A little Christmas rapping along with the classics | VailDaily.com

A little Christmas rapping along with the classics

Daily Staff Report
Special to the Daily

“8 Diagrams,” Motown/Universal

When the Wu-Tang Clan fire on all cylinders, they simply operate on a different level from everyone else in hip-hop.

It’s on display throughout “The 8 Diagrams” (Loud/SRC) ” the hip-hop conglomerate’s first album since 2001’s “Iron Flag,” as well as its first since the death of Ol’ Dirty Bastard in 2004 ” in the moments when RZA’s dense, meticulously crafted beats get surrounded by the dark, gritty rhymes of the rest of the Clan.

The centerpiece is the epic “The Heart Gently Weeps,” based on a sample from George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” which is augmented by guitarwork from Harrison’s son, Dhani, and Red Hot Chili Pepper John Frusciante. Over the fuzzy-dream riffs and between pretty, female-driven hooks sung by Erykah Badu, Raekwon and Ghostface take turns telling a terrible tale of how staying in on a snowy night to watch “Raisin in the Sun” devolves into a murderous rampage and how revenge shootings play out in a Pathmark store. It drives home the theme of darkness lurking around every corner, a feeling echoed in “Life Changes,” a touching tribute to Ol’ Dirty Bastard, built around the haunting soul hook, “I go through life pretending that time will change the ending.”

Even the generally upbeat George Clinton, who appears on “Wolves,” somehow sounds menacing in the dark surroundings of “The 8 Diagrams.” Only on “Starter” do the members of the Clan show off any rhymes that are even remotely playful.

If Wu-Tang Clan’s tales weren’t so gripping and their arguments weren’t so compelling, this dark, paranoid ride would make it easy to accuse them of being morose. Instead, the vivid images of “The 8 Diagrams” leave you with the sinking feeling that they might just be speaking the truth.

“Glen Gamboa, L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

“Noel,” WEA/Reprise

That nice boy with the towering pop-operatic baritone is a natural for a holiday album, and this one is already the year’s bestseller. Unfortunately, having been produced and arranged by Groban mentor David Foster, it favors orchestral and choral excess over grace and subtlety. Crescendos abound, including emotional ones: “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” features phone messages to and from soldiers in Iraq. One of several classical nods, “Ave Maria,” starts off simply before, like much of the album, being overwhelmed with layers of extraneous production. Featuring the London Symphony Orchestra, duets with Brian McKnight (decent) and Faith Hill (stolid), and a variety of choirs, including the Mormon Tabernacle Choir on an overblown finale of “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

” Richard Harrington, L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

“Snow Angels,” Great Speckled Dog

Husband and wife Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist’s follow-up to 1996’s “The Darkest Night of the Year” tends toward melancholy on “All I Ever Get for Christmas Is Blue” and the war-loss-themed “Snow Angel.” But there’s plenty of gentle optimism on “We’re Gonna Pull Through” and “New Redemption Song,” and a sense of snuggly fun on “Snowed In With You” and the sly blues “North Pole Man.” The songs, mostly Detweiler originals underscored by his supple keyboards, include a yearning “White Horse” that showcases Bergquist’s sweetly subdued vocals. “Jingle Bells” is spryly reinvented as “One Olive Jingle,” while “Goodbye Charles” is an elegiac tribute to Vince Guaraldi’s memorable music for Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” Christmas specials and to the cartoonist himself.

” Richard Harrington, L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

“In the Swing of Christmas,” Hallmark

The crooner’s third Christmas collection finds him working with two tight jazz trios and offering sometimes quirky, often energized takes on holiday standards, as well as some surprising choices, such as the melancholy but hardly Christmasy “Violets for Your Furs.” Manilow multi-tracks himself 26 times for an a cappella chorale on “Silver Bells.” Available at Hallmark stores.

” Richard Harrington, L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

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