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DECEMBER 28, 1999: 

*** RETURN OF THE DJ VOL. III (Bomb)

***1/2 THE FUNKY PRECEDENT (Loosegroove/No Mayo)

The intro to the hat-trick installment of Bomb's Return of the DJ series warns "simple-minded walking pieces of meat" that the producers assume no responsibility for "any testicular or vaginal damage resulting from the misuse or improper insertion of this recording." Not that a disclaimer was really necessary -- anyone familiar with volumes one and two, which cemented the turntable-titan status of DJs like Mixmaster Mike and Cut Chemist, will already know to pack Bactine for the vinyl-related cuts, scrapes, and abrasions contained herein. That's both good and bad news, since the total artistic anarchy that made the first two Returns such a blast shows signs of codified institutionalization on this volume, and the idea of an all-scratchin' album no longer shocks the monkey the way it did in '95. Still, as a sample on Furious's "Mood Swing" puts it here, "Something must be happening, 'cause everything's moving!" Z-Trip crowns himself King of Rock in a heavy-metal parking lot, T-Rock's "Doo Doo on Yourself" takes the resemblance between Fat Boys beatboxing and excretory noise to its logical conclusion, and (most impressively) International's posse cut "Deedz in da Mix" unfurls its elegiac rock guitar intro like a flag, then proceeds through a litany of funky/haunting subject changes: the turntable equivalent of multiplex theater-hopping. Everything you could consider a "statement" shatters into a billion beats 'n' pieces as soon as it surfaces, yet as these spatters, gags, grooves, rugburns, and stutter steps accumulate, you can hear a g-g-g-generation defining itself.

By letting anyone who can scratch be a multi-instrumentalist, turntablism opens music up and universalizes its rewards; on The Funky Precedent compilation, a stellar line-up of LA hip-hop/hip-hop-by-default artists go to bat for elementary-school music-education programs, which are designed to do much the same thing. If only every album spawned by a good cause could be this open-eared: Jurassic 5 and Ugly Duckling running retro-rap maneuvers that "take it back like Spinal Tap," Abstract Rude venerating a gymnasium jam session as if it were a Wednesday-night prayer meeting, Miles Om Tackett's smart skate-shop funk for beanbag-chair B-boys, even a Damon Aaron ballad that sounds like Basehead doing beats for Tracy Chapman. As Black Francis might say, it's ed-u-cational, and a persuasive argument for hip-hop's musical breadth and depth to boot.

-- Alex Pappademas


*** Ringo Starr I WANNA BE SANTA CLAUS (Mercury)

It's goofy, sentimental, bubblegummy, and self-referential -- in other words, this is everything a Ringo Starr Christmas album should be. Beatles-obsessed producer Mark Hudson and his support cast return from last year's Vertical Man, but the looser feel and higher spirits make this a better album. The opener, "Come On Christmas," ranks as Starr's catchiest song since "Back Off Boogaloo," whose drum riff is lifted for "The Little Drummer Boy." The idea of Ringo doing that song is so perfect that it hardly matters whether this is a good version, but it is. The Beatles are alluded to all over the place, with "Pax Um Biscum" making the most blatant Fab Four homage since "Free As a Bird." Originally a short ditty on a Beatles Christmas single, "Christmas Time Is Here Again" is built into a full song through Ringo's ad-libs. He remains no slouch as a drummer (and the drums are always turned up loud), but the focus here is on Ringo the personality. His name gets inserted into "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" after he flubs a lyric, and the words "peace and love" turn up without irony in three different songs. His talents as a professional nice guy haven't been put to such good use in years.

-- Brett Milano


*** MR. HANKEY'S CHRISTMAS CLASSICS (American/Columbia)

The South Park folks are back to lend a little Bronx cheer to the holiday season in the form of an 18-track disc of original Christmas tunes and mistreated classics. Mr. Hankey is, of course, the friendly fecal figment of our heroes' overactive imagination who gives new meaning to the concept of the Yule log. He gets first honors here with the colorful "Mr. Hankey the Christmas Poo": credited as an "early-'50s recording performed by Cowboy Timmy," it gets a little graphic as we're reminded that "Sometimes he's nutty/Sometimes he's corny/He can be greenish brown/But if you eat fiber on Christmas eve/He might come to your town" against a backdrop of supple strings and tinkling piano.

