Good means Bing Crosby or Eartha Kitt, or "O Holy Night," when the singer nails the swashbuckling "Oh, night di-viiine" line with a vociferous sledgehammer. Bad means Tiny Tim, Emerson, Lake & Palmer or "Silent Night" when mortals with modest vocal means overstep their god-given authority. "Sleep in heavenly peace," they suggest, lifting "peeeace" into lofty but dangerous aural zones that only dogs recognize.
That's why this year's batch of Christmas wax is such a bummer. With an occasional exception, it doesn't suck badly enough. It's simply mediocre: OK, but ultimately forgettable. And the December of song that bridges Thanksgiving and New Year's Day is too short to waste on music that's merely blasé.
For example, I've no strong feeling about the pristine neo-folk of Christmas Songs, an ambitious but self-absorbed collection by various artists associated with the Nettwerk Productions label. This is a Lilith Fair end-of-the-year office party thrown by Sarah McLachlan and other gentile troubadours. Except for a nearly bawdy backstage sing-along pairing McLachlan and Barenaked Ladies, however, Christmas packs all the thrills of a group-meditation session.
If that's your cup of herbal tea, drink up. Me? I crave the jolt of Ethiopian java.
Disappointingly, A Putumayo World Christmas (Putumayo) is also strictly decaf. The itinerary looks oh so promising, as the anthology cruises around the globe from Norway to New Orleans. Sure enough, all the cuts sparkle sonically, a trademark of the studio Santas at Putumayo, who strive to make worldbeat palatable for persnickety ears. Yet the result, sadly, is spirited music with the sharp edges rubbed away by overproduction.
The grooviest moment on A Putumayo World Christmas is an unfussy, documentary-style recording by a Hawaiian guitarist named George Kuo. Ironically, Kuo also appears on the season's most exquisite holiday album, Hawaiian Slack Key Christmas (Dancing Cat), which features 13 different island guitarists. If you don't know the phrase "slack key," you're not alone. A distant cousin of Merle Travis' country-style stroke, slack key encompasses a variety of unusual tunings. Native Hawaiians often de-tune their axes way down low to achieve a rumbling, floppy-string effect. Thus the term slack key, though there's nothing slack about this remarkable record.
From the folksy peek at "Joy to the World" by Moses Kahumoku to Ozzie Kolani's modern-sounding reharmonization of "The First Noel," nine of the disc's 14 carols are stellar guitar solos. Imagine the sheer virtuosity of, say, a sprinting Leo Kottke slowed down to a stroll: That's Slack Key Christmas, as rejuvenating as a tropical sea breeze.
Not only for guitar freaks, the collection reaches an unlikely climax in a plaintive vocal crooned by Dennis Kamakahi. With words draped in a lethargic old-school vibrato, he warbles "My Hawaiian Christmas/No snow, no chilly songs/There'll be no frost in windows/A little rain may fall." How's that for an unthinkable concept--Dec. 25 wrapped in a warm mist? Yet the troubadour's voice is so pleasantly tranquil that, well, to hell with the weather. A blend of poignancy and paradox, "My Hawaiian Christmas" is a smash.
Among American labels, the busiest holiday retailer is Rhino Records, the usually inventive Los Angeles-based archival imprint. Other than a bitter alliance with self-proclaimed musicologist Martha Stewart (Home for the Holidays), which cuisinarts ho-hum music with baking tips, the company's year 2000 platter of Christmas hors d'oeuvres is pleasant-tasting, though at times unspectacular.
Kid Rhino serves up The Looney Tunes Kwazy Christmas, which stars the revamped voices of Bugs, Tweety and friends raised in silly song. Warning: These are newly recorded sides that feature unauthentic glitches like dreaded disco beats. Kids might approve, but old-school purists in search of Mel Blanc's vintage Warner Bros.' characterizations will feel shortchanged.
Contemporary 'toon freaks surely will recognize the name Mark Mothersbaugh, the former DEVO frontman-turned-soundtrack-composer-du-jour. Reminiscent of his whimsical synth tracks for Rugrats, Joyeux Mutato frames snippets of simple melodies decorated by the bleep and buzz of Mothersbaugh's keyboards. Originally scored to accompany an art installation, Mothersbaugh says: "This album is for anyone who has ever been traumatized by the Christmas season."
Well, that's everybody, right? If this is Mothersbaugh's recipe for a Christmas Quaalude, he has succeeded. Yep, Mutato is a snooze.
Happily, Rhino redeems itself with a pair of marvelous compilations that ride the way-back machine into the 1950s and '60s.
Intimate Portrait: Lifetime Music Presents Christmas Belles is a cumbersome title for a boffo anthology of heavenly voices. Check the guest list, which reads like the diva hall of fame: Ella Fitzgerald ("Sleigh Ride"), Judy Garland ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), Dinah Washington ("Ole Santa"), June Christy ("Love Turns Winter to Spring") and more. Never has one deck contained so many queens.
The trump card is "Christmas Time is Here," the famous ballad from Vince Guaraldi's Peanuts soundtrack. In an understated tour de force, Rosemary Clooney half-sings, half-coos the lyric, packaging every syllable in a purr. Her vibrato wobbles imperfectly, and sustained notes leave her winded. Yet this latter-day Clooney lullaby proves that the truly great singers grow old with a certain grace that defies the lines of age.
The other cool Rhino oldies-but-goodies kit is called Mambo Santa Mambo, an irreverent retrospective of Latin-style chart smashes and misbegotten clinkers. Compiled by label A&R rep James Austin, Mambo could care less about ethnic authenticity. Novelties like Billy May's outrageous "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer Mambo," which reeks like a good fart joke, have more in common with Spike Jones than anything with a Latin tinge. Giggles abound--from Augie Rios' familiar "Donde Esta Santa Claus," chirped in accented ingles, to rarities like "El Cha Cha de la Navidad," trumpeted in razor-sharp espanol by the extraordinary Celia Cruz. I dig the juxtaposition of bona fide all-stars like Cruz against shameless one-hit wonders like the Enchanters, Flashcats and Skip-Jacks. Mambo is sublime and ridiculous, sometimes in consecutive breaths.