- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001

8 Days of Christmas
(Music World Music/Columbia Records)
Although popular artists release Christmas albums, the female trio Destiny's Child actually produced one with a fresh sound.
The three ladies, who go by their first names Kelly, Beyonce and Michelle know what it takes to harmonize. What works for them on their regular albums works just as well with Christmas music on "8 Days of Christmas."
Destiny's Child is able to take Christmas favorites and apply their own style. But while some rhythms or lyrics change slightly, the group keeps the original state of a song intact. The numbers still sound like your favorites, but with an original twist.
The best song on the album is the last, "Opera of the Bells," a variation on the better known "Silver Bells." This piece is done a cappella and showcases the singing talent of Destiny's Child. Members' voices blend together so beautifully, the song is almost haunting. Jenine Zimmer

A Very Special Christmas, Vol. 5
(A&M; Records/Universal Music Group)
The big names in music have come together for "A Very Special Christmas, Vol. 5," the fifth in a series of albums that brings us Christmas favorites. Only this album won't be your favorite.
These albums have been superb in the past, with lots of variety and upbeat Christmas numbers. But the fifth falters with groups that are too loud for the holidays and destroy the original intent of classics.
The first track is "This Christmas (Hang All the Mistletoe)," sung by Macy Gray, who sounds as if she is drunk and out of breath, as usual. She is followed by Wyclef Jean, who manages to scream about "the projects" during a rendition of "Little Drummer Boy." Unfortunately, it is his first of two songs on the album.
The other problem is that several artists and songs are repeats from previous albums. Some good numbers come from Jon Bon Jovi and Sheryl Crow. But overall the spirit of the holidays is lost, and you would be better off purchasing one of the previous hits in the series. J.Z.

Now That's What I Call Christmas
(Universal Music Enterprises)
This two-disc CD set offers 36 songs from such a variety of artists that it has something for everyone.
Maybe you never thought about buying an album that included Frank Sinatra, the Beach Boys and Britney Spears, but you should consider it. This album does a great job of bringing together a mix of sounds and holiday favorites.
The first CD contains more upbeat songs such as "Sleigh Ride" by Ella Fitzgerald and "A Holly Jolly Christmas" by Burl Ives. The second is a bit more mellow, featuring "Do They Know It's Christmas?" by Band Aid and is perfect for when you're starting to doze off on the couch after a big holiday dinner. J.Z.

A Folk Song Christmas
(American Melody)
The 16 tracks on "A Folk Song Christmas" feature 12 artists throughout. The record has the folk feel of a singalong on some of the more famous carols, as well as some interesting arrangements and unexpected treats. Producer Phil Rosenthal appears on all but one of the tracks and he's done a good job with the booklet, which gives a background paragraph for each song. That's rarely found on Christmas recordings. Consider it a gift.
The record is filled mostly with traditional Christmas favorites "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen," "Silent Night," "Good King Wenceslas," and "Deck the Halls" among them. It must be hard to get away with producing a Christmas record without at least a few of these songs. But how many versions of "Little Drummer Boy" do we need, or can we stand?
Equally predictable is the bluegrass rendition of "Jingle Bells," and the closing track, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," which starts out almost painfully slowly and then kicks into bluegrass overdrive. These aren't bad arrangements, but they don't break new ground.
Can we expect a folk collection of carols to break new ground? Well, scattered amid the songs are a couple of gems. One track merges two Shetland Island fiddle tunes, "The Ewe Came to the Door A-Bleating/Christmas Day in the Morning," the latter of which has a neat old-timey feel provided by the doubling of mandolin and fiddle strains. The arrangement is lighthearted and way too short.
Later on comes a Georgia Sea Island call-and-response song in the black American tradition, "Mary Had a Baby," and the spiritual "Go Tell It on the Mountain," one of the most beautiful American carols ever written. The artists also perform a rare "Breakin' Up Christmas" Appalachian dance tune. If Santa is reading, could he produce a record that included more of the rarer tunes such as those found on this disc? The elves would be step-dancing around the North Pole.
Performers on this recording include Daniel Rosenthal, Naomi Sommers, Beth Sommers, Synia Carroll, Jeff McQuillan, Linda Schrade, Dave Kiphuth, Stacy Phillips, Dan Tressler, Debi Smith and Kate O'Brien.
The record is a good addition to a collection of Christmas music because it does a credible job with songs you know by heart, and because it presents some Christmas music that should get more attention. Jay Votel