That pretty much sets the tone for this densely packed collection of equal-opportunity offensiveness. We get "Merry Fucking Christmas" by Mr. Garrison, wherein the South Park educator wishes a merry fucking Christmas to "Mister Muslim," "Mr. Hinduist," and the people of Japan. There's also Kyle's touching "The Lonely Jew on Christmas" (as well as an "O Tannenbaum" credited to Adolf Hitler); Isaac Hayes (a/k/a Chef) turning the story of Jesus's birth into a funky paternity suit in "What the Hell Child Is This?"; and "The Most Offensive Song Ever," a little ditty about the Virgin Mary sung by Hankey and a mumbling Kenny that requires quite a bit of, ah, decoding. And it all comes to a cruel close, fittingly enough, with a ceremonial flush. Let's just say this is one holiday album that's not for the whole family.

-- Matt Ashare


*** CHRISTMAS WITH BUCK OWENS AND HIS BUCKAROOS (Sundazed)

In the '60s, Nashville outsider Buck Owens became a country star as an architect of the Bakersfield sound, which combined classic honky-tonk with a breath of California pop. But though every country star has at least one Christmas album, Christmas with Buck Owens and His Buckaroos is special. No heap of trad-holiday rehash, the re-released 1965 disc features 11 originals penned by Buck and friends, including the late Don Rich, Owens's long-time guitarist and musical compadre, and trucker-anthem luminary Red Simpson. A mix of Yuletide weepers, country hokum, and sprightly honky-tonk (plus a Ventures-like cover of "Jingle Bells"), these songs feel just as familiar but way more fun than the Xmas chestnuts that are spun to death each year.

The retro sound of the original mix -- sparse and reverby, with the drums up front -- has been retained. Drummer Willie Cantu's sticks dance on his hi-hat like reindeer on the roof, and Don Rich's distinct, clipped-noted Telecaster-twang rings clear in all that sonic space. And if this leaves you hungry for more Buck, Sundazed has also reissued 1967's Christmas Shopping -- a dozen more Owens originals sporting tears-in-your-beer holiday cheer.

-- Meredith Ochs


***1/2 A CHRISTMAS ALBUM (Arsis)

This all-American disc from Boston composer Rodney Lister and the Choir of the Church of the Advent has both more musical interest and a more genuine sense of religious devotion than I get from most of the Holy Minimalists and other purveyors of fashionably spiritual music. The centerpiece of the disc, and one of the best Christmas pieces I know, is Lister's Kings and Shepherds, for three singers with violin, oboe, French horn, and organ, on a starkly formal sequence of poems, both narrative and meditative, by the Scottish poet George Mackay Brown. Lister's stark yet passionate setting contrasts long pedal tones with frantic instrumental activity. The vocal lines are plain but with a wayward tonality and often dissonant layerings. Equally plain are Virgil Thomson's tender Scenes from the Holy Infancy, rendered in a combination of Anglican chant and Southern hymnody. The smaller works range from Thomson's sweetly triadic setting of The Holly and the Ivy to Carlisle Floyd's haunting Long, Long Ago to Lister's clear but inventive choral arrangements of traditional carols, which reclaim this genre from the commercial arrangers.

-- Scott Wheeler


***1/2 Anonymous 4 LEGENDS OF ST. NICHOLAS (Harmonia Mundi)

Anonymous 4 have collected what they could find of liturgical music celebrating St. Nicholas and augmented the original material with their own plainchant settings of hagiographic narrative, and it's all packaged by Harmonia Mundi in a handsomely illustrated set. The four women who make up Anonymous 4 (Ruth Cunningham, Marsha Genensky, Susan Hellauer, Johanna Maria Rose) sing with beautifully tuned and blended voices, and they make a point of arranging the material with as much musical variety as possible -- so the timeless, floating, unison responsory Confessor dei Nicholaus is followed by the comparatively lively, ornate, melismatic, three-voice conductus Cantu mirro, summo laude. Devotees of chant will love the album. Those of us who find this music too unvaried will feel it's too much of a good thing. A little goes a long way.

-- Ellen Pfeifer


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