Reviews

A Christmas Album

Author: John McKay
12/04/2002 | The Michigan Times | www.themichigantimes.com | Album Review
With each holiday season there comes an insanely hectic shopping rush, frigid temperatures and, of course, Christmas albums from an array of recording artists. However, with so many holiday music compilations occupying shelf space at your local music store, it can be difficult to distinguish one from another, let alone choose one to purchase. It becomes even more difficult to find a Christmas compilation that truly represents the moods and feelings associated with the holidays without having to dig into the archives searching for old Bing Crosby or Frank Sinatra recordings.

What follows are two alternative Christmas albums from a group of rock music performers who have turned down their amps to bring you warm holiday cheer, in a more traditional fashion.
Bright Eyes: A Xmas Album
2002 Saddle Creek Records
Recording music since the age of 13, songwriting prodigy Conor Oberst is the mastermind of the acclaimed musical collective, Bright Eyes. This holiday compilation captures the youth spirit and flair of the 22-year old singer-songwriter, with help from some of his friends.

The album opens with a deliberately slow rendition of "Away in a Manger" featuring the vocals of Bright Eyes contributor Maria Taylor. In the background one can hear children singing "Deck the Halls" accompanied by a barely-audible accompaniment of a brass section. At this point, it is evident that this is not your typical modern-rock Christmas album

Following the haunting rendition of "Away in a Manger" comes the band's take on Elvis Presley with their rendition of "Blue Christmas." This song features the vocals of Conor Oberst, whose voice over with a hint of vulnerability, adding a wealth of emotion to the song. The subsequent track, "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem," uses an organ to add to the atmospheric feel that, to this point, is carried throughout the album.

The collective picks up the pace on the next track, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," which assumes a folk-rock sound while doing infinite justice to the traditional holiday gem.

Oberst and company return to the somber theme of the album on the next track, "The First Noel," and the following track, "The Little Drummer Boy," which features vocals from both Oberst and Taylor. During their cover of Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," Maria Taylor takes over lead vocal duties once more, beautifully carrying the tune with her low-key approach to singing. This track fades into the next, Oberst's similarly somber version of "Silent Night."

"Silver Bells" plays like a sing-along, and is accompanied by the subdued sound of an organ. The song is accented by the apt use of chimes and bells, while "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" uses a piano and the addition of a string section to create a stunningly beautiful rendition of Frank Sinatra's timeless classic.

The album concludes with a reading of "The Night Before Christmas" by an elderly man, which should bring back fond memories for many listeners who likely heard the same story each Christmas Eve as a child.

This album offers a solid alternative to rocking around the Christmas tree to the manufactured tunes of faceless pop stars, and ranks as one of the strongest holiday offerings of the season. All proceeds from this album will benefit the Nebraska AIDS Project. As such, this album will only be available online at www.saddle-creek.com.
Various Artists: Maybe This Christmas
2002 Nettwerk America
With an abundant supply of Christmas albums from modern recording artists comes an equally abundant supply of Christmas music compilations featuring an array of modern recording artists.

Nettwerk America's Maybe This Christmas features thirteen tracks by some well-known recording artists, such as Jimmy Eat World, Barenaked Ladies, Sarah McLachlan and Coldplay, while featuring astute up-and-comers Bright Eyes and Phantom Planet.

Opening with "Winter Wonderland" by retro-rockers Phantom Planet, who transform the song into a groovy rocker one would expect Weezer or The Beach Boys to concoct. Ron Sexsmith contributes the title track, "Maybe This Christmas," with a fairly enjoyable acoustic number reminiscent of Paul Simon. Coldplay frontman Chris Martin does his best Sinatra on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and Vanessa Carlton serves up a throaty rendition of "Greensleeves."

Promising independent rockers Bright Eyes offers their take on Elvis' "Blue Christmas," creating one of the stronger contributions to the compilation. Sense Field, however, contributes the largest gem to this compilation with their cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's timeless classic, "Happy Christmas (The War is Over)." While attempting to interpret such a classic song from a revered songwriter as John Lennon is certainly a daunting task. Sense Field were certainly up to the challenge, creating a version just as enjoyable as the original.
Emo-rock heroes Jimmy Eat World offer "12.23.95" from their landmark 1999 album, "Clarity." While most fans of the band would have enjoyed hearing something new, it is a welcome addition nonetheless, and is a good song to play for one's significant other.

Jack Johnson follows with his version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," while Canada's Barenaked Ladies, along with FM radio star Sarah McLachlan, perform an apt rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." Piano-rocker Ben Folds serves up some yuletide humor with his foul-mouthed account of a Christmas disaster with "Bizarre Christmas Incident." Dan Wilson, from the seemingly missing-in-action rock ensemble Semisonic, serves up a beautifully-arranged original concoction, "What a Year for a New Year." Neil Finn and Loreena McKennitt close out the compilation with, "Sweet Secret Peace" and "Snow," respectively. Both songs offer a melodic a somber mood that is on par with much of the album.

Despite some mildly bland moments on the album, this appears to be one of the strongest contenders for the best holiday compilation of this season amongst modern recording artists. There are true highlights, particularly the contributions by Bright Eyes and Sense Field. In addition, a portion of proceeds from this album go towards the Toys for Tots program, which helps provide Christmas gifts for needy children.
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