A round-up of Christmas releases this year, including some pale visions from yesteryear.

frank devol cover art

In 1996, the release of Vampyros Lesbos: Sexadelic Dance Party introduced a larger audience to swinging, psychedelic Italian soundtrack music. A mere 18 years later, Roman Coppola and Alessandro Canella interrupt Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in to present Molto Groovy Christmas, a collection of self-consciously retro arrangements of Christmas favorites. Like the soundtrack music it emulates, Molto Groovy Christmas is deliberately anonymous but not, as the tension between a Hammond organ playing the melody with strings or horns as counterpoint along side fuzzed out electric guitars gives the project a freaky, go-go identity.

If it were freakier, it would be stronger, but Molto Groovy Christmas is more in love with being authentic in its inauthenticity. The back cover lists all the retro gear that Carlo Poddighe played when he cut the songs, playing almost every part, so that it’s as faithful to the sound of a late ‘60s psychedelic horror film as one man in a studio—admittedly, in Italy—in the summer of 2014 can be. Producer Shawn Lee visited a similar musical place with his A Very Ping Pong Christmas: Funky Treats from Santa's Bag in 2007, but Lee’s concern was the groove. Poddighe’s amused by setting “White Christmas” on a beach and giving “Jingle Bells” a Morricone send-off en route to a surf rendition. 

This year, Real Gone Music reissued a series of Christmas albums that remind you just how white a Christmas could be. Collectively, they hint at what was once considered the good life, and soul wasn’t a part of it. Frank DeVol and the Rainbow Strings’ The Old Sweet Songs of Christmas presents the hymns and carols unsullied by brass or woodwinds. According to the liner notes by Lawrence F. “Chip” Arcuri of TheYuleLog.com, this was unusual, and “the pureness of the music, which is replete with joy and the Yuletide spirit throughout, guarantees a truly remarkable Christmas music listening experience.” Me, I could use less purity and prefer Christmas recordings by Ray Conniff, Percy Faith, and particularly Merry Christmas by Jackie Gleason, all of which have at least incrementally more personality. On Gleason’s album of easy listening holiday music, the voices and instruments are so faceless as to seem ghostly, and the songs move at a haunted pace. There’s not a tasteless note on The Old Sweet Songs of Christmas, but that doesn’t mean the ones played are all tasty.

I’ve always contended that a tasteful Christmas is one out of step with itself. I don’t go for Christmas sweaters because I’m not pro-bad taste; it’s more like I’m taste agnostic. Single color Christmas lights on a house are a sign of misplaced priorities, and if the remarkable harmonies on The Williams Brothers Christmas Album were all it had to offer, it would be unbearable. Andy Williams is one of the tepidly perfect voices of Christmas, the sort of benign presence that forced rock ’n’ roll to be born. But the album was released in 1970 and orchestrator Al Capps throws in tweaks that acknowledge another musical world, one less concerned with seamless harmonies. “Kay Thompson’s Jingle Bells,” for example, scampers along with a brittle twangy, surf guitar setting the pace. Next to it, the Williams Brothers sound like The Four Notaries, particularly with the forced gaiety of the revised lyrics. Still, there are so Bacharach-like touches throughout courtesy of Capps that makes the beautiful music sound less like a fight with the then-modern world.

Bing Crosby first recorded “White Christmas” in 1941, but the 1942 version was the one that took, and it was introduced by the musical Holiday Inn. It’s a reminder of Christmas music’s Broadway roots and the power Broadway once exerted in shaping notions of good music. Robert Goulet made his name as Sir Lancelot in 1960 production of Camelot, and he sings Christmas songs on The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings like an action hero. He commands bells to ring in “The Christmas I Spend with You” as if he’s demanding that his foes stand down or taste his steel. He’s acting up a storm in every line, lingering or muscling up on a word or syllable to make sure nobody misses all the feeling he’s feeling. As a result, it’s a little corny, but the reddest of blood runs in Goulet’s veins, which makes him fun.

Capitol Records was surprised when The Kingston Trio’s The Last Month of the Year topped out at number 11 on Billboard’s album charts in 1960, though it’s not hard to hear why. The trio were the popular front of the folk revival, and there’s nary a Santa, Frosty or reindeer to be found on the album. Instead, they perform spirituals and English folk songs with all the joy of a dental hygiene lecture in a public library. The harmonies are pristine and the versions brim with grim determination to reveal the Christmas songs listeners should want. Listening to The Last Month of the Year, you can’t help but envision the trio’s Christmases as kids, where they found protractors, broccoli, and vitamins that will stave off prostate dysfunction later in life in their stockings on Christmas morning.

