Mistletoe and Merriment
This year's holiday compilation from Starbucks has got some gems, some oddballs, and an amusingly schizo personality. It's mostly Christmas music, but not entirely; it's mostly from a jazz tradition, except the Beach Boys are included; and it's mostly devoted to unusual versions of well-known tunes, except for closing with a completely obscure Thelonious Monk composition. And be aware (as you no doubt are), these discs aren't exactly meant for the serious music lover: There's no information provided about the origin of the 14 tracks (when recorded? personnel?)except, of course, in the couple cases where that info is provided. Strange. Leaving all thatand the fact that $12.95 is no bargain for under 40 minutes of musicaside, and getting into the spirit of the thing, there's lots to enjoy here. Nat King Cole takes a piece of disposable tripe like "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" and, assisted by the swoopy vocals of the Starlighters, turns it into something buoyant and alive. Dean Martin does a suitably silly, orchestrated-to-excess "Jingle Bells." Frank Sinatra gives a slow, heartfelt take on the only Christmas song that's ever been worth hearing ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"), and Louis Armstrong is irreplaceable as ever with the Benny Carter Orchestra on "Christmas Night in Harlem." The very first note that you hear from Peggy Lee is her proving her genius on "Winter Wonderland." "Baby It's Cold Outside" is done by Johnny Mercer and Margaret Whiting with a gentler, less-salacious style than the Ray Charles-Betty Carter classic; it's one of several wintry tunes that save this disc from all-Christmas perdition. MARK D. FEFER
Christmas Remixed: Holiday Classics Re-Grooved
hOMe for the Holidays
I could go on for hours about how Christmas remixes can go terribly wrong, but I'm going to skip over all the turkeys on Christmas Remixed and hOMe for the Holidays. Let's just say there was too much Hennessy in the eggnog. Slice up some Bing Crosby loops and throw in some clip-art beats, and you get something that basically sounds like someone's mind coming apart. But in the hands of capable producers, a modern take on Christmas classics can be cute, funny, and almost heartwarming. On Christmas Remixed, subtle police sirens add some depth and humor to Baz Kutz's remix of "The Nutcracker Suite," while the light and well-constructed Stuhr version of Kay Starr's "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm" works nicely by the fire. Meanwhile, hOMe for the Holidays takes a more adventurous route and delivers a compilation with some staying powerRithma had some fun cutting up novel and obscure holiday records for the bizarre "Psycho Jingle Funk," Colossus slices his way through some Charlie Brown samples to hilarious effect, and you could safely play J-Boogie's "Under the Christmas Tree" or King Kooba's "O Christmas Tree" at your Fourth of July barbecue. Neither disc hits the mark completelya truly great Christmas record comes but once a quarter- century, and we already have Run-D.M.C.'s "Christmas in Hollis"but these two forward-thinking dance labels come reasonably close. MATT CORWINE
Maybe This Christmas Too?
An unholy holiday hodgepodge if ever there was one, this compilation mixes songs from WB-friendly has-beens (Chantal Kreviazuk, Barenaked Ladies, Sixpence None the Richer, Guster) with a few genuinely vital, moving Christmas tunes. Among these sonic sweetmeats: Rufus Wainwright dissects the yuletide with typical Wainwright bite on the self-penned "Spotlight on Christmas." The singer-songwriter's cutting sarcasm ("People say they love the maid/Who sweats and toils just like a slave/But don't forget, all the diamonds and pearls/Never could fix the poor little rich girls") finds a nice counterpoint in his funny, warmhearted view of the Holy Family ("And they were, each one, quite odd/A mensch, a virgin, and a god"). Rilo Kiley's "Xmas Cake" is an epic in miniature, and much like the Pogues' indelible "Fairytale of New York" (another darkly funny Christmas song), it's a marvel of storytelling. Starting with an offbeat metaphor for a failed relationship ("Our love's become selling secrets to the Russians they don't need"), the speaker describes Christmastime as a bottomless nightmare of credit-card debt, "wrapping presents in the dark," and taking caroling jobs at shopping malls. Another breakup song provides Too? with its crowning achievement: Lisa Hannigan reimagines "Silent Night" as a tired, bitter lament for lost love. Sounding like a ghost still stunned by the suddenness of her own death, she muses: "I should be stronger than weeping alone/You should be weaker than sending me home." In a dozen simple lines set to a spare, beautiful old melody, Hannigan captures the compromised nature of love and need. Christmas may mean mistletoe and angel chimes to some, but portions of Too? remind us that yuletide is as often cruel as kind. NEAL SCHINDLER
