Sounds of the season



In the Reader's latest installment of In Rotation, Rabbit Factory Records honcho and East of Edens Soul Express DJ John Ciba chose as one of his three obsessions Swingin' Snowflakes Jingle Jangle Jazz Party 2011 Christmas Mix, the latest in a series of collections of obscure holiday music assembled for friends by Jam's Andy Cirzan. I second Ciba's recommendation—Cirzan's mixes, with their collisions of weirdness and sincerity, are always a blast, and he's a passionate music fan with wide ears who covers plenty of stylistic turf (though this year's effort is all jazz). This is a guy who, while working at Ravinia, booked the Art Ensemble of Chicago to open for Wynton Marsalis, and who set up what might turn out to be Anthony Braxton's final Chicago-area performance back in 1989. He also brought John Zorn's quartet Masada to Chicago for the first time for a knockout show at Schubas in 1993. You can hear Cirzan tonight, along with fellow holiday-music enthusiast John Soss, as guests on WXRT's Electric Company from 10 PM-midnight. Cirzan will also appear on this weekend's Sound Opinions, and on Thu 12/22 both Cirzan and Soss will host a holiday-music program on WDCB from 7 to 9 PM.

A few weeks ago I picked up A Dreamer's Christmas (Tzadik), a holiday album billed to Zorn—a devout Jew with a reputation as a confrontational cynic (which he doesn't live up to here). Zorn doesn't play on it, but he arranged all of the familiar tunes ("Winter Wonderland," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town") and wrote two originals. The strong group on the album includes guitarist Marc Ribot, tuned percussionist Kenny Wollesen, drummer Joey Baron, keyboardist Jamie Saft, bassist Trevor Dunn, and percussionist Cyro Baptista; Mike Patton (Faith No More, Fantomas, Mr. Bungle) lends his sleazy vocal stylings to a version of "The Christmas Song." With the exception of the occasional post-Derek Bailey guitar and violent keyboard clusters, it's all extremely tasteful, in a mellow, mainstream jazz style—to be perfectly honest it sounds like music you'd hear playing in the background at Williams-Sonoma. You can check it for yourself at the NPR site, which is streaming the album in its entirety.

Schmaltz and nostalgia are staples of holiday music, and Nashville singer Mandy Barnett calls on both on Winter Wonderland (Rounder), originally issued last year by Cracker Barrel and sold only through their stores. Barnett made a couple of strong countrypolitan-style albums in the 90s, but she's known best for her longtime role in the Nashville production of Always . . . Patsy Cline. The Cline influence on both of the albums is huge, just as it is on this string-laden Christmas collection, which also recalls the holiday hits of Brenda Lee here and there. There's some cloying electronic keyboard on a couple of tracks, but otherwise this album sounds like it could've been made in the mid-60s, right down to the repertoire. Below you can listen to the title track.

The good folks at Portland's Hometapes label have released their third-annual holiday collection, featuring all-new recordings from artists on their roster—Breathe Owl Breathe, Brad Laner, All Tiny Creatures (who cover the Mannheim Steamroller version of "Deck the Halls")—as well as from a bunch of pals who make music for other labels. Hometapes puts no parameters on the music; it only asks the artists "to make a song for the holidays—whatever that meant to them." As usual with sprawling efforts like this, the 21-track The Never Ending Beginning: A Hometapes Holiday Album is a mixed bag, both in style and quality, but considering it's free, the price is right. (You can download the album for free, but the label also asks you to consider making a donation to Heifer Project International.) There are new versions of classic songs and hymns, original indie-rock tunes with holiday themes, and some pieces that seem connected to the season only in the most superficial of ways—like the jingle bells that interrupt an otherwise brooding instrumental track by Collections of Colonies of Bees. I'm partial to the broken-down version of Ryuichi Sakamoto's "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence"—which doesn't really qualify as a holiday tune in my book—by Roberto C. Lange (aka Helado Negro), which you can check out below. Other highlights are by Doug Paisley, Jon Mueller, and Jon Minor & Jim Schoenecker.

Mandy Barnett, "Winter Wonderland"

Roberto C. Lange, "Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence"

Today's playlist:

Jean-Paul Collard-Neven, Fleeting Music (Sub Rosa)
Kyle Brenders, Ways (Porter)
Empty Cage Quartet & Soletti Besnard, Take Care of Floating (Rude Awakening)
Liars, Sisterworld (Mute)
Tirogo, Float (QDK Media)

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