Kristin Hersh
The Holy Single

On this four-song EP, Throwing Muses singer/songwriter/guitarist Kristin Hersh goes solo, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar with little additional instrumentation, much as she did on her fine -- and overlooked -- 1994 album Hips and Makers. Here she applies her clear, unaffected voice to a quartet of songs that share a loose religious orientation. Hersh brings a hard-strumming, coffeehouse feel to her version of the traditional hymn/folksong "Amazing Grace," and dives headlong into the Carter Family's oft-recorded "Can the Circle Be Unbroken," convincingly conveying that song's theme of maintaining faith in the face of acute personal loss. Likewise she maneuvers her way comfortably -- if a tad too reverently -- through "Jesus Christ," written by Alex Chilton for the final Big Star album. But she's most at home -- and most effective -- charging through her father's "Sinkhole," an amusing parable about how sin has contributed to the physical degradation of the planet itself, as manifested in the mother of all sinkholes ("It's summer in Winter Haven/And the Earth's she's cavin' in . . . Satan stole the landscape/It was gone with the morning light"). Nice.

-- Michael Yockel

Various Artists
Happy Birthday, Baby Jesus
(Sympathy for the Record Industry)

No, this is not an attempt by the Musical Moral Majority to put the "Christ" back in Christmas. Instead, this sleazy little collection offers a bunch of trashed-up holiday standards and new N”el nuggets from the punk-rock underbelly, with a splattering of garage junk thrown in for variety. An expanded and digitalized version of two previously issued vinyl-only EPs on the Los Angeles-based Sympathy label, the 28-track Happy Birthday has something for nearly every holiday celebrant: the pissed-off shoppers and bummed-out loners, the pie-eyed romantics and frost-bitten cynics, and the eggnog-addled fanatics who just can't hear too many versions of "Little Drummer Boy."

For the most part, the cynics and loners steal the set (although the Bomboras' surfed-up "Drummer Boy" is a lot of fun). Rocket from the Crypt's "Cancel Christmas" and Fireworks' "Last on Santa's List" are both heart-ripping slices of melancholy, and El Vez's "Feliz Navi-nada" is the so-called Mexican Elvis's only worthwhile song. (Yes, Virginia, it's even better than his "You Ain't Nothin' but a Chihuahua.") Even dullards such as the Supersuckers rise to the occasion, with the nicely raving "We'll Call It Christmas." Elsewhere, the spacy-surf collective Man or Astro-Man? twangs out on "Frosty the Snowman," the New Bomb Turks steamroll over the Darlene Love chestnut "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," and the Mono Men drag the season through the gutter on the appropriately grimy "Christmastime Is for Sinners."

The diamond at the bottom of the stocking is the Devil Dogs' breakneck version of Roy Wood's "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday," which balances unabashed sentimentality with the kind of sloppy, bar-band irreverence missing from the ex-Move man's 1977 original. And if you want to add a touch of Halloween to your Christmas celebration, cue up the AMF's "Mr. Blue Xmas (Cut Your Head on Christmas)," a lovely aural essay on holiday loneliness and murder compliments of this ragtag Memphis ensemble.

-- John Floyd

Various Artists
You Sleigh Me!

Various Artists
It's Finally Christmas

Christmas cheer knows no boundaries, and neither does Christmas marketing, which helps explain why everyone from Wayne Newton to Tibetan Buddhist monks has put out a Christmas album. So if something as odd as Hawaiian ukulele music can be peddled as an acceptable soundtrack for decorating trees and praying for snow, why not open up the holiday to the ultra-hip sounds of today's so-called alternative rockers? At least two new compilations take aim at this new Generation X-mas demographic: You Sleigh Me!, a spotty pseudo-alternative set on Atlantic, and It's Finally Christmas, released on the noted indie label Tim/Kerr Records.

