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Shopping near the middle of the road
Stockings, Santa and Scrooge
by Mark Anderson

hether you favor Santa or Scrooge, chances are you'll soon need to stuff at least a few stockings.

The perfect gift? Maybe, maybe not.

One year I gave my brother-in-law what I believed was the perfect gift – a book of blank pages called "Everything Men Know About Women." I was unaware that he'd soon be my ex-brother-in-law; he and my sister didn't seem to think the gift was so great. But I still say it's a decent stocking-stuffing idea.

Even so, it's worth remembering that you may be in the room when the gifts you give get opened. And, after grandma gives her favorite Celine Dion Christmas album its umpteenth spin, the situation might call for something a little fresher in the family boom box. Wise gift-givers know that any CDs they begift stand a better chance of making the cut on Christmas Day if some degree of common denominator is found.

With all these things in mind, here are a few ideas from somewhere near the middle of the road:

Mariza: Transparente

Mariza Transparente
Perhaps the best thing about hearing someone sing in a different language is that it can be totally transporting. For those who struggle to appreciate foreign-tongue singing, I say close your eyes, relax and let the music take you away. This concept, of course, can be a lifesaver around the holidays.

And Mariza, whose music is related to the plaintive Portuguese folk-music idiom called fado, offers a 41-minute Mediterranean vacation with her third album, Transparente. Purists might call it a sellout – a slick sacrifice to commercial overreach. Most of us, however, will simply see it as an intro to fado.

"It enfolds the ears like silk," writes Rolling Stone's reviewer. According to the scribe at All Music Guide, "[Mariza is] the music's biggest star for a reason: She sings it not as musty nostalgia but as exuberant 21st-century pop, with a low, mesmerizing alto that's as commanding as any pop singer today."

That sounds about right. Transparente is exotic, melodic and very easy to like – a great opportunity to close one's eyes and wade into some fado, which literally translates to fate.

Who might like this album? World travelers. Wannabe world travelers. College kids. Parents. Grandparents. Virtually anyone with ears.

Chris Botti: To Love Again

Chris Botti To Love Again
Chris Botti's latest, To Love Again: The Duets, finds the Oregon-born trumpeter jazzing his way through the songbook of standards with an interesting batch of popular singers.

Botti, the prototypical local boy made good, is dating celebrities these days, while touring and recording with the likes of Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Sting.

On this album, his ninth, Botti enlists vocal help from Sting, Gladys Knight, Jill Scott, the Blue Nile's Paul Buchanon and even Aerosmith's Steven Tyler, who croaks out a touching rendition of the old Charlie Chaplin composition, "Smile."

While most of the songs feature vocals, even those offer intriguing instrumental passages – often before the singing even starts. And yes, Botti sounds like he loves the haunting muted-trumpet sound of Miles Davis. Where's the harm in that?

The album's standout is Paula Cole singing "My One And Only Love," but there's not a bummer in the bunch. Botti mixes in a handful of pure instrumentals and one original song, while the London Session Orchestra adds the lushness of strings without going overboard. Here the purists will argue that things are too polished; Botti has long been painted with the smooth-jazz brush. To Love Again, however, is anything but. In fact, it's a solid slice of 21st-century jazz.

Who might like this album? Those who love pop singers and the great American songbook. Those who love the sound of Miles Davis (although it might irk some). Those afraid of jazz. Anyone looking for background music or romance. And, yes, even jazz-lovers (although it might irk some of them, too ... but even they should at least give a listen).

The Like: Are You Thinking What I'm Thinking?

The Like Are You Thinking What I'm Thinking?
These three young women, all offspring of indie-music types (Mitchell Froom, Tony Berg and Pete Thomas), formed the Like in 2001 while in their mid-teens. By 2005 the band has the rocking girl-group thing down cold – as long as listeners don't put the words under a microscope.

The songs, all credited to Z Berg, are musically very strong. And while there's nothing exactly new, it's a time-tested idea (a pile of great-sounding songs) given an updated twist. Whether up-tempo or down, these girls sound like they know exactly what they're doing and could be in it for the long haul.

To compare is to take the easy way out, but the Like is remindful of Harriet Wheeler and the Sundays (my player has repeated the mid-tempo "You Bring Me Down" dozens and dozens of times). And, maybe best of all, Berg sounds like a deep-voiced full-grown woman when she sings.

