|I Found a Girl / Connor Ball / James Blunt / Tristan Evans / Ross Golan / Claude Kelly / Steve Mac / Ammar Malik / James McVey / Bradley Simpson||The Vamps||2:59|
The format for single-artist Christmas albums has remained static nearly since the dawn of the LP: a popular artist reprises his sound of the moment in a Christmas setting, sometimes mixing sacred material with secular, but always generating a time capsule that rarely holds up to repeated listenings. The Beach Boys recorded one of the best rock Christmas records of all time, and contributed an even rarer thing than a good holiday album -- a new composition to add to the canon in "Little Saint Nick." Brian Wilson's first solo Christmas album (although he did attempt a second Beach Boys edition in the mid-'70s) was recorded with the same group that made his 2004 SMiLE LP, and it shows the influence of that record.
The two new songs are intriguing because each pairs Wilson with a great rock lyricist.
The first, "What I Really Want for Christmas," finds Bernie Taupin thrusting some fine sentiments into a very SMiLE-like melody. The other is the odd title "Christmasey," written with Jimmy Webb, a bright song with a kinetic power that makes it the highlight of the record. Surprisingly, Wilson doesn't shy away from the sacred material -- in fact, nearly half of the songs are hymns -- and sings multiple verses of "Hark the Herald Angels" and "O Holy Night" like he's reading straight from the hymnbook (except for the excellent new vocal arrangement he writes for the beginning and outro of the former). Wilson's oddly emphatic vocals don't quite suit the Christmas concept, but the arrangements and treatments are very good; the long instrument list and sound will be familiar to Beach Boys fans who have long since memorized the credits on Pet Sounds and SMiLE. Only two choices are puzzling: "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" definitely doesn't benefit from a backbeat, and things get a bit confused on "The Man with All the Toys" when the band essays a single line from "O Come All Ye Faithful" ("let every heart prepare him room") and the listener starts wondering whether they're still talking about Santa Claus.
One nice fillip for Beach Boys fans is how Wilson consciously swipes the beginning of the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" (long recognized as his favorite song) for the bonus track "On Christmas Day."
Best known as the frontman for early-'70s hitmakers Christie, singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Jeff Christie's career long predated that band.
In fact, his earlier group, Outer Limits, should have been just as big, if not bigger than Christie themselves. Formed in the dying days of 1963, the band released three singles, gigged incessantly, and took part in the legendary package tour featuring Jimi Hendrix Experience, Pink Floyd, and Amen Corner. Yet they never managed to land a hit or record an album. However the Outer Limits did leave behind a slew of demos before folding in 1968, 22 of which features on the first disc of this two-CD set. An incredible songwriter, Christie penned all the band's numbers, and his strong ear for a pop melody and a way with a catchy chorus is self-evident. Recorded between 1966-1968, the songs are stylistically diverse, encompassing R&B, British Invasion pop, and psychedelia. It's a soundtrack of the age, and while certainly influenced by the stars of the day -- notably but not unsurprisingly the Beatles -- still Outer Limits were no mere copyists, having a sound very much their own. "When the Work Is Through" is one of a slew of standouts, in this case a single that has number one written all over it, although it failed to break into the Top 50.
The rambunctious "Help Me Please" could have been a contender, while "Great Train Robbery" should have shot up the chart along with the acid washed "The Dream." The tough "Anyday Now," the harmony drenched "Funny Clown," the bouncy "Look at Me," the California dreaming of "Dancing Water," and the pumping "Run for Cover" are just some of the other highlights found on this stunning disc. Christie now beckoned, and upon its demise, the singer/songwriter launched a solo career, although his projected debut foundered in the mid-'70s, and a second go begun later in the decade also ended up being shelved.
It was these aborted efforts that comprise most of the second disc, with another half-a-dozen tracks culled from later in his career. The enclosed booklet provides all the background, taken from discussions with the artist himself. Finding himself out of musical fashion, Christie continued doing what he did best, writing strong songs and pushing his own stylistic envelope. "Midnight Express" is a case in point, pomp rock on amphetamines driving straight into the discos. '60s pop infuses "Both Ends of the Rainbow," a surprising punk edge cuts through "Tightrope," jazz, classical, and pop harry "Saints and Sinners," a tinge of funk flutters across "Back on the Boards," and new wave sweeps over "Somebody Else." And while the later numbers are not so adventurous, Christie has yet to lose his touch. All told this is a sumptuous set, and a superb tribute to one of Britain's finest composers.
Alison Krauss & Union Station continue their winning streak on the aptly titled Lonely Runs Both Ways. While they have in some part grown away from their earthy, rollicking bluegrass roots, they've been able to craft a really polished and honest-sounding brand of mid-American adult contemporary that never dips into the schlockiness of mainstream AC or the formula-driven sound of young country. Instead, Krauss, co-songwriter Dan Tyminski, and the Station dig deep into the classic themes of rural American music, polishing them with terrific production, the finest instrumentation, and two of the best voices around. Lonely Runs Both Ways shifts back and forth between Krauss' angelic love songs and Tyminski's earthier tales of rain, roads, and rivers, with one blazing Jerry Douglas-led instrumental entitled "Unionhouse Branch." Banjo player Ron Block takes a vocal turn on his own "I Don't Have to Live This Way," but allows Krauss to take vocal lead on another of his songs (and the album's highlight), "A Living Prayer." This gentle lullaby rocks the album to sleep with its light instrumentation and quietly soaring vocals, appropriately putting the ribbon on the whole tidy package. Although bluegrass purists may long for the days when Krauss rosined up her fiddle with the Cox Family, the pure beauty and craftsmanship of Alison Krauss & Union Station's more commercial sound is undeniable, and somehow they manage to avoid sounding slick and formulaic, still retaining the spark of honesty that seems to be missing from the recordings of so many of their contemporaries.
While the group made plenty of longtime fans nervous with its sexed-up 2001 release, New Favorite, Lonely Runs Both Ways should reinstill their faith in the fact that this band is far and away the best contemporary bluegrass act recording today.