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Soundscapes: Cool Yule Tunes
Stephen Cooke, The Halifax Herald
Saturday, December 11, 2004

Barenaked Ladies, Isaak, Crowe put out holiday discs

WITH A HEALTHY CROP of East Coast Christmas CDs this year - from Terry Kelly, RyLee Madison, Louisa Manuel and Urban Surf Kings - one would hope that national and international acts would be able to match that quota, and darned if there aren't some fun and festive recordings that make this one of the better years for holiday music buffs.

A Canadian band that has set a standard for achieving success outside our borders sets its sights to the North Pole rather than south of the border on Barenaked for the Holidays (Desperation Records/Warner Music Canada).

Barenaked Ladies have already proven they're good sports at this time of the year, recording a seasonal single Christmastime (Oh Yeah) a few years back and appearing on an Anne Murray Christmas special, so a full album was only a matter of time.

Barenaked for the Holidays is an irreverent, freewheeling recording full of familiar songs, amusing originals and occasional oddball vignettes like a loungey O Holy Night or an a cappella Deck the Stills, where the lyrics consist merely of "Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young" to the familiar tune.

New tunes include the satiric Elf's Lament (with guest vocalist Michael Buble), with Santa's little helpers threatening a walkout, and Ed Robertson's chilly and plaintive Snowman, from the point of view of a child's front lawn creation who knows that his days are numbered.

Barenaked Ladies also include their Jewish friends in the celebrations, with a new composition Hanukkah Blessings, set to a rhumba beat, celebrating the victory of the Maccabees, with a verse in Hebrew to boot.

It's been a while since I've heard a catchy new Hanukkah tune, so the track is welcome, along with fun renditions of the more traditional Hanukkah Oh Hanukkah and I Have a Little Dreidel.

There's a comfy, casual feeling about Barenaked for the Holidays, although the Ladies' overall musicianship and arranging skills shine through as always. Made with love and a sense of fun, this disc will help you smile through the season's more stressful moments.

For a cool Yule, there's Chris Isaak's Christmas (Wicked Game/Reprise), laying down his mellow surfabilly vibe on familiar holiday classics, and a handful of self-penned songs like the forlorn Washington Square and the Elvis-esque Hey Santa! You can also spend the holiday down in the dumps with Isaak on Christmas on TV, watching It's a Wonderful Life and trying to get over the irony of it all.

Besides doing that slow burning intensity thing that he does on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas and The Christmas Song, Isaak earns major points for including a personal favourite, the Hawaiian carole Mele Kalikimaka, the perfect soundtrack for lighting those red and green tiki torches.

B.C. singer-songwriter Allison Crowe also gets bonus points for tackling Joni Mitchell's River on her CD Tidings (Rubenesque Records), and adding her own flavour to it on this spectral recording that is mostly just voice and piano, with bass and drums on only a few tracks.

Besides traditional numbers like In the Bleak Midwinter and The First Noel, Crowe goes beyond the Christmas canon to include Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah and The Beatles' Let It Be as pop spirituals, plus a gutsy Shine a Light from the greatest rock and roll album of all time, The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street. It's earned the stamp of approval from the Stones' official fan club, which should bring some new listeners to this tremendous Nanaimo talent.

The words "tremendous talent" don't usually come to mind when the name Jessica Simpson pops up, and Rejoyce: The Christmas Album (Columbia) isn't going to change anyone's opinion any time soon.

Yes, she's Barbie-doll pretty, and she's got her two facial expressions down pat - the parted lip fake-sexy pout and the mile-wide Colgate smile - and she somehow manages to be everywhere at once just like Santa Claus, which I guess is why we're now getting this disc.

It's not that Simpson can't sing, her voice is capable if a bit thin, but there really isn't much to separate her from your average American Idol finalist. The highlight here is probably Amy Grant's Breath of Heaven (Mary's Song), mostly because it stands out from the standard treatment given the other tunes - The Christmas Song, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus and so on - and it shows her injecting some drama into her breathy delivery.

And it wouldn't be a Jessica Simpson project without husband Nick Lachey and sister Ashlee along for the ride, on Baby It's Cold Outside and Little Drummer Boy respectively, although sis is so buried in the mix it's stretching it to call it a duet. Thank heaven for small blessings.