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Wednesday, 05 December 2007 00:00

Sounds like Christmas ...

Written by 

By Chris Cooper

There are folks that get into full holiday mode, displaying their favorite snowman and fir tree embroidered sweater with aplomb while decorating the house with enough twinkling Christmas lights to make it visible from Venus.

And there are the type that grumble Scroogey things beneath their breath at every plastic reindeer and chocolate Santa they see. Regardless, it’s inevitable that one and all will hear some holiday music in the coming weeks. Here are a few suggestions to help you break out of the occasional “jeez, if I have to hear ‘Jingle Bells’ one more time I’m gonna punch myself in the face” doldrums.

 

Mindy Smith: My Holiday

Most Christmas albums sound like things you’d only want to listen to, well, seasonally. The material is often too firmly planted in tradition, the arrangements are painfully predictable (we don’t need to actually hear the sound of sleigh bells every time they’re mentioned in the lyric, now do we?) and worst of all, it’s almost always the same darn songs. But Mindy Smith has collected a set of original tunes and some beautifully interpreted traditionals on My Holiday that almost make you forget you’re listening to, gasp, Christmas music.

Surrounding herself with some of Nashville’s finest players (guitarists Bryan Sutton and Kenny Vaughan, steel player Paul Franklin, bassist Michael Rhodes and drummer Eddie Bayers) Smith takes all the right chances, whether it’s the nearly psychedelic jangle and chime of “Come Around” to a crunchy pop reading of “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” The originals, title track “My Holiday” and “Follow The Shepherd Home” (among others) work so well because Smith captures the feeling of the holiday season and its spiritual concepts without being preachy or even worse, cheesy. Her lyrical and melodic talents allow her to pen great songs that just happen to be about Christmas — if you weren’t paying attention, you might not notice at first.

“What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” swings gently, cushioned by Eric Darken’s vibraphone and Steve Cox’s piano. Smith’s delicate, personal vocal delivery is one of her trump cards, and when she’s paired with Alison Krauss on “Away In A Manger” the results are just what you’d expect — lush and effortless. “Santa Will Find You” again puts Smith’s intimate, whisper-in-your-ear approach to work in the form of a jazzy lullaby — check out how her voice breaks a bit on that high note in the first chorus. Lovely.

And don’t mistake this for a “pop country” holiday album, either; though based out of Nashville primarily, these are some of the most versatile players out there, able to swing, rock or chime as needed. Sutton and Vaughan especially make remarkable use of their roles, the former’s crisp acoustic picking and the latter’s edgy but always fitting electric work mingling perfectly under Smith’s voice. That Smith never really claimed to be a “country” artist (it’s just the market that initially embraced her music) is probably one reasons why this album works so well. Cue up “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” as soon as you get the CD — it’s that good.

 

Various Artists: Merry Axemas 1 & 2

Maybe I’ve mentioned these albums before, but they deserve it. With the talents of guitarists like Jeff Beck, Eric Johnson, Brian Setzer, Steve Lukather and Al DiMeola, along with a host of others, scattered over the span of these two discs, anyone feeling that most Christmas records are lacking in the rock department is sure to find something to like here.

Highlights on the first disc are Brian Setzer’s expectedly vigorous rockabilly/big band take on “Jingle Bells,” with the guitarist’s jazz informed twang spinning the melody over an airtight horn arrangement.

Joe Satriani whispers out the opening notes of “Silent Night/Holy Night Jam” before bursting into one of his trademark “Carlos Santana on an espresso binge” improvisations, complete with spidery legato runs and whammy bar abuse.

Jeff Beck’s amazing ear and otherworldly phrasing ring like, fittingly enough, a prayer all through his atmospheric version of “Amazing Grace.”

The star of the show, however, is Steve Vai’s characteristically loopy performance on the Charlie Brown classic “Christmas Time Is Here.” Hearing him take on chord changes that any other guitarist would feel compelled to do their best bebop imitation over is a perfect example of why he’s such a great, recognizable player — he never does what you’d expect.

Merry Axemas 2 opens with monster session guitarist Steve Lukather pushing “The Christmas Song” into jazz/fusion territory, with his liquid tone and fiery chops prominently on display. Steve Stevens (yes, the guy from Billy Idol’s band) demonstrates surprising restraint and taste on a distinctly flamenco flavored take on “Do You Hear What I Hear,” at least until somewhere around the middle of the song. Then he goes completely haywire, packing knuckle busting licks and whacko ray gun sounds into the last half.

Longtime Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Zakk Wylde surprises as well on a completely understated acoustic version of “White Christmas.”

John Sykes takes “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to some unexpectedly cinematic (but appropriately intense) new places.

Robin Trower milks every note of “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” for all it’s worth, recalling Jeff Beck one moment and Wes Montgomery’s smoky octaves the next.

And Al DiMeola is the picture of tasteful composition and technical control all through “Carol Of The Bells.”

If you’re already a guitarist, it’ll be a no-brainer to break out these CD’s over the holidays. If you’re not, hearing what these artists can do might just put a six-string at the top of your wish list.

And I haven’t even the space left to dig in to Aimee Mann’s excellent One More Drifter In The Snow, the rockabilly madness of Reverend Horton Heat’s We Three Kings: Christmas Favorites or of course, Kenny G’s Faith. Okay, that last one’s a joke — there’s never a good time, or frankly an excuse, to listen to Kenny G. Trust me.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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