I have a rule in my house: no Christmas music until after Thanksgiving.
I know it’s not something worth grumbling about, especially at this most joyous time of year, but hearing Christmas music in early November (or, lord forbid, late October) just feels… wrong. Before Thanksgiving, you’ll find me at home, avoiding our centers of commerce, unable to fathom hearing “Frosty the Snowman” before there’s any chance of real snow on the ground.
If I must go out – to get food, or some other necessity of life – I bring my decidedly un-Christmas-y iPod with me, to block out the sound of premature carols. In fact, until the day after Thanksgiving, I even stay away from people named Carol. Just to be safe.
But after Thanksgiving? I binge on the stuff. I love Christmas music. And for about 30 days every year, I listen to as much of it as I can. I dig out the old favorites – Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas gets a lot of play in Casa Salles around this time each year, as do Harry Connick’s three (!) holiday records. And of course, Vince Guaraldi. And this year, I’ve been spinning that new Made in Aurora album, which is full of holly jolly goodness. (More on that next week.)
I also buy a few new ones each December. (Actually, that’s not quite accurate – I buy them when they come out, but I don’t listen to them until December.) This year, the pickings were slimmer than usual. I only have three to dig into, although I will say I haven’t bought into the hype and picked up Michael Buble’s Christmas record yet. I have no doubt it’s a good time, I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. But I do have these three, and they fall into three categories: good, godawful, and glorious.
Let’s start with She and Him. I’ve avoided detailed reviews of this collaboration between M. Ward and actress Zooey Deschanel because it felt