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Although the voices burn brightly throughout, many of the arrangements here are too sweet or try too hard to be different. Most of these problems can be explained in two words: Jimmy Jam. He produced this album and it shows. This recording is so dance-beat heavy it needs a handle and carrying case to lighten the load. Worst of all, rather than something slow and sexy or noisy and industrial, the dancetrax here are saccharine, relying on overlapping rhythms and overproduced vocal arrangements that overpower the melodies and often strangle the Sounds' vocal might. Exploring the limits of vocal music is admirable. But Jimmy Jam ain't the one to lead that voyage of discovery. Overall, though, the three new African-American albums--Soulful Celebration, Christmas Carols and Sacred Songs and The Night Before Christmas--constitute the most exciting infusion of new energy that Christmas music has had in a long time. Under the utterly demented category (which can also be tedious and boring) comes Mojo Nixon's first Christmas outing, Horny Holidays. One listen will evoke that eternal question: What would Mary and Joseph, not to mention Mrs. Claus, say about a Christmas carol containing words like "fuck"?

Another stop on Mojo's life quest to be rock n' roll's court jester, Horny Holidays is like any other sloppy Mojo fest. It's filled with growling vocals, rowdy guitars and lots of roared one-liners like "I want to trim your tree" and "You ol' rabble-rouser from Bethlehem." Ably assisted by the Toadliquors and the W.E.V.I. Power Pledgin' Boogie Woogie Singers, Mojo horses his way through a slate of boozy bar ballads like "Mr. Grinch" and "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus." Standards like "Jingle Bells" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain" end up so disfigured, you couldn't identify them with dental records. The saving grace here is that Mojo is basically a harmless cheesehead. His entire shtick is based on walking a microfine line between being annoyingly dumb and a riot. Mindless fun is always the object. One listen and you realize that Mojo's idea of high art is a chili dog. Occasionally, he even hits the right notes. His James Brown soul stab, "It's Christmas Time," manages to work up a groove. And his rockin' cover of Chuck Berry's classic "Run Rudolf Run" breaks a sweat.

Although this disc is devoid of prime Mojo yowls like "Don Henley Must Die," he does manage to get off a few verbal salvos. In "We Three Kings," for example, he slips in "We were drunk for three days straight/Feeling like we were Tom Waits." And in the Stax/Volt-styled "Twas the Night Before Christmas," Mojo starts out with "Twas the night before Christmas and everything was all fucked up" and goes on to expound about "Horny Claus," the product of an affair between Santa's father and the Easter Bunny's mother. And that, in a nutshell, is about all you ever need to know about Mojo Nixon.

For those in need of "southwestern christmas music" to go with their Southwestern nouvelle free-range turkey and pine-nut-sun-dried-tomato-and-cilantro stuffing, there's It's Christmas, Man! by the pride of Denton, Texas, the ever-indescribable Brave Combo.

Possessing what is probably the most unconventional instrumentation ever seen in a rock-oriented band, Brave Combo's four members play accordions, saxophones, clarinet, guitar, bass and drums. Their Texas-cum-Mars world music combines border accordion with the punk-guitar abandon of "Anarchy in the U.K." and the roll-out-the-barrel oompah of "She's Too Fat for Me." Their live shows have the ambiance of an air raid--people careening every which way.

The brain child of Japanese reissue label P-Vine, this album was originally released in Japan in 1991. The band then toured behind it, carrying a fully decked Christmas tree with it as a prop. Happily, the band's label, Rounder Records, decided to take a chance on releasing it in the States.

It's Christmas, Man! de-emphasizes the band's reckless rock sides in favor of a distinct south-of-de-border flavor. For the ethnomusicologically minded, Rounder prints the style of many of the tunes next to them on the back of the CD. There is a polka, samba, cha-cha, ranchera, hora, cumbia, ska, waltz and guaguanco. These stylistic chameleons are at their best in the ska version of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts)" or the fast-paced, hurdy-gurdy "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah." They also pull off a convincingly churchy "Ave Maria." What's most fun about this recording is to ponder what on Earth the Japanese thought when they heard "Santa's Polka" or the cha-cha "It's Christmas."

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Robert Baird