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Published: Sunday, 12/12/2004

New takes on holiday tunes

BY DAVID YONKE

BLADE STAFF WRITER

You know it's a banner year for holiday cheer when two powerhouses like Mannheim Steamroller and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra square off with new Christmas releases.

It's the holiday-music equivalent of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox squaring off for a picture-perfect baseball series, only with "Greensleeves" and "Sleigh Rides" instead of the Green Monster and sliders.

Bob Kinkel, musical director of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which played a sold-out show in Toledo last week, said in a recent interview that he doesn't see his group and Chip Davis' Mannheim Steamroller as holiday-music rivals.

"Not really," Kinkel said. "We kind of do different things. Every once in a while, people compare us. But we're completely different. We're a big rock show, and they have their own style."

Maybe so, but the two groups have dominated the holiday-music scene over the last decade. It will be interesting to see who finishes the year at No. 1.

There are plenty of other big names on the scene this year, including new holiday albums by such musical stars as James Taylor, Jessica Simpson, and Barenaked Ladies.

Here's a look at some of the more notable holiday releases this season:

"THE LOST CHRISTMAS EVE," Trans-Siberian Orchestra (Lava). Pomp-rock majesty with strings, this elaborate effort concludes the TSO's "Christmas Trilogy" that began with 1996's "Christmas Eve and Other Stories" and continued with "The Christmas Attic" in 2002. Creator Paul O'Neill wraps the theatrical music around a story about an angel sent by God to find "the one person who best continued the work of his Son on Earth."

The music soars with reverberating guitar power chords, billowing electronic keyboards, shimmering orchestral strings, children's and adult choirs, and a lineup of vocal soloists of varying styles and ranges.

The arrangements are all meticulously crafted and the musicianship world-class, and although the dramatics may be stilted at times and the plot a bit syrupy, the world can use a touch of joy this time of year. So take off your Grinch hat and enjoy.

"CHRISTMAS CELEBRATION," Mannheim Steamroller (American Gramaphone). Mannheim Steamroller, led by former Sylvanian Chip Davis, released its first Christmas album 20 years ago, and the season's musical scene has never been quite the same. The Steamroller's four Christmas discs seemed to capture the spirit of the season with their neo-classical orchestral spin exuding warmth, joy, and wonder.

Davis, a former music teacher at McCord Junior High School in Sylvania who moved to Omaha in the 1970s, has gathered a lot of steam with Steamroller and decided to gather some of his favorite tunes from previous holiday albums, including "Fum, Fum, Fum" and "Deck the Halls," and wrap them in a shimmering metallic-green package for "Christmas Celebration." The 18 songs on this collection include several new offerings, most notably the stirring horns and synthesizers of the fanfare-style title track.

"A CHRISTMAS ALBUM," James Taylor (Hallmark). Taylor's silky baritone voice sets a warm and fuzzy tone on this collection of 11 holiday songs that range from a uniquely slow and funky version of "Jingle Bells" to the Gospel-tinged celebration of "Go Tell It on the Mountain." Taylor teams with Natalie Cole for a spirited duet on "Baby, It's Cold Outside" and makes a musical plea for racial unity on "Some Children See Him," which tells how some children see Jesus as white while others see him as black. Taylor signed a deal with Hallmark Cards for exclusive sales of this disc, priced at $10.95.

"LIGHT OF THE STABLE," Emmylou Harris (Warner Bros./Rhino). Harris' glistening alto rings to the heavens on this collection of carols and standards performed in a country/bluegrass setting. Highlights include the foot-tapping opener, "Christmas Time's A-Coming," the a cappella rendition of "The First Noel," and the shimmering title track, a re-issue of Harris' classic 1970s single with Neil Young, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt on background vocals that would put a cherubic smile even on Scrooge and the Grinch.

