· JAKE SPEED AND THE FREDDIES -- LOSANTAVILLE (SELF RELEASE)
If I was Bill O'Reilly, I would say Losantaville, the new holiday album from local Folk hero Jake Speed and his crew, The Freddies, is the latest car bomb to be detonated in the "War Against Christmas." I mean, the guy's press materials promote the CD as "Jesus-free," and at one point he even sings that he is going to pass on Christmas mass! But, thankfully (for everyone's sake), I do have at least half a brain, so I will honestly report that Speed's excursion into holiday music is a wonderful, logical next step in the singer/songwriter's growing, progressively accomplished discography, which is drenched in Folk and Roots music tradition, yet still somehow manages to be relevant today, thanks to Speed and his band's timeless delivery and the sincere, playful and socially aware lyrics. In his estimable old-timey style (which ranges from Ragtime to Jugband to Bluegrass), Speed and Co. spin through four classic holiday tunes (including "Rudolf" and "Here Comes Santa Claus"), but it is the Speed originals that make Losantaville the kind of album you'll go back to every winter. Besides his ace band, Speed gets some superb assists from a few fellow local music greats on the disc. Singer Kim Taylor and cellist Damon Gray help turn the breathtaking "A Soldier's Lament" into a moving, romantic ballad that makes you feel for those unable to celebrate with their loved ones because the president had a war boner (politics aside, it's also suitable for cozy Christmas eve snuggling), while "Santa Loves Bluegrass" pontificates on the Big Guy's listening habits ("When someone calls him fat/He puts on Lester Flatt") with a little help from local Bluegrass masters Ed Cunningham and Jeff Roberts.
Like all of Speed's albums, Cincinnati plays a big role here, with landmarks and trademarks getting name-checked throughout. The CD's title is a yuletide play on the city's original name, Losantiville, while "Queen City Christmas" playful celebrates all things 'Nati ("Santa don't point fingers/Jesus don't blame/Put Pete Rose in the Baseball Hall of Fame"). Sweet, heartfelt, humorous, cheeky and thought provoking, Losantaville is an album that transcends the novelty status and short shelf-life of most toss-off holiday releases by using the spirit of Christmas as a mere jumping-off point. With the splendid performances and impeccable songwriting, the album ranks as one of Speed's finest yet. And Losantaville is easily one of the top locally-spawned holiday albums ever produced. When you're shipping Graeter's and Skyline to outta-town, homesick loved ones this Christmas season, toss in Losantaville to make the package complete. Jake Speed, The Freddies and some of the album's guest stars will celebrate the CD's release Saturday at the Southgate House Parlour; Speed will also host a release party at Shake It Records on Sunday at 2 p.m. (Mike Breen) Grade: A
· KATE & ANNA MCGARRIGLE -- THE MCGARRIGLE CHRISTMAS HOUR (NONESUCH)
Kate and Anna McGarrigle surfaced on America's musical radar when Linda Ronstadt tapped Anna's "Heart Like a Wheel" for the title track of her 1974 breakthrough album, but the Canadian Folk duo were known in their home country as members of the Mountain City Four. Within a couple of years, the pair began to release albums under their own names while Kate married and divorced cult folkie Loudon Wainwright III (their union produced hypertalented children Rufus and Martha Wainwright). The McGarrigles' sporadic recordings (nearly seven-year gaps between three albums at one point) finally culminated in 1998's quietly brilliant The McGarrigle Hour, a family-and-friend-populated album of traditional Folk favorites and freshly written tracks. Similarly, the just-released The McGarrigle Christmas Hour reprises the family chorale singalong concept while applying it to songs of the season, from universally traditional hymns ("O Little Town of Bethlehem," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen") to Folk standards ("Seven Joys of Mary," "Old Waits Carol") to modern classics ("Blue Christmas," "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve") to freshly minted tracks of praise (Jackson Browne's "Rebel Jesus," Martha Wainwright's "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year," Rufus Wainwright's "Spotlight on Christmas," Kate & Anna's "Wise Men" and "Counting Stars," among others). With help from the whole family (including Anna's husband Dane Lanken, their kids Lily and Sylvan, the Wainwright siblings and sister Jane McGarrigle) and a few potent friends (Emmylou Harris, Teddy Thompson), The McGarrigle Christmas Hour is beautifully rendered, classically reverent and contemporarily powerful. (Brian Baker) Grade: A
· THE BRIAN SETZER ORCHESTRA -- DIG THAT CRAZY CHRISTMAS AND CHRISTMAS EXTRAVAGANZA (SURFDOG)
When you hear a performance like this you think what a shame it is that some styles of popular music fall out of favor with the public. Ska, Rockabilly and Swing are just a few of the genres that have seen a temporary upswing in interest, only to plummet to the depths of the cut-out bin. Undeterred, Brain Setzer has stuck to his guns, and continues to front the swinging sounds of The Brian Setzer Orchestra. This holiday season he and his musicians offer up a CD (Dig That Crazy Christmas) and DVD (Christmas Extravaganza) full of holiday cheer. The DVD is a Christmas concert, but features some of Setzer's best non-Christmas tracks, including "Stray Cat Strut" (which is mixed with "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch"), "Rock This Town" and "Rumble in Brighton." The originals break things up nicely, and it all is really a lot of fun. The CD has seven different holiday tracks, so you kinda have to pick up both if you dig this din-a-ling. But that's cool, daddy-o. (P.F. Wilson) Grade: A+