Hokey for the Holidays

Christmas CDs are as unpredictable as the seasons, but a few find character of their own -- somehow

There's a saying among French Catholic schoolboys. "When you blaspheme, it only means you still believe," this quaint morsel of wisdom goes. That may or may not be true, but it sure sounds about right.

Christmas is a little like that contradiction: The harder you pump up the cynicism, the more vulnerable you are to the saccharine undertow, or something along those lines. Christmas music and Christmas records are like that too, and when it comes to holiday albums, it's important to carefully walk that path between the ridiculous and the sublime, the holy and the hokey.

Of course, some Christmas records are just about the music and the holiday, the traditions and the tunes, as it were, while others reach a bit deeper inside what people sometimes refer to as the "meaning" or "spirit" of Christmas, and sometimes they even succeed. A handful of Elvis tracks ("Blue-oooo-oooo-ooooh!"), Nat "King" Cole's recording of "The Christmas Song" and several John Fahey instrumental albums make the cut. And every year, some neon demigod steps down to bless the world with an intimate Christmas collection, guaranteed to appease the fans but often lacking in ambition. Mariah Carey, *NSYNC and Hanson have gone this route over the decade. This year's little helper elf is Kenny G. Ho ho oh no!

Fortunately, there are fewer big-name superstar offerings in the stocking this year, unless one includes the Now That's What I Call Christmas! or Time-Life collections; the Christmas With the Rat Pack disc, which is really more of a rat trio, since Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford are missing; and Barry Manilow's Christmas record, blissfully canceled out by Joey Ramone's Christmas Spirit . . . In My House EP.

Having said that, there are a handful of interesting stereo stocking stuffers this holiday season. Herein, then, is a sampler of Christmas discs -- some great, some, well, less great:

On the great side is a variety of bluegrass Christmas collections. Two, Christmas Grass and Patty Loveless' Bluegrass & White Snoware especially sweet and tight, as one might expect from the talent involved. The Christmas Grass CD is almost entirely instrumental, and it rolls out like American chamber music. It is nonintrusive, folksy without undue sentimentality -- perfect background nog-drinking fireplace versions of the usual classics, served up by a roving band of heavyweights that includes Ricky Scaggs, Darren Vincent, Del's kid Ronnie McCoury and, fiddling on a version of "What Child Is This," Alison Krauss.

The Patty Loveless record is something else altogether -- just beautiful, really, with a nice mix of standards and a handful of lesser-known tracks. Of the standards, it seemed unfathomable to enjoy a rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy" ever again after the savaging it received from David Bowie and Bing Crosby three moons and a half ago. But, dadgummit, there's nothing on this entire record that doesn't work. The courage of her melancholic, precise conviction makes the schmaltziest song seem painfully honest. The instrumentation, the mandolins and recorders and fiddles, are all clean as fresh snow in the holler. And lurking in the mix are Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Jon Randall and others.

On the somewhat more ridiculous side, Cledus T. Judd is one of a handful of country music clowns, and his Christmas comedy album, Cledus Navidad, presents him as the hillbilly Stan Freberg, which is a pretty high mark. There's a Johnny Cash parody called "Tree of Fire," an a cappella don't-fart-Santa-out-of-the-chimney tune called "Don't Serve Beans (on Christmas Night)," and a nicely dusted-off version of the Ray Stevens classic "Santa Claus Is Watchin' You." Hokum, yes, but at least it's clever hokum.

Steve Ripley is the Tractors, a band that hit a platinum home run in its first at-bat in the mid 1990s and then disappeared for long stretches. Ripley has a crew that joins him on disc, and he got them all together for Big Night, his second Christmas CD. He's pretty serious about the whole deal (Supermarket Santa neglect as a child?), and that's a good thing. Big Night is a barrelhouse nuts-and-bolts boogie-Christmas-country record, and Ripley managed to recruit some powerful talent, such as Elvis' original guitarist Scotty Moore and the Jordanaires (no foolin'?!) on a handful of originals and chestnuts like "Run Run Rudolph," which features three piano pounders. Other high points include a cover of Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper" and "Bo Diddley Santa Claus," a nice bouncy song in which the mighty Ellas McDaniel is required to fill Santa's shoes.

Not to bust anybody's bubble in the trendmeister department, but the Brian Setzer Orchestra's Christmas entry, Boogie Woogie Christmas, stands as a major disappoint. For fans of the Stray Cats's ax prodigy's jazzabilly guitar gifts, there's plenty of that to be enjoyed here. His swing sensibilities -- which, like his Stray Cats material -- are pure pastiche, are fine, too.

However, Setzer's duet with the still incomprehensibly gorgeous Ann-Margret, "Baby, It's Cold Outside," is an indicator of just how much the album (forgive me) strays. Ann-Margret doesn't come out to play all that much anymore, and so wrangling her for a duet is really something of an event. Setzer ruins it by overreaching and overthinking the number with an uncomfortably busy arrangement, making the song, which should be breezy and sexy, sound as though the two singers recorded it on opposite sides of the multiverse. Worst of all, the tempo is pushed up so fast that the two practically step on each other's lines, like something from a screwball comedy. Still, there's a lot of fun to be had here when Setzer hits his groove and sounds like he's enjoying his own party, rather than making sure everybody else is having a good time -- the full-blown seven-minute instrumental arrangement of "The Nutcracker Suite," taken from Les Brown's 1952 version, is pretty terrific.

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