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This article was published 11/12/2014 (2316 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It's that time of year again, when the tireless writer elves at the Free Press don their headphones and dive into the season's offering of Christmas music. As always, there are shimmering gems and lumps of coal amid the releases. Whether you like rockin' around the Christmas tree or listening to angels singing, there's something here for you. (If you prefer a silent night, you're out of luck.) Rated out of five snowflakes.
Holiday Wishes (Warner)
The offering: Fresh off the riotous success of Frozen, Idina Menzel lends her Broadway belt to these Christmas carols and seasonal tunes. The results are mixed: her soaring vocal style works well with a few numbers, but mostly come across as uncomfortably melodramatic.
Classic chestnuts: The Michael Bublé collaboration on Baby, It's Cold Outside misses the "charming" mark and lands instead on "eye-rollingly cheesy and a little creepy," while a misguidedly rousing version of Silent Night suggests the major flaws of the album are in the arrangements more than anything. However, All I Want for Christmas is You is well-suited to her voice and makes for an appropriately upbeat party tune, proving that Idina can hold her own, given the right context.
New jingles: The one original piece on the album, December Prayer, is lyrically quite lovely with a moving melody. A little over-dramatic in its execution (again, with the arrangement largely at fault), but with Christmas Classic potential. ** 1/2
-- Emily King
The offering: The Grammy-nominated Fredericton, N.B., native wraps her rich soprano voice around a dozen yuletide tunes. The opera singer spices It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, Sleigh Ride and Do You Hear What I Hear? with jazzy or electronic flavouring, while The Little Drummer Boy is enhanced with the sound of tribal stomping.
Classic chestnuts: She is breathtaking on a traditional piece like Minuit, chrétiens that is ruined by a Kenny G.-sounding sax accompaniment that goes down like curdled egg nog. Her arrangement transforms Joni Mitchell's River into an unrecognizable dirge everyone will want to skate away from.
New jingles: Brueggergosman co-wrote Let Joy Reign, which is meant to comfort those with bruised hearts at Christmas, while If You Can Dig It, a collaboration with Aaron Davis, lacks any Christmas spirit. Neither are likely to find a place in the annual Christmas music rotation. **
-- Kevin Prokosh
A Merrie Christmas to You (Warner)
The offering: A lightly twangy collection of mostly less-traditional tunes from Toronto's reliable roots act. Off-the-beaten-track covers include a rousing version of Paul Simon's Getting Ready for Christmas, a lovely, understated rendition of Gordon Lightfoot's Song for a Winter's Night and Alex Chilton's Jesus Christ.
Classic chestnuts: O Come All Ye Faithful gets a foot-stomping, organ-laden update featuring Greg Keelor's unexpected but somehow fitting weathered vocals. Jim Cuddy's take on "new classic" River (Joni Mitchell) isn't a definitive version, but it's pleasant enough, and he's in fine voice on Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which is warm and familiar, with enough pedal steel to set it apart.
New jingles: Two Keelor/Cuddy compositions, Glad to Be Alive and Home to You This Christmas, are melodic minor-key tunes, as appealing as most Blue Rodeo songs, but probably not destined to be holiday favourites. ***
-- Jill Wilson
That's Christmas to Me (Sony)
The offering: The Texas-bred a cappella group, winners of Season 3 of NBC's The Sing-Off, croons out a 10-track collection of festive offerings in their familiar and flawlessly layered harmonies. Much more than doo-wop-inspired street-corner vocalizing, PTX's arrangements are complex, ambitious and unerringly note-perfect.
Classic chestnuts: The traditional Hark! The Herald Angels Sing starts slow and choral, then shifts into high-octane gospel overdrive; Sleigh Ride gallops along at the expected fast pace; Mary, Did You Know? showcases the group's towering vocal range. It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year and Santa Claus is Coming to Town are a couple of secular favourites given rather straight-ahead renderings, while the sacred Silent Night is simple and beautifully haunting. PTX's take on Winter Wonderland, which is melded with Bobby McFerrin's Don't Worry Be Happy, is just weird.
New jingles: White Winter Hymnal is a lovely yule mood-setter; title track That's Christmas to Me is an appealing recitation of the season's simple pleasures; bonus track Let It Go is decidedly more Frozen than festive, but still gets a pass for its wintry attitude. ***
-- Brad Oswald
The offering: The Toronto roots rockers have expanded their EP of the same name from a year ago into a full-length album. It's more sombre than most Christmas albums, as its songs cover things like yearning for loved ones who aren't with us anymore to spending the holidays in prison.
Classic chestnuts: You won't find Jingle Bell Rock or I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus here. In their place, the band covers John Prine's Christmas in Prison and Minuit, chrétiens (the French version of O Holy Night). (Singer Andy Maize admits to pulling a bit of a Ritchie Valens la La Bamba with Canada's second official language.) It also includes the band's own Where's My Baby, Tonight? The highlight of the CD is the 20-year-old recording of Good King Wenceslas, which includes vocals from Peter Cash.
