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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 30, 2008

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Christmas Songs and Albums

There are two kinds of music that get reviewed at Christmas time: Albums you might buy to give as gifts, and albums of Christmas music that you buy for your own enjoyment during the season.

I mean, what would be the point of giving somebody a Christmas album as a Christmas gift? At the moment they open it, the season of Christmas songs is pretty much over.

Ditto with Christmas books. My own Zanna's Gift, fortunately, is timeless and can be read in July, but books that depend on the Christmas season for their emotional impact are passe upon arrival.

Unless, of course, you give such albums and books early in December, with instructions to open them at once. Then they're a terrific present, because they become part of the Christmas season instead of arriving at the end.

Ordinarily, I would now plunge into a review of the new Christmas albums I bought this year. But if I do that, then all the of time-sensitive items I want to let you know about will be way back at the end of a long column. If you read the Rhino in short bursts, you might not even reach the end of this column until next Tuesday.

So I'm going to pause for some Public Service Announcements -- then I'll get to the Christmas music reviews.

*

This paper comes out on Thursday, December 4th. Tomorrow, the 5th, at 7pm, there'll be a one-of-a-kind book signing at Barnes & Noble in Friendly Center. I'll be part of it, talking a little (but not about politics) and signing copies of my new books -- Zanna's Gift, Ender in Exile, and Stonefather -- and the first two issues of the comic-book adaptation of Ender's Game and the first issue of Ender's Shadow. (For the comics, you'll need to get copies in advance from Acme Comics on Lawndale.)

But what makes it an event is a gathering of writers who have frequently contributed to my online magazine, The Intergalactic Medicine Show (http://www.oscIGMS.com). The magazine's editor, Edmund Schubert, is also the author of the novel Dreaming Creek. James Maxey is the writer of the powerful fantasy novels Bitterwood and Dragonforge, which I've reviewed here, and Scott Roberts had a story Writers of the Future vol. 21.

We'll be talking about the magazine and anything else people want to ask us about. Budding writers are welcome to ask questions.

This is also a great chance to get the Intergalactic Medicine Show anthology signed by the editor, the publisher (moi), and some outstanding young writers. When their names are on the bestseller lists and they're winning prizes, you'll be happy to have their autographs on this great book.

Plus, the anthology is a wonderful gift. After your friends have lost or broken their Christmas toys (from Brookstone, Restoration Hardware, or F.A.O. Schwartz), they'll be glad to have hours of good reading.

*

Handel's oratorio The Messiah is one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. There are dozens of professional recordings, ranging from the stodgy to the vigorous and inventive, from the adequate to the brilliant.

I have nine such recordings in regular rotation among my MP3 collection -- The Messiah is as much about Easter as Christmas, and to a Christian the message of the life and ministry of Christ is applicable all year long.

What a recording cannot give you is the experience of a live performance. And no, it's not just because live performances have the kind of human mistakes that get edited out of the deceptively perfect recordings. (Do you really think they got that whole track in one take?)

When you're in the same room -- even if it's a big one -- with the performers, you get a sense of what it takes to produce the music. There's an energy in seeing the people who are creating the sounds you hear.

Not to mention the profound effect it has on the human mind to be doing something in unison with a group of like-minded people. Sometimes it can take the form of frenzied worship of rock stars, or furious screaming at hated referees.

But when you're with a group of people listening to music that is both glorious and alive, the sharing imprints the whole experience into your heart to a degree no album, however perfect, possibly can.

If you have children of the right age -- say, eleven or older -- it's worth taking the effort to get together and listen to bits and snatches of the Messiah, going over the words together, preparing them. Maybe fifteen minutes.

Then, when they come to the live performance, they'll be waiting for the parts you explained. When they recognize them, they'll look over at you and smile. They'll have a stake in the performance.

Even if what you discuss is the absurd mis-hearings. I first became well-acquainted with The Messiah as a whole by listening to the old Mormon Tabernacle performance.

Because the first note of "All We Like Sheep" is lower than what follows, and the conductor was not careful in getting his singers to punch out the first word, it was swallowed up in the music. So it sounds like these hundred or so people are rapturously singing "We Like Sheep!"

It's good to have friendly feelings toward farm animals, I'm sure, but the text is comparing us to sheep, not expressing our affection for them. Tell that to your kids before the performance, and you know they'll be listening for that chorus, at least!

Notice that I'm urging you to do all your talking and explaining before you come. Because you will naturally want to set your children the example of good manners, not even whispering during the performance.

The Greensboro Oratorio Singers have been putting on performances of The Messiah for 54 years -- this is the 55th time. It's one of the great traditions of our city.