The former is riddled with unimaginative covers such as Tori Amos's "Little Drummer Boy" and Victoria Williams's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," either of which will make you nod off like a babe in a manger; originals by Juliana Hatfield and Collective Soul are no more enlivening. Fortunately the set brightens up during jazzman James Carter's out-of-place but very welcome bebop rendition of "White Christmas," then warms us with the minor-chord melancholy of Everything But the Girl's "25th December." You Sleigh Me!'s most entertaining track, however, comes via Jill Sobule, whose "Merry Christmas from the Family" paints a hilariously detailed home-for-the-holiday sketch, complete with drunken white-trash kin and trips to the convenience store for bean dip, tampons, and Diet Rite soda.

It's Finally Christmas boasts a decidedly more underground feel, with a cast of mostly Pacific Northwestern indie-label bands. Featured are two versions of the ubiquitous "Little Drummer Boy" (from Dandy Warhols and Hitting Birth) and "The Grinch," rendered by both the Whirlees and Caveman Shoestore, along with guitar-distorted carols by Pond ("Gloria in Excelsis Deo") and Sugarboom ("Ave Maria"). The remaining tracks offer original and defiantly skewed season's greetings. Dead Moon's tribute to frantic preparations ("Christmas Rush"), Ray & Glover's twelve-bar blues threat to Santa ("I'm Mad at the Fatman"), Iceburg Slim's holiday-in-prison lament ("Christmas Dressed in Blue"), and New Bad Thing's ode to penniless ingenuity ("Shoplifting You Something for Christmas") are all great yuletide fun. And for Christmastime, how much more alternative can you get than Calamity Jane's klezmer-a-billy "Hanukkah Song"?

-- Roni Sarig

Magnetic Fields
Get Lost

Gay singer/songwriter/musician Stephin Merritt, the mastermind behind Magnetic Fields, uses computer technology to twist traditional song elements into sensual soundscapes. In interviews he most often cites oldies Bach and ABBA as influences, and points out the deceptive simplicity of their compositions. Intricate melodies hold Merritt's verse-chorus-verse songs together, but odd chord changes tweak the listener. Each track on Get Lost, Magnetic Fields's fifth album, is distorted and heavily layered with digital (drum machines, synthesizers, samplers) and analog (guitars, strings) instruments, creating an almost claustrophobic effect.

Merritt's lyrics intensify this effect. Many of the songs here are about escape. Fame is liberation for a suburbanite in "Famous." In "Smoke and Mirrors," Merritt uses a rolling rhythm similar to the one heard in Gary Numan's 1980 synth hit "Cars" to express isolation, confessing that "I don't know the stations' names/I'll spend my life on this train." The track this lonely train rides is time, which serves as an instrument of death ("The Desperate Things You Made Me Do") and the key to truth ("When You're Old and Lonely"). And as time steers Merritt through his moonlit landscape, he continuously waves goodbye -- to what is, what was, and what could be -- unable to change his course.

The only respite from this destiny is romance, which, although fleeting and intensely private, stops the clock. In "Don't Look Away," a quick cruise takes on monumental proportions: "The moments in your gaze," Merritt softly sings, "have been turning to days in my heart." The freedom of summer is just out of reach on the jangly "Love Is Lighter than Air," in which he calls time "sin and illness," compares it to an "unforgivable mime," and then concludes that "our one last chance is to climb into blimps of romance." Summer, however, is endless in Southern California, and in "You and Me and the Moon," Merritt transcends both place and time by describing a schoolgirlish crush on a Sixties surfer boy wearing a Pendleton shirt.

-- Jeffery Kennedy

Thomas Tirino
Lecuona: Piano Music, Vol. 1

I don't know if Ernesto Lecuona y Casado (1895-1963) was Cuba's best classical composer. He almost certainly was its most successful one, however. Lecuona had an international career as a composer and a pianist -- he wrote film scores for Hollywood and musicals for Broadway -- but he remained a resident of Cuba for nearly all of his life, founding the Havana Symphony Orchestra and serving the cultural needs of his country in many other ways. He left Cuba in 1960 and died in the United States three years later. Since then his fame has faded everywhere but along the margins of the classical music scene. Now Bis, a small but adventurous and influential label from frozen Sweden, wants to change that. Their planned series of Lecuona's complete piano music will encompass five or six CDs; if the discs all are as much fun as this one, Bis should have a hit on its hands.

