Our second batch of Christmas CD reviews looks at new seasonal sounds from Big Freedia, She & Him, David Bazan, Kissing Party, The Regrettes, "Holiday Treats," "Christmas on the Lam," R. Kelly and Neil Diamond.
Last week, we considered the place Christmas recordings occupy in the careers of artists, looking at new Christmas albums by Andra Day, Jon Batiste, Kacey Musgraves, Leslie Odom Jr., and Jordan Smith. Today, we pick up the spare with quick looks at a number of positive additions to the library of Christmas sounds.
Not surprisingly, the most audacious new release comes from Big Freedia.
A Very Big Freedia Christmazz by Big Freedia
Nobody this year hijacks Christmas like Big Freedia, who makes bolder choices than anybody else who cut Christmas music this season. "So Frosty" lays an electronic "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies" under the clatter of electronic snare drums while Freedia tries to sort out a beef without backing up a step. When Freedia covers a Christmas classic, she does it her way, so "Jingle Bell Rock" drops lines from the song into the track to give it some shape, but she gets a lot of mileage out of the percussive sound salad the song title presents.
As interesting as the individual tracks are, A Very Big Freedia Christmazz shows musical and conceptual progress. The songs here strike an engaging balance between bounce's tendency toward catch phrases repeated with the concussive speed and power of a lit roll of Black Cats and the elements that shape more conventional songs. Freedia doesn't sacrifice anything valuable, and still fires out syllables with machine gun speed and intensity. When she sing/speaks, she does so with personality, but now on "Twas the Night," one of her songs is actually narrative. Here, the tracks are also musically rewarding. Backing vocals give songs dimension, particularly on "Santa is a Gay Man," where Boyfriend, Alexis Marceaux and Carson and Morgan Thielen sing the melody to "Mr. Sandman" while Freedia hilariously mulls over who she'd like to have come down her chimney.
Neither the EP nor "Make it Jingle"--Big Freedia's contribution to the Office Christmas Party soundtrack--are as EDM-influenced as her recent material, and while I like and understand that sound as a way to reach an audience outside New Orleans, Freedia's Christmas releases this year have a sound that I'll return to even after the holidays are over.
Christmas Party by She & Him
Since I’ve never bought Mariah Carey having as homespun a thought as “All I Want for Christmas is You,” She & Him do me a favor by rescuing the song from her and giving it a Spector-lite production. Perhaps because Zoey Deschanel really is an actress first, there’s more than a trace of old school Christmas posing in her performances, and because M. Ward is an indie guy first, his instinct away from easy drama balances her out beautifully. Because of that, Christmas Party and A Very Kacey Christmas by Kacey Musgraves are the Class of 2016 Christmas albums most likely to make the most people happy at a party. My only caveat is that the album seems redundant. Mariah Carey comments aside, everything written here about Christmas Party could have been written about A Very She & Him Christmas in 2011.
Dark Sacred Night by David Bazan
Since his days in Pedro the Lion, David Bazan has examined his faith in public. It’s not surprising that he recorded a Christmas album; it’s only surprising that it has taken this long to get to Dark Sacred Night, which is exactly that. Bazan sings over minimal accompaniment—primarily his acoustic guitar—and at tempos that emphasize the lonely struggle often coded into Christmas carols and the songs that have become part of the holiday canon. That treatment makes every song sound like his internal monologue during the holiday season as the news and the way we practice Christmas today makes Christian faith seem improbable and perhaps outdated.
Those stakes make Dark Sacred Night compelling and often beautiful, but it’s more of a sorbet to cleanse the holiday music palate overfed on forced gaiety than the party starter on those cold winter nights that are so deep.
My Spilt Milk curated our Christmas 2016 mixtape. To get it free, sign up on our home page to receive "Condensed Milk," our weekly newsletter.
Winter in the Pub by Kissing Party
Denver indie rock band Kissing Party wins this season’s “Accuracy in Titling” Award. How things do and particularly don’t change is theme of Kissing Party’s Christmas compositions, and the best place to measure that for semi-rooted twentysomethings is the bar, where each Christmas season you see many of the same faces you saw the same time last year telling a lot of the same jokes, wearing a lot of the same clothes, and doing a lot of the same things. You see the people who moved on somehow—a new job, a new relationship, a new city, a new sobriety—back to touch base without knowing why the gesture felt necessary. In tight, unfussy songs, Kissing Party evokes that simultaneous feeling of comforting familiarity and vague unease that accompany going home for the holidays.
“A Marshmallow World” by The Regrettes
The Regrettes sound like an ’80s television version of a punk band, naturally with a British singer sneering the lyrics. On “A Marshmallow World,” that translates to a perfectly likable version of the song, but one with less energy than the opening promises. That absence steers the song wide of the cliché of racing through Christmas carol at 100 downstrokes per minute, but the power outage lessens my interest in the band’s debut album, Feel Your Feelings Fool, due out January 13.
Jazz Dispensary: Holiday Treats by Various Artists
The vinyl-only Holiday Treats presents itself a weed-friendly Christmas album, but with the exception of Rotary Connection’s “Peace at Last” which speculates that Santa rides at night because he’s high, it’s not particularly smokey. More than anything else, it’s a pretty good compilation of jazz funk and funk jazz. The Jive Turkeys effectively mimic The Meters on “Get Down Santa,” and Juan Torres “Peblito de Belem” translates “O Little Town of Bethlehem” into funky Spanish. I’d argue that Holiday Treats got one of the least interesting tracks on Joseph Byrd’s Moog synthesizer Christmas album A Christmas Yet to Come, but it’s the only soft spot on a compilation that grooves as hard as this one does.
12 Nights of Christmas by R. Kelly
Since my favorite R. Kelly tracks feature him as the king of steppin’, I’m still partial to “Christmas I’ll Be Steppin’” from The Best Man Holiday soundtrack, but there’s a lot to like on 12 Nights of Christmas. He wants to unwrap Mrs. Santa Claus, for example, and he wants to do it so badly that he needed tympani to signal the depth of his passion. The album delivers what you’d expect, but a single-minded Kels is only boring when he runs out of interesting ways to talk about sex, and 12 nights doesn’t start to exhaust him.
That said, the song I’ll return to most is “Home for Christmas” because it’s the best melody on the album, and because he’s not a sex titan on it. Instead, he’s a domestic guy who has to negotiate with his boss for a few days off. Kelly’s entertaining when he’s epic, but he’s credible when he scales his stories down to human proportions.
Christmas on the Lam and Other Songs from the Season by Various Artists
This Red House Records compilation of Christmas songs by Americana artists rises and falls with the artists themselves. The folk-leaning performers on Red House tend to be sincere and musically able, so everything is well-crafted and earnest. Not all of it’s memorable though. When I’m not listening to it, I can only remember the acoustic blues title track, Bill Kirchen’s honky tonk remake of “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’” and country purist Dale Watson’s “Christmas to Me.”
File under “gluten-free.”
Acoustic Christmas by Neil Diamond
The premise of MTV Unplugged in the 1990s was that acoustic music is somehow purer and less affected. Me—I always thought that acoustic music was simply quieter, and that artists could lie and pose with or without the gift of amplification. For proof of that, listen to this year’s Acoustic Christmas next to 2009’s A Cherry Cherry Christmas. On the latter, he gives each song the full Diamond, as passionately committed to sleigh bells jingling jing-jing-jingling as he to the dream he held on to in “America.”
On “Acoustic Christmas,” he’s precious, singing small, as if passions are too unrefined to sit next to all that lovely, refined fingerpicking. When he opens his voice up a little for “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” he massages the vowels to get an extra syllable and tone. “Herald” becomes “Hehaarald.” It’s singing for sound, not singing for meaning, and it’s simply not what I want or need from Neil Diamond.