Far from being paid, the singers in the chorus actually pay dues for the privilege of singing this music to us. But use of the auditorium is far from free, and the orchestra and soloists must be paid.

We often assume that if we contribute to an umbrella organization like the United Arts Council, the money reaches all the worthy arts causes in the city. But that is not so, especially in the case of the Greensboro Oratorio.

The United Arts Council contributes nothing; the Oratorio is now a "Co-sponsored Ensemble" of the Music Center (part of City Arts of Greensboro). Though the Oratorio is grateful for the support it receives that way, most of its budget comes from the contributions of those who attend the performance.

The performance is free to the public: If you can't afford to contribute at all, you're still welcome to come, and even if your contribution is small, it will be gratefully received. And if your means allow you to give more than you're comfortable putting into a public collection plate, you can always send a check.

The Greensboro Oratorio Singers present the 55th annual performance of Handel's Messiah on Thursday, December 11, 2008 at 7:00PM in War Memorial Auditorium. Mark it on your calendar so you don't forget!

(For additional information, please contact the Greensboro Oratorio Singers at (336) 373-4553.)

*

Some of you had a chance to join with me in welcoming Janis Ian to Greensboro last month, when she talked and signed books at Barnes & Noble. Now she's inviting people to take part in an online sale and auction at http://www.JanisIan.com.

All the profits go to the Pearl Foundation, which provides college scholarships to students who have been out of the mainstream education path for five years or more. I can tell you from my own experience that people who have had a solid dose of real life before going back to school make the best students -- the five perpetual scholarships the foundation maintains are always put to good use.

There are items as cheap as $4.95 -- and there are free ringtones using Janis's music. Many items have been donated to the auction by people other than Janis -- come to the website and see what's on offer. (And, by the way, the foundation is named after Janis's mother.)

*

So you're driving to Raleigh on I-40, and you take the cutoff that gets you to the Raleigh beltway at Wade Avenue. Don't get on the beltway -- keep going straight onto Wade Avenue.

Because almost as soon as you go under the I-440 overpass, you come to a little shopping center on your left, where there's a Whole Foods Market and a great independent bookstore called Quail Ridge Books.

I'm not saying to take a special trip. I'm just saying if you're going to Raleigh anyway, this is hardly out of your way.

Having lost Atticus Books and News & Novels and B. Dolphin and most other independent bookstores in Greensboro, it's nice to see an indie store that has managed to stay alive without compromising its quality.

Nothing against Borders and Barnes & Noble -- these chains provide great bookstores in hundreds of communities that never had them. And when they roll up the roads in Greensboro each night, Barnes & Noble is one of the few places still open after a movie -- a haven for people who think that a cup of something, along with a book or a conversation, is the best way to spend the last hours of the evening.

But at Quail Ridge, the shelves are deep with books that aren't exactly the same as the selection in every other store. Of course they have the bestsellers -- but they also have wonderful quirky choices you aren't going to see anywhere else around here.

For instance, at point of sale I found an album by a group called the Raleigh Flute Choir. With a mix of classical, traditional, and original music, this perfectly tuned, mellow ensemble bring both sweetness and vigor to their performance.

And while you're there, pop over to Whole Foods Market. They have one of the best delis in North Carolina.

They also have tins of vanilla caramels, made by Jo's Candies. You can't get them anywhere else, and these are just about as perfect as a caramel can be. Your only problem is going to be remembering to share.

*

I was only upgrading my car stereo because I truly loathe the multiple-cd changers that come as original equipment in Ford cars. I wanted a stereo that would take only one cd so I didn't have to push buttons to say which slot to put it in. It had to include XM radio and be able to read MP3 cds.

Off I went to DeDona Tint & Sound. It took a bit of looking, because they had moved since I was last there -- but only across the street and a little bit down, at 5301 West Market Street (telephone 336-851-1300).

I didn't want new speakers -- my goal wasn't to waken sleepers, frighten children, and break dishes with the bass pounding out of my car.

They didn't try to sell me anything I didn't ask for. In fact, it was only after they installed my stereo that I realized that there were several options I hadn't even thought of -- like the ability to connect to the earphone jack of MP3 players, or plug in iPods or USB flash drives directly.

Nor did I expect the bluetooth option, which easily links with the cellphone I already had and turns my stereo into a hands-free carphone.

So when I brought my car back for the additional options, they fit me into their schedule and did the whole job in about an hour -- including a training session as we linked up my phone.

I can't compare them to anybody else in recent years, for one simple reason. When somebody does the job perfectly and treats me well, why in the world would I go anywhere else? So there may be other local businesses dealing in car sound installation that are just as good.