"SILVER AND GOLD," Vanessa Williams (Lava). In her first release for Lava, diva Williams presents an upbeat and soulful set of holiday songs featuring elaborate arrangements with layers of background vocals and stellar accompaniment by the London Session Orchestra on six songs including the title track. Other highlights include Williams' duet with tenor vocal ace Brian McKnight on "Joy to the World" and Ossie Davis' stirring reading of a Langston Hughes' poem on "Prelude: I Dream a World," as a lead-in to producer Rob Mathes' original dance-groove gem, "December Lullaby."

"A JOHN WATERS CHRISTMAS," Various Artists (New Line). Tired of the typical, predictable holiday fare? Well you can count on avant-garde filmmaker John Waters (Hairspray, Pink Flamingos) to come up with something radically different. This bizarre collection, which Waters hopes will bring everyone "a merry, rotten, scary, sexy, biracial, ludicrous, happy little Christmas," opens with "Fat Daddy," on which Santa struts his stuff in unusual style ("I'm Fat Daddy, from the North Pole, whoa, whoa, yeah. I'm Fat Daddy, Santa Claus with soul"). That's followed by Tiny Tim's helium-like falsetto singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," only to be outdone by Alvin and the Chipmunks' high-pitched "Sleigh Ride."

Illustrating Waters' knack for tackiness, a group called Rudolph and the Gang blasts the jolly old elf on "Here Comes Fatty Claus," a darkly funny litany of foul-mouthed complaints about the commercial infestation of the holidays, earning the disc its "Parental Advisory Warning."

"BARENAKED FOR THE HOLIDAYS," Barenaked Ladies (Desperation). If it's the Barenaked Ladies, it's got to be fun. The quirky Canadian quintet comes through with this terrific mix of 20 original songs and atypical arrangements of standards. Ed Robertson's witty lyrics and jaunty rhythms of "Elf's Lament" stands out, with Santa's little helpers complaining about the working conditions and threatening to unionize. Sarah MacLachlan joins the Ladies for a funky, stand-up bass-driven romp on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Steven Page's thoughtful, thankful original, "Hanukkah Blessings," complete with a verse in Hebrew, and the traditional "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah" and "I Have a Little Dreidel" make this disc a true interfaith collection.

"ACOUSTIC CHRISTMAS," Various Artists (Favored Nations). Producer Steve Vai, a six-string wizard himself, assembled a lineup of guitarists whose performances shine as brightly as the star sitting atop a Christmas tree. These 10 tunes feature virtuoso performances on standard and unusual holiday songs, including Andy Timmons' upbeat "Greensleeves," Peppino D'Agostina's delicate and reverent "We Pray Sanctus" with children's choir, Greg Koch's funky slide guitar on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," Adrian Legg's multilayered "Jingle Bells," and Mimi Fox's jazz-rock romp on "Winter Wonderland."

"REJOYCE: THE CHRISTMAS ALBUM," Jessica Simpson (Columbia). There isn't a song on this album that hasn't been sung better elsewhere, but Simpson is a decent enough singer for some holiday fun. The star of MTV's The Newlyweds, Simpson and sissy Ashlee have a good time with "The Little Drummer Boy" and Jessica does a nice job with hubby Nick Lachey on their bouncy pop version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

Simpson would have done better avoiding songs that get too serious or dramatic, stretching her voice too much on "O Holy Night" and "Breath of Heaven," but all in all the disc is a harmless and good-hearted effort. The misspelling of "rejoice" in the album title, by the way, apparently is intended as a tribute to the late Joyce Adams Simpson.

"WATCHING THE SNOW FALL," Michael Franks (Sleeping Gypsy/Rhino). One of the finest jazz-pop vocalists and songwriters on the scene, Franks sets a heavily romantic tone for the holidays with songs that seem perfectly suited for candlelight, fireplaces, picture windows, and hot toddies. With his breathy tenor voice and smoldering, jazz-tinged arrangements, Franks turns Christmas into a lovers' holiday with 10 refreshingly original compositions. You might want to wipe the fog off the windows after giving Franks' steamy "My Present" a spin.

