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Music: THE MUSIC

The Top 5 'Heatseekers' albums for the week ending May13, according to Billboard magazine

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Music: A crossover Christmas

Christmas music unites diverse musical styles

Taste in musical styles often divides people, but most Americans love traditional Christmas music. This year, several artists-classical, opera, and even rock performers-crossed over, successfully, into the realm of Christmas music. A Christmas Pastorale fills more than 60 minutes with guitar settings of carols, chorales, preludes, and pastorales, those peaceful works that evoke pastoral, or shepherd, scenes. Guitarists Laura Oltman and Michael Newman display a solid ensemble and an uncanny sense of timing. Their folk pieces like "Greensleeves" (in two settings) show sheer lyric beauty. In virtuoso works like Bach's "In dulci jubilo" ("In Sweetest Joy"), the duo plays fearlessly. But the jewel of this CD is Miguel Llobet's "El Noi de la Mare" ("The Son of Mary"). Serious guitarists will enjoy owning A Christmas Pastorale. In a different vein is DG's (www.dgclassics.com) fresh-sounding Home for Christmas. Anne Sofie von Otter, a rising Swedish star, joins the many female opera vocalists crossing into pop, folk, and ethnic music. She embraces texts in English, Italian, French, and German and provides fresh, arresting settings of familiar carols like "I Wonder as I Wander." Even her American pop style in "The Christmas Song" and "White Christmas" easily convinces listeners. Ms. von Otter claims to have no interest in religion, but her album has a clear Christian presentation in, for example, "Spread Your Wings." Despite lapses like "Deck the Halls" in a Scandinavian polka format, the album displays a consistent track of historical Christianity. Transcending operatic vocal gymnastics and speaking clearly in artistic terms about the Christian celebration, the album still shows the usual fascination with trees, snow, and lights. Joy: A Holiday Collection, from teenage singer Jewel, successfully mingles country rock, gospel, and sacred traditional. The crooning melodic twists around "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and similar carols reveal Jewel's pure vocal quality and maturing country style. She has an easy high range (in "O Holy Night" and "Ave Maria"), but usually stays in her trademark low, breathy style. Joy has a hookup, via computer website, to a video of Jewel in the studio recording tracks to "Gloria." This song is the best on the album, with muted strings, organ, and harp contributing to its transcendent quality. Sophisticated as a soloist in a gospel/soul setting of "Go Tell it on the Mountain," Jewel excels in several duets with her mother. She seems so comfortable in different styles that with vocal training, she should survive a rising career and have a voice left for her 40s. Doesn't the popularity of Christmas music among such a diverse group of performers suggest the truth of what is hinted at throughout the Christmas season: the universal, reconciling Lordship of Christ?

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Music: 'I believe in love'

What kind of love does Paula Cole proclaim?

Is seven-time Grammy nominee Paula Cole changing her tune? Her fourth album, Amen, has received mixed reactions from fans who applauded the stridently feminist songs of this regular member of the Lilith Fair troupe. Her 1996 breakthrough single, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?," dripped with ironic disgust at the chauvinistic patterns of traditional relationships. But Amen turns to matters of the spirit. Even though recent pop music offerings from Lauryn Hill to Madonna have displayed only a vague spirituality, this mustard-seed longing in contemporary society should not be dismissed. It's a good sign that pop musicians, like many others, are pushing beyond the scorched-earth rationalism of modern education. Hear Paula Cole's explanation this month in USA Today: "As a child, I felt what we call God, that spirit, that energy. Then you get schooled by society, and I rationalized that it didn't exist. It made me profoundly unhappy that there was no meaning, no logic, no unity of all life." In her song "Rhythm of Life," Ms. Cole raps a religious apologetic to her skeptical fans: "To the critics and the cynics who don't understand the lyrics To the atheists and the pessimists Wanting company in their darkness You may see me as a fool, yes, a charlatan, an egoist, But I'd rather be this in your eyes, Than a coward in His." Don't be misled by the capital letter in His, though. Ms. Cole, 31, a graduate of Berklee College of Music, is a professionally trained jazz singer and pianist with sensitivity to black gospel, but she has also adopted Buddhist religious sensibilities. Contemporary forms of pop spirituality from A.A.'s Higher Power to Jewel's Spirit are religiously eclectic. Instead of recognizing good and evil, Ms. Cole proclaims that fuzziness is next to godliness: "I believe in love To be the center of all things And I believe in love to be the way To find our inner light." What's right about this is the longing for love. Augustine, reflecting on his youth, admitted in his Confessions that "The single desire that dominated my search for delight was simply to love and to be loved." What's insufficient about this is the idea that the heart itself can satisfy the heart's longings. Words like god, spirituality, gospel, grace, and love are empty apart from biblical content. Take, for example, Judy Collins's explanation of John Newton's hymn, "Amazing Grace." "'Amazing Grace' is a song about letting go, bottoming out, seeing the light, turning it over, trusting the universe, breathing in, breathing out, going with the flow; timing is everything, trust your instincts, don't push the river, ease on down the road, get on your knees, let your guard down, drop your defenses, lighten up ..." Oh, really? One cheer for Paula Cole. But God-words do not necessarily point God-ward. -Mr. Seel is a writer in North Carolina

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