I really adore Christmas music. “Silent Night” rocks. Nat King Cole’s version of the Mel Tormé-penned “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)” is unbelievably cool. Don’t even start me on Andy William’s fiery “Clang, clang, clang went the trolley” interpretation of Kay Thompson’s “Jingle Bells.” It tops Streisand’s (and that’s sayin’ something).
A good Christmas album is hard to find, especially a new one. Who needs a Jessica Simpson Christmas? Il Divo: The Christmas Collection? Yikes. Sure, I expect production values on Christmas albums to be slightly antiseptic and slick but in the last few years, most new Christmas releases have been as exciting as a three-pound fruitcake.
This year we get a new holiday classic. Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s The McGarrigle Christmas Hour is an extraordinarily deep and personal release. Just like their 1998 release The McGarrigle Hour, it features traditional, original and contemporary songs. Better yet it includes most of the same bunch of family and friends: Kate’s kids Rufus and Martha, Anna’s husband Dane and kids Lily and Sylvan Lanken, Emmylou Harris and the appropriately named Chaim Tannenbaum.
All 14 tracks are winners. “Seven Joys Of Mary” starts the album with the whole group singing to accompanying organ and pennywhistle. It feels more elementary school choir than church choir. “Il est ne/ça Bergers” are traditional songs sung so beautifully by Anna, Kate, Martha and Lily, they blow the Von Trapp Family Singers out of the water.
Rufus and Martha’s rendition of “Some Children See Him” is destined to become a new Christmas classic. It’s goose-bump good. The song deals with child-ren’s perceptions of baby Jesus. “Some children see him lily white/ The infant Jesus born this night.” “Some Children see Him bronzed and brown,” “almond-eyed… as dark as they.” It’s the melody, Ted Mennier’s piano playing and Rufus and Martha’s utterly gorgeous voices weaving the narrative gently, gracefully that takes the song to classic status.
Everyone gets a song or two to sing supported by the McGarrigle family chorus and simple folksy arrangements. Kate and Anna only lead on two tracks. Kate sings on “Wise Men” and Anna on “Port Starboard Sox.” The album also includes Rufus’s Gap ad version of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?”
The album has such an intimate cozy feel. It’s like you’re visiting a loved one’s family for the first time and they warmly embrace you with open arms, open mouths and open hearts.
There’s contentment and quiet normalcy throughout Kate Bush’s new two-disc release, Aerial. It’s been 12 years since we’ve heard any music from her. Now 47, she’s as old as Madge. During this long absence, Bush has dealt with the death of her mother and the birth and care of her son Bertie.
She is now a domestic goddess living an “ordinary” life, who makes music when she can. There’s washing to be done, meals to prepare. You sense her happiness and joy but her new music is light, precious and dated, devoid of fast-paced 21st-century trappings. It’s as beautiful and as boring as wind in the face. Birds chirp, Bertie coos and the wash goes “Slooshy, sloshy, slooshy, sloshy.”
Aerial’s first chapter (disc one) is called A Sea Of Honey. It’s an eccentric mix of subject matter with songs about Elvis (“King Of The Mountain”), Joan Of Arc (“Joanni”), a number-obsessed man (“Pi”) and Bush’s son (“Bertie”).
The best of the lot is “Mrs Bartolozzi.” Bush’s voice is all sullen and serious. It’s just her and a piano. She’s watching the clothes in her washing machine. “I watched them going ’round and ’round,” she sings. “My blouse wrapping itself around your trousers.” It’s a surprisingly sexy song of longing and loss. Splendid.
The second chapter (disc two) is called A Sky Of Honey. It’s a moody conceptual piece that follows a woman at an ocean-side artists’ colony. From late afternoon to sunrise (a day in the life) she observes painters painting among the birds. It’s all romance, honeycombs, dreams, stars and more birds.
This disc meanders with its adult contemporary/serious-minded arty metaphors. I just can’t stand it. As soon as the Gipsy Kings-style guitars and clapping start on the fifth track, “Sunset,” I’m done. It’s like time has stood still for Bush. Aerial (especially disc two) continues with the same yawn-inducing unevenness of 1993’s The Red Shoes. It’s the unbearable lightness of Bush.