This first volume includes three Lecuona standards: "Canto Siboney," "Andaluza" (a.k.a. "The Breeze and I"), and "Malague*a," from the Andalucia suite. There's also a splendid ten-minute Rapsodia Negra for piano and orchestra (here, the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Bartos), consisting of a potpourri of tunes from three of Lecuona's zarzuelas. Lecuona's music, always tuneful, always rhythmic, sounds like what Granados's and Chopin's hypothetical love child would have written if he had grown up performing in both Carnegie and Radio City Music halls. Tirino, an expert on this composer and his music, does a bang-up job with these pieces. Sometimes he bangs a little too hard, but no one can accuse his Lecuona of being mushy. As always with this label, the sound is audiophile quality. Bis is concert slang in Spanish for "Play it again!" That's exactly what I did after first hearing this CD.

-- Raymond Tuttle

Iain Ballamy
All Men Amen
(B&W Music)

From its cover photo of a strange, white-painted aboriginal figure in front of a tall glass building to the music contained within, All Men Amen is not at all what it seems. There is a core of playful dissension at the heart of British saxophonist Iain Ballamy's wonderful, deceptively melodic compositions. Joined by an equally witty and richly musical ensemble comprising Django Bates on piano, Steve Watts on double bass, and Martin France on drums, Ballamy displays a wry, lyrical tone on a variety of saxophones.

The songs themselves are cinematic and cover a variety of moods, from the captivating title track to the wistful "Blennie" to the magnificently Monk- and Mingus-like "Haunted Swing," the latter a ghostly and dreamy excursion enhanced by snippets of conversation and Ballamy's banshee-wailing sax. Bates shines throughout the set, particularly on the gorgeous intro to "Axaca." France's exquisite touch on snare and cymbals, and Watt's unobtrusive but stately bass (dig the resonant vamp that thunders throughout "Meadow") provide the perfect accompaniment.

A pleasant listen at first, but there's also plenty going on beneath the surface of this sly little record -- enough, even, to interest fans of all creative musical efforts, not just those of jazz. A gem.

-- Bob Weinberg

Lydia Lunch and Exene Cervenka
Rude Hieroglyphics

Allen Tate, the distinguished poet and scholar, is credited with the following wise dictum: "Out of arguments with ourselves we make poetry. Out of arguments with others we make rhetoric."

By this standard, Exene Cervenka and Lydia Lunch are plainly not poets. Over the course of this hourlong spoken-word rant, recorded just up the road in Orlando, these two grumpy punkettes say precious little about their own foibles while spewing scads of scalding invective at the bogeymen of our epoch: big bidness, the CIA, the Vatican, lawyers, doctors, and, lest we forget, O.J. Simpson. The targets may be predictable and the tone relentlessly strident, but the actual verse on this disc is quite accomplished. Both Cervenka and Lunch are exuberant storytellers, able to couch their complaints in surprisingly eloquent outbursts.

One can hardly quibble with Cervenka's assessment of the current cultural vibe: "We're really lazy and we're all in denial," she mutters. "We're watching everyone else's trial and pretending they won't ever come for us." Her take on Catholicism's historical legacy is equally deft: "They took all their statues, all their religion, they took everything that meant something and burnt it or buried it or stuck it down in the basement of the Vatican."

Lunch favors a more in-your-face style. She fantasizes, for instance, about stalking O.J., physically abusing him, forcing him to get breast implants, then slashing these to ribbons. One of the bright spots of the evening is Lunch's vicious response to a would-be heckler. "If you got something to say, wait till we're done, you big-mouth-small-dick-no-brain motherfucker," she barks, to wild applause.

It's doubtful the tandem's liberal agenda would go over quite as well in Miami. See, they seem to have this thing for Fidel Castro. "He's way too fucking cool for the CIA," Cervenka gushes at one point. "I love that man!" Not exactly deeply researched commentary. But then the joy of spoken word lies in its linguistic vibrance, and on this count Lunch and Cervenka rarely disappoint. You may not agree with what they're saying, but you'll be compelled to listen.

-- Steven Almond


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