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Tinsel Tunes
Robert Moyes, Monday Magazine
Wednesday, December 15, 2004

It's that bittersweet time of year when wishful music writers slip bright and shiny discs into the CD tray in the hopes that bright and shiny seasonal tunes will emerge. But, as always, the recordings under review range from naughty to nice.

In the promisingly titled Barenaked for the Holidays by the Barenaked Ladies, Toronto's blithe popsters have more than a few tricks up their sleeves in this 20-cut seasonal sampler. "Jingle Bells" segues vertiginously from solemn to silly, while "Elf's Lament" is a mock-Marxist analysis of how Santa exploits his worker-elves. And a jaunty "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," with its slap-bass through-line, is very merry indeed. Your more staid aunties won't necessarily be amused, but fans will get that holly-jolly feeling. Rather less jolly is Platinum Christmas II, which displays a tin ear for what makes Christmas music palatable. This aural pudding is performed by a dozen second-tier artists, up-and-comers and a few established stars such as Elton John, Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera (who sings "Angels We Have Heard On High" as vulgarly as she half-dresses). This is ideal for people who find mall music a bit too edgy.

Firedance: Songs for Winter Solstice by Mayne Island trio Jaiya is a highly ambitious-and surprisingly successful-attempt to blend world music, Early Music, Celtic and jazz into a warming acoustic stew that is both earthy and spiritual. It's the perfect stocking stuffer for any pagan pining for the return of RootsFest. Meanwhile, Jessica Simpson, who looks like a perky blonde Barbie somebody just unwrapped, survives flat-footed arrangements to show off a fine voice on Rejoyce The Christmas Album. But even though the mood shifts between solemn, sultry and sassy, there's an unfortunately annoying girlishness to all her vocals. (And if the tabloids are even half-right about Jessica's marital problems, then December 25 with her and Nick will probably be less about "The Christmas Song" and more along the lines of Tammy Wynette's "D.I.V.O.R.C.E.")

Montreal-based jazz label Justin Time is up to their usual high standards with Justin Time For Christmas: Four. This wide-ranging compilation goes from vocalist Carmen Lundy's exuberant "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to pianist Hank Jones' tender "The Christmas Story," and from Quartango's Pandora's "Christmas Box" to Oliver Jones' "Let It Snow." And "Go Tell It On The Mountain" by the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir nearly jumps out of the CD tray. This one's a treat! Then we get the dubious pleasure of a Jamaican Christmas via Reggae Pulse 4: Christmas Songs, which is as artificial as the snow in a department store window display. Despite contributions by name-brand artists such as Mighty Diamonds and Yellowman, these saccharine readings are enough to give novelty recordings a bad name. It would require a huge spliff to transform this turkey into something you'd want to spend holiday time with.

A Winter's Night, billed as "the best of Nettwerk Christmas," basically plunders the label's two earlier issues (Maybe This Christmas, and Too) while adding only one new song to the mix. It's a great alternative-pop collection (Barenaked Ladies to Ron Sexsmith), but only if you missed out the first time. Definitely fresher is It's a Team Mint Xmas, Vol. 2!, whose list of West Coast alt-country and indie-rock perps includes The Buttless Chaps, Atomic 7, The Evaporators and Victoria's incomparably terrible hostess, Carolyn Mark. The vision of Christmas here tends (perhaps predictably) to the bitter and twisted, with probably half the contributors trying a bit too hard to be cynical. The psycho-surf guitar of "Senor Santa El Es El Monstruo" is entertaining, if only because a lonely sleigh bell tinkling in the background is the one concession to the season. The standout for me was Young and Sexy doing "Santa Claus Likes Rich Kids Better." (But see page 20 for another take on this one.)

Disjointed and noisy, The Polar Express is the soundtrack to the underwhelming animation spectacular, and starts out as a vanity project for the usually sensible Tom Hanks (who won't be adding any Grammys to his Oscar shelf). The turgid orchestral galumphing and tepid boogie-woogie eventually give way to sentimental add-ons by the likes of Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Kate Smith that can be found elsewhere. And then there's the less-than-welcome return of rock opera via The Last Christmas Eve by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who seem to make a living churning out annual prog-rock meditations on Christmas. With hints of Queen, the English choral tradition, brief fragments from Mozart and cheesy lyrics like out-takes from Phantom of the Opera, this is only appropriate for those of you who still have that poster from Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans up on the wall.

And for the big finish, ringing out clear as a Christmas bell, we have Nanaimo's sublime Allison Crowe, who has reissued and redoubled last year's Tidings. This new version jumps from six to 12 tunes, but still maintains stark production values, with Allison providing voice and piano, while getting minimal backup via bass and drums on just three cuts. There are a few actual Christmas songs such as "O Holy Night" and "The First Noel," but mostly Crowe selects apropos pop songs (such as Joni Mitchell's "River," Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," The Beatles' "Let It Be" and the Jagger-Richards tune "Shine A Light") and presents them as contemporary embodiments of spiritual yearning. Crowe has the soaring, swooping vibrato of a dark angel and will give any music lover a sultry blast of Christmas cheer.

It's beginning to sound a lot like Christmas