Album reviews: Bob Dylan | Stu Brown Sextet | Julie Fowlis | Haydn | Mahala Rai Banda

BOB DYLAN: CHRISTMAS IN THE HEART **** COLUMBIA, £12.72

IT'S Christmas time (soonish), there's no need to be afraid. Or is there? Imagine the scene: the seasonal sound of sleighbells and sweet, cooing backing vocals. Then, just as you are settling in for some prime White Christmas-style cosiness, some sozzled old Santa crashes the party with his jarring, rasping vocals. Well, if Shane MacGowan can helm one of the all-time greatest Christmas songs, why not grizzly Bob?

Oblivious to his earnest fans' chagrin, Dylan ploughs through a bunch of old school festive standards such as Silver Bells, Winter Wonderland and Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – plus Christmas Hawaiian-style on Christmas Island ("how d'you like to hang your stocking on a great big coconut tree?") – all for charidee (Crisis UK on this side of the Pond).

Simultaneously hilarious and heart-warming, Christmas In The Heart is almost up there with Billy Idol's Christmas album as the ultimate alternative Yuletide soundtrack.

JAZZ

STU BROWN SEXTET: TWISTED TOONS

****

LICKETY-SPLIT MUSIC, 11.74

DRUMMER Stu Brown's Raymond Scott Project has already made a strong impact in a series of live shows, and this studio recording confirms that favourable impression, although you do miss out on the drummer's zany themed headgear.

Scott's compositions from the 1930s for his six-piece, Quintette, are immaculately transcribed and beautifully played in all their kinetic, off-kilter vigour by Brown's fine band, featuring Brian Molley (saxophone), Martin Kershaw (clarinet), Tom McNiven (trumpet), Tom Gibbs (piano), and Roy Percy (bass).

Much of the spontaneous energy of the live outings is captured here, and the off-beat tunes and breakneck rhythms of such characteristic compositions as Square Dance for Eight Egyptian Mummies, Powerhouse, Dinner Music for A Pack of Hungry Cannibals or Egyptian Barn Dance are irresistibly infectious. The 17 ensemble tracks are augmented by solo outings for Molley and Brown.

FOLK

JULIE FOWLIS: UAM

****

SPIT & POLISH, 13.70

JULIE Fowlis enjoys a higher profile than any Gaelic singer since Karen Matheson, and this third album is her most mature. She has a fine voice and a refined approach to phrasing her chosen songs from various corners of the Gaelic tradition, and is backed by her regular band featuring the excellent Duncan Chisholm on fiddle. That core band is augmented by a handful of eminent guests, including Phil Cunningham, Sharon Shannon and Jerry Douglas, and singers Mary Smith and Eddi Reader.

The result is a confident and polished collection, although there is a tendency (shared with other notables on the current scene) sometimes to settle for making a beautiful sound rather than exploring the emotional depth of the songs, as on the two versions of Wind and Rain, where neither Fowlis nor Reader gets fully inside the song.

CLASSICAL

HAYDN: DIE SCHPFUNG

****

HARMONIA MUNDI, 17.60

THE period instruments of the Freiburger Barockorchester are the defining virtue in this new recording of Haydn's Die Schpfung – better known to us as The Creation. The delicacy of the rich brass scoring, the flirtatiousness of the flutes, and a string ensemble tinged with the abrasive warmth of gut strings set Haydn's dramatic colourings alight. The whole electrifying sensitivity of the music is heightened to the extreme.

But this is a complete package in Ren Jacob's capable hands. The RIAS Kammerchor sing with the same sharpness and eloquence. As for the soloists, Maximillian Schmitt's Uriel is a clean but exuberant tenor; soprano Julia Kleiter imbues the roles of Eva and Gabriel with rapt precision; and bass Johannes Weisser offers passionate restraint. A few of Jacob's tempi are surprisingly slow, colouring the odd moment with untypical casualness. But this is mostly a truly enlightening performance. And it comes with a DVD that follows the making of the recording.

WORLD

MAHALA RAI BANDA: GHETTO BLASTERS

****

ASPHALT TANGO, 13.70

TURBO-POWERED this music may be, but don't be put off by the crudeness implied in its title, nor by the liner-note's description of this ensemble as "the supergroup of Roma pop". If only our Western pop were like this: wonderful trumpet and clarinet riffs, voices with that wavering wildness we first heard from Taraf de Haidouks. For this group is the product of a confluence of talents from the two Romanian villages where it all started: Clejani, which gave the world Haidouks, and Zece Prajini, which spawned Fanfare Ciocarlia. No disrespect to say that this CD makes the ideal accompaniment to tedious urban traffic-jams.