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Chestnuts Vie With Jingle Bell Schlock

November 27, 1994|Chris Willman | Chris Willman wrote a 1986 Calendar essay on the aesthetic benefits of year-round Christmas lights

The Cryptkeeper for Christmas?

Yes, even the animatronic host of "Tales From the Crypt" has joined the ranks of celebs who can't keep their claws off holiday perennials, invading Como territory with an album of disemboweled ghoul-tide classics like "Deck the Halls With Parts of Charlie."

But really, another Christmas set from Neil Diamond--now that's frightening.

This is proving to be far from the best year for Christmas albums, but not all the pop eggnog is stale. Some new notables:

*** BEN KEITH & FRIENDS, "Seven Gates," Reprise. The hep '94 Christmas album, hands-down, if only for a first-time duet between Neil Young and Johnny Cash--on "The Little Drummer Boy"! Most tracks are tasty, rural-flavored instrumentals, headlined by Keith (one of Young's Stray Gators) on steel guitar. Neil pops up again singing "Greensleeves," and then there's forgetful Rusty Kershaw improvising lyrics for "Christmas Time's a-Comin'."

*** CHARLES BROWN, "Charles Brown's Cool Christmas Blues," Bullseye Blues. Smoother than rum 'n' eggnog, this veteran R&B-smith re-records his chestnuts--"Merry Christmas Baby" and "Please Come Home for Christmas"--with a small combo, adds fine new tunes and happily avoids standards not his own.

*** THE BENEDICTINE MONKS OF SANTO DOMINGO DE SILOS, "Chant Noel," Angel. A Benedictine "Jingle Bell Rock"? Not bloody likely. It's the label showing mercenary spirit here--not the bros--in capitalizing on "Chant"-mania by digging into the monk vaults for a new collection, few of whose chants have a solid Nativity connection. Still, better Easter tidings and non-seasonal psalms as stocking stuffers than most of what Xmas' pop secularists have to offer.

*** NATALIE COLE, "Holly and Ivy" Elektra. Is it any surprise a Cole would come up with one of the few recent traditional Christmas albums that isn't, uh, coal? The sound is big, brassy and old-fashioned--not too fussily so. And of three full-on gospel versions of "Joy to the World" we've heard this year, Cole's is tops; sorry, Mariah and Aretha.

** 1/2 GRAHAM PARKER, "Graham Parker's Christmas Cracker," Dakota Arts. Only three songs on this EP--but they're new originals from the not-recently-prolific rocker (and the demo versions of all three are included as bonus tracks). Best is "Soul Christmas," a duet with Nona Hendryx that pays homage by name to just about every R&B singer who ever cut a Christmas single in the '60s.

** 1/2 TRISHA YEARWOOD, "The Sweetest Gift," MCA. The pacing is schizoid--what with "Reindeer Boogie" sandwiched foolishly between solemn Christ-child ballads--but Yearwood gets decent returns from investing in some slightly less-trodden pop and country classics.

** MARIAH CAREY, "Merry Christmas," Columbia. Is it good news or bad that Carey covers one of the great Christmas pop songs--the Phil Spector-Darlene Love "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)"--and is completely faithful to the original? Could be worse. She at least attempts her share of girl-group pop amid the quasi-gospel melisma, though still not evidencing as much personality as talent in either style.

** "TALES FROM THE CRYPT: HAVE YOURSELF A SCARY LITTLE CHRISTMAS," Right Stuff. The seasonal death and dismemberment within is hardly consistently amusing. But its preponderance of ill cheer is useful as an antidote, to be taken immediately after ingesting any of the following . . .

* 1/2 DONNA SUMMER, "Christmas Spirit," Mercury. "Love to Love You, Baby Jesus"? We wish. Summer thoroughly eschews the upbeat in yet another highly generic, string-sweetened, all-ballad Christmas collection, destined to please neither fans nor a market already glutted with saccharine.

* KENNY G, "Miracles: The Holiday Album," Arista. "This album is a bit of a departure for me," Kenny announces in the liner notes. Yes, it's a little less hard-edged. America's favorite saxman employs one-man electronic backup instead of a real, live band on all but one track, ensuring that no one will mistake this for jazz.

* NEIL DIAMOND, "The Christmas Album Volume II," Columbia. Not quite as oversung and underfelt as the best-selling "Vol. I" of two years ago. But close enough. Once again, Diamond--never best-regarded as a song interpreter --couldn't be bothered to write a new tune, preferring to take on obvious standards with his inimitably heavy vocal hand. Rudolph: He's coming to America!

*

The safest bets, not surprisingly, are some new repackages. Three terrific new Rhino releases span the genre gamut: "The Original Soul Christmas" puts early-'60s singles by Otis Redding, Carla Thomas, et al. back on a single album, with bonus tracks; "Jingle Bell Jam" compiles swell Christmas jazz from throughout the century, and "Have a Nice Day: Holiday Hits of the '70s," featuring Donny & Marie, Bobby Sherman, Liberace and more of their ilk, is so wonderfully perverse a collection you'd think it was Satan's birthday.*

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