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August 2007 Archives

Christmas, Chris Isaak (Wicked Game/Reprise)

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isaak.jpgIsaak has been milking that rockabilly crooner schtick for more than 20 years with great results, parlaying it into the quirky eponymous Showtime sitcom filled with hip cameos from fellow mid-list semi-celebrities. If you're a fan, this 2005 album will come as no surprise, brimming as it does with Chris's patented mix of pre-Beatles pop, rock and country moves. It's mostly trad carols but Chris bulks up the mix with five fairly sharp originals. "Hey Santa" is a smooth shuffle with Latin horns, "Christmas On TV" is a walking country lament about getting bounced by your sweetie for the holiday, "Brightest Star" is reminiscent of a Roy Orbison ballad, "Washington Square" is a waltz about lost love, and "Gotta Be Good" honky-tonks the thing you tell the kids into something you tell a faithless lover. "Santa Claus is Coming To Town" features a duet with Stevie Nicks, "Blue Christmas" is a straight lift of the Elvis arrangement spiced up with a little organ, "Pretty Paper" again recalls Orbison, a ballad version of "Mele Kalikimaka" thankfully picks up the tempo halfway through, "Last Month of the Year" is a twangy gospel version, and the other carols on the CD emphasize Chris' mellow balladeer side. I wouldn't call this a must-have, but if you're favorably disposed toward the Isaak sound you won't be disappointed. UPDATE: Bob Bailey points out the version of this album sold at Target includes a cover of Elvis Presley's "Santa Bring My Baby Back To Me," which also appeared on a Best Buy compilation. This song and another, "I'll Be Home For Christmas," were bonus cuts on the Japanese version. They appear to be unavailable stateside to this day, however.
osborne.jpgI don't often get the chance to tell people that Joan's first album, Relish, is one of the best albums of the 90s bar none. This 2005 collection doesn't quite hit those kinds of heights, but it's definitely a keeper. She casts a very selective eye over the holiday repertoire, limiting the traditional choices to a folk/gospel ballad treatment of "Angels We Have Heard On High," a blues waltz version of "Away in a Manger," and the usual stately "Silent Night." Like a lot of R'nB singers doing Christmas music, Joan leans toward the gospel side of things, with "Great Day in December" and a different version of "Children Go Where I Send Thee" than the one she recorded for A Home For the Holidays, less gritty but just as soulful. She also jumps into the blues with "What Do Bad Girls Get?" and gives a solid reading of Louis Armstrong's "Christmas in New Orleans." This was recorded exclusively for Barnes & Noble, but I wouldn't rule out a wider re-release in the future. UPDATE: As predicted, now more widely available, with different album art. Click the disc jacket to get it from Amazon.
twilley.jpgOne of the godfathers of power pop, going back to the late '70s with his own Dwight Twilley Band, I hadn't heard about him much lately until I stumbled over this new for 2004 EP on iTunes. UPDATE: It has been expanded into a full album for 2005. The album kicks off with "Snowman Magic" and segues into the jangly guitars of "Chrismas Stars," swings the poppy "Santa Claus' Favorite" and throws in some horns on the stomper "Rockabilly Christmas Ball." "Christmas Night" mashes up bits of "Pink Cadillac" and "Bang a Gong" into a dance-rock holiday classic while "Christmas Love" takes it down to ballad speed. The expanded album also adds the ballad "Christmas Lullaby," the poppy "Almost Christmas Time" and the holiday stomper "Santa Claus Walk." Topping it off, a little friendly competition with the Flaming Lips on "Christmas With the Martians," listed as a "remix" on the expanded CD. FURTHER UPDATE: In 2009 the disc was expanded to 16 songs, but they're mostly live and remixed versions of the songs already on the disc, except for "Help Me Jesus." All of the hardcopy editions appear to be out of print, so clicking on the album art will take you to a download of the 16-track edition.

