This year, however, is a bit different. I've received more tribute CDs related to September 11 than festive holiday ones. Nevertheless, holidays are all about tradition, so I've decided to plod onward and simply report on the handful of holiday discs--and even a couple of these are a stretch--sent to me without exclusionary prejudice (but with a critic's pen, natch).
Austin's Asylum Street Spankers can do just about anything and make it right. The band specializes in a long-gone sound that combines down-home porch-twang with vaudeville showmanship, its songs witty without being too brainy. To wit: Its last album was a collection of odes to liquor and drugs, a delicious juxtaposition of ancient-sounding tunes as sung by an ensemble of modern-day barflies/stoners. The biggest disappointment in A Christmas Spanking (Bloodshot), then, is the fact that there's only one original Spankers tune here (along with a Spankerized adaptation titled "Red Nosed Reindeer Blues"). Instead, we get a live performance of traditional Xmas classics from "Merry Christmas, Baby" to the Hawaiian staple "Mere Kalikimaka" to Vince Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" (and thankfully, a lack of songs we're all sick of hearing--"Blue Chrismas" instead of "Jingle Bells," etc.). Still, it's more fun than 99 percent of the Christmas albums out there, one of the few that'll be as appealing to mom and dad as it will be to the kids. With the Spankers' pedigree, though, it should have been even better.
The home-brewed Arizona for the Holidays gathers talent from all over Tucson for one excellent cause: All proceeds from the sale of the CD benefit the abused and neglected children of Casa de los Niños here in town. The project is the brainchild of 23-year-old Rodney Glassman (the self-described "tallest, Jewish, singing, hockey-playing Eagle Scout in Arizona"), who has brought together the Tucson Boys Chorus and the Sons of Orpheus, as well as contributions from Grayson Hirst, Julie Anne, Cantor Ivor Lichterman and Rob Boone for a collection of traditionals (including "Little Drummer Boy" and "O Holy Night"), modern classics (renditions of Mel Tormé's "The Christmas Song" and John and Yoko's "Happy Xmas [War is Over]), a (presumed) Hanukkah tune ("Al Hanissim"), and a pair of originals, the playful "Arizona for the Holidays" ("I want to be in Arizona for the holidays / Where chilly's spelled with one 'l' and one 'e'") and the more traditional-sounding "A Desert Christmas." The performances throughout are solid, and the disc would make a fine soundtrack for Christmas-morning giftwrap shredding. You can pick up a copy at Casa de los Niños.
If grandma has more tattoos than you do, you might want to consider 38 Special's A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night (CMC International), in which the leather-clad Southern rockers tackle six holiday classics alongside four self-penned seasonal tunes, for the ultimate hessian family gathering. The first misstep occurs with the sacrilegious decision to use a drum machine on "The Little Drummer Boy"--straight to hell with ye, heretics!--but two of the originals here are actually kinda charming in that '80s leather-clad-rockers-being-earnest way: "Hallelujah, It's Christmas!" and "A Wild-Eyed Christmas Night" are shit-kickin' holiday anthems that'll keep the trailer rockin' 'til the hangover sets in. But the other pair err grossly in the direction of sugar-sap balladry that will have even the most adult-contemporary-fervent among the homestead cringing. Still, there's a serious lack of Xmas CDs aimed directly at biker gangs, and this one fills that void suitably.
The jazzy blues of perennial Tucson favorite Lisa Otey is always a treat, and while her new CD, Hard Workin' Woman (Owl's Nest Productions), isn't really a Christmas collection, tossed in among the eight originals and four covers is a newly penned ode to everyone's favorite ass-kicking Warrior Princess, "Xena for Xmas," which concludes with Otey begging for her one Christmas wish: "Santa, if there's just one thing you give me / Oh, let it please be the episode where Xena conquers both heaven and hell / Just to be with Gabrielle." Other original highlights include the title track, a barrelhouse duet with blues belter Candye Kane; "Maybe We'll Be Lucky Again," which you'd swear was a Rodgers/Hart tune from the 1940s if Otey's name weren't listed as sole writer; and the hip-shakin' gospel of "You Got a Friend Right Here." And as always, Otey's takes on her cover selections are dead-on, especially in her gorgeously haunted reading of "My Funny Valentine." To be released on December 15, the disc makes for a tasty stocking-stuffer for the discriminate listener.
And while we're at it, another non-Christmas benefit CD, this one for the nu-rocker of the clan, is 96.1 KLPX-FM's Desert Diamonds--Southern Arizona Rock, which culls one track from each of the participants in the station-sponsored Battle of the Bands held earlier this year at Desert Diamond Casino. The disc sports 13 tunes by such familiar names as Tongue Dried Sun, Nevershine, Ithica, Ricky P & the Blues Monsoon, Single File Noise, and PH8 (the battle's champeen), as well as newcomers like Seven Days of May, Gorilla Behind Bars and Invictus. In addition to being a nifty sampler of harder-edged Tucson music circa 2001, the disc also serves as a fund-raiser for local charities Primavera Services, House of Neighborly Services and Marshall's Home for Men. At a mere $9.61, the CD is the gift that gives twice, to the one who unwraps it under the tree, as well as to a trio of worthwhile charities.