But I'm willing to bet that there isn't one that's better. Mostly because I can't think how anybody could be better.

*

And now we're finally at my review of Christmas music. Most of these albums are new -- but a few of them are only new to me.

The day after Thanksgiving, I guest-hosted for my good friend Rusty Humphries, whose radio show is heard just about everywhere except Greensboro (and it's even heard here, if you have XM radio).

Usually the show is strongly political, but on the day after Thanksgiving nobody cared much about politics. Instead, I asked people about their favorite Christmas songs and Christmas movies. And among the expected favorites, there were a few surprises.

For instance, "Driving Home for Christmas," which I could only find by purchasing a used copy of The Very Best of Chris Rea. Great song on a very good album -- but the rest of the music has nothing to do with Christmas.

Another listener steered me to Willie K's wonderful version of "O Holy Night." The whole album Willie Kalikimaka is pretty good -- he has a sweet, heartfelt voice on the serious songs, like "Away in a Manger," and the lighter songs are fun. But, again, it takes some work to lay hands on this Hawaiian album -- they don't have it at Target right now.

The producer/engineer working with me that night, Mike Kinney, popped in with his favorite, the Barra MacNeils singing "Christmas in Killarney" (and he was right to love that performance). Someone had emailed that their favorite song was "Carol of the Bells," and so I chose the delightful performance by the doo-wop group The Standards from their album A Night to Remember.

Then there was "Christmas Time Is Here," which most of us know best as the theme from Charlie Brown Christmas. I chose the performance by Brett Raymond on his album Primarily for Christmas. We had Michael McDonald's wonderful motown-inspired "O Come O Come Emmanuel" and the Kinks singing "Father Christmas."

I had never heard of Vince Vance and the Valiants, but a listener asked for their version of "All I Want for Christmas Is You" on the album of the same name. The silly songs were fine to listen to once (and never again) -- but that title track is gorgeous.

We played snatches from the title track from my all-time favorite Christmas album, Emmy Lou Harris's A Light from the Stable, and "December Tales," the Christmas song with music by Robert Stoddard and words by, well, me.

Nobody sings like Mahalia Jackson, and even though her Christmas album Silent Night, Holy Night was recorded long ago, on inferior equipment, the glory of her deep rich witnessing voice shines through.

But these albums have been around for years. What about the new albums all over the stores?

In roughly ascending order of recommendation:

Barenaked Ladies (consisting of clothed males) are a strange group that ranges from wonderful to vaguely appalling. The album Barenaked for the Holidays is no exception. Their down-tempo "Jingle Bells" is wonderful, and there are other good tracks. But I doubt I'll ever listen to the album straight through again -- too many cuts fall into the appalling category.

Faith Hill, with Joy to the World, and George Strait, with Classic Christmas, give good performances, but at the end of both albums there was nothing memorable. If you're short of holiday background music, these will do the job. But nobody will insist you turn the music up.

Harry Connick, Jr., is a terrific performer of cool swing music. Unfortunately, though there are some good jazz interpretations, many of the cuts are deliberately cacophonous and others -- like the duet with his not-ready-for-Rolling Stone daughter -- are simply embarrassing. An album I'll keep, but probably weed down to a handful of cuts.

Tony Bennett's daughter, Antonia Bennett, is definitely ready for prime time -- her duet with her father on "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" is one of the highlights of the album A Swingin' Christmas.

Like Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett has kept singing long past the prime of his voice -- but he understands how to shape a song so well that he's way better than his voice.

On Swingin' Christmas Bennett joins with the Count Basie Orchestra for a big-band sound, and the range is terrific -- his "All I Want for Christmas Is You" is, if anything, better than the Vince Vance and the Valiants version. A very good album that doesn't feel old-fashioned, though you'll recognize every tune.

In a way, the album Yo-yo Ma and Friends: Songs of Joy and Peace barely belongs in this category. Only now and then is a song or tune recognizable as a Christmas standard.

The album ransacks the musical traditions of the world, from classical to rock to folk to jazz to Hawaiian to African to Chinese to Brazilian, Yo-Yo Ma's friends apparently include the best of every culture and genre.

Now, there are a lot of modern and experimental-sounding pieces, and if you have no tolerance for weirdness, don't bother with this album. But most of the time, the weirdness resolves into something either familiar or at least sensible.

And you never have doubt that what matters here is not the music, but the arrangement and performance. Usually I find this irritating, and perhaps on multiple hearings I'll feel that way about this album. But for now, I'm still enjoying it.

The only embarrassing moment is Amelia Zirin-Brown's impromptu recitative in the middle of "This Little Light of Mine" -- though, come to think of it, her singing is annoying, too. So ... now I've deleted that track, and I love the rest of the album.