"Santa's Going to Kokomo," Mike Love (Meleco)

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kokomo.jpgYeah, yeah, Santa and his old lady like to go south for the summer. A remarkably weak effort, no doubt hindered by the insistence on making kids sing most of the way through it. This is the Beach Boys' final top 40 hit repurposed by the band's lead singer a la "Christmas Is All Around" from the movie "Love Actually." Another downloadable single from 2006, still available that way only from iTunes. Currently it's out on the compilation JDRF's Hope for The Holidays from 2009, where it is accompanied by another Mike Love song. Love, Fabrice Morvan and others, including another kiddie choir, perform "The Closing Of the Year."
paulproj.jpgA 2006 original from British lounge singer Paul Martin (he's from Gateshead for those who know where that is), who bills himself as Blighty's best Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin tribute singer. Here he puts the martini glass down and opts for a pop-rock arrangement with lots of Christmas schmaltz and a kid vocal on the bridge. It's a nice number in its way, and it was a free download from his site. It's not there now, maybe he'll put it up closer to the holiday. Meanwhile, he has a video.


At Christmas, James Taylor (Columbia)

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jtaylor2.jpgJazz. Not what you would expect from ol' JT, but look at the credits: Produced and arranged by Dave Grusin. I was expecting this to be mellow in the Taylor mode, but I wasn't expecting smooth jazz-large ensemble mellow. Only a few songs feature the artist's distinctive guitar playing style to any extent, one of which is the cover of Joni Mitchell's "River," which is the sound you might expect a JT album to have all the way through. Turns out this is one of two cuts not produced by Grusin. ("River" was a free download for a couple of years, but I guess you have to come here to get it now.) Considering this originated as a project for Hallmark Cards, I guess I shouldn't be surprised at how it turned out. Apparently the two non-Grusin songs weren't on the card shop original, but a version of "Deck the Halls" was. A different cover distinguishes the 2004 Hallmark from the 2006 Columbia. UPDATE: Howard Cogswell notes "Deck the Halls" is part of the Columbia disc if you buy it from Barnes & Noble. FURTHER UPDATE: An Entertainment Weekly article about the history behind "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and its evolving lyrics cites James' performance, first released in 2001 in the wake of 9/11, using the original, more downbeat lyrics. That performance is on this album, although the single almost certainly is somewhere on eBay.
backxmas.jpgWe never get too far into the holiday without hearing some version of "Bring my baby home for Christmastime," and this 2005 holiday song is as good a way to hear this sentiment as any. The PR materials accompanying my copy of this identify Alexandra as "a 17-year-old pop phenom," and who am I to quibble? She gives us a full-throated rendition of this catchy little Seventies-flavored rocker, spiced up with plenty of Christmas-style percussion alongside the heavy guitar and sax. (There's a hidden bit at the end of the disc with plunking piano and a little kid talking about a "clean clean earth" that is a bit too precious for my taste.) Click the art to download from Amazon, or even grab one of the few remaining disc copies. Not much has been heard from the singer since this hit the stores, by the way.
threeday.jpgThis Columbus, Ohio-area band got this CD out just in time for Christmas in 2005. The band identifies itself, at least for the purposes of ISBN, as a Christian rock band, and this CD is intended to help raise money for several unspecified charities doing work for children. The title song kicks things off in a solid hard rock mode, talking about finding the Christ child, which appropriately leads into a version of "We Three Kings" with a definite Dave Matthews Band flavor to it. "Caroling" is a strong rocker about, well, caroling, and they even refer to "cranking it" and "slap the bass" in connection with serenading holiday listeners. "Snow Blues" is just that, an acoustic blues lament about leaving winter in Ohio for a trip to Mexico. They also take us on a "Sled Ride," promise to rock and roll Christmas with a new "Red Guitar," go bluegrass on, wait for it, "Blue Grass Christmas," and give us an ode to a "Snow Day." Rudolph gets props once more on "Christmas Hero," and they wrap things up with, well why not, "Merry Christmas." The band is an ambitious bunch of semi-pros who have given us a solidly entertaining holiday CD, one that remains available via Amazon (click the album jacket).
XmasY2K4.jpgDon Vigeant steers us to this pair of holiday classics rendered in garage/surf style by the above-named Bay Area band. "Saracen" has a bit more of an Eastern percussion thing going alongside the surf guitar rather than the martial beat of the more familiar "Drummer Boy" versions. "Carol," while surfy-sounding, builds in a bit of the drama you might find in a Trans-Siberian Orchestra rendition -- just a bit -- and rocks it up toward the end, then cuts the tempo back once more. Good stuff. "Saracen Gift" originated on a 1999 CD called The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, and I'm told both these cuts found their way to a long-gone compilation from 2000 called XmasY2K4U, but Don helpfully steered us toward downloads.
Tcastro.jpgFree downloads from the blues-rock guitarist's website, featuring Marcia Ball singing "Everyday" and Calvin Owens doing the honors on the Charles Brown classic. No surprises, but solid blues performances free of charge.
vienteng.jpgDuring the year of Christopher Hitchens' and Richard Dawkins' meditations on a world without God, it seemed like kismet to have stumbled upon this 2003 song from this former software engineer's album Warm Strangers. Fans of the above authors will be disappointed, however; the confrontational title fronts a perfectly appropriate holiday ballad whose major nod to its title is its failure to use the word "Christmas." But it does round up the mixture of feelings the holiday evokes in a way that expresses empathy without vetting the listener for religious preferences. If that's a thumb in the eye to the hucksters who annually peddle a "War on Christmas," so be it.

