December 15, 2005
There’s Some Good Music to Fill the Air
I was sitting in a fast-food joint last week when they piped in a pop-salsa version of "Jingle Bells." If it had been Eddie Palmieri or Ray Barretto, I would have been fine, but this sounded like Menudo on crystal meth, and I decided I'd had enough Christmas music for the next millennium.
So I went home to a desk littered with new Chanukah CDs: surf guitar, lounge, big-band swing, alt-rock and a large helping of Allan Sherman wannabes. Surprisingly enough, several of these albums are not only better than a doped-up kiddie band, they're actually pretty good. Here are the best:
Kenny Ellis: "Hanukkah Swings!" (Favored Nations, $13.95). As the cover photo of Ellis in a stingy-brim hat suggests, this is a loving pastiche of the great Sinatra of the Capitol years, a sort of ring-a-dreidel-ding feel.
The arrangements by Harvey R. Cohen are a pretty good imitation of Nelson Riddle and Billy May, but Ellis gives the game away whenever he opens his mouth. The voice is too light, the vibrato too insistent for the Sinatra-style material.
Ellis is more at home on the big '70s shmaltz anthems like "Hanukkah Candles." On the cha-cha version of "Ocho Kandelikas" he sounds great. (available at www.kennyellis.com)
Guns 'n Charoses: "Gimme Some Latkes ... and Other Musical Chazerai" (Chutzpah Music, $12.95). Think Allan Sherman meets Weird Al Yankovic in shul.
I'm not usually well-disposed toward musical parody unless it's on the level of Sherman or Weird Al, but Mark Edelman, who wrote all but one of these tracks (and collaborated on the other), is genuinely clever, and I laughed out loud repeatedly. The musicianship, almost all of it by Jeremy Belzer, is not on the flat-out rocking skill level of Yankovic's band, but it's good enough not to get in the way of Edelman's send-ups of "La Vida Loca," "Yakety-Yak," "The Gambler" and "Don't Worry, Be Happy."
The only letdown is "Using My Religion," and the real problem there is that Michael Stipe's sense of song structure is a little too slippery for parody. Otherwise, a hilarious record and, unlike most comedy sets, funny more than once. (Available from www.kewlju.com.)
The LeeVees: "Hanukkah Rocks" (Reprise/J-Dub, $13). Alt-rock heavies Adam Gardner of Guster and Dave Schneider of the Zambonis felt that the post-punk world desperately needed a Chanukah record of its own. Well, they wanted to do a Chanukah record, and with their track record (and producer Peter Katis who has worked with Interpol and Get Up Kids), they had no trouble getting one made.
The result is a very funny, smart self-satire, with adolescent agonies turned into the difficult choice of sour cream vs. applesauce ("Tell your mom to fry, not bake") and of not getting presents (well, there are "six-packs of new socks from each of our moms").
Meshugga Beach Party: "Twenty Songs of the Chosen Surfers" (Jewish Music Group, $17.98). How much surf guitar can you take in a single sitting? If you answer, "All you can give me," then you will love this set.
Mel Waldorf is a very, very good surf guitarist in the Dick Dale mode, and this recording of Jewish standards, including "Driedl, Driedl" and "Oh Hanukkah" is both very funny and very danceable. Twenty cuts of this stuff is a bit too rich for my blood, but Waldorf does it well. Only one miscue, a dark and serious version of "Kol Nidre" that is in questionable taste.
Of course, you could set your sights on a lower brand of humor and dig "Kosher Christmas Carols" (Footlight, $14.95) a compendium of Shermanesque riffs on classic Yule songs with rather smarmy, "Jewish-themed" lyrics (available from www.sillymusic.com).
Or you could watch George Segal's career take an unexpected turn as he becomes the rapper Dr. Dreck, the keystone of Chutzpah on their album "Eponymous" (JMG, $17.98).
On a more positive note, there is a new album of the score from "The Odd Potato" (6-10 Productions, $15.95) a well-received off-Broadway show about the holiday, available from www.theoddpotato.com. Judd Hirsch narrates, and the cast includes such stars as John Mahoney and Elaine Stritch.
Or as punk icons The Vandals suggested, "Hang yourself from the [Christmas] tree."
George Robinson is the film and music critic for The Jewish Week. His new book, "Essential Torah," will be published by Schocken Books in the fall of 2006.