There's not a lump of coal in this season's stocking of new Christmas music, with five CDs from tiny indie record labels worth every effort to search out.
Santa Claus hipsters, rejoice! A Christmas-crazy brother among us, Sufjan Stevens, drops the mother lode of cool with a box set that lets everybody in on his super special secret buddy list. His ambitious "50 states" project aside, you've got to admire a fellow who, with friends, takes a week in December every year to craft, like little fruitcakes of love, limited-edition handmade CD's of holiday cheer. In Songs For Christmas, these five impossible-to-find CD EP's are now gifts to the whole world. From ice-melting instrumentals and tender covers of classics to witty, proud and whimsical originals, the joy and somber nature of the season shine forth like the message of the holiday itself. An anomaly in the uber-hip indie rock world, the result is snark-free, soothing and decidedly Christian. There's plenty to unwrap in the plump Asthmatic Kitty Records collection, overflowing with stickers, a comic strip, a Christmas family portrait painting of Stevens playing Santa, essays, extensive liner notes, and the animated video for "Put the Lights On the Tree." Want to sing and play along? No problem--lyric sheets and chord charts are included.
Ten years since they treated fans to their first holiday CD, The Darkest Night of the Year, Over the Rhine returns with Snow Angels on the Great Speckled Dog imprint. Somewhere between Billie Holiday, Nat "King" Cole, the Cowboy Junkies, blues voodoo and an Appalachian church's serenity simmers the amber honey confessional waltz of duo Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler. Candle-lit with snowflakes falling, these 11 perfect originals are playful, unashamedly romantic and heart paining redemptive. One cover of sorts fits right in--a softly possessed interpretation of "Jingle Bells" into "One Olive Jingle"--and a piano instrumental finds inspiration from Vince Guaraldi's "Charlie Brown Christmas" in "Goodbye Charles."
Another reason to turn down the lights and set the tree to slow, gentle twinkle is Aimee Mann's fragile magic in One More Drifter In the Snow, a perfect antidote to the blare of the season. In the Super Ego Records release, she and producer (and bassist) Paul Bryan paint a soft, sophisticated watercolor in winter white, with vintage instruments and an ear for the glistening, classy Christmas albums of the 1950s and jazzy 1960s. Highlights include a cool, fresh take on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the wistful "Christmastime"(penned by husband Michael Penn) and a cover of Jimmy Webb's "Whatever Happened To Christmas." And is that special guest Grant Lee Phillips getting green and sneering in a wicked new vamp of Dr. Seuss' "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch"? This month, Mann is performing her Christmas "variety show" in a dozen live concerts in eight cities. Surprise guests are promised, with half a handful of dates hosted by two of the sharpest comedians I can think of--Paul F. Tompkins and Fred Armisen.
For the most gifted of musicians, you really can "take it with you"--that is, if your instrument is a finely tuned voice in perfect harmony with others. From their first cascade of notes, when the a cappella group The Mighty Echoes break-out in even the moldiest of chestnut carols in Doo Wop Around the Christmas Tree, I can't help but smile. Featuring tenor Jon Rubin of The Rubinoos, new second tenor John Lathan, British baritone hitmaker Harvey Shield, and Charlie Davis' deep cavern of bass, two of my favorites gets their in-synch treatment--Darlene Love's hit "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and John and Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)." Perhaps, we can all together, sing that one, real soon. Look for this dreamy, snowstorm delight on Brooklyn International Records.
Last call for eggnog with three fingers of schmaltz, baby! Forever lost in tiki wonderland and smoky, red crushed velvet caverns of swank, Richard Cheese is back with his first CD of Christmas shenanigans in, what else--Silent Nightclub. Opening with the sound of dashing sleigh bells that morph into a finger-snapping spin through the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday In Cambodia," the consumer smarmy manifesto might not play well at the corporate WalMart Christmas party, but heck, Jello Biafra's rant from 1980 sounds spot-on a quarter of a century later. OK, the world could do without another cover of "Jingle Bells" (yes, unfortunately the novelty one with the barking dogs), but I've got to giggle at his minute and a half jumping jazz spin through Band-Aid's "Do They Know It's Christmas" and a show-stopping romp through "Christmas Time Is Here" from A Charlie Brown Christmas. One new original, "Christmas In Las Vegas," makes the Surfdog Records' release, and a fresh handful of his signature lounge lozenge covers--Rush's "The Trees," Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," and a falling-rain croon of the Modern English hit "I Melt With You." My must-hear favorite? Slip into the deadly serious, Bossa nova and brushed-drums groove of Vanilla Ice's "Ice, Ice Baby," hilariously nodding to pianist Bobby Ricotta with "check out the hook while Bobby revolves it." Get cheesy!