Holiday Hell Yeah!, Go Jimmy Go (Moon Room)

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holihell.jpgHere's what happens when a band from Honolulu decides to get down for the holiday, or so they would have us believe. Strangely, nobody here is named Jimmy, but the vibe is definitely party music all the way, kicking off with the standard uptempo version of "Merry Christmas Baby" and swinging into the original reggae tune "Holiday Movie Marathon." Needless to say, they take a whack at "Mele Kalikimaka," giving it a more traditional sounding reading complete with slack-key guitar solo, and they break out the ukeleles for the title song, a somewhat more mellow number than the title would suggest, but still light-hearted and fun. "12 Days of Christmas Local Style" starts out with a bit of Bob and Doug MacKenzie-style banter before replacing all the traditional gifts with stuff like a mynah bird in a papaya tree. Worth having for the change of pace, worth noting for those of you who are planning a 98-degree Christmas and don't want to have to use the boy band's record as part of it. Parrotheads might just get a kick out of this too.
Remingtn.jpgIf dark takes on the holiday from Scandinavian bands have you thinking there's a regional epidemic of seasonal affective disorder up there, these Norwegian folks should help dispel that notion with this fairly sunny look at the holiday released in 2007, free to download from their website and complete with cover art. "Here Comes Christmas" gives us the joy of the holiday, "Motorcars" has the singers wondering what Santa will bring, "Wintertime" is a cute synth-pop instrumental and "Christmas Song For Melanie" is a swaying harmonium-led ballad, though "Melanie" gets truncated to "Mel," opening up the possibilities of covers by singers of both genders. A nice gift to the listeners at Christmas time.
rspektor.jpgFound this 2007 recording on iTunes, a live performance of an original song for the New Year, a gentle piano ballad originally done by Peggy Lee. I wasn't able to find out much more about it, but I am curious about the artillery sounds in the background at one point.

"Silent Night," Lifehouse (Geffen)

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lifehous.jpgThe "Hanging By a Moment" boys rolled this single out for 2007, the classic carol rendered as a country waltz. Nice job, not too reverent and not too unrecognizable. Still downloadable separately on Amazon, click the disc art. UPDATE: Martin Johns informs us this originally turned up on a Best Buy "Sweet Tracks" comp in 2005, as did the Maroon 5 "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)."

