil Diamond's "The Christmas Album" (Columbia 52914), perhaps the single most insufferable album of the season. It's bad enough that he junks the songs up with trick arrangements, so that "White Christmas" is played as fake doo-wop, while a pedal steel is added to countrify the sound of "Silver Bells," but what made my skin crawl was the way Diamond treated each tune as if his was the birthday being celebrated.

Fortunately, not every pop star is so self-obsessed. Amy Grant, for example, seems downright modest on "Home for Christmas" (A&M 31454 0001), happily taking a back seat to the orchestra and chorus when the music demands (although given her tendency to murmur these melodies, she may not have had much choice). Likewise, Macauley Culkin's angelic voice may be present throughout the Christmassy soundtrack album to "Home Alone 2" (Fox 11000), but the emphasis remains on the pop performances, especially TLC's perky "Sleigh Ride" and Darlene Love's gloriously Spectorian "All Alone on Christmas."

Superstar 'Messiah'

Still, the best example of how superstar voices can be corralled into a cohesive ensemble has to be "Handel's Messiah: A Soulful Celebration" (Reprise 26980). Instead of tarting up Handel's score with hip-hop beats and gospel flourishes, Quincy Jones and his arrangers have reworked the material so it fits the contemporary grooves provided for the singers. So even though Handel scholars are unlikely to swoon over Stevie Wonder's "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion" or Tramaine Hawkins' take on "And He Shall Purify," these performances do succeed on their own terms.

Much the same can be said of "Christmas Carols and Sacred Songs" (Blue Note 99965), which finds the Boys Choir of Harlem walking the line between church-choir conservatism and gospel fervor on everything from "O Holy Night" to "Go Tell It on the Mountain" (the latter featuring a fiery Dianne Reeves). But ambition gets the better of Sounds of Blackness on "The Night Before Christmas: A Musical Fantasy" (Perspective 31454 9000), album so brassy and overblown that it's less like a Christmas album than a bad Broadway musical.

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