Sugar Jones
Bring Your Own Insanity
(Sovereign Music)
Sugar Jones, the brainchild of guitarist-vocalist Chad Thevenot, assembles a funk collective with a rotating cast of band members that has only recently been resurrected in the D.C. area. Playing funk rock in the style of Sly and the Family Stone, the band releases this second album seven years after issuing a self-produced debut.
The highlight here is the dynamic bass playing of George Porter Jr., former bassist for New Orleans funk sensation the Meters. Mr. Porter's bass gives some of the more mediocre songs ("New Enemy" and "Rabbits Are Trouble") a much needed kick, with a skill level that surpasses that of other members of the group.
Mr. Porter's bass mixed with the wah-wah guitar line and gospel-singer backing vocals on "You Must Be Heaven" is one of the most inspired moments on the album and shows that Mr. Thevenot and company have promise. Much of the material, though, sounds as if it is somewhat watered down for the studio and would shine more in a live setting. D.C.'s rich heritage of go-go and funk often makes it difficult for newcomers to stand out, but Sugar Jones shows promise of carving out a reputation here. Derek Simmonsen

Legendary: The Steel Guitar Tribute to Eric Clapton
(CMH Records)
It's a bit surprising that CMH which has created a market niche for itself with country instrumental and bluegrass tribute albums to acts running the gamut from Creed to Creedence Clearwater (as well as to countless artists far less deserving) has waited until now to pay homage to Eric Clapton.
It's fitting for an axe-man extraordinaire like Mr. Clapton that a country tribute should emphasize the steel guitar, a terrifically versatile instrument lamentably in eclipse in most of what passes for country music today.
The four steel guitarists and 13 other musicians (playing mandolin, harmonica, saxophone and accordion) assembled here adeptly infuse the 11 Clapton songs with a country point of view.
"Legendary" is highly respectful of Mr. Clapton and his music, from "Promises," with its graceful steel slides and perky plucks and harmonica noodling, to the melancholy "Tears in Heaven," backed with David West's shimmering mandolin, to the hypnotic "I Can't Stand It," the arrangement that would suggest Carlos Santana if he played pedal steel. The CD has only two misfires, a percussion-propelled "Lay Down Sally," with which the musicians took a few too many creative liberties, and a soporific "Willie & the Hand Jive."
The inclusion of the latter is curious, inasmuch as my chief complaint about "Legendary" and it's not a minor one is the omission of "Layla," in either its early 1970s Derek and the Dominoes hard-rock anthem form or its early '90s acoustic makeover. If, as the promotional material for the disc suggests, Mr. Clapton has earned "a place in the pantheon of rock icons," then the failure to include "Layla" is, if not an unforgivable sin, at the very least sacrilegious. Peter Parisi

Tesla, The Best of Tesla: 20th Century Masters, the Millennium Collection
(Geffen Records)
For a brief moment in 1990 Tesla sounded like the future. The Sacramento, Calif., quintet was among a handful of hair-metal bands that had thrown off the mousse and mascara which fueled Poison and discarded the muscular frat-boy armor forged by Van Halen and unabashedly explored a sensitive, emotional, 1960s-influenced rock sound not heard since the death of Led Zeppelin a decade earlier.
The well-reviewed "Great Radio Controversy," released in 1989, vaulted Tesla from the ranks of Bon Jovi knockoffs to potential superstardom. Tesla followed up with a live remake of the classic "Signs," which nearly cemented the band's following with the late 1980s neo-hippie movement.
But all that changed with the 1991 release of "Nevermind," in which Nirvana smelled more like teen spirit than Tesla, Extreme or any of the emerging sensitive-guy metal bands. After a decade of struggle, Tesla found itself alongside the Soviet Union on the ash heap of history.
Geffen's best-of package part of Universal's has-been-laden 20th Century Masters series does a good job of chronicling the rise and sudden plunge into irrelevancy of Tesla. Unfortunately, the package is for metal completists only. Basically, Tesla's place in history is marked by only two songs "Love Song" and "Signs." For some reason, Geffen chose to put a version of "Signs" on this album that is needlessly profanity-laced and is so muddy and poorly engineered that it sounds as if it were recorded in the parking lot outside the concert hall.
The high point of the collection is a late-era song called "Mama's Fool," which shows a cheeky humor and swaggering blues style. It is a small glimpse of what the 1990s would have sounded like in a Nirvana-free parallel universe. Sean Scully

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