Other than the well-known titles of these 12 Christmas songs and their equally well-known melodies, there's nothing traditional about Marsalis' first album to be sold exclusively at Target (in hard-copy form; it's available digitally through iTunes). With the exception of the appropriately subdued "Greensleeves" and "The Christmas Song," none of these joyously swinging renditions fade into the background. Sometimes you wish they would. (Roberta Gumbel performs like the opera singer she is on two tracks.) But mostly they sound like the life of a party worth attending.
Amid the various aural templates Prophet has used, the one constant has been his singing, a cross between Iggy Pop and Tom Petty conveying a conversational cool appropriate to his understated take on American decay. Even the songs with headline-news allusions-Code Orange alerts, Prozac, global-warming apocalypse, fat-cat CEOs-never solidify into Springsteenian bludgeons. In fact, keeping Springsteenianism loose seems to be at least part of the point of "What Can a Mother Do," about a girl who was both "unwanted in 17 states" and "born to run."
The music is charming and elegant when not chilly and pompous, but, unless Sting just wants to remind us that he's smart, the album title is a red herring. The songs (some about Christmas, some about winter, one about trick-or-treating in England) have nothing to do with Italo Calvino's novel If on Winter's Night a Traveler. Meanwhile, that Sting is still singing as if he's seen the future of rock 'n' roll and it's name is John Dowland suggests he takes the term "Renaissance man" more literally all the time.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this album is that it's not boring-no mean feat considering that all of its 63 minutes and each of its 14 tracks is "Amazing Grace." It helps, of course, that the renditions span 24 years, that they're performed by an eclectic cast (e.g., pop singer Nana Mouskouri, bluegrass fiddler Mark O'Connor, classical organist William Neil, Rita Coolidge-led trio Walela), that they're sequenced for maximum ebb and flow, and that minimalism has prepared attention spans for the rigors of repetition.
Anyone still needing proof that the most influential rock band of the last 30 years is U2 need only listen to Hello Hurricane (lowercase people/Atlantic) and Comedown (Red Hammer), the latest albums by Switchfoot and Dreampilots, respectively. Not only could songs on both albums fool U2 fans in a blindfold test, but they also seem to have been conceived and executed with such aural similarities in mind.
Certainly Switchfoot's Jon Foreman has never sung or his bandmates rocked as much like Bono and Co. as they do on "Needle and Haystack Life" and "Hello Hurricane" (the latter of which even has lyrics mentioning blood-red skies). Norway's Dreampilots, however, could give Switchfoot a run for its money, especially on "Keep My Soul" and "Comedown." The U2 songs most being ransacked, by the way, would seem to be "Vertigo" and "Even Better Than the Real Thing" (the latter of which might even prove prophetic should U2 ever burn out or fade away).