Yule-side swingin'

Dec 9, 1998 at 12:00 am

Growing up in the early 1950s exposed a youthful audience to Anglo pop swingers who could pass for refinement. The simple hummability and basic melodic freshness of tunes such as Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride" and Ray Conniff's "Silver Bells" appealed to the baby boomers' parents, too. The technical sophistication embodied in the arrangements of these tunes draped them with a semblance of respectability and the "light classics" tag, the perfect category for the upwardly mobile WASP types who might not have had time for "long hair" stuff but still wanted to appear cultured.

It was a slippery slope from then on, as these performances began attracting labels such as "easy listening" and "middle of the road" before trekking off into the distance as "passé."

Now, with the whole lounge shtick attracting younger audiences and a host of other folk in search of Cold-War innocence, the time is ripe for a well chosen collection of lush holiday tunes by the predecessors of Cherry Poppin' Daddies and Squirrel Nut Zippers.

Croon and Swoon is a guilty pleasure filled with chestnuts like the aforementioned Anderson and Conniff "classics," in addition to the ever-popular "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (Gene Autry), "Here Comes Santa Claus" (Doris Day) and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" (Judy Garland).

The album also celebrates hosts of holiday television specials that showed up on screens all through the '50s. Check off this roster of names and be amazed at how comfortingly familiar their names are: Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Andy Williams, Tony Bennett and Perry Como. Can it get any better? --Garaud MacTaggart



Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde
Green Linnet Records

(4 of 5 stars)


Celtic music is not solely the property of British, Irish or misguided New Age mystics. There are also pockets of Celts in Spain and France, with historical roots and traditions that go back centuries, mainly in Galicia and Brittany respectively.

L'Ensemble Choral du Bout du Monde -- World's End Choir -- comes from France and has a 20-year history of promoting Celtic language and culture. It sings arrangements of folk material and newer works specifically incorporating Celtic elements. The current director, Christian Desbordes, is a composer and arranger who, along with René Abjean who founded the group in 1977, supplies much of the music the choir performs.

The treatment of tunes on this album probably owes a lot to the groundbreaking work done by the Irish musician Seán Riada during the 1960s. It was he who started the Chieftains on their road to spreading the gospel of Celtic music and it was also he who first set the ancient melodies and Gaelic lyrics for chorus.

While most of the songs sung on this new album of holiday songs can trace their beginnings back to Brittany's astoundingly fertile folk tradition, there are also a few interesting arrangements of Welsh and Cornish material included near the end of the program. The sound of the recording is lush without being overwhelming, and the occasional bagpipes and flutes that weave through the organ and vocal textures add an air of authenticity to the proceedings. The results should please fans of choral singing as much as they reward the Celtic music aficionado. --Garaud MacTaggart


Judy Garland
32 Records

(4 of 5 stars)


To quote the great Goober Pyle, "Judy! Judy! Judy!" Here's the perfect gift for that certain nostalgic person in your life, a Judy Garland box set containing four discs, a 100-page booklet and even a 30-minute video cassette.

Chronicling Ms. Garland's career from a precocious -- and talented -- 7-year-old to an aging chanteuse soldiering through "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" one last time, Judy is a heartfelt collection of the famous entertainer at all points in her career. The first really amazing selection is a barely teenage Judy belting out "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart" in front of Wallace Beery's 1935 radio show big band.

As this audio tale progresses, we observe young Judy getting swept up into a show-biz life that provided her with all the highs and lows of a most-remarkable career. There's Judy dueting with Gene Kelly, Bobby Darin, Barbara Streisand, Peggy Lee and even her precocious -- and talented -- daughter, Liza Minnelli. Judy is also captured at her most triumphant, singing at Carnegie Hall.

The beautiful booklet also contains a thorough play-by-play of Judy's theatrical performances of songs including "Get Happy," "Swanee," "Just In Time" and many others. There are observant testaments to Judy's passionate vocal ability from avid fans such as Aretha Franklin. The video cassette contains selections from Judy's television program originally aired on CBS-TV in 1963. If you love "socko" camp, you'll love Judy. If you don't, someone you know just might appreciate this powerful document. --Mitch Myers


The Vandals
Kung Fu Records

(4 of 5 stars)


