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Sing A Song of Christmas
Robert Moyes, Monday Magazine
Thursday, December 11, 2003

Despite the best efforts of malls everywhere to ruin the joy that people find in December's festive music, there are always new recordings that try-and sometimes succeed-in giving listeners that holly-jolly Christmas feeling. Herewith is a brief tour of the very diverse sounds of the season.

If your significant other is of a certain age and uncertain taste-in particular, has with religious zeal replaced vinyl recordings of Aqualung and Thick as a Brick with CDs-then their Christmas jukebox is no doubt crying out for The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. Occasionally jazzy and even orchestral, Tull mostly follows in the faux-medieval folk-rock idiom that characterized their early (and best) albums. Unlikely to win over the uninitiated, Tull will still gladden the hearts of those ever-faithful fans who still dance to Ian Anderson's heavy metal flute.

And although the Medieval Bębes bear the same relation to Early Music that a historical bodice-ripper does to Beowulf, they are still an entertaining and talented octet of singers with lung-revealing cleavage and a sound that evokes highly romantic images of a French castle in the Middle Ages. Their Mistletoe & Wine ranges from "The Holly & the Ivy" and "In Dulce Jubilo" to mostly 13th- and 14th-century pieces or medieval poems set to music by alpha Babe Katharine Blake. With soaring vocal harmonies grounded by the funky music of zithers, recorders, harmoniums and various percussion, these bodaceous Babes are pleasing both to eye and ear (although Maddy Prior's A Tapestry of Carols doth kick mightily their medieval butts).

The infelicitously-titled Frostbite by the ominously single-named Pavlo is, in fact, likely to have great appeal to fans of the Gypsy Kings and Ottmar Liebert. Very much in the nuevo flamenco school of hot Latin licks, Frostbite is distinguished by spicy infusions courtesy of Pavlo's bouzouki and the Ukrainian violin of Wasyl Popaduik. The endlessly energetic Pavlo is very appealing live, but his versions of classics such as "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Little Drummer Boy" come off as technically accomplished but something less than soulful.

They just know how to do Christmas in the country, and Cochrane, Alberta-born superstar George Fox is in fine form on A George Fox Christmas. With his sturdy, aw-shucks baritone he delivers a mix of classics ("Silent Night," "Away in a Manger") and a few novelty songs ("Six White Boomers," "Santa Lost His Ho Ho Ho").

Meanwhile, Nanaimo's other musical muse, Allison Crowe, has just released Tidings, a tasty and often-moving six-pack of seasonal songs-and not just the usual suspects. After kicking off with Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," she calls on those least-covered of Christmas carollers-Mick Jagger and Keith Richards-via "Shine a Light," which here shines with redemptive power. After "O Holy Night" and "In the Bleak Midwinter" for traditionalists, there's more Can-Con via Sarah McLachlan's "Angel." Simply arranged for trio and recorded "live off the floor" with Crowe's bold voice mixed way forward, this is an appealing and effective holiday offering.

Jane Siberry, looking more than a bit like Boy George, has left Mimi on the beach and headed to the classical heartland of Handel and Bach for Shushan the Palace (Hymns of Earth). This "priestess of pop" enthralled a cult audience in Victoria a few weeks back playing the same material, but knowledgeable fans of baroque singing will likely turn pale. Siberry's many loyalists, however, will embrace her attempt to impose a lush new vision on sacred songs composed by musical geniuses who had other things in mind with such as "I Know That My Redeemer Liveth" and "Sheep
May Safely Graze."

And canny Nettwerk Records wishes you an alterna-Christmas via Maybe This Christmas Too?, 14 shiny tunes ready for the unwrapping. Not everything works-Eisley drones and skater-grrrl Avril Lavigne doesn'texactly shine on "O Holy Night"-but the Be Good Tanyas are great with "Rudy," Oh Susanna's blues-moan voice is ideally matched to "Go Tell It on the Mountain," Guster offers some deliberately kitschy ethno-whimsy via "Donde Esta Santa Claus?" and Rufus Wainwright kicks the disc off just right with "Spotlight on Christmas" ("all the horses and toys/never could fix all the poor little rich boys"). Other contributors include the Dave Matthews Band, Barenaked Ladies, the Flaming Lips and Badly Drawn Boy, who offers up a wittily original tune called "Donna & Blitzen."