All of those albums were novelty records in a sense in that they were efforts to offer a specific audience music for a specific time of the year and a specific purpose. Christmas albums have always been sullied by filthy lucre if you want to get absolute about it, just like any record that’s sold rather than given away. Some cash grabs are slightly more naked, such as the Christmas with Nashville album. There’s a lot of precedent for the cast of television show singing Christmas songs dating back at least as far as Bonanza, the western that ran from 1959 to 1973. The cast of The Brady Bunch cut a Christmas album as well, and more recently Glee led to not one but three Christmas albums. Christmas with Nashville relies on listeners’ interest in the show because everything about the song choices, arrangements and performances are exactly what you’d expect—professional, polished, and short on personality. If you don’t follow the show and know the characters’ faces, you can’t individualize the vocals. The layers of performance by Connie Britton on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”—as her character as the narrator of the Grinch story as the judge of the Grinch—fend off any semblance of a genuine emotion and genuine fun.

Those albums have all relied on the holiday standards. The Living Sisters visit the Christmas canon judiciously, writing their own songs instead for Harmony is Real: Songs for a Happy Holiday. The Living Sisters are Alex Lilly, Inara George, Becky Stark and Eleni Mandell, all of whom have singer/songwriterly careers associated with musical integrity. On Harmony is Real, that translates to songs that clearly fun for them first, but that are never simply jokes. “Kadoka, South Dakota” is all about the silly pleasure of the four women harmonizing on the title phrase, while “Christmas in California” lets them indulge their Wilsonesque thoughts about surf and harmony. If anything, Harmony is Real may suffer from a surplus of wry, but their tongues are just barely in their cheeks, and the good natured fun they’re obviously having carries the double entendre “Baby Wants a Basketball for Christmas” and the faux-reggae of “Skip the Sugar (Good Girl).”

It’s possible that Aerosmith’s Joe Perry is having fun on Joe Perry’s Merry Christmas, but smiles were in short supply the day the cover photo was shot. Or, maybe that’s Perry’s smile; with his naturally stern demeanor, it’s hard to know. The performances are poker-faced too—certainly not glum, but the fun often seems by the numbers, like the commonplace horn charts for “Run Run Rudolph.” It’s very possible that after all this time, Perry’s pleasure in a recording comes from making the pieces fit, being tasteful, or other behind the scenes concerns that we don’t think about on the business side of the earbuds. The solo breaks in the instrumental “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” beg for Perry to wind out and take a showboat moment or two, but he stays thoroughly inside every orthodoxy instead. As such, he’s reverent while playing hard rock and humble with a Marshall on 10.

Joe Perry’s Merry Christmas seems like a management decision to keep his name in the world after the publication of his memoir, Rocks—mentioned three times in two pages of the accompanying press notes—but Earth, Wind & Fire’s Holiday feels even more mercenary. Like many bands who count the years since a hit in scientific notation, fans are way more into Earth, Wind & Fire live and the hits from back in the day, not that there’s anything wrong with this year’s The Promise or last year’s Now, Then & Forever. At some point fans say they’ve had a goodly plenty and back away from the table. A Christmas album is a way to sidestep that because while long-time fans have lots of songs about love, dancing and self-actualization from the band, they don’t have any about Jesus, sleigh rides or little drummer boys.

The most naked cash grab on the album is “December,” a rewrite of “September” with holiday-applicable lyrics sung over the old music bed. Since “September” is bulletproof, “December” is ridiculously fun as well, even when your inner art scold is wagging its gnarled finger. They also translate their “Happy Feelin’” to “Happy Season,” but the album earns some slack with good grooves and inventive arrangements, some of which go so far as to be near-complete rewrites. “Winter Wonderland” keeps only its lyrics as its remade in EWF’s image, while “Sleigh Ride” splits the difference as it sounds like it was mashed up with “Singasong.”   

 

All of these albums buy in to Christmas and accept its values on some level. The Hometapes record label recently released Star Over, an album of indie rock takes on Christmas, and the artists are defining their own relationships to the holiday on their tracks. Because of that, it’s less reliable as a mood setter for Christmas get-togethers, but nothing’s boring. Or simply boring. “This Spirit Thing” by Sunless is a drone that’s not quite droney enough, nor does anything about it say Christmas until Bill Murray’s demented Frank Cross from the end of Scrooged emerges from keyboard haze to explain that he gets Christmas, he really does. Until that point, the track’s not interesting enough on record, but the miracle of Bill Murray can animate anything.

Still, almost everything here merits attention and at least casual applause. Chris Rosenau plays a lovely version of “Christmas Time is Here” on acoustic guitar that would be the version of the season if Mark Kozalek hadn’t beat him to it and sung it in his trademark mope. All Tiny Creatures made me laugh with a passably straight version of Mannheim Steamroller’s arrangement of “Deck the Halls.” They scale it down just enough to get away from the glistening, electronic bloat of the original while tapping a piece of its inner pomposity. Slaraffenland slow down “Feliz Navidad” and strip away all rhythm beyond a pulse, then slowly rebuild it with a combination of synths and acoustic instruments until it becomes not exactly a party, but at least a good time. The desire to have Christmas on the artists’ own terms is the overriding impulse on Star Over, and on a holiday as riddled with tradition as Christmas, that’s a perfectly good desire. If your Christmas doesn’t suit you, why do it?