Familiarity breeds, well, familiarity. We hear, but don’t always listen.
Sometimes, it takes a little something different to jolt the senses and to snap us to attention, which can renew our musical spirit and inspire us anew. Or amuse us at least.
Here are four new holiday releases to consider that are not on that well-trodden musical path:
J.D. McPherson, Socks, New West. This retro country/rockabilly singer-songwriter delivers one of the most refreshing sets of new Christmas songs in years. Maybe decades. The title song, which evokes one of a child’s worst nightmares where Christmas presents are concerned (socks!), is rollicking and hilarious: “Pick out a gift from Mom to me, bring it to my ear/Give it a little shimmy-shake and what do I hear?/Socks!/This is the worst gift I ever got!”
Tapping a wide range of American roots music, McPherson embraces jumpin’ jive, jazz, blues, country and more. He exudes an undeniable glow of nostalgia on “All the Gifts That I Need” and “Every Single Christmas.” Adult and wry, without losing its childlike sense of wonder and reality, this is an album without a single jingle bell or faux emotion.
Kitka, Evening Star, Diaphonica. This female chorus’s haunting vocals are heavenly, ethereal and achingly beautiful. If you’ve missed out on Kitka’s earlier works, particularly 2004’s Wintersongs, this is a good time to catch up. This American choral group has, for some four decades, explored the folk songs and liturgical hymns of Eastern Europe and Asia.
An informative booklet in the CD gives needed details on origins and lyrics translated into English. These 22 songs include seasonal works such as “Collage of Koleda Carols” from Bulgaria and “Fly Trembling Spirit” from Greece. Especially moving is “Zapovedi blazenstv.” The 1908 composition focuses on The Beatitudes, which in Slavic Orthodox Christian practice include eight blessings. It is sung to awaken mercy, spirituality and compassion.
Evening Star is exquisite and deeply moving. Since it’s sung in so many languages (Russian, Romanian, Georgian, Yiddish and Latvian, among others), its inspiring beauty can be enjoyed all year long. If you’ve heard the wondrous Trio Mediaeval, you have an idea of what to expect.
Various artists, Joy to the World, Putumayo. Christmas is celebrated around the world, and this compilation collects the music of those celebrations.
High points include The Mighty Diamonds’ “Frosty the Snowman” set to a Jamaican reggae beat; a striking treatment of “The First Noel” by Nossa Bossa Nova of Brazil and Arspop’s “Astro del Ciel.” The last song, an Italian version of “Silent Night,” is performed with traditional African musical influences.
Along with Leon Redbone’s familiar “Christmas Island,” American entries include the novelty “Christmas by the Bar-B-Que” by Louisiana’s Lynn August and Jan Luna’s “Winter Wonderland,” flavored by music of her Hawaiian home.
The Mavericks, Hey! Merry Christmas!, Thirty Tigers. Few singers in American music can approach lead singer Raoul Malo’s Roy Orbison-esque range and power. His rich tone and emotional context elevate everything that passes through his vocal chords. This Christmas recording is no exception as Malo and his superb band-mates fashion a memorable holiday jaunt through original songs that tap Western swing, country, snippets of ’50s rock and Latin sounds.
However, it’s hard to resist the band’s glowing treatment of two Christmas classics: “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” gets a distinctive and original treatment, while Irving Berlin’s “Happy Holiday” radiates joy.
But Malo really shines on his super-romantic interpretation of “Christmas for Me (Is You).” Things get a bit bawdy (but not raunchy) on “Santa Wants to Take You For a Ride,” with Malo’s tongue-in-cheek delivery.