Some chestnuts deserve to burn on an open fire Season's Bleatings

December 15, 1993|By J. D. Considine | J. D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

So" said Dr. Headley, motioning me to the couch. "I understand you're suffering from seasonal anxiety."

"Tell you the truth, doc, I got no problem with Christmas."

"Now, now," the psychiatrist chided, "denial is no way to face your problems."

"But it's not Christmas itself that bugs me -- it's Christmas music. See, I review albums for a living, and every year I wind up with a huge pile of new Christmas albums. Country Christmas, jazz Christmas, funk Christmas -- you name it, I get it. I even have one album that's got cats singing Christmas carols."

"Cats?"

"That's right. Cats. Jingle Cats, to be specific. They've got an album called 'Meowy Christmas' (Jingle Cats 41226), and it's them meowing stuff like 'Deck the Halls' and 'Silent Night' and 'Good King Wenceslas.' "

"I see," said Dr. Headley, scribbling furiously.

"No, really! Obviously, they're not really singing -- it's all done with digital sampling. But to tell the truth, after four or five carols, even my cat was bored with it."

"Go on."

"Admittedly, most of what I get isn't anywhere near as goofy as that. Some of it is so square it hurts. Like David Foster's 'The Christmas Album' (Interscope 92295). This one comes on like one of those old-time seasonal specials, all big stars and overdone arrangements. Trouble is, that formula doesn't always work these days.

"Sure, Johnny Mathis breezes through 'It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,' and Michael Crawford actually makes 'O Holy Night' seem exciting. But Bebe and Cece Winans' 'The First Noel' comes off like 20 pounds of ornaments on a 2-foot tree, while Tammy Wynette's 'Away in a Manger' should've been left back in the barn.

"As for Gloria Estefan's 'Christmas Through Your Eyes' (Epic 57567), the problem there is that she can't decide whether to be slick and salsa-fied or sappy and sentimental. The answer's simple: Stick with the rhythm stuff. Doesn't Estefan understand how out-of-place she sounds singing against those Wonderbread back-up choirs?"

"Wonderbread?" asked the shrink.

"You know -- hokey. Unhip. Completely Caucasian. Funny thing is, if you go back and listen to real Eisenhower-era extravaganzas, they actually sound cool in retrospect. I mean, the best stuff on Johnny Mathis' 'The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis' (Columbia/Legacy 57194) are the older selections, like 'Winter Wonderland' and 'White Christmas.'

It needs seasoning

"But that sort of singing requires a kind of taste and intelligence no one seems to have anymore. Just listen to Harry Connick Jr., whose 'When My Heart Finds Christmas' (Columbia 57550) boasts the worst 'Little Drummer Boy' on record.

"Connick's big mistake is in assuming that it's easy to make Christmas music swing. It's not. Even Ella Fitzgerald had trouble rising to the challenge. There's a wonderful reissue of 'Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas' (Mobile Fidelity 586) that boasts great sound, a swinging band, and some of the hokiest backing vocals ever recorded.

"There's some nice stuff on Gregg Karukas' 'Home for the Holidays' (Nightowl 44441), particularly the piano trio numbers; the guy can really swing. Unfortunately, the singer he works with, Shelby Flint, is of the Claudine Longet school, with one of those breathy, kittenish voices that enhances these songs about as well as lemon juice brings out the flavor of milk.

"Still, she's no worse than Kathie Lee Gifford, whose singing on 'It's Christmastime' (Warner Bros. 45346) is so goopy and over-sentimentalized that listening to it is like having a half-gallon of warm mush poured into your ear. And as for her duet with Regis Philbin on 'Silver Bells,' well . . . some people really should be seen and not heard."

"Weren't there any singers you liked?" asked the doctor.

"Well, Aaron Neville, of course. What he does with 'Silent Night' and 'Please Come Home for Christmas' makes hearing 'Aaron Neville's Soulful Christmas' (A&M 31454 127) one of the season's most heavenly experiences. Granted, stuff like 'Louisiana Christmas Day' is not what most people would consider traditional Christmas fare -- unless you're used to having a fais do-do every December 25th.

"Of course, part of the reason people buy rock, soul and country Christmas albums is that they don't want string-drenched, Johnny Mathis-style carol settings. Fair enough. But why does the alternative end up seeming just as stilted and hokey as the old stuff?

They're forgettable

"Take the Boyz II Men album, 'Christmas Interpretations' (Motown 37463 6365). It's very pretty, with lush harmonies and warm, well-crafted arrangements, but apart from 'Silent Night,' there isn't a tune in the bunch you'd remember for more than 15 seconds. On the other hand, you'll easily recognize every song on Dion's 'Rock n' Roll Christmas' (Right Stuff 66718) -- it's what he does to 'em that'll bore you to tears.

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