various artists,
Wonderland: A
Winter Solstice Celebration

(Signature Sounds, 2002)

Holiday collections often contain the same hackneyed songs. Popular artists perform them, and sometimes a cynical mind might think the albums are released only for the money they could earn. Although the title is a bit deceptive in that most of the songs concern Christmas and not, strictly speaking, the winter solstice, the material is out of the ordinary and features lesser-known singer-songwriters who are willing to share the profits with the Second Harvest Food Bank Network.

The diverse material runs the gamut from traditional songs to the artists' own numbers to covers. Peter Mulvey opens the CD with his version of Joni Mitchell's "River." It's a lovely rendition, but I wonder about the very last chorus when Mulvey reaches for high notes and his voice suddenly becomes rougher than it was previously. "Song for a Winter's Night," penned by Gordon Lightfoot, is covered here by Erica Wheeler, a talented singer-songwriter who definitely deserves more recognition.

Interpretations of the traditional music included are as diverse as the artists themselves. Brooks Williams gives "I Wonder as I Wander" an upbeat, jazzy feel, while Rani Arbo's version of "I Saw Three Ships" features a more laidback folk-jazz mood to it that allows her to show off her rich, mellow vocal tones along with her violin. With Susan Waters and Indra Rios-Moore, Arbo takes on an a cappella "Nowell Sing We" that takes on the ambience of its original time period.

The late Dave Carter, with Tracy Grammer, is represented by his composition "American Noel," as performed by the duo. The saviour in his song "will camp with the homeless/where they shiver in the dark." It's a modern story with cold wise men wandering the city streets; a cleaning lady; and a family living in a tool shed. Nerissa and Katryna Nields' "Christmas Carol" advises one to "take the gifts that they are bringing/kiss another year good-bye," but they end their chorus on a more upbeat note: "Give away what you were saving/And you will never be alone."

However, it's Richard Shindell's "Before You Go," in which Jesus is given advice before going to Earth, that truly demonstrates the pinnacle of modern folk carols. Shindell, a one-time seminary student, once again is able to combine his songwriting skills with religious theory in a way that does not even attempt to proselytize.

It's the combination of material that makes this album worthwhile. Pete Nelson's very jazzy "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" appears right before Erin McKeown's cover of Frank Longshaw's "At the Christmas Ball." She may not be Bessie Smith, but she does take her audience back to 1925 with this swinging, jazzy song.

Perhaps the most unusual piece to appear on this collection, however, is Matt Haimovitz's cello solo from Bach. It's not at all the sort of material you'd expect to hear amidst all of these singer-songwriters, but it does sound pretty.

While the primary motivation behind this CD is to promote Signature Sounds own artists (with the Nields and Haimovitz as special guests), the overall quality of the performances, the songs selected and the fact that a chunk of the proceeds are going to charity make this more than a label's promotional disc with a gimmick.

- Rambles
written by Ellen Rawson
published 21 December 2002

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