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CD REVIEWS

A different spin on season's songs

December 16, 2006|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer

Assuming that fans know exactly what they'll be getting with new holiday entries such as "James Taylor at Christmas," Calendar focuses its yearly look at seasonal albums on releases that spend at least some quality time in left field or under the radar of the mainstream.

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** 1/2 The dB's, "Christmas Time" (Collector's Choice). DB's stalwarts Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple combined their group's own Christmas EP with new holiday recordings by such pure-pop pals as Alex Chilton (and vintage Big Star), Marshall Crenshaw, Don Dixon and several others for a predictably tuneful, lo-fi and sporadically charming outing.

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*** Enya, "Sounds of the Season" (Rhino Custom/NBC). How ethereal is Enya? The otherworldly singer manages to bring a sense of deep spirituality to "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" on this six-song EP. It's one of three traditionals (including an exquisite translation of "Silent Night" into Irish) along with three she co-wrote. For those meditative holiday moments.

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** Israel & New Breed, "A Timeless Christmas" (Integrity Gospel). This R&B-soul-gospel outing with guests including CeCe Winans, Lalah Hathaway and Gerald Albright is all over the map. It starts with a thick, almost gooey slow-groove R&B "Nutcracker Overture" and moves into leaner, more muscular gospel laced with African choral touches before returning to the overproduced R&B. More gospel, please?

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** 1/2 Jana, "American Indian Christmas" (Standing Stone). Fabulous idea, uninspired execution. The canny concept of translating 10 holiday standards into as many Native American languages is muted by standard arrangements full of lush strings and glistening piano. If only they'd carried the idea through to the music.

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*** The Klezmatics, "Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah" (JMG). Guthrie's previously unrecorded Hanukkah songs, only two of which he wrote music for, are set to music and performed lovingly by the celebrated klezmer band. Most feel closer in spirit to his playful children's songs than his folk classics, but his narrative skill comes through in "The Many and the Few." A fascinating project.

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*** The Klezmonauts, "Oy to the World" (Satire). This Chicago ensemble, led by pianist Paul Libman, recasts Christmas carols as minor-key klezmer workouts with considerable energy, seamlessly tossing in the occasional witty nod to such pop icons as James Brown and Ennio Morricone. Mazeltov!

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** 1/2 Ali Lohan, "Lohan Holiday" (YMC). As celebrity-sibling holiday projects go, this one's more fun than might reasonably be expected. Ali brings big sis Lindsay along on one of several originals that keep staleness at bay. Her voice isn't much, but it's less pretentious than Lindsay's attempts to strut her rock cred and thus a choice for the tweener girls that won't send parents fleeing from the room.

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*** Sarah McLachlan, "Wintersong" (Arista). Being a writer herself, McLachlan approaches the holiday repertoire as songs rather than carols. She modifies familiar melodies and reaches beyond them for savvy choices such as Gordon Lightfoot's "Song for a Winter's Night" to suit her need for genuine expression, with consistently spirited results. No wonder this collection got her not only a Grammy nomination but also this year's bestselling holiday album.

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** 1/2 Aimee Mann, "One More Drifter in the Snow" (SuperEgo). The laconic singer-songwriter oscillates between wishing listeners a reflective holiday and a truly melancholy one. And she throws one real curveball with a spry version of "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch." Drifter indeed.

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** 1/2 Bette Midler, "Cool Yule" (Columbia). Midler isn't the Divine Miss M nearly enough on this rather pro forma outing. More of the personality that bursts through in the title song and "Mele Kalikimaka" could have spiced up a beautifully sung but unnecessarily straightforward yuletide collection.

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*** Brad Paisley, "Brad Paisley Christmas," (Arista Nashville). This disciple of Buck Owens tips his Stetson to the master with a suitably crisp version of Owens' "Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy" and elsewhere ladles dollops of good humor into his seasonal selection of chestnuts and originals. His own "Penguin, James Penguin" may not be the "Rudolph" classic it's shooting for, but it's fun.

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*** Twisted Sister, "A Twisted Christmas" (Razor & Tie). If there's any shortcoming to this session, it's that it's not twisted enough. Fortunately, the relative timidity of the first couple of songs gives way to more of the all-out audaciousness an idea like this demands. It concludes fittingly with a loopy heavy-metal recasting of "The Twelve Days of Christmas."

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** 1/2 Various artists, "Now That's What I Call Christmas, Vol. 3" (Sony/BMG). It'd be impossible to distinguish this compilation of vintage yuletide songs by the usual suspects -- Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Brenda Lee, Elvis, et al. -- from countless similar previous collections were it not for the fast-forward tracks from the Pussycat Dolls, Ne-Yo, Rihanna and Relient K stapled onto the end of Disc 2. Points for freshness, if not inspiration.

randy.lewis@latimes.com

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Ratings: four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star.

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