- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

Aging pop singers such as Rod Stewart and Cyndi Lauper, who would otherwise be treading water in a slumping music in-

dustry, have found a compelling niche reworking pop standards for boomer audiences now old enough for soft rock but still unwilling to listen to their parents’ record collections.

Two seminal prog-rock bands of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, the Moody Blues and Jethro Tull, have tried a different tack: Christmas albums. Both bands quietly dropped holiday discs in the fall and used them as a vehicle not only for old carols but for new original material, as well.

All we need now is for Pink Floyd to re-form. In the meantime, we have the Moodies’ “December” and the “Jethro Tull Christmas Album.” They’re not half bad. Really.

The Moody Blues

December

Universal Records

The Moody Blues were born in the wrong epoch. They would’ve been more at home in the baroque 18th century. That said, it’s now the 21st, and the baggage of the rock era these days is light.

So why shouldn’t the Moodies make a Christmas album full of gooey lyrics, earnest singing and dainty Genoese orchestration?

The prog-rockers still boast three of four original members — singer-guitarist Justin Hayward, bassist John Lodge and drummer Graeme Edge. Weirdly, none is credited in the album’s liner notes; only a flutist and Danilo Madonia’s preproduction and keyboard work are mentioned.

Recorded in Italy, “December” is something of a novelty. There are few familiar carols. Of 11 songs, only Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” are seasonal standbys.

Actually, the familiar tune of Bach 147 is borrowed here, but packaged in new lyrics by Mr. Hayward and Mr. Lodge for “In the Quiet of Christmas Morning.” The pair also turn in five new compositions, each airy-fairy and unremarkable but soothingly likable enough and well-meant.

Mr. Hayward’s “Don’t Need a Reindeer” starts placidly and unpromisingly with ding-donging synthesizers and twee drum programming, with the singer waxing nostalgic about “when we were children.” Then it skips into a decent adult-contemporary rock song.

Like “Reindeer,” “December Snow” and Mr. Lodge’s “On This Christmas Day” are glorified love songs dressed in Christmas clothing. Each is sincere enough to wear the seasonal threads well.

When not reminiscing, Mr. Hayward issues chummy pleas for international understanding and brotherhood-of-man bromides. “Yes I believe / In a better world / And like the rest of us / I pray for peace on this Earth,” he sings on “Yes I Believe.”

“Where did the spirit of Christmas go / Lost in the desert / Or covered in snow,” Mr. Lodge sings on his “The Spirit of Christmas.”

“December” is not so much a Christmas album as it is a Christmassy album. There’s a difference, of course. Christmassy albums can be made any time of year, as the Moodies well know. They’ve been making them their entire career.

Jethro Tull

Jethro Tull Christmas Album

Fuel 2000 Records

Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson dipped his finger under a hot faucet recently when he criticized Americans, especially of the Midwestern variety, for being ultrapatriotic about displaying the flag.

What better way back into our good graces than with a Christmas album?

Well, the “Jethro Tull Christmas Album” came out some while before the Stars-and-Stripes swipe — in September, well ahead of the yuletide curve. And the project actually got under way last Christmas, when Mr. Anderson jumped at the chance of putting together a holiday curio for Tull-heads.

The end result is a surprisingly compelling hodgepodge of old Tull songs such as “A Christmas Song,” here converted into a graceful mandolin jig; new compositions such as “Birthday Card at Christmas,” cast in Tull’s archetypal art-rock mold; and rearrangements of traditionals such as “Greensleeves,” or “Greensleeved,” as this flute-happy rendition is called, post-Andersonization.

What does “Greensleeves” have to do with Christmas? Well, not much. But in Mr. Anderson’s imaginative judgment, there’s something Christmassy about it, and in this broadly conceived context, he’s right.

The context is stretched a bit too far with a new version of “Fire at Midnight,” which is Christmassy only inasmuch as it’s cold, the fireplace is hot, and Mr. Anderson is glad “to be back home with you.”

Let’s just say the “Tull Christmas Album” takes the scenic route for the holiday. For every questionable choice, there’s a sure winner, such as an instrumental reading of the carol, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” played beautifully, West Coast jazz-style, by Tull guitarist Martin Barre. (Mr. Barre’s acoustic work on the set-closing instrumental, “A Winter Snowscape,” is especially fine.)

The inclusion of a new take on the Tull classic, “Ring Out Solstice Bells,” makes more sense. For Mr. Anderson, the Christmas season is an equal-opportunity cultural event. As he puts it on Tull’s official Web site, Christmas is one “topic” among many in the Tull canon. “It’s really all the Winter Solstice and the re-birth of nature overlaid with the common sense and righteous teachings of Mr. C.,” he writes.

No, a “Tull Christmas” is not an orthodox Christmas. Whatever it is — and it is many things — it’ll make yours merrier.


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