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New Noel Noise

Last-minute discs to deck the hol's

By Bruce Robinson

Here we go again. 'Tis the season when more people sing about roasted chestnuts than actually eat them, and holiday musical chestnuts are subjected to an endless string of redundant reinterpretations. One more overwrought rendition of "O Holy Night" and I'll be pining for a return to nights of sin and error, too. Or did that already happen?

This annual exercise in seasonal self-indulgence is fueled by a curious quirk in the world of radio, in which stations abandon their usual play lists for a few weeks to broadcast nothing but Christmas music. In some areas this year, it began the morning after Halloween, with residents awaking to carols even before their sugar highs had completely abated. In New York and other major markets, there are now multiple stations competing with the temporary "all Santa, all the time" format. At least most of our local stations have held back the wall-to-wall approach in favor of a gradually increasing mix with their usual tracks.

Of course, you needn't depend on the radio for your December dose of musical snow. For those who prefer to program their own audio, here's a quick sampling of some of this year's new holiday offerings.

'Christmas,' Chris Isaak (Reprise). Isaak's easy baritone is well-suited for crooning the likes of "Let It Snow" and "Pretty Paper," while his retrobilly treatments of "Rudolph" and "Blue Christmas" are sprightly and agreeable. On the down side, he also assays "The Christmas Song," but innocuously. Isaak also pulls off the greater challenge of mixing in five original Christmas songs that mesh stylistically and have enough general appeal to stand with the traditional tunes. "Hey, Santa!" and "Gotta Be Good" deserve future covers of their own, but the big surprise is "Brightest Star," a simple, heartfelt statement of faith that provides an unexpectedly sacred anchor amid the secular selections that dominate the disc.

'Everything You Want for Christmas,' Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (Vanguard). This bunch of L.A. neo-hipsters also rely heavily on their own holiday tunes, along with a heavy dose of irony-drenched attitude. We're talking seriously custom material here; there's not a lot of crossover potential in "Christmastime in Tinsel Town" or "Last Night (I Went Out with Santa Claus)." Their bare-bones bari sax version of "Jingle Bells (Cha Cha)" is amusing the first time or two, but a bonus alternate track helps wear the novelty out in double time. Still, the opening "Rockabilly Christmas" is fun, and they give Louis Armstrong's "Is Zat You Santa Claus?" an energetic updating. The brass choir arrangement of "We Three Kings" that closes the set is played uncharacteristically straight, and is lovely.

'Boogie Woogie Christmas,' the Brian Setzer Orchestra (Surfdog). Setzer, the former Stray Cats frontman, offers a slightly more conventional big-band approach to the holidays, with a 13-man horn section who get to shine on a seven-minute "Nutcracker Suite" arrangement by Frank Comstock and vigorously decorates "Sleigh Ride," "Winter Wonderland" and others. Setzer's vocals are the weakest link, most egregiously on "Baby, It's Cold Outside," where his duet with Ann-Margret would provoke Oedipal cringes if it weren't so tentative and tepid. And the schmuck even tackles "O Holy Night." Up-tempo stuff like "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus" fares much better.

'On Christmas Night,' Cherish the Ladies (Rounder). This lively Celtic ensemble sidestep the overfamiliar by employing seasonal selections little known on this side of the Atlantic, or incorporating classic carols into medleys with jigs and fiddle tunes. The vocals are sweet and understated, while the acoustic instrumentation is flawless. Not for everyone, but a treat for those whose tastes run in this direction.

'Merry Fishes to All,' Trout Fishing in America (Trout Records). This whimsical duo take seasonal originality full bore, with a dozen playful new songs, many of which ("You Gotta Get Up," "Snow Day," "Santa Brought Me Clothes," "My Birthday Comes on Christmas") view the holiday from a childhood perspective. Others, like "The Eleven Cats of Christmas" or "I Got a Cheese Log" are general silliness for all ages. They strike a nice balance of satire and poignancy on "The Christmas Letter," but a personal favorite is "Bob and Bob," the story of two identical snowflakes. Yup, that's what makes them unique.

So, checking the totals, we've got one "O Holy Night," one "Christmas Song," three versions of "Blue Christmas"--and no barking dogs.

Merry Christmas!

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From the December 22-28, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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