World Series of Love
Midwest Product are the worst doo-wop trio everno one can sing, the tempos rarely slow to an easy gait, and the closest they get to a four-part harmony is through some kinda dog-year arithmetic. But Midwest Product can be a damn fine rocktronica act, something akin to Out Hud, Kraftwerk (they wish), or Pink Floyd minus the raspy vocals. The band's first album, Specifics, oscillated between dreamy post-rock and taut tech-pop, finding a home inside the rarely settled boltholes of a drum machine. That neighborhood is an exclusive one, which is good for originality, but bad for Tupperware parties (these are Michigan boys, after all), so World Series of Love, the band's new EP, hits the burbs with a force, as the guitars grow more prominent and the squelching beats vamoose. "Motivator," a space-rock song set to a slightly-more-aggressive-than-you-might-expect beat, captures the essence of the new Midwest Product. Singer/guitarist Ben Mullins hypocritically belts, "Block your ears, and shout out loud/They're just words that slow you down," while Gouda-thick guitar chords loudly ring. Elsewhere, "Bank" predictably tries oh so hard for a Kraftwerkian disinterest on a 9-to-5ers' anti-anthem when something more Prince-like would've been exponentially better. That kind of obviousness moves World Series from what it might've beena rare rock-electronic blend that successfully emphasizes beats over guitars (the first Calla record being the pinnacle of this sound). Still, when they hit a groove, as they do on the stirring kickoff cut "Dead Cat" or in their surprisingly industrial-minded live sets, Midwest Product are formidable. Just don't let 'em sing. YANCEY STRICKLER
After moping through their 1999 breakthrough album The Man Who, then attempting with mixed results to Get Happy! on 2001's The Invisible Band, Scottish pop quartet Travis seemed down for the count. But just when you think it's safe to dismiss these sensitive melodists, they toughen up and find their soundand their anger. 12 Memories extends their campaign of tuneful contagion, but without the drifting dirges of previous albums; instead, the band opts for straight-ahead heartbreak songs with an angry guitar presence and an unforgiving nature. Channeling the Beatles on "The Beautiful Occupation" and "Peace the Fuck Out," frontman Fran Healy and company discover the loopy sense of humor we never knew they had. The name of the latter song is funny enough, but wait till the end of the track and you'll hear a rowdy brigade of Scottish soccer fans chanting the title with joyous, drunken abandon. Healy, the band's chief songwriter, still pens the occasional groaner, as on "Some Sad Song," the hidden closing track: "Don't rehearse/This is the last verse/In the hearse/Going through your purse." But even there the song's gorgeous tune sails to the rescue, elevating Healy's stilted words and making the album's parting shot into an unforced catharsis. Its funereal lyrics may speak of unending defeat, but as pop stylists, Travis are winning like never before. N.S.
La Revancha del Tango
The tango rhythms on the Gotan Project's North American debut are Argentine, and most of the seven musicians on the trip-hop- and house-infused electro-tango album are Argentine-bornsome living in exile in Paris since the Argentine Dirty War of the late '70s. But its buttery, downtempo beats couldn't be more Parisian if it were wearing a beret. Released in Europe in 2001 on the group's own label, Ya Basta! ("Enough Already!"), this year's U.S. release includes the original 10 tracks plus four remixes. The album's title, which translates as "The Revenge of Tango," is aptthere's an aggressive, showy quality to dance tracks like the bouncy, melodramatic "Santa Maria" and even the airy jazz-house hit "Triptico." Traditionally in tango, style is everything; a dancer's skill is proved through ornamentation and embellishment, and Gotan Project embellish their electronic rhythms with Argentine accordion and violin, lending a melancholy, old-world whine to tracks such as the delicate "Vuelvo al Sur," the dark, velvety "Chunga's Revenge," and even "Triptico." All the drama makes a couple of tracks seem like soundtracks for a mad puppet show, but most are pleasantly loungey and danceable. Outside of club culture, tango has been tipped to follow in salsa's footsteps as the next social-dancing vogue. This release, with its incorporation of house, dub, andon "El Capitalismo Foraneo" and its remix by High Priest of the AntiPop Consortium hip-hop breakbeats, serves up tango for the club crowd, too. KATIE MILLBAUER