Holiday Music

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Traditional holiday sounds with a touch of something new

Play Around the Christmas Tree
Play Around the Christmas Tree
By Play

Sanctuary Urban: 2004

Peace Round
Peace Round
By Yellowjackets

Heads Up International: 2004

Spirit of the Season
Spirit of the Season
By Hiroshima

Heads Up International: 2004

This review first appeared in the Autumn 2004 issue of Turbula.

If there's one thing we can count on this time of year it's that any band of any stature at all will be releasing a collection of Christmas music. And heck, even bands of no real stature will have holiday albums as well. Best of all, some of the best albums will come from those bands you've never heard of before.

Exhibit A in this line of argument is "Play Around the Christmas Tree," from the Swedish bubble gum girls band Play.

Never heard of Play? Few have. They've had a minor presence on the pop charts, but have yet to really break through into the mainstream.

Never mind all that, though. These four young women have produced one of the brightest, most joyful collections of Christmas music in recent memory. Featuring their warm four-part vocal harmonies and a stable of Christmas favorites, "Play Around the Christmas Tree" is as comforting as an electric train under the tree, as steeped in tradition as a bowl of spiced cider.

No surprises, nothing really new – just great singing with a sense of fun.

     ~ ~ ~

The Yellowjackets have carved out a very comfortable niche for themselves as one of the very few bands that can hold its own in both the jazz and pop arenas. Now, after a decade and a half, they've branched out into the obligatory holiday album.

"Peace Round" is your typical Yellowjackets album in that it features both lush arrangements and plush melodies in an instrumental vein. It is atypical in that we don't normally get to hear these guys wrap their talents around holiday faves like "Silent Night," "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" or "Little Drummer Boy." And on "The First Noel," they're joined by singer Jean Baylor to add yet another facet to their sound.

The result is a cozy holiday backdrop that is modern and clean, yet fully traditional.

     ~ ~ ~

For the past quarter-century, Hiroshima has been creating a unique blend of American jazz, Japanese folk and world pop music that is as enchantingly accessible as it is different. And so when this veteran group tackles holiday music, you can be it won't be the same old same old.

Which "Spirit of the Season" definitely isn't. With Terry Steele tackling the vocals, the band runs through a set of the expected faves and some new holiday songs that are quite good.

Among the new songs, Dan Kuramoto's "Spirit of the Season" may be the best – it has an immediately familiar melody, like you've heard it every Christmas before. And if "Listen (To the Falling Snow)" and "Thousand Cranes" don't work as well, "Peace on Earth" is close to "Spirit of the Season" in its ability to be both accessible and have a holiday feel to it.

Plus, the band's versions of the traditional songs are all top-notch and highly listenable.