Christmas CDs: Brian Wilson, Marah, Reverend Horton Heat, Los Straitjackets, Martin Sexton, The Skaggs and the Whites, Various Artists
What I Really Want For Christmas – Brian Wilson
A Christmas Kind of Town – Marah
We Three Kings – Reverend Horton Heat
Tis The Season For – Los Straitjackets
Camp Holiday – Martin Sexton
A Skaggs Family Christmas, v. 1 – The Skaggs and the Whites
A John Waters Christmas – various artists
“Christmas is the time to say "I love you"
Share the joys of laughter and good cheer
Christmas is the time to say "I love you"
And a feeling that will last all through the year”
I can’t get to the radio dial fast enough and change the station when Billy Squier’s “The Stroke” comes on, but his contribution to the ever-growing seasonal catalog sounds just right. It’s the right combination of kitsch, sentimentality, songwriting and performance that separates those who deserve presents on their list and those who deserve lumps of coal. The same line of thinking can be said for Mariah Carey, another non-favorite, who had the good fortune to hook up with a producer aiming to mimic the golden days of Phil Spector. Another artist I wouldn’t have blaring out of my speakers, but, again, someone who mixed the right elements for holiday cheer.
This year's crop of Christmas releases represented here deserve varying degrees of praise, and show that creativity and not solemnity are what matter most.
Brian Wilson is a veteran of this musical genre. And with the schism between him and the Beach Boys growing larger with each passing day (such as another lawsuit from cousin/onetime bandmate Mike Love), it makes sense that he’d seek to reclaim his material from the Boys classic Christmas Album. On What I Really Want For Christmas he covers three numbers from that 1964 album (“The Man With All The Toys” and “Little Saint Nick” fail to beat out the originals, while “Auld Lang Syne” equals its predecessor), adds several harmony-drenched traditional tunes (“Deck The Halls” being one of the best) and pens a couple of new songs with lyricists Bernie Taupin and Jimmy Webb. It may not have the innocent charm of his original foray into seasonal music, but Wilson does have his wonderful backing band around to provide the same vocal and musical accompaniment that gave SMiLE such strong support on CD and in concert.
The most pleasant surprise has to be Marah’s A Christmas Kind Of Town. On it the Philadelphia band (with a little help from its friends) takes the guise of The Christmas Players and put on a show. An intro comes on as the “Curtain Rises,” which is followed by a mix of reverence (“Christmas Time Is Here”), smartly-arranged covers (i.e. “Holly Jolly Christmas”) and hook-filled originals (the only reason “New York Is a Christmas Kind Of Town” doesn’t stay lodged in my head is because “Christmas With The Snow” takes over).
Rev. Horton Heat tones down its psychobilly ways for the Christmas season. On We Three Kings, the trio finds its power in Link Wray-styled rumble or how about the “Batman” theme providing the foundation for “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” It’s initially shocking to hear Jim Heath singing about Frosty the Snowman when you’re used to songs about cars and liquor, but then you remember, tis the season. Besides the pleasure of hearing a cover of country star Buck Owens’ “Santa Looks A Lot Like Daddy,” the band adds a strong original with “Santa On The Roof.” “We Three Kings” makes for great upbeat party music, especially when you’ve got a fridge full of beer and more chilling outside in the snow.
Set that disc up with Los Straightjackets’ Tis The Season For… The masked instrumental marvels take up where The Ventures have left off, making surf guitar music safe for generations to come. The arrangements make this a nonstop pleasure (mixing “Feliz Navidad” with a touch of “La Bamba” and surf sounds). The group’s upbeat style can’t help soften you up to enjoy something like “Here Comes Santa Claus” which you’ve probably heard it as department store muzak too many times to even want to think about it. “Tis The Season” is really so good, and so easily elicits a smile, that it may even be able to dispel the winter blues after a listen sometime in February.
So you attended that party with the Rev. Horton Heat and Los Straightjackets playing and you need something much quieter the following day? For something that’s more in tune with a night hanging around the house, there’s Camp Holiday by Martin Sexton. It’s an acoustic album featuring little more than Sexton displaying his usual gifts, particularly as a vocalist, while tweaking the material just enough to give it a certain freshness.
A similar, somber approach can be found on A Skaggs Family Christmas. Ricky Skaggs and his family (as well as the Whites) put together a bluegrass offering that’s more down home than Kentucky Thunder. Not that it’s bad, but buyer beware if you think that the pickin’ will be anything but family friendly. Highlights including the opener, “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let Snow,” Buck White singing lead on “Hangin’ Round the Mistletoe” and Molly Skaggs on “Christmas Time Is Here.”
Fan of the music in John Waters’ films such as “Hairspray,” “Cry Baby,” and “A Dirty Shame”? Then, you’ll get a kick out of the obscure R&B, country and more found on A John Waters Christmas. Displaying his perverse nature, he mixes the dance party soul of “I Wish You A Merry Christmas” doo wop on “Fat Daddy,” Tiny Tim’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” the rude “Here Comes Fatty Claus,” the sad-but-with-a-happy-ending tale of “Little Mary Christmas” and the Kwanzaa-rific “Santa Claus is a Black Man.”
Brave Combo doesn’t just concentrate on those special dates in the month of December. On Holidays the Grammy winners for polka albums get ambitious and create 19 original tracks that touch upon just about every holiday in the year Independence Day, Mardi Gras, Cinco de Mayo, Groundhog Day, Halloween and more. Lyrically, it’s a charming travelogue through the special dates of the year. Musically, the quintet tackles the obvious (“New Year’s Polka” and “No Work Today”) with stops at country (“Glitter and Glue”), New Orleans funk that incorporates “Iko Iko” (“Postcard from New Orleans”) and other genres. What could have been a mishmash of styles surprisingly fit together nicely, making this an album that hits that major demographic region from 1 to 100.