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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 21, 2006

Holiday ditties for the rest of us

By John M. James
Special to The Advertiser

“Songs for Christmas” by Sufjan Stevens; Asthmatic Kitty Records

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“Snow Angels” by Over the Rhine; Great Speckled Dog Records

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“One More Drifter in the Snow” by Aimee Mann; Super Ego Records

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“Silent Nightclub” by Richard Cheese; Surfdog Records

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No lumps of coal, these five CDs from indie labels are worth the effort to search out.

"Songs for Christmas" by Sufjan Stevens; Asthmatic Kitty Records

Santa Claus hipsters, rejoice! A Christmas-crazy brother among us, Sufjan Stevens, drops a mother lode of charm with this box set. In "Songs For Christmas," these five impossible-to-find-CD EPs are now gifts to the whole world. From ice-melting instrumentals and tender covers of classics to witty, proud and whimsical originals, the joy and somber nature of the season shine forth like the message of the holiday itself.

There's plenty to unwrap in the plump collection, overflowing with stickers, a comic strip, a Christmas Family Portrait painting of Stevens playing Santa, essays, extensive liner notes, and the animated video for "Put the Lights On the Tree." If you need it now, this delightful collection is available on iTunes.

"Snow Angels" by Over the Rhine; Great Speckled Dog Records

The honeyed confessional waltz of duo Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler simmers somewhere between Billie Holiday, Nat "King" Cole, the Cowboy Junkies, blues voodoo and an Appalachian church's serenity. One cover of sorts fits right in — a softly possessed interpretation of "Jingle Bells" into "One Olive Jingle" — and a piano instrumental finds inspiration from Vince Guaraldi's "Charlie Brown Christmas" in "Goodbye Charles."

"One More Drifter in the Snow" by Aimee Mann; Super Ego Records

Aimee Mann's fragile magic in "One More Drifter in the Snow," is a perfect antidote to the blare of the season. Highlights include a cool, fresh take on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," the wistful "Christmastime" (penned by husband Michael Penn), and a cover of Jimmy Webb's "Whatever Happened To Christmas."

"Doo Wop Around the Christmas Tree" by The Might Echoes; Brooklyn International Records

Featuring tenor Jon Rubin of The Rubinoos, new second tenor John Lathan, British baritone hitmaker Harvey Shield, and Charlie Davis' deep cavern of bass, two of my favorites get the in-sync treatment: Darlene Love's hit "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and John and Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)."

"Silent Nightclub" by Richard Cheese; Surfdog Records

Richard Cheese is back with his first CD of Christmas shenanigans. Opening with the sound of dashing sleigh bells that morph into a finger-snapping spin through the Dead Kennedys' "Holiday In Cambodia," the smarmy manifesto might not play well at the corporate Christmas party, but heck, Jello Biafra's rant from 1980 sounds spot-on a quarter of a century later. Get cheesy!

John M. James writes about new music for newspapers throughout the United States.