The curse (and charms) of Christmas albums
By Raoul Hernandez,
5:43PM, Tue. Dec. 20, 2011
Having made it through Scott Weiland's new Christmas coaster, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year, I feel like Santa on the cover of this week's Chronicle. Without giving anything away about what's coming down the chimney Thursday, the only differences between that Claus and my state in the aftermath of Weiland is implement and motive.
What makes normal folk listen to Christmas albums, Christmas music, besides excess eggnog or – as can be the case at our house – too much Bailey's Irish Cream? Spending too much, eating too much, writing too many Christmas cards. Stress. Familial obligations. Too much work to finish before taking time off. Christmas music may be the antidote, the best mind numbing known to man since lobotomies.
Weiland makes it through his 10 holiday chestnuts in 31 minutes... barely. The opening “Christmas Song” starts out Sinatra-esque, “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” as well, with the Stone Temple Pilots singer reminding 1990s survivors of his once imposing voice. That's when “I'll Be Home for Christmas” hits like some freak-show hallucination of David Bowie and Bing Crosby's infamous “Little Drummer Boy” duet only everyone's had massive strokes. (In fact, Weiland even resembles a Dr. Moreau morphing of the two in his promotional clip for the disc.) “White Christmas” continues in the same vein until you're wondering whether that cherry red bottle of codeine cough syrup still lives at the back of the bathroom cabinet.
Drum machine set to bossa nova, “Silent Night” sloshes some of the aforementioned holiday mind eraser, and steel drums lilting Caribbean on “Happy Christmas and Many More” make it go down all right, but if you've made it this deep into Weiland's Christmas moonshine it's time to step away from the fire place.
Bob Schneider was what Weiland was shooting for all along, single malt smooth on The Light Connected kick-off “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” A seasonal offering from Dallas' Kirtland Records, there's not a bad track on it, from the countrification of Billy Squier's “Christmas is the Time to Say I Love You” by Eleven Hundred Springs and Deep Blue Something bringing “Little Drummer Boy” back from the dead, to Smile Smile evoking Dick Tracy's Madonna on “Santa Baby” and cozy Sara Hickman closer “Kiss This Christmas Goodbye.” Schneider covering the Pogues' “Fairytale of New York” is a selling point on paper, but tame on CD.
Geezerville wasn't kidding about Karen Mal and Will Taylor's instrumental A Mandolin Christmas being among the best of this year's Christmas crop. Folk and deep roots releases generally are. To that stack add fiddler Mark O'Connor's An Appalachian Christmas, guesting Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer, Chris Thile, and James Taylor leaving everyone in his wake on “Ol' Blue.” Canaries in the Coal Mine, local duo Chase Gassaway and Jordan Whitmore, also stay downhome and friendly on their Scarf Weather EP.
Harry Connick, Jr. Trio goes out with wrapping paper on The Happy Elf, bland piano lounge fare, polar opposite to the crystalline wonder of this year's hands-down winner of Christmas album reissues, the Beach Boys' Christmas Album. Where the boardwalk angles' massive Smile box set is endlessly disorienting, this short, sweet, 1964 LP is straight to the point and verges on religious experience on harmonies alone.
Christmas Album I'll file on the short self next to my annual go-to disc, 1987 AIDS fundraiser A Very Special Christmas, encrusted with the Pointer Sisters rocking “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” Whitney Houston stopping traffic on “Do You Hear What I Hear?,” 2012 South by Southwest Keynote speaker Bruce Springsteen swinging “Merry Christmas Baby,” Run-D.M.C. going King Kong on “Christmas in Hollis,” U2's anthemic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home,” Madonna cooing “Santa Baby,” and on and on.
Christmas implements can turn into Fargo's woodchipper all too easily if the season isn't mitigated by, ho ho ho, Annie Lennox soothing raw nerves on A Very Special Christmas' “Winter Wonderland.” And as for seasonal motivations – for anything, including Christmas albums (see the picture gallery above for all the album art) – always look to the elves. They're up to no good.