Feeling a little sour from all that holiday sweetness? Copping a bit of that fuck-off Yuletide attitude, are ye? Well, for the jolly fat man-haters -- that's Santa Claus, as opposed to the jolly, fat man-haters -- in the crowd, SoCal's Vandals are the perfect antidote to torpid fireside sing-alongs. Actually, in a time when forced holiday happiness and goodwill platitudes are just that and malls resemble mosh pits most of all, Christmas with the Vandals (Oi to the World!) is the most appropriate musical response to the season's underlying consumer nastiness. Sure, the immediate draw of this rekkid might be the giggling novelty of snotty, distorted, Xmas carol riffs, but these punk vets manage to slip in , among the three-chord gems, a real tongue-not-in-cheek criticism of a holiday season spent in a dysfunctional family. So, essentially, the Vandals are focusing the angst that gives body to the band's usual 2:30 musical rants on a single topic. Think of Christmas with the Vandals, then, as a punk rock concept record of a very strange sort. From "Grandpa's Last X-Mas" ("This could be Grandpa's last Christmas/ That's what Mother said/ This could be Grandpa's last Christmas/ and soon he might be dead") to the ode to holiday onanism, "Christmas Time For My Penis" and the blunt critical bash of "I Don't Believe in Santa Claus" ("I don't believe in Santa Claus -- his corporate image forced upon the blinded spending masses to enslave the lower classes with obligatory gifts to cleanse a year of guilt and shame"), Oi to the World isn't always subtle, but the album's joys are right with the punk world.

So, when you're faced with holiday tortures, hide away in a secluded corner of Grandma's house -- if you're lucky enough to be with family for the holidays -- strap on the headphones and escape to a place where Christmas is as jaded as you are. The Vandals'll light the way. --Chris Handyside


Etta James
Private Music

(4 of 5 stars)


Powerhouse blues and R&B belter Etta James sinks her seasoned chops and brassy attitude into a jazz set of holiday favorites mostly arranged by hard-bop pianist Cedar Walton. Walton, saxophonist Red Holloway, trombonist George Bohanon, bassist John Clayton, guitarist Josh Sklair and drummer Billy Higgins offer tasty accompaniment throughout that tastes great.

Holloway swirls his tenor around the singer's sassy lines on "Merry Christmas, Baby"; James laments the sun-and-citrus-trees scenery of Beverly Hills during the prelude to a stylish "White Christmas"; and her slipping and sliding vocals play off a brass choir on "Joy to the World." James, a genuine talent who has survived countless career upheavals and various addictions, as usual pours a lot of herself into her work.

The results are most chilling on an intimate piano-and-vocal reading of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and a hushed version of "O Holy Night," on which she's backed only by a shimmering six-string guitar. --Philip Booth


Squirrel Nut Zippers
Mammoth Records

(4 of 5 stars)


I remember the first time I heard "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" by Brenda Lee. I finally had found a holiday tune I could really get behind -- and shake my behind, too! Gone were the numbing string instrumentations, the Lawrence Welk-Mitch Miller choirs that pumped out of the hi-fi year after year in a predictable parade that guaranteed at least half the family would fall asleep. In their place was twang, attitude and a backbeat that jumped up and said, "Young man! Yes, you! Damnit, Christmas can be fun, too!"

It's exactly that combination of nostalgia and musical discovery that makes the Squirrel Nut Zippers' new collection, Christmas Caravan,a seasonal high-water mark on par with "Rockin' Around..." and, more recently, Arthur Lyman's Hawaiian tropics-inspired renderings of Xmas chestnuts. That the swingy genre the Zippers have been clumsily plunked into is having a pop culture moment can't hurt this record's chances of entering the ear, brain and heart of discerning living room carolers and revelers, either. And thank Buddha for that, too, because the North Carolina, American roots music outfit has turned out in its finest thrift store suits to deliver the gifts. "A Johnny Ace Christmas," "My Evergreen" and the riotous, music-makin' picture painted by "Carolina Christmas" revel in the season's secular joys -- family, home, love and music. The band stays its eclectic roots course, dabbling in jump-jazz, torch balladry, folk fun, country and more than a handful of sing-along worthy ditties, taking us away from the complicated holiday crap in which good-hearted folks can get bogged down. The Zippers' Christmas music, like the band's nonthemed fare, reminds of the simple joys. --Chris Handyside



Various Artists

(4 of 5 stars)


Faux-swing fans looking for the real thing might opt for "Yule B' Swingin'," 14 chestnuts as sure to delight as your Daddy-O is the real Santa Claus. Timeless questions are offered anew by Louis Prima on the raucous "What Will Santa Claus Say when He Finds Everybody Swinging?" and Nancy Wilson's seductive "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

Holiday cheer also comes by way of Louis Armstrong's brassy "Cool Yule," Ella Fitzgerald's subtly shaded "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," Lionel Hampton's rich and chewy "Merry Christmas, Baby," Kay Starr's cutesy "(Everybody's Waitin' For) the Man with the Bag" and Dean Martin's too-cool "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm."

Yes, this is your father's (grandfather's?) world, and that means the stocking also is filled with Glenn Miller's "Jingle Bells," Les Brown's "Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!" and Peggy Lee's "Ring Those Christmas Bells." Who needs the revivalists? --Philip Booth