Christmas Perils

“Put a Santa hat on your noodle, and a snowflake on your
little red nose…” So began my venture into this season’s holiday
music offerings. On the surface, making a decent Christmas album
seems like a fairly simple equation. Start with warm holiday
sentiments, a solid voice that can carry an already written tune,
and the occasional sound of sleigh bells. An orchestra always
helps, as does a children’s choir. Add it all up and you’ve got
yourself acceptable holiday fare. Or so you’d think. The problem
with holiday albums these days seems to be an overabundance or
complete lack of one of the above-mentioned ingredients. Do we
really need to call my head a noodle? And do people actually still
wassail? Some bands appear to be catching on to this schmaltz-fest,
but their response is just as problematic. Take From First to
Last’s tune “Christmassacre” for example. Does the word “Christmas”
thrown into an otherwise cheerless metal-fest really qualify
something as a seasonal song? I think not. It’s a rough crop to
weed through, but with a little searching, there is some good
holiday music to be found. Here are a few of this season’s
– Sarah Hammill

The Brian Setzer Orchestra

Dig That Crazy Christmas (Surfdog Records;
October 2005) The Brian Setzer Orchestra seems to nail at least a
part of the equation with this year’s rockabilly holiday album, Dig
that Crazy Christmas. If you can get past the young, blond,
tattooed Santa Claus cartoon on the cover of the album, presumably
a caricature of Setzer, and the wince-worthy title, there are
moments of true Christmas magic. Though there are some decent
tracks written by Setzer himself, he is at his best when blending
his big-band sound with holiday classics such as “White Christmas,”
“Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!,” and “Cool Yule.” (And
just in case you want to see it live, Setzer plays the Chumash on
December 23.)

Steve Lukather and Friends

SantaMental (Favored Nations; October 2005)
You’ve gotta respect a bunch of 40-year-old former glam rockers
still sporting goatees and heavy jewelry, especially when Eddie Van
Halen is among them. Certainly these guys have the heart and skill
to make good music. A Christmas album, however, may not be the best
avenue for such talents. Lukather and Friends’ SantaMental isn’t
bad. The musicianship is impressive, as it should be with
contributors from ’80s legend Toto and the like. What the album
lacks is relevancy. With very few vocal tracks and a distinctly
’80s vibe, the disc ends up sounding more like a jam session down
memory lane.

Various Artists

Taste of Christmas (Warcon; October 2005) Taste
of Christmas gets right what Lukather and Friends misses: a
contemporary audience. The album is composed of tracks by The Used,
Funeral for a Friend, Vs. the World, and others performing both
reworked Christmas classics and original songs. Tracks like Bert
McCraken’s “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” and Emery’s “The Last
Christmas” strike the right balance between edgy rock and
traditional holiday sentiment. But most of the disc is composed of
harder-rocking songs, such as Opiate for the Masses’ “Christmas
Evel,” which tip too far on the side of musical rage to be
considered even alternative holiday fare. Added up, it’s not so
much a Christmas album as a confused novelty rock compilation fit
for only the hardest of fans.

Shawn Thies

New Beginnings at Christmas (Self-produced;
November 2005) Santa Barbara’s Shawn Thies dishes up a subtle batch
of Christmas tunes on her recently released New Beginnings at
Christmas. It’s the type of album you throw on for mood music while
wrapping presents next to the fire, or in my case, next to the
metal grate in the floor, and that’s not a bad thing. What the
album lacks in energy, it makes up for with soul. Thies’s velvety
voice is perfect for channeling the ghosts of Christmas past and
breathing new life into old favorites. The result is a nicely
crafted Christmas lullaby.


A Christmas Kind of Town (Yep Roc; October
2005) I know I’m from California and all, but I’ve watched enough
Sex and the City and Seinfeld to know that Marah’s A Christmas Kind
of Town simply wouldn’t fly with any self-respecting New Yorker.
And yet, it’s precisely the city all 20 tracks refer to. The
carolers’ nasally, high-pitched voices are reminiscent of Alvin and
the Chipmunks without any of the adorable charm. And the space
between tracks is punctuated with lines like, “Why he’s making snow
angels. What a fellow!” without any of the irony necessary to carry
it off. On the other hand, according to the merry carolers, the
term wassailing refers to boozing it up at the bars, so I guess it
isn’t as outdated as I thought.

Various Artists

Acoustic Christmas (Favored Nations; November
2005) Strange that an acoustic album ends up showing more range
than many of its more vocally driven competitors. Each track on
Acoustic Christmas, a compilation album that includes Andy Timmon,
Adrian Legg, and Marty Freidman, blends its own style’s
sensibilities with an awareness of the integrity of the album as a
whole. Johnny Hiland’s sparse guitar solo “Home for the Holidays”
showcases the kind of down-home fancy finger-work you’d find in the
Midwest, yet feels right at home next to a full children’s choir in
Peppino D’Agostino’s beautifully rendered version of “We Pray


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