White-bread christmas

Waxing nostalgic over THE LATEST batch of holiday CDs

Maybe it’s impossible to record a Christmas CD and keep the schmaltz factor low. After all, how does one stay edgy when singing about jolly old St. Nick?

But this year’s batch of new holiday baubles comes off as almost oppressively square, especially when compared to recent arrivals. Last Christmas delivered decent new recordings from artists such as B.B. King and Destiny’s Child; this year dips deep into the bag of white bread and brings forth bland new titles from the likes of John Tesh, Kenny G. and Barry Manilow.

Oddly enough, the best new Christmas albums for 2002 seem to be the old ones, reissues of Yuletide relics or new concoctions informed with a cheeky retro vibe. Here’sa survey of the new (and old) sounds of the season:

Los Straitjackets, Tis the Season for ... (Yep Roc). This masked quartet of garage bandits deftly blends surfin’ ’60s bass lines with holiday faves like “Let it Snow” and “Sleigh Ride” for a surreal but enjoyable Ventures-in-Santa’s workshop groove. One new track, “Christmas in Las Vegas,” appropriates Elvis for a frantic high-stakes trip down memory lane. The perfect album for the holiday party that serves eggnog in martini glasses.

Husky Team, Christmas in Memphis (Confidential). Speaking of retro, this funky-lounge act reworks a Doors-era Wurlitzer and Hendrix-esque guitar riffs for giggles. The strangely addictive little album could be the lost soundtrack for a “Partridge Family” holiday special. Also from the same label, classic guitar guru Jon Graboff deserves props for what may be the most creative CD title of the season with his For Christ’s Sake!. Though the disc occasionally lays on the cheese a little thick, Graboff swings pleasantly on tracks like “Christmas Shopping.” Fun cover art makes both discs even more appealing.

Various Artists, Maybe This Christmas (Nettwerk America). Any album that mixes Coldplay with Loreena McKennitt ought to make you shiver with fear. But this compilation is actually a breath of fresh air. Sure, Vanessa Carlton sounds like she’s being shaved by a snowplow in her rendition of “Greensleeves,” but the moody title track by Ron Sexsmith has the ring of an instant classic. Ben Folds’ gruesome “Bizarre Christmas Incident,” involving a crispy Kris Kringle trapped in a chimney, is inappropriate for the kiddies — even though the album benefits Toys for Tots.

Patty Loveless, Bluegrass & White Snow (Epic). On this fitting follow-up to her Mountain Soul album, Loveless again cashes in on the bluegrass renaissance with a soulful, down-home homage to Appalachia. The CD finds its best moments in traditional gems such as “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem” and “Christmas Time’s A Comin’,” while slower tracks (“The Little Drummer Boy”) tend to drag. “Santa Train” is an infectiously cheery new song co-written by Loveless. And the many stellar guest vocalists include Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and Dolly Parton.

Jose Feliciano, Feliz Navidad (RCA). So you’ve heard the title track to the point of homicidal insanity. But don’t let that stop you from giving the rest of this long overdue reissue a listen. Recorded in 1970, the collection lets Feliciano’s Latin guitar loose on mostly traditional tracks, (surprisingly) keeping the Spanish to a minimum. This reissue includes three previously unreleased recordings, the best being an instrumental version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

Carly Simon, Christmas is Almost Here (Rhino). Yes, she’s still alive. And yes, she’s still making albums — though this paltry effort proves that Carly Simon needs to stop. Only the most diehard Simon fan will dig this dreary holiday collection, which relies too heavily on untested titles and loses cohesion even on the standards. Her cover of John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” conjures images of a drunken karaoke session, which makes sense considering that the CD was recorded in a hotel room. The album’s only bright spot is the “duet” with Willie Nelson on his perennial “Pretty Paper,” on which Simon is happily relegated to backup.

Chris Botti, December (Columbia). If a particularly ornery record store employee held a gun to your head and said you couldn’t leave the shop without buying a smooth jazz Christmas CD, you wouldn’t fare much better than Botti. Sleepy perhaps, and maybe a little too understated. But the trumpet ace does squeezes some yuletide romance out of “The Christmas Song” and finds sorrow in “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Most tracks are instrumental, though Botti lends airy vocals to “Perfect Day,” a holiday song in only the most vague sense. You’ll love it after the second bottle of wine.

Johnny Mathis, The Christmas Album (Columbia). Some singers are born to sing holiday music — and Johnny Mathis is an obvious example. With a handful of Christmas collections already under his belt, Mathis again lends his velvet vibrato to standard holiday fare in this risk-free recording. His covers of Burl Ives’ “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” and Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” will make you feel like you’re shopping at Pottery Barn — proving that, as long as shopping malls play Christmas music, Mathis will be collecting those royalty checks.

Jim Nabors, Christmas (Columbia). In a holiday music landscape overpopulated with uncool white guys, the former “Gomer Pyle” star effectively out-dorks them all — which isn’t a bad thing. Nabors’ grandiose delivery reverberates through this collection of recordings from the late ’60s and early ’70s. He largely sticks to classics like “Jingle Bells,” though he does break out the Harry Belafonte-esque beats on “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” And who can resist the deliciously ironic (unintentionally or no) cover, which features the singer decked out in his Mr. Rogers best? The schmaltz factor is damn near toxic — but have another slice of fruitcake and go with it.


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