Just don't buy it as a Christmas album. Buy it as a potpourri of interesting and often rather thrilling adventures in virtuoso world music.

I sometimes think that Sarah Brightman is to Broadway and classical music as Stevie Nicks is to Heart. The notes are right, the words are clear, you know she means what she's singing ... but you just wish she could push out something stronger. There's no bonfire. She doesn't even smolder. It's more like ... burning incense.

And yet her Christmas album Winter Symphony is a pleasure from beginning to end. Sometimes Christmas music brings out the best in a performer; tune for tune, I think this may be Brightman's best album.

I've written about the college a capella group Straight No Chaser before. They're very good, but until now their performances have always had a few wincing mistakes. Not on their Christmas album Holiday Spirits. Ranging from serious to light-hearted, every cut is a pleasure.

The album also boasts one of the few tolerable performances of "12 Days of Christmas." Like the interminable "Children, Go Where I Send Thee" that takes up two-thirds of the Mary Chapin Carpenter Christmas album, "12 Days" is a fun game to take part in, but a boring one to listen to.

Only not the way Straight No Chaser does it! It's an adventure in humor and madness, and I'd recommend this album for that track alone.

Enya's And Winter Came is more Enya than Christmas -- most of the songs are unfamiliar ("O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" being the only exception). If you like Enya, you'll like this CD, though not particularly for the holiday content.

Kristin Chenoweth has a brilliant Broadway voice (she originated the part of Glinda in Wicked and you've seen her on TV in The West Wing and Pushing Daisies) ... but, rather like Bernadette Peters (though not to such an extreme degree), she always sounds as if her mouth were too small for her voice.

But her range, her control, and her interpretations are so good I don't mind that one flaw. In my opinion, her album, A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas, is worth listening to over and over.

For me, the three jewels of this year's crop of Christmas albums are all dreamy and (mostly) gentle -- songs that often have the nostalgic, melancholy, or bittersweet feeling that the Christmas season has for many adults.

First, there's Mary's Lullaby: Christmas Songs for Bedtime, by the ever-popular "various artists." Many of the singers are normally prone to overdecorated American-Idol/Star-Search performances, but here producer Scott Wiley has kept them all as subdued as if they really were performing for children. The result is that you really hear the words and the sometimes-intricate harmonies.

Instrumentation is sometimes quite surprising, but never wrong. I've played this album for various groups -- teenagers, gen-Xers, boomers like me, and "greatest generation" oldsters -- and all of them loved the album. Yet, when you want it to, it recedes into the background.

Second is another compilation, this one the fifth in Barnes & Noble's Sunday Music series. The software I was using to rip the cd couldn't find it, and by the time I noticed that it was listed as "unknown artist" and "unknown album," I couldn't for the life of me figure out which Christmas music CD it was! So I couldn't identify the artists.

So I went online while listening to the songs, googling the lyrics. I managed to find many of the unfamiliar songs, and sometimes got the groups right -- but no amount of googling could get me an album that contained the songs.

That's surprising, because when I finally realized it was the Sunday Morning 5: Holiday compilation, I easily found all the songs and artists on BarnesAndNoble.com, which means they were there on the web for Google to index them. Why weren't they there?

It doesn't matter, because by then I had listened to the album about five times and I was in love. The artists I was familiar with -- Ray Charles ("Little Drummer Boy"), Norah Jones ("Peace"), and Lou Rawls ("Merry Christmas, Baby") -- were not even my favorites.

KT Tunstall, singing "Fairytale of New York," is almost heartbreaking bleak, but hardly more so than Ingrid Michaelson with "Snowfall" or Imogen Heap with her "Just for Now." Celtic Woman's "Panis Angelicus" is not the familiar melody -- it's rather a belligerent Irish tune that's the only hard-to-listen-to track. "Carol of the Bells" by The Bird and the Bee is breathless and lovely.

But the best of all is Mary Chapin Carpenter's Come Darkness, Come Light. The whole album has a dreamy, nostalgic, sad feeling -- but for me that's what works about the best of the Christmas movies.

For children, Christmas is full of expectation; for adults, it's full of memory. Perhaps that's because children are the audience for Christmas. Adults are the authors and directors of it, and we get wistful about what it all means.

Mary Chapin Carpenter lives in that wistfulness all the time -- there's an echo of lost-but-remembered joy even in her upbeat numbers.

Despite her country roots, Carpenter is at home with definite non-country material like Rutter's "Candlelight Carol," "Still, Still, Still," and "On a Quiet Christmas Morn."


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