|Anti-Matter Alma Mater||Ambergris|
|Song of the Cable Car Conductor||Ambergris|
|Two Students' Song||Ambergris|
|Song of Omegabird the 3rd||Ambergris|
|Professor Whiskers' Song||Ambergris|
|Song of the Wormhole||Ambergris|
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."
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.
Every year, we seem inundated with more and more Christmas music hoping to compete with the thousands of recordings of many of the same tunes that have filled the bins for years. It's likely that there have been others like this which celebrate Celtic culture even as they ring in the holidays, but that doesn't take away this one's gentle charms and, above all, interesting and eclectic song choices. These include "Mary's Lullaby" (from the 14th century), Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring," and obscure tunes from French, English and even Chinese tradition. Spero plays the harp much like we might imagine angels doing it -- graceful in spots, more energetic in others, and always creating unique moods and textures. On the playful "Christmas Eve Jig," she livens things up by blending high-end harmonies with a low-toned melody, then reversing that arrangement. She begins that tune with a bit of soundscaping, touching her strings to create the effect of falling drops of rain.
Her other notable idea is to keep things simple, yet vary the mix with a few ensemble pieces with cello and flute. On "My Dancing Day" (a traditional English piece), Kate Cuzner's flute and Malcom Ball's percussion add a lively harmony and rhythm line to a wonderful celebration of joy. It's definitely the type of project that can be enjoyed by more than strict lovers of Celtic music.