"Sweet Baby Jesus," Joe Algieri (self-issued)

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Jesus.jpgJoe's a member of Jack & the Beanstalks, a Perth, Australia band, and he likes to let a Christmas song fly every year, free of charge. For 2007 he did the above-titled number, which does not play off "Sweet Baby James" but does cross love-song sentiments in a midtempo ballad with a yearning to see the baby Jesus. Nice work, and while you're on his MySpace page you can hear some of his other Xmas tunes like "All I Want For Christmas is Cindy Brady" and "I Saw Santa With a Gun." Since he contacted us, he's added such titles as "Cold Turkey For Christmas," "Stockholm Christmas" and "Chris Hillman Christmas" with his latest band The Brittanicas.
Manic.jpgA free download from their website back in 2007, this is a thrashingly good rocker with just the right amount of Christmas bells and a Slade-like shouted chorus. It's about letting the holiday fuel your imagination, rather than the material things. Not currently available anywhere unless you're willing to go spelunking through file-sharing sites. But we do have a video.

"Merry Xmas Everybody," Camp Freddy (New West)

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campfred.jpgDon't know who these guys are, but how bad can they be if they share a label with John Hiatt, right? The Slade chestnut gets a reverent and rocking reading from these guys for 2006. UPDATE: If you read the website, which I clearly didn't the first time, you discover this is a kind of supergroup featuring members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Cult, Jane's Addiction, Guns 'n Roses, and folks who have played with Billy Idol and Alanis Morrisette. Still available on iTunes, and only there; click the disc art to grab it.
pascal.jpgFrom a 2007 EP, Dear Sir, this straight-ahead organ-led rocker will really liven up your mix discs. The singer wants a Cadillac, among other things, which puts him right in the tradition of early rock 'n roll Christmases. And since Cadillacs are actually pretty good cars nowadays (and he didn't specifically ask for an Escalade, so that's how we know it's not a rap record), it's a timely reference.
santasol.jpgTwo rocked-up bar band anthems for the holiday, both originals, both free at their website -- but in payment, they'd like you to check out A King Family Christmas, the benefit CD for New Orleans musicians displaced by Hurricane Katrina, which is well worth your time. The link on that album is to Amazon, which only has third-party sellers for that 2006 disc, but it's available fresh from CD Baby as well.
A sprightly original single from this pop-rock band from Poughkeepsie, which I found on iTunes in 2007 but was also floating around free of charge at the time. Currently, it's only available on the Four Christmases soundtrack album; click the disc art to download that from Amazon. The song turns out to be a cover of one of those tunes memorialized on the American Song Poem Project, and is all the more effective for having been performed professionally with a straight face.
maroon5.jpgThis funky five saw fit to celebrate the 2007 season with this rock Christmas classic, taking a spare, balladic approach emphasizing voice and piano rather than choirs of guitars and voices. Some will find this falls short, others might welcome the chance to reflect upon the lyrics. You can download this from the usual sources, and it's on Now That's What I Call Christmas 4UPDATE: Martin Johns informs us this originally turned up on a Best Buy "Sweet Tracks" comp in 2005, as did the Lifehouse version of "Silent Night."
brocane.jpgMatthew Edwardson tipped me to this pair of tunes, a solid acoustic rock arrangement of the traditional carol paired with a blues-rocker with plenty of slide guitar and single-entendres. Don't know the exact date these were released, but I'm guessing it was sometime during the oughts. Good work, and freely downloadable from former Bro Damon Johnson's website.

