Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Indie Christmas

I’ve said something along these lines before, but if an artist sticks around long enough (especially a singer/songwriter type get up), a release of cover songs displaying the diversity of their influences is often inevitable, almost obligatory. Along the same lines and almost as inevigatory (yes, it’s a word now), is the Christmas album. Bah, humbug!

Chris Isaak had one a few years ago, and I hated it. Various other artists from Queen to Cocteau Twins have released one or two tracks here and there, and they’ve ranged from enjoyable to acceptable to awful to surprisingly good.

But I’m not here to dissect all of that (today at least). What I want to go over is the latest offering from that predictably enigmatic pairing of indie rock and indie film, stars in their own right, and yet still quite earthbound about it, She & Him.

To me, a Christmas album is a very tricky deal. There are two reasons for this:

First, without going into the very personal and often trite issues I’ve had with Christmas over the years, I will say that some of my all time favorite songs are Christmas songs. These are timeless, canonical classics like Oh Holy Night, I’ll Be Home for Christmas and the like. And part of me wants to say, “Well, a good song is a good song, and you can’t ruin that.” Yes, you can. Too much cheese, not enough cheese, indifference, irreverence, messing around too much with lyrics or melodies, all of this can kill a good Christmas song.

Second, writing your own Christmas song is usually a bomb. Lots of artists do it, and most fail in comparison with the classics. There are exceptions, and a notable one is the Pogues’ A Fairytale of New York (talk about irreverence), but for the most part these are weekend throwaways, something to toss onto a compilation for MTV or VH1 and forget it exists. And as long as the proceeds go to a good cause, no (real) harm done.

So, back to She & Him… Long time readers know of my ins and outs with this group, and that after seeing them perform live a year or so ago, I discovered a new respect for them, even if I keep them at arm’s length. Zooey’s new (girl) show has (eventually) done a lot to win especially her back into my warmer affections, but that’s as much to do with how she bounces off her co-cast as anything else. (Divorcing Ben Gibbard isn’t hurting either, but that’s tacky so I’m not going to mention it.)

Anyway, when I saw that they were releasing A Very She & Him Christmas, I sorta laughed and shrugged and rolled my eyes and said “That’s cool” all at the same time. The cynic in me will always initially say that a Christmas album is a cash in for folks like Celine Dion and Michael Buble type acts to just squeeze a few more dollars out of a demographic that can, well, probably afford it, but that isn’t the point. So of course I’m thinking, “What is a critically respected indie group on a madly respected indie label doing putting out a Christmas album?” Was this a joke? Was this a cash in? Was this a winky-wink nod to their roots? Well, maybe a bit of all of that, but per my “revelation” after seeing them perform, I want to think it’s mainly the latter.

As I said then, She & Him is a group that is more than retro, they’re almost a tribute act, vibing the bubblegum sounds of the 50s and 60s in a way that more plays the part than uses the elements in a new and unique sound (I’m not sure that made sense, but I’m not changing it). And a lot of those artists put out Christmas albums, so it’s only fitting, even logical, that She & Him do the same.

And with that all aside, listening to the album itself, well – if you’re a mad rabid fan of She & Him (like my 16yo niece and all her little friends), then you will eat up this reverb soaked affair like confection and wait for Volume 2 with spoon in hand. Otherwise, you’ll view this as a pleasant but unessential collection of classics from both yesterday and the other day to throw in with Elvis and Frank and Nat to change the pace a bit, but not really too much.

The song selection is superb, from the Christmas Waltz to the Christmas song; these are picks that set aside much of the holiness of the Holy Days and lean more on the rollickin’, festive, upbeat good times. Blue Christmas, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree and two of Brian Wilson’s 60s offerings (Christmas Day and Little Saint Nick), close to becoming canonical classics themselves, do much to prove this point.

And when She & Him are a-rockin’ and a-rollickin’ is when this album is most believable and enjoyable, and the playful back and forth of Baby, It’s Cold Outside is certainly the album highlight. But more often than not, the low key, understated production of say just Zooey on ukulele or with M on guitar, means that a lot of this is rather samey, and sometimes her delivery is seemingly phoned in, almost indifferent.

Ultimately, these shortcomings are minimal and do little to distract from the overall enjoyment of this album, especially as a background listen, which is essentially what Christmas music is for in most settings. And while She & Him do pretty much keep with the standard renditions (mad props for “presents ON the tree”), those of you wishing to sing along may want to pull out some Johnny Mathis or Dean Martin for a ‘round the fire sing along.

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