SONIC REDUCER Santa Baby, I wanna know: when did holiday music get hijacked by small children and their grandparents? At least that’s what it looks like perusing this year’s yuletide Brandy Alexander coasters: there’s The Coolest Kidz Bop Christmas Ever comp (Razor and Tie) for the ankle gnawers, and then there’s the reissued My Favorite Time of the Year (Rhino) by Dionne Warwick (dang, D, why did you lose your way from Burt Bacharach?) for their doting oldsters. But what became of the holiday music product for everyone between 18 and 48? The prim ‘n’ proper Josh Groban touting Noel (Reprise) can’t be expected to satiate several ornery, ADD-diagnosed generations. Have my people been written off as cynical, rabidly downloadin’ freeloaders too immersed in World of Warcraft to notice the onset of Buy Nothing Day?
I confess, we’re a tough audience. "<0x2009>‘Christmas Time Is Here’ that one song more than any heavy metal song or whatever has always made me want to kill myself," SF comic and spoken word slinger Bucky Sinister tells me after holding forth about his new What Happens in Narnia, Stays in Narnia (Talent Moat). "Hear that and ‘Little Drummer Boy’ back-to-back, and if you don’t feel shitty, you’re just dead inside. It’s like a kindergarten dirge."
Holiday music hammers all of our hot childhood buttons, inflamed by years of Xmas TV specials and deflated expectations regarding those flash lumps of coal at the bottom of our stockings. Still, I’m willing to suffer on the cross of lousy jingle-jangle juju, so you, dear reader, don’t need to. After listening to about a dozen new holiday discs, I’ve garnered a new appreciation for the recordings that eschew the obligatory sleigh bells and easy heart-warmers and employ less familiar classics (James Brown’s "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" pops up more than once), a sense of humor, or, sweet baby Jesus, new numbers.
SLEIGH BELL OVERKILL On Oh Santa! New and Used Holiday Classics from Yep Roc Records (Yep Roc), Los Straightjackets turn in a rousing "Holiday Twist," but they, along with half of Yep Roc’s finest, must have their sleigh bells taken away and destroyed. Worse, Jason Ringenberg and Kristi Rose’s "Lovely Christmas" massacres a goofy but venerable C&W he-said-she-said jokey duet tradition with saccharine cowpunk. The second half of the CD fares better with original, moody takes from the Apples in Stereo and Cities. On the opposite end of the bell-abuse spectrum, consider Disney Channel Holiday (Walt Disney), a cash channel dialed to tweensters and soccer mom ticket scalpers: the disc kicks off with Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana drawling "Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree" and it’s decent in a relentlessly upbeat, cheerleader-on-a-sugar-high way. Cyrus has an adorable, slightly hoarse, Southern-inflected voice perfect for whoops and cheers, which stands out alongside the punky power pop Jonas Brothers and bubblegum Lucas Grabeel.
SMOOTH OPERATORS Christmas goes down as smoothly with R&B vocal stylings as Chivas and dorm room blowouts. I have to say, the glittery synth and silky vocoder action very K-Ci and Jojo made Keith Sweat’s A Christmas of Love (Sweat Shop/Rhino) the best of the lot in the mail. Dude totally sweats the C-word: six of the nine tracks must remind us that it’s Christmas by their titles. But Mariah fans will find more listening fun here and enjoy would-be heartthrob Sweat’s bad posture on the cover and inner sleeve than on, say, the more trad, jazz standards treatment of the Isley Brothers’ I’ll Be Home for Christmas (Island Def Jam). The Isleys are in fine vocal form and furs! though producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis definitely didn’t cut back the melisma meter. Nonetheless, the biggest disappointment has to be It’s Christmas, Of Course (Shout Factory) with Darlene Love. The voice of Phil Spector classics like "(Christmas) Baby Please Come" attempts holiday numbers made famous by the Pretenders, Tom Petty, and XTC, though her robust belt doesn’t quite mesh with the uninspired vanilla rock-pop backing. Better is Patti LaBelle’s Miss Patti’s Christmas (Island Def Jam), which has busy elves Jam and Lewis giving LaBelle well-upholstered grooves with touches of glittered Steinway. Primo for the mom who must get down.
THE ODDS ON THE ENDS Is that all there is? I ended up glomming on to unexpected offerings that dive into the kitsch-flavored eggnog, like Homeless for the Holidaze, a self-released benefit CD for Seattle homeless charities from an Ensemble of Lonesome Fellas (ELF). You have to love the intentional bad taste of pairing a hobo rant next to a holiday version of "The Stripper" and their goof take on "Super Freak," retitled "Jesus Super Freak." Hey, camp and Christmas belong together, like raised lighters and teased locks in flames; hence, a little love to the quickie-looking hair band comp Monster Ballads Xmas (Razor and Tie). Nelson massacre "Jingle Bell Rock," but ya gotta appreciate Dokken applying every candy metal cliché in the book to "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town," including screaming axes and a malevolent "Watch out!" as if the imaginary big guy were a refugee from Goblin. And then there’s the schlockiday Muzak and sleigh bell dysfunction of Wreck the Halls/Christmas Rock Records, sister label of Rockabye Baby!, the geniuses who dreamed up lullaby versions of Nine Inch Nails, etc. Green Day’s "Holiday" sounds downright crazed, yet the pomp of Metallica’s "Nothing Else Matters" off … And Christmas for All! actually works, and the holidays take on a nice absurd tinge with a nerve-jangling version of AC/DC’s "Big Balls." *
Sat/1, 9:30 p.m., $5
950 Geary, SF
For more music picks, see Sonic Reducer Overage at www.sfbg.com/blogs/music.