On their version of "Happy Xmas (War is Over)," the L.A.-based duo cut it down until it's something they'd want to hear.
“Happy Xmas (War is Over)” has traditionally been one of the few holiday songs that gets love from people who otherwise have no use for Christmas songs. John Lennon’s name and voice help, as does Phil Spector’s wall-of-voices production, but its parenthetical assertion and lack of Christian piety—“Xmas” not “Christmas”—separate it from the songs written by the previous generation’s finest songwriters. It’s not sentimental, and it’s not hearkening back to some fondly remembered yesteryear.
Still, today, you could argue that the song is as an object of nostalgia as much as any hit by Bing or Perry or the Ray Conniff Singers. There’s no pretending that the war Lennon is singing about is in Iraq or one any current theater. If you try to imagine it forward, the song’s hippie/art utopianism is too strongly tied to the early ‘70s for that thought experiment to work. In the year of our Trump 2016, simply declaring “War is over / if you want it” feels Orwellian in ways the song doesn’t.
That doesn’t mean the song is irredeemable, though. Los Angeles-based Americana duo Venus and the Moon released a cover of the song that scales it down to a thought between two people with as much of hippie finery scraped off as possible. Since Americana and earnestness go together like biscuits and gravy, the treatment makes sense, and the duo—Frally Hynes and Rain Phoenix—tweak it a little to drain off some of the pretentiousness.
“The original way we did it was over five minutes long, so we made a lot of creative edits,” Phoenix says, laughing. “We only actually sang the chorus one time, at the ending of the song.”
When they perform it, they forego Lennon’s self-conscious effort at a sing-along and make the song more of a prayer than a rallying cry.
“It wasn’t satisfying until we cut it down to where we felt like, Okay, that’s something I’d listen to,” Phoenix says.
Hynes and Phoenix didn’t choose the song simply because they wanted to do a Christmas song. They were asked to be part of Rufus and Martha Wainwright’s holiday show at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium with Emmylou Harris, Allison Krauss and members of the Wainwright family, so they needed a seasonal song. They considered many conventional “jolly” Christmas songs, according to Hynes, but “those Christmas songs don’t relate to me as much,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing ‘Jingle Bells’ authentically.”
A number of songs got their attention but “then in verse three, Aww, no. What’s going on there?” Phoenix says, recalling how the proselytizing subtext of Christmas carols eventually becomes text in most of them.
“We wanted a song that had broader appeal,” Hynes says. “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” spoke to them because “it’s a song about promoting peace. Plus, it’s John and Yoko.”
Their choice of Christmas song doesn’t mean they’re hostile to more spiritual Christmas songs. “I first learned to harmonize singing Christmas songs, but they were ‘O Holy Night’ and ‘Away in the Manger,’” Phoenix says. Those songs, she sends, “tend to give you chills more than ‘Rudolph’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ when you’re singing harmonies on them.” Each year, she and friends go caroling because she does enjoying singing those songs. But, she says, “I’m trying to change it up a bit and make it more inclusive.”
“Christmas songs are an opportunity in general that doesn’t happen very much in our culture anymore,” Hynes continues. “It’s a time when people come together and sing. I think there’s something really beautiful about that.” She deals with the didactic nature of those songs by focusing on the part of the Christ story that cuts across belief systems.
“It can be beyond all that,” she says. “It can be a metaphor for the birth of a child, which is symbolic of us celebrating our own birth or rebirth at the end of the year. It’s like you’re birthing a new, purer part of yourself. I think that transcends any of the, Is it Christian? Should I like this song if I’m Jewish? I think it’s a beautiful thing to be singing about the birth of a precious new life.”