WINDHAM HILL Records got a bum rap when it became identified with new age music at the very beginning of that movement. True, Windham Hill's roster did include such eye-glazers as Scott Cossu and superstar George Winston, but it also included such substantive chamber-folk innovators as Michael Hedges and Alex de Grassi. That dichotomy within the company persists today and can be seen clearly in its third album of holiday music, "A Winter's Solstice III."
The new age tracks -- from Schonherz & Scott's stuporous version of "Little Drummer Boy" to Tim Story's washed-out old carol, from Liz Story's lifeless evocation of courtly dance to Philip Aaberg's ponderous earth hymn -- all favor vague, vaporous sentiment over any kind of humor, tension or physicality that might break the reverie. By contrast, the album's best tracks seem very earthbound. The Celtic folk quartet Nightnoise suggests both dread and yearning on its elegant "Snow Is Lightly Falling." Oregon alumnus Paul McCandless pits a light-hearted oboe against a somber English horn in his pastoral reading of "Coventry Carol," and the Modern Mandolin Quartet sounds jaunty as they strum an excerpt from "The Nutcracker Suite." Best of all is John Gorka's "Christmas Bells," which transforms a Longfellow poem into a dry, ironic folk song.
It's no surprise, therefore, that Liz Story's new solo album, "Escape of the Circus Ponies," seems to drift by without much physical shape or substance. The nine solo piano pieces composed and performed by Story are stately and pretty, but they seem vacant of personality, as if Story were keeping the moody music blank so her listeners could more easily project their feelings onto it.
On the other hand, the new Nightnoise album, "The Parting Tide," is filled with personality as the four musicians create dramatic tension with the sprung rhythms of Celtic folk music and individual parts that slip in and out of harmony with the other three parts. Keyboardist Triona Ni Dhomhnaill and guitarist Micheal O Domhnaill, the sibling co-founders of Ireland's legendary Bothy Band, are joined by two Americans, flutist Brian Dunning and fiddler Billy Oskay. All the music is impressive, but Ni Dhomhnaill's songs about real and emotional winters and Irish immigration are the highlights.
VARIOUS ARTISTS -- "A Winter's Solstice III" (Windham Hill).
LIZ STORY -- "Escape of the Circus Ponies" (Windham Hill).
NIGHTNOISE -- "The Parting Tide" (Windham Hill). Liz Story, Philip Aaberg and Nightnoise appear Saturday at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, Constitution Avenue and Greenfield Street, Annapolis, 301/263-5019.