New holiday albums from Brian Wilson, Marah, Diana Krall, and others.
The ideal holiday music experience pivots on a marriage of the familiar and the novel: a unique spin on old, well-known melodies. Diana Krall gets the ratio just about right on Christmas Songs, the jazz singer-pianist's first holiday collection. The program is as predictable as Grandma's Christmas Eve menu: "Jingle Bells," "Let It Snow," "Winter Wonderland." Yet Krall, a master of understatement (improbably married to Elvis Costello, a master of overstatement), gives the songs a psychological nudge that reveals enough to make them worth hearing for the 847th time. In "Christmas Time Is Here," Vince Guaraldi's Peanuts evergreen, Krall adds an old-soul contemplation to Guaraldi's articulation of childhood wonder. In "I'll Be Home for Christmas" Krall finds a melancholy so cool that it nearly turns into reluctance—she sounds relieved that her homecoming might take place "only in my dreams."
This hard-working Philadelphia band has earned a rabid cult of fans (headed by novelist Nick Hornby) based on its ability—or maybe its willingness—to reanimate threadbare garage-rock verities with beery spirit. (No less a rock reanimator than Bruce Springsteen guested on the band's 2002 CD, Float Away With the Friday Night Gods.) It makes sense, then, that Marah's Christmas album would be one of the most raucous of this year's crop: Serge and Dave Bielanko, the group's two frontmen, seem to live by the adage that if you've got nothing new to say, you'd better at least sweat while saying it. "Christmas Time Is Here" appears here, too, sung by adults who sound as if their wonder was provided by a round of eggnog. "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" rocks nearly as hard as Johnny Marks' original. And before the band launches into "Here We Come A-Wassailing," one of the Bielankos performs a skit with a helpful definition of that old English term: "A night on the town boozing it up with friends."
Brian Wilson already got his big wish last year when he finally released Smile, the psychedelic pop album that he began back in the mid-'60s but eventually aborted thanks to drugs and mental instability and the protestations of his bandmates. So, all that's left for Wilson to ask for on this flimsy if enjoyable throwaway is "peace for all," which, Wilson reminds us in a title track, is "more than a sentimental card." But not even Wilson's glorious harmonies can rescue "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" from Hallmark-movie sap, while "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" glides by on a cheery karaoke backing (until it mutates into a zany surf-rock rave-up). A few tracks do attain a tasty guitar-pop zing, thanks in large part to Wilson's enablers in the Wondermints, the agile Los Angeles group who've served as his band in recent years. "The Man With All the Toys" offers a juicy organ part, and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" (long one of the coolest Christmas carols) genuinely swings.
Faith Evans is probably more famous for having been married to the late Notorious B.I.G. than for her career as a vocalist. (She famously sang the chorus in Puff Daddy's hit tribute to his old friend, "I'll Be Missing You.") While keeping a relatively low profile, she keeps making great hip-hop-inflected R&B records full of the tension between personal struggle and high-life luxury. On A Faithful Christmas, the second album she's released this year, Evans gives chestnuts such as "O Come All Ye Faithful" some big-city sparkle with high-gloss beats and smooth keyboard arrangements. Yet thanks to her voice, which still carries a whiff of muted anguish, the music never quite achieves the placidity Evans seems to be striving for. Second to Krall's album, Faithful is the most emotionally complicated holiday recording out this season.
But, hey—who needs complexity? Sometimes the holidays call for something you can play when entertaining friends and family—a CD that will, say, "create an atmosphere of elegance at a sit-down Christmas dinner or an elaborate buffet." The celebrity homemaker Martha Stewart is on the case. Her new three-CD Holiday Collection—packaged in a handsome box that also houses a bundle of cards containing recipes, crafts, and tips—aims to provide the perfect soundtrack to any end-of-year event. There's a "Traditional Songs" disc with Mariah Carey and Frank Sinatra, a "Classical Favorites" volume with tasteful, high-WASP fare like Eileen Farrell's "The Coventry Carol," and a "Jazz" CD topped by a terrifically patronizing version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" by Tony Bennett. As Stewart writes in her own patronizing liner notes, "it has a comfortable beat and relaxed swing that will encourage your guests to move and mingle." Whip out the cornhusk votives and you're good to go.
Audio excerpts from Christmas Songs © 2005 Verve; A Christmas Kind of Town © 2005 Yep Roc; What I Really Want for Christmas © 2005 Arista; A Faithful Christmas © 2005 Capitol; and The Holiday Collection © 2005 Epic/Legacy. All rights reserved.