New jingles: The band's primary songwriters, Maize and Josh Finlayson, contribute the soulful Remember Me. The band taps into longtime friends and songwriters -- not to mention members of Parliament -- Andrew Cash and Charlie Angus for Church Bells Ringing (Christmas in the City). ***
-- Geoff Kirbyson
Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra (Independent)
The offering: A jazzy take on Handel's Messiah with the trademark delightfully quirky arrangements the WJO is known for, as well as some charming singing by Erin Propp in a more conventional vein.
Classic chestnuts: If you like your chestnuts to sound like chestnuts, this is not for you. If you like them to maintain their integrity while adding some adventure to the musical mix, you're in the right place. Take 5 Mary (You Deserve It) is a mash-up of the Dave Brubeck jazz classic and What Child is This; the three-part Suite Messiah is a gem of performance and arrangement (imagine Handel composing with muted trumpet in mind).
The three vocal numbers -- Caroling Caroling, There's a Train Out For Dreamland and Joy To the World -- are wonderful. Propp is a beautiful singer and the WJO musicians give her sensitive backing.
The 11-track disc includes Huron Carole and the Oscar Peterson classic Hymn to Freedom. **** 1/2
-- Chris Smith
THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA & TAJ MAHAL
Talkin' Christmas (Sony)
The offering: It's hard to imagine the venerable Blind Boys outdoing their inspired 2003 Christmas contribution, Go Tell It On the Mountain, but they've certainly taken seasonal song-styling in a new direction by joining forces with Taj Mahal for this inventive 12-track assortment. The collaboration pushes the Boys' gospel harmonies across genres, from blues to ragtime to a brief flirtation with a borderline-Caribbean beat.
Classic chestnuts: Do You Hear What I Hear? gets such a thorough makeover it bears no resemblance to the traditional text, but Silent Night is presented as its simple, inspiring self, albeit with an injection of bluesy acoustic guitar.
New jingles: Christ Was Born on Christmas Morn is a toe-tapper with a decidedly ragtime feel; What Can I Do? offers the soulful, any-seasonal message of "What can I do to help?"; the title track proposes a funk-infused meditation on the true meaning of the season; while Merry Christmas to You counters with a meditation of hard-times during Christmases past. The Sun is Rising arrives with a contemplative tropic-isle attitude; No Room in the Inn is both mournful and hopeful in recalling the week of Christ's birth. Merry Christmas! is a well-chosen show-closer for the album, capping a truly festive listening experience with a full-on gospel celebration. ****
-- Brad Oswald
Bluegrass Kind of Music (Rural Rhythm)
The offering: This Canadian-raised brother/sister bluegrass duo's 10-track collection -- their sixth album in six years -- is wrapped in the warm sound of mandolin, fiddle and banjo. Lee and Elaine Roy get to show off their sweet sibling harmonies and a musicianship that adds a homey feel to their material.
Classic chestnuts: Their cover of the Merle Haggard classic If We Make it Through December is given a lovely poignancy, while Santa Looked a Lot Like Daddy by Buck Owens is a fun, rousing lead-off to the album. There are no instant classics here, although Elaine's angelic voice on the stellar O Holy Night is a keeper.
New jingles: The title track is the first Christmas song written by the duo and celebrates their childhood memories back in New Brunswick with banjo-heavy backing. ***
-- Kevin Prokosh
Christmas Vol. 1 (Chic Gamine)
The offering: Winnipeg band Chic Gamine wraps up a bilingual little Christmas with five tunes: three original and two re-gifts.
Classic chestnuts: The Friendly Beasts is delicate version of an old carol. It features clean, clear vocals and simple, lovely accompaniment that perfectly captures for children the simplicity and wonder of the stable animals of the Nativity story.
New jingles/jingles nouveaux: Better If We Were Together moves along like a horse at a gentle Christmas canter and is totally worthy of release as a single, so giddy-up and do it. Noel (Au Coin de Portage et Main), a chirpy tune with a '60s feel and Un Biscuit et un Verre de Lait are instantly and fully forgettable. And there's some coal: Treacle hurts my teeth, so why choose Wham's Last Christmas and then slow it by half to extend the agony? Overall, it doesn't sound as if there is enough on this album to merit a Christmas Vol. 2. **
-- Wendy King
Feliz Navidad, A Latin Christmas (Independent)
The offering: Infectious Winnipeg Latin-music band Trio Bembe -- Rodrigo Mu±oz (guitar, vocal, percussion), Amber Epp (vocals), Scott Senior (percussion) with guest Victor Lopez (guitar) -- spices up traditional Christmas fare with some groovy beats for a mostly successful 11-track CD.
Classic chestnuts: The Latin tinge works well on O Come All Ye Faithful and O Come O Come Emmanuel, but less so on O Holy Night, where the percussion overshadows the vocals. The Latin rhythms and Epp's voice really come together on O Little Town of Bethlehem. Jolly Old St. Nicholas is given some joyful punch.
New jingles: None, but the disc is a changeup from the well-worn versions heard every year. ****
-- Chris Smith