brianwil.jpgThe management and staff of Mistletunes.com stipulates for the record that Brian Wilson's re-emergence as a solo artist after a troubled two decades or so is, all in all, a Good Thing. Nevertheless, we would not want to mislead anyone into thinking that a mid-60s Brian has the same hunger to reach the boundaries of music that he did in his 20s. That latter Brian got a much-deserved re-emphasis when Nonesuch issued the long-lost Smile in 2004. (A reconstruction of that album from the original Beach Boys tapes is on tap for 2011 as well.) As for this 2005 disc, his first Christmas album since his Beach Boys days, well, what once was innovative now is adult contemporary. He hearkens back to that original 1964 holiday album with faithful remakes of "Little St. Nick" and "The Man With All the Toys," along with the same arrangement of "Auld Lang Syne." And let's face it, he could have gotten away with recycling a lot more vintage Boys material and arrangements, but to his credit he didn't. The title song is new, with lyrics from Bernie Taupin and an a cappella intro of the kind Brian's famous for, though the total effect is pretty lounge-oriented. "Christmasy," with lyrics by Jimmy Webb, and "On Christmas Day," which is all Brian, are more like Brian's recent solo work. Stop by his website to stream "White Christmas," which isn't on here.
arrows.jpgThis instrumental rock band came up in the 1960s with hits like "Apache '65" and "Blue's Theme," and they've managed to keep the flame burning from those days to this one. Coming after such guitar combos as the Ventures, the Arrows cranked their old-school amps to 11 to get that classic "fuzz" sound that is featured in the titles of both the band's Christmas albums. But not to worry, vintage keyboards are a big part of the sound, too, which gives them the opportunity to sweeten things with clavioline, glock and bells as well as the iconic Vox Continental organ. The original Xmas album is from 2004 and was produced by Silvio Dante himself, Little Steven Van Zandt, while the second, from 2007, was produced by Allan on the Spinout label. The earlier disc is all classic carols, with a brief "Ho Ho Seven" by Little Steven prequeling "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," while the second throws in three originals written or co-written by Allan. Two of those, "A Winter Song" and "Santa on the Run," are vocals featuring Allan at the mike. The sound is actually a little too well-produced on both discs, losing a bit of the garage ethos the band had back in the day, but they retain their unique sound throughout both these discs.

"All That I Want," The Weepies (Nettwerk)

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weepies.jpgYes, I know this was the soundtrack to a JCPenney commercial. All I can say to that is that, well, ad weasels like good music too, and this catchy little bit of acoustic-pop ear candy definitely deserves more than 30 seconds of your time. (You hear more of it clicking on the preview in iTunes than you do in the commercial, including some of the male harmony vocals.) The husband-wife team originally rolled this out on their 2003 album Happiness. UPDATE: A previous mention that the song turned up on the compilation A Winter's Night was mistaken.

A Christmas Kind of Town, Marah (Yep Roc)

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marah.jpgI wasn't expecting this bunch of South Philly guys to put out a Christmas album, and given their status as a band that combines a lot of the better features of folks from Bruce Springsteen to the latter-day jam bands, I definitely wouldn't have expected vaudeville as the sound of such an album. Still, props to the guys for putting so much elbow grease into this 2005 release. There are five originals, including "New York Is a Christmas Kind of Town," "Counting the Days ('Til Christmas)," "Christmas With the Snow," the throwaway "Handsome Santa" and "Counting the Days, a Christmas Polka." They throw these in among a bunch of classics and covers, reaching all the way to Buck Owens for "Christmas Time's a-Comin" on one end and back to "Christmas Time Is Here." And they knit it all together with short skits in between tunes. I'd warn folks who have heard Marah before however, this sounds less like their regular stuff and more like something in between the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks. UPDATE: The band put out an EP on vinyl, Counting the Days, that combines a couple cuts from this album with three fresh tunes, "Home For the Holidays," the original "Valley Forge" and "Mele," the latter better known as "Mele Kalikimaka." You can download it directly from Yep Roc after you buy it, or you can just download it there.
melissa.jpgYour basic "come home for the holidays baby" lament, nicely rocked up in Melissa's trademark style just in time for 2005. It's one of the fresh tracks recorded for her Greatest Hits: The Road Less Traveled CD just out for holiday giving. I'm told there's a promo CD out there somewhere (I have a bootleg) of her doing a live medley of "Merry Xmas (War Is Over)" and "Give Peace a Chance" from back in the early 90s. This later became part of her full Xmas disc, about which more here.
universl.jpgThis Canadian duo was a big deal in its day, with five albums, song placements on "Dawson's Creek," "Grosse Point" and "Time of your Life" and sold-out Canadian tours to their credit, along with the occasional foray south of the border. This 2003 CD is their only full Christmas album, and it's chock full of originals, going to the songbook only once for an acoustic version of "I Saw Three Ships." They have that Sixties girl-pop-rock sound updated for the modern day, they've got quite a way with a hook, and the songs tie typical love song sentiments tightly into the holiday. The title song follows footprints in the snow to make an accusation of infidelity, while "ah-ah" vocals punctuate the beat. "Glad It's Christmastime" and "Best Christmas Ever" are great mix CD candidates. "The Celebration" is a duet of a beleaguered couple trying to find their groove: "It's Christmastime and we should be getting it on...." "Let Me Be Your Santa Claus" is a harder rocker, and "The Bells" starts off all sincere but swings into a Chuck Berry shuffle, talks about women going to see heavy metal bands in bars while pleading for a designated driver. The whole album is like this -- solid pop-rock performances, killer choruses and a strong eye for modern detail among the holiday sentiments. We'll forgive them one non-holiday song, "You Still Love Me." All told, an excellent holiday disc for rock and pop fans. The band appears to have ceased operations, so not surprisingly their music is out of print in the USA, though Amazon links to third-party vendors with cut-price new and used copies; click the album cover.
grubdog.jpgFrom 2004, your basic regrets song from this Austin, Texas ensemble, a country rocker about a lonely guy who gets a Christmas card from a former lover. Should probably call this one more country than rock, since it's more country than things I hear on country radio. Nevertheless, the title alone will stick out on your mix disc cover.