"THE SOULFUL SOUNDS OF CHRISTMAS," Various Artists (Rhino). Although all of these recordings have been previously released, this is an excellent and eclectic compilation of holiday songs ranging from the hefty hip-hop beats and street savvy of Run-D.M.C. on "Christmas in Hollis" to Kirk Franklin and the Family's slow-paced, powerful, and joyous gospel celebration of "Now Behold the Lamb." Highlights from this all-star lineup include Kenneth "Babyface" Edwards' funky groove on "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," Xscape's silky ballad "Christmas Without You," Boyz II Men's harmonic mastery on "Let It Snow," and Yolanda Adams' soaring "O Holy Night."

"SPIRIT OF THE SEASON," Hiroshima (Heads Up). A spirited smooth jazz mix of blazing guitar, strutting percussion, and the occasional sultry vocals puts a pleasant upbeat spin on such standards as a Caribbean-flavored "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," an elaborately arranged pomp-and-sizzle version of "Little Drummer Boy," and the breezy "Winter Wonderland." Such original tunes as "Spirit of the Season" and "Peace on Earth" are welcome escapes from the familiar cycle of holiday songs.

"CHRISTMAS GUMBO," Various Artists (Flambeau). Santa takes a jaunty little stroll down Bourbon Street, dancing to a spicy concoction of New Orleans-style holiday tunes. The star-studded compilation features such Louisiana artists as Aaron Neville ("Christmas Prayer"), the Hackberry Ramblers ("The Only Thing Missing"), Sonny Landreth ("Got To Get You Under My Tree"), and Irma Thomas ("Christmas Without the Creole"). Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias' gritty brass-and-soul celebration, "Shankana Shake It," with guest star Bonerama, makes the perfect gumbo for a Mardi Gras Christmas.

"ALL STAR GOSPEL HITS CHRISTMAS VOL. 4," Various Artists (Word/Curb/Warner Bros.). This compilation opens with a song from one of the greatest Christmas albums ever made, "Handel's Messiah - A Soulful Celebration," released in 1992. The nearly six-minute-long version of "Hallelujah!" features the once-in-a-lifetime chorus of Stevie Wonder, Patti Austin, Gladys Knight, Marilyn McCoo, Joe Sample, Take 6, Andre Crouch, Vanessa Bell Armstrong, and many more. It's a hard act to follow but the rest of this disc is still strong, including Natalie Cole's orchestral cover of "Mary, Did You Know?," Al Green's stirring take on "The First Noel," and Take 6's majestic a capella performance on "O Come All Ye Faithful."

"A WINTER'S NIGHT," Various Artists (Nettwerk). Put a little rock and roll into your holiday jingle with this cheerful collection of tunes by such Nettwerk recording artists as Sarah MacLachlan, Chantal Kreviazuk and Avril Lavigne (an awesome display of vocal prowess on "O Holy Night"), the Barenaked Ladies, Sixpence None the Richer, and Ron Sexsmith ("Maybe This Christmas"). Jack Johnson's swinging, guitar-strummed version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is truly an innovative and interesting take on a song that has been recorded so many times it hurts, and Guster's Latino-meets-the-1950s offering, "Donde Esta Santa Claus?" is one of the most fun, original holiday tunes in years.

"A VERY LARRY CHRISTMAS," Larry the Cable Guy (Warner Bros.). Crass, rude, redneck "humor" filled with countless stereotypes, politically incorrect jokes, and plenty of references to bodily functions, you'd be better off getting a stocking full of rocks than this witless, dreadful attempt at southern-fried comedy.

"SONGS FOR CHRISTMAS," Jesse Colin Young (Artemis). A tender and heartfelt approach to the holiday by Young, the veteran singer best known for the Youngblood's 1960s rock classic "Get Together," his husky baritone floats gently along with the acoustic and Hawaiian slack-key guitar arrangements on standard Christmas favorites. The theme of the reverent disc focuses on the religious aspects of the holiday with such selections as "Away in a Manger," "Silent Night," "O Come All Ye Faithful," "O Holy Night," and more.

Contact David Yonke at:dyonke@theblade.com

or 419-724-6154.

.



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