By Chris Cooper
I guess it’s a kind of Christmas tradition. Every year around this time I go on the hunt for Christmas music that provides a bit of the prerequisite holiday spirit without making the listener want to smack themselves in the head with a can of cranberry sauce. Or even, worse, stuff it in their ears lest they hear one more version of “Jingle Bells” sung by an aging (or deceased) crooner or some new flavor of the minute pop “star.”
So this time we’ve got Bela Fleck and the Flecktones aiming their prodigious newgrass/jazz/fusion talents at a batch of holiday tunes, and some of the best of the newer batch of female singer-songwriters taking on this classic material with Hotel Café’s Winter Songs collection. Here we go ...
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones: Jingle All The Way
As many times as “Jingle Bells” has been twisted around, mutated or otherwise creatively interpreted, the Flecktones have to be the first to toss the Tuvan throat singing of the Alash Ensemble into the mix. And that’s just the opening track. Fleck and Co. have no trouble fusing forward thinking harmonic ideas with traditional melodies, and throughout Jingle All The Way the chance taking yields wonderful, if sometimes quirky, results. They slip into a swinging, syncopated waltz on “Silent Night,” with bassist extraordinaire Victor Wooten sneaking finger busting lines and sly rhythmic ideas into every nook and cranny. Without warning, the band segues into “Sleigh Ride,” and continues the craziness, this time with Jeff Coffin doubling Fleck’s breakneck reading of the main melody, and humorous fills from all involved. Then Wooten goes off with a gorgeous reading of “The Christmas Song,” and fills it with his signature two-handed tapping, sparkling harmonics and that inimitable sense of daring and precision that’s all his own.
One of the most beautiful Christmas compositions, at least to me, has always been Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here,” and the Flecktones turn in yet another inspiring reading here, keeping the original’s haunting melody intact while playing around respectfully with the composition. That they couldn’t help but slide into the classic “Linus And Lucy” theme is typical of the group’s virtuosic sense of humor. From here they take on Tchaikovsky, Bach and Joni Mitchell with equal aplomb. This certainly isn’t an album you’ll find yourself listening to out of season, but it’s almost a guarantee that you’ll spin it each and every Christmas after hearing it once.
The Hotel Café Presents: Winter Songs
Some of these are voices you’ve heard in various commercials hawking anything from cell phones to music downloading services. Don’t hold that against them. Some are some of the most recognizable new artists in the singer-songwriter genre; Brandi Carlile, KT Tunstall and Nicole Atkins are certainly forces to be reckoned with. And then there’s Katy Perry, whose inclusion in this project is inexplicable beyond sheer popularity and name recognition. That, indeed, you can hold against whoever spearheaded this thing. At the very least, though, the whole project is for a good cause, with 50 cents of each CD sale going to the Susan G. Komen fund for breast cancer research, and with the artists waiving all royalties on each digital download of the medley track “Auld Lang Syne.”
KT Tunstall takes “Sleigh Ride” to an awfully fun and groovy place, taking chances with the classic’s arrangement with a thick backbeat and a playful toy piano throughout. Alice Smith brings her powerful voice and a certain feeling of world weary soul to “Silver Bells,” and Nicole Atkins spins a classy (and classic in a distinctly vintage sense) version of “Blue Christmas.” And Fiona Apple’s picture perfect “Frosty the Snowman” brings to mind Billie Holiday in its time warping feel and her quivering vibrato. Meiko talks about shooting Santa down in the middle of town (doubtful she’s talking about the gift bearing fat guy) and while this is a fine and unusually sexy original composition, having a female singer cooing about having been “a bad, bad girl...” right next to Fiona Apple’s track seems a little weird. Or fitting- your call. Katy Perry’s take on “White Christmas” is redeemed only by it’s noticeably UNDER-produced quality, quite a step for the MySpace maven.
Winter Songs delivers a pleasant collection of singers and songs for the tinsel and wrapping paper season, and while some tunes fare much better than others, fans of any of these artists will find plenty to like here. I still think Fiona Apple takes the prize here, though. Disagree if you like.