unclcarl.jpgThis is your basic R'nB horn-driven uptempo dance tune with the simplest of premises, as stated in the title. Fans of Huey Lewis and Sixties soul will especially enjoy this. Uncle Carl is a journeyman musician with quite a few originals to his credit, but this tune made the soundtrack of the recent independent film "Trust the Man" with David Duchovny and Julianne Moore, and it remains downloadable.

"Snow in Austin," Ellis Paul (Rounder)

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austinsno.jpgFrom 2005, this is your basic alt-folk funny-sad take on the holiday from a popular practitioner of the style. It's about what happens, or what should happen, when "snow angels make it to Texas," and all the unrequited love that passes between two people. It was out as a single, and remains available on his Essentials album.

beautifl.jpgThese guys, one Japanese guy and one American, released this CD in Japan in 2005, though they've since moved their base of operations to San Francisco. It's nearly all originals, except for faithful covers of "Last Christmas" and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)," though not all are Christmas-oriented. They're pretty much an electric folk-rock-pop act in the America vein. Highlights include "She's Coming Home for Christmas," "Cold, Cold Xmas" and "Every Day is Xmas Eve." The other songs are complimentary, but not specific to the holiday.
blackmre.jpgSometimes you really lose track of your classic rock stars, or at least I did. Ritchie Blackmore, after leaving Deep Purple, went on to found heavy metal band Rainbow before landing with Blackmore's Night, which turns out to be an ensemble dedicated to antique English folk music with just the lightest of modern touches (drums, synths, etc.). Blackmore's chops on various guitars, mandola and other instruments are not in doubt, and vocalist Candice Night sounds just great doing this material. But this 2006 release is not in any way for rock fans. Two originals, "Winter (Basse Dance)," an instrumental, and "Christmas Eve," a vocal, are done in the antique style, to go with such classics as "I Saw Three Ships," "Good King Wenceslas," "We Three Kings," "Emmanuel" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," plus the opening medley of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing/O Come All Ye Faithful," the latter of which is the closest thing to a rock-sounding tune on this disc. Not a Mistletunes pick, but if you have any Dickens Village aficionados or Renaissance Faire fans in your circle, they might just find this a delightful change from the usual Christmas fare. UPDATE: Three of the songs from this disc, "Emanuel," "Christmas Eve" and "We Three Kings," appeared in 2004 on an EP, now out of print.
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