- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2000

VARIOUS ARTISTSChristmas: Our Gifts to You (Against the Flow)

The gifts unwrapped on this album are standard Christmas songs as you've never heard them before. If you are looking for standard renditions, you won't find them here. What you will find is excellent musicianship — from vocals to arrangements to quality production — on all 12 tracks.

Six members of the Winans gospel dynasty, including Mom and Pop Winans, have separate cuts on this album. Mom sings "What Child Is This" in a clear sweet soprano, and Pop sings "Go Tell It on the Mountain" in old-school gospel often heard in black Baptist churches and reminiscent of the Five Blind Boys' style.

Marvin Winans leads off the album with "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" in a soulful arrangement like you've never heard before. It only gets better as Angie Winans lends her sterling vocals to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," and CeCe Winans sings "O Come, All Ye Faithful," in the uniquely Winans gospel style, with background vocals by the Katinas as arranged by gospel singer Darwin Hobbs ("Vertical" on EMI Gospel records).

The most traditional performance on this album is "Silent Night" as sung by Ann McCrary, whose vocals and intonation remind one of the late, gospel great Mahalia Jackson.

This eclectic mix includes a jazz rendition of "Angels We Have Heard on High," featuring Kirk Whalum on saxophone and Kevin Whalum. Kevin sings the opening scats a la Al Jarreau, before the sax improvisation gets under way. It doesn't drift too far afield and makes for wonderful listening.

The Rev. Victor Caldwell offers a spoken word explanation of "The True Meaning of Christmas," which he says is based on John 3:16 — "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life."

Darwin Hobbs, whose style and intonation echo that of Luther Vandross, comes back with "Little Drummer Boy," which sticks pretty closely with the traditional script.

If you don't have the Christmas spirit, this CD surely will put you in the mood, unless you are a total, unreformed Scrooge.

— Marlene L. JohnsonGIPSY KINGSVolare: The Very Best of the Gipsy Kings(Nonesuch Records)

You love the Eagles' "Hotel California" but are sick of hearing it? Listen to the Gipsy Kings' version of it on their "The Very Best of the Gipsy Kings" collection.

The Spanish performance is a beautiful piece that retains the classic sound of the original, but adds a zesty, raw and romantic flavor.

The recently released album is a two-disc set of songs that compiles tunes from the band's 12-year history. Among them are "Tu Quieres Volver," "Bamboleo," "Bem, Bem Maria" and "Djobi Djoba."

Some of the tracks are of live performances, such as "La Dona" and "Sin Ella." Also included are the group's version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way," which is titled "A Mi Manera" in Spanish, and "I've Got No Strings," from the 1940 Disney classic "Pinocchio."

The Gipsy Kings' hoarse singing is loud and passionate, and the guitars are aggressive and enthralling.

The album makes a great holiday gift not only for fans, but for music lovers who never have heard the Gipsy Kings before.— Kristina StefanovaRUBEN GONZALEZChanchullo(Nonesuch Records)

Ruben Gonzalez's "Chanchullo" may blend in with the rest of the songs that have come out of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, but that doesn't diminish the appeal of the 83-year-old pianist.

The record's old Cuban jazz songs such as "Quizas, Quizas" and "El Bodeguero" introduce the listener to Mr. Gonzalez's energetic and fluid playing. His long love affair with the instrument is apparent, and the familiarity with which he plays is easily discerned.

"La Lluvia," the rain, is definitely the best on the record. It's an experimental number that goes back and forth between congas and the piano. It's a creative, bold exploration of the two instruments that creates a great piece.

"Chanchullo" is not strictly an instrumental record; it features guest vocals from Ibrahim Ferrer (another Buena Vista Social Club star) and the Senegalese singer Cheikh Lo.

The second part of the record is a collection of bolero-type songs that remind one of days spent sitting by the sea, hearing the waves crash and sipping Ernest Heminguay's favorite kind of daiquiries.

Overall, "Chanchullo" is not just for Cuban jazz lovers, but for anyone who appreciates skillful piano playing. — K.S.WHEATUSWheatus (Columbia)

You've heard that song. You know, that song. It's the one that your radio station has picked a given week to play a few dozen times a day, the one that after you bang your head against a wall still won't stop permanent rotation in your brain.

Last month, that song was called "Teenage Dirtbag." It's about a poor, misfit kid in high school who loves Iron Maiden and pines for an unreachable high school goal — the popular girl.

The singer himself sounds like a girl. He's got a high, distinctive voice that brims with the "Why me?" frustration of adolescence.

The rest of the songs on Wheatus' self-titled debut CD hammer that frustration home with goofy lyrics and poppy tunes.

Most of the tracks adhere to a formula: Singer Brendan Brown sings fairly softly, then brings his high-pitched growl to a fever pitch during the chorus.

The songs are a little too silly to take his angst seriously — especially since he's past adolescence himself — but they're a bubble-gum, fun listen.— Julie HymanDREAMWORKS STUDIO ORCHESTRA"The Contender" soundtrack (Citadel Records)

Even if you haven't seen the movie "The Contender," you will enjoy it. Composer and conductor Larry Groupe is full of talent, and other producers should be asking him to do their next films.

This instrumental soundtrack is sometimes sad and sentimental, sometimes powerful and inspiring, and sometimes patriotic. But no matter what, you can always feel the emotion in Mr. Groupe's music.

This album is more than a CD that accompanies a movie; it is a work of art on its own.— Jenine M. ZimmersVARIOUS ARTISTS"Meet the Parents" soundtrack(DreamWorks Records)

Unless you are a die-hard fan of Ben Stiller and his latest comedy, don't bother with the soundtrack for "Meet the Parents." There's nothing terrible about this album. It's just that the instrumentals sound like so many others that have been used as backdrops to physical comedy.

The album's main song is "A Fool in Love," written and performed by Randy Newman. This number is decent and even a little humorous, but not one you'll be hearing over and over on the Top 40 anytime soon. "Meet the Parents" music won't make you cringe, but it won't offer anything new and exciting either. — J.Z.ENYAA Day Without Rain(Reprise Records)

As the saying goes: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Musical artist Enya didn't with her latest album, "A Day Without Rain."

Alhough Enya hasn't released an album in five years, her recognizable style is still there and as good as ever. Her soft voice is full of grace.

This is the kind of music you want to put on after a long day. Each and every song on the CD delivers the notes and harmony Enya fans expect. "A Day Without Rain" proves why Enya's musical career has lasted 12 years and made her, according to her promotion material, Ireland's top-selling artist of all time. — J.Z.YESHouse of Yes: Live From the House of Blues(Beyond/BMG)

Yes, this is the same prog-rock band from England that scored some decent, if long-winded, hits the 1970s and hit it big with 1983's "Owner of a Lonely Heart." Yes, the prog rockers are still making music, releasing the studio alum "The Ladder" in 1999. And yes, it doesn't mean what they're doing three decades later will please hard-core fans.

Yes' latest live album, "House of Yes: Live From the House of Blues," has very little life. Jon Anderson's voice, full of pep in the past, seems flat here. He just doesn't have the ability to energize crowds anymore. The four original members — Mr. Anderson, Steve Howe, Chris Squire and Alan White — are joined in the latest incarnation of the ever-changing band by producer-guitarist Bill Sherwood and keyboardist Igor Khoroshev, both of whom joined the band in the late 1990s. Unfortunately, the lineup doesn't float through its psychedelic songs like the days of old.

Also disappointing — but not unexpected — is the song list. With many of the 15 tracks on the two-CD set extending beyond 10 minutes and a reliance on songs from the so-so "The Ladder," few old favorites show up here. Sure, "Owner of a Lonely Heart" and "Roundabout" close the show, but classics such as "Time and a Word" receive just a gloss over.— Scott SilversteinRIDERS IN THE SKYWoody's Roundup(Walt Disney Records)

The second album based on Disney-Pixar's "Toy Story 2" movie is a "rootin'-tootin' collection" of the toy cowboy's favorite songs. It is a must-have for cowboy wannabes and young fans of the popular children's movie.

The cowboy group Riders in the Sky assumes the roles of the movie's animated stars Woody; Jessie, the yodelin' cowgirl; and the prospector. The group is quick with the fiddle and a tad too generous with the yodeling.

By far the gem of this tribute to the make-believe West is the sixth track, which offers a quick lesson in meeting and greeting people the cowboy way — with a "Hey Howdy Hey." The peppy sing-along is sure to have little listeners walking bowlegged.

"Home on the Range," "You've Got a Friend" and the title track, "Woody's Roundup," are mellow toe-tappers that conjure up fond memories of the toy's adventures with his owner, Andy.

However, movie nostalgia turns to nausea when the CD takes a yodeling turn for the worst in "How Does She Yodel?" Similarly, "Prospector Polka" dishes an overwhelming dose of polka and yodeling.

This cute album will be a hit with young listeners, yet parents of junior cowboys and cowgirls may want to ride off into the sunset whenever this CD is spinning on the stereo. — Melanie NotoDOVESLost Souls (Astralwerks)

The British group Doves open its debut album with a long, brooding instrumental track, a daring move for a group striving to be noticed as standouts amid competition from such fellow Brits as Oasis and Radiohead.

The trio of Jimi Goodwin on vocals and bass, Jez Williams on guitar and twin brother Andy Williams on drums layers its sound with a thick, bass-heavy melancholy that runs through the entire album without ever grabbing the listener's attention.

"Shoegazers" is a term often given to similar dark-sounding British and American bands, so named because they stand on-stage motionless and staring at the ground while they play. Never before has the term had quite the same relevance, as with Doves. Their depressing sound often is quite beautiful, as on "Sea Song" and the melodic instrumental "Reprise," but the music leaves one motionless, not sure how to react.

The Doves' sound diverges occasionally into something more upbeat, as on the blues-heavy "The Man Who Told Everything" and the teary ballad "The Cedar Room," but this is not enough to save a depressing record.

To say the Doves are venturing into territory already well-covered is an understatement — famous British groups such as James, Oasis and the Stone Roses have made it big from the same home city of Manchester. While the Doves are not carbon copies of these groups, they are quite similar to other big British names, such as the Verve, Manic Street Preachers and Blur.

It's one thing to be driven by other bands as influences and quite another to mimic their styles to the point of repetition. The passion behind the professed pain is not evident on "Lost Souls," which makes the album lifeless, a lost soul of its own trying to find an audience.— Derek Simmonsen

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