On "Oh Crap, It's Christmas!' the spirit of the holidays runs through an unpredictable tour of the Christmas canon.
Christmas records can often show all the imagination of gift cards in stockings, but on Oh Crap, It’s Christmas! Debbie Davis and Matt Perrine includes holiday favorites as well as those banging on the canon’s door demanding entry. “Hanukah in Santa Monica,” Davis says, “is like Mel Brooks on The Muppet Show. It’s about being smart and funny and fast.” They play an ironic “Carol of the Bells” with Perrine’s sousaphone taking the lead, and the novelty “Mele Kalikimaka,” the Hawaiian Christmas song.
Still, the album has heart as well. Davis found the lovely “Christmas in Herald Square” on a Tony Bennett TV special, and sang the Bing Crosby and David Bowie version of “Little Drummer Boy” with Susan Cowsill. While in post-Katrina exile in New Jersey in 2005, she recorded “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with lonely reverence, backed by only by Warren Hibbert on guitar.
“That was fun,” she says sarcastically.
On Sunday, Davis, Perrine, and the host of musicians who appear on the CD will play a Christmas party show at Cafe Istanbul. For Davis, it fills a need. She and Perrine were musical guests at Judith Owen and Harry Shearer’s Christmas shows in recent years, but when Owen and Shearer decided not to do one in New Orleans this season, Davis stepped in. “It was something that seemed natural for us to do anyway,” she says. “I’m terrified that I have bitten off more than I can chew.”
The album and show take something that started in 2002 to a natural conclusion. One night, Davis, Perrine, Washboard Chaz and Jeff Burke met at Mike West’s home studio to record Christmas music that they could send to families as gifts. The process was informal, one more about friends having fun together than a recording session.
“We didn’t rehearse,” she says. “We looked at them, played them through once, maybe we recorded them again, and we moved on.” Many of the song choices were classics, but “Mele Kalikimaka” was also one of the first cuts. They sang two versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”—the one we know and the one with the original, dark, rarely performed lyrics written for the musical Meet Me in St. Louis. The well-known lyrics make happiness sound like something slipping away, but in the original, it's going, going, and almost gone:
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past
Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us once more
it bleakly decrees they’ll be “near to us no more.”
Neither version from the 2002 session made it to Oh Crap, It’s Christmas!, and Davis says that many of the tracks from that night are for family only. They recut it with pianist Richard Scott, as well as a version of “Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas because a woefully out of tune piano marred the 2002 version.
“We almost lost our shirts burning and mailing CDs,” Davis says, laughing, but they’d started something that came naturally to her. She grew up as the daughter of singers, and music was a constant presence in her house. At Christmas time, albums by the great vocalists were always on—Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Mario Lanza, and Johnny Mathis. “My mom was a big Johnny Mathis fan.”
Because of that background, Christmas music has always been a positive part of her life. Still, her parents’ preference for the great vocalists meant that her view of it was limited to a very specific kind of Christmas record. “It was a revelation when I learned Ray Charles had a Christmas album.”
She’s heard the criticisms of Christmas music and agrees that there are a lot of lousy Christmas songs, but “we need to acknowledge all the good that’s there,” Davis adds. “As music gets more divided along genre lines and chronological lines and race lines, Christmas music might be our last bastion of collective music. We all share that.”
She and Perrine had planned to cut Christmas songs again for Christmas 2005, but post-Katrina evacuation made it hard to do much, and the session was cut short when the sudden death of trombonist Brian O’Neill, who played with Perrine in Bonerama drained much of the joy from an already hard holiday season.
Most of the tracks on Oh Crap, It’s Christmas! come from sessions in 2008 with a band that includes Alex McMurray,Richard Scott and Matt Rhody, though pianist Joshua Paxton and drummer Eric Bolivar make appearances as well. The versions have a loose, communal vibe that’s in keeping with the spirit of the season. Just as the subtext in most Christmas songs the joy of sharing, the performances on Oh Crap, It’s Christmas! are as much about having fun together as the songs themselves. That connecting tissue makes it easy for Davis to be as convincing and committed to the nakedly emotional songs as the wisecracking tunes. She has that flexibility under any circumstances, but it’s clear she feels like she’s in safe hands with the band.
The Davis/Perrine household got in the Christmas spirit early this year to prepare for the album’s release. Early in October, they shot the cover art; normally, they believe in letting every holiday have its day.
“But the minute the dishes are done after Thanksgiving, it’s game-fucking-on,” Davis says.