In all, the majority of these songs (produced by former Prince protégé Wendy Melvoin) really rock and Are You Thinking What I'm Thinking is a totally satisfying listen – although you should probably wait till after grandma has had her third eggnog before peeling off this one's shrink wrap.

Who might like this album? Anyone who likes the Cars or the Bangles. Lovers of ringing, chiming, loud guitars. Youngsters. Anyone who says there's never good new music anymore.

Cyndi Lauper: The Body Acoustic

Cyndi Lauper The Body Acoustic
And for the stocking of my young friend Troy, who doesn't yet believe in Cyndi Lauper, it's The Body Acoustic. Cyndi usually manages to get things right and this new CD, essentially a greatest-hits collection turned on its ear, is mostly superb.

"Money Changes Everything," for instance, gets a foot-stomping six-minute back-porch treatment that starts with a fiddle and ends with the 50-something Cyndi singing from her heels while displaying trademark style, passion and grace. The album is laden with unexpected instrumentation, offbeat percussion and an odd assortment of guests – including Shaggy, Jeff Beck, Vivian Green, Sarah McLachlan and Ani DiFranco.

Rolling Stone's reviewer says: "Many rockers lose their fire and much of their vocal range while journeying through middle age. But the ever-unusual Cyndi Lauper now sings with more power, more nuance and with more notes at her disposal than she had at her mid-'80s popularity peak." All Music Guide adds: "... Lauper has always possessed a talent that goes beyond the material she has sung – and she can sing anything."

Too true. But maybe the best review came after loaning a copy to a friend headed for a family reunion of four generations. The Body Acoustic, the friend reported back, was the one CD nobody'd heard but everyone enjoyed.

Who might like this album? Cyndi Lauper fans. Pop music fans. Mainstream and offbeat music lovers of all ages and stripes. Troy.

Boz Scaggs: Fade Into Light

Boz Scaggs Fade Into Light
Boz Scaggs carries forward this growing trend of established singers dipping into their past to update familiar material.

This "new" one, Fade Into Light, actually came out in Japan in 1999 but only gained stateside release this year.

Scaggs got his start in a 1959 version of the Steve Miller Band, then had one of the most popular albums of the mid-'70s, Silk Degrees. But Scaggs has remained fairly busy and, in fact, has released solid albums in recent years: Dig (new material) in 2001 and But Beautiful (standards with a jazz trio) in 2003.

Fade Into Light jazzes up several signature songs from Silk Degrees: "Lowdown" and "We're All Alone" are given the unplugged treatment, while the showstopper, a piano-based version of "Harbor Lights," deviates only subtly from the original's sublime arrangement but manages its own repowered appeal. The album hits a few weak spots but it's at least 75 percent to the good.

Who might like this album? Baby boomers and more baby boomers.

Martina McBride: Timeless

Martina McBride Timeless
Last but not least is Martina McBride's Timeless, which covers well-chosen old-school country classics that ooze authenticity – even to those of us who don't care all that much for country music in the first place.

In fact, this album features understated singing to go with tasty pedal steel guitars, rambunctious honky tonk piano, sharp string and choral arrangements and songs like "Thanks a Lot," "Make the World Go Away," "Heartaches by the Number" and, maybe best of all, a spectacularly faithful version of Joe South's "(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden."

Depending on your kinfolk, this album could be the hit of the season and they might still be playing all 18 songs come the 4th of July.

Who might like this album? Country bumpkins and city slickers alike. My sister.

Meanwhile, a few words of caution for last-minute shoppers: Stay away from the latest by Neil Diamond, Madonna and Burt Bacharach; they're not horrible, they just don't stack up against the middle-of-the-road's recent best.

And, finally, one more thing worth mentioning: Back in the '60s, when my age was still in single digits, an older cousin gifted me with the Beatles' groundbreaking Revolver. Thinking myself extraordinarily wise, I decided that the lads from Liverpool were already ancient history and returned the unopened vinyl to a store – where I exchanged it for the latest by the Monkees.

All these years later, I still don't know exactly what lesson was to be learned – except maybe to keep your ears open because sometimes Santa (or even your small-town cousin) knows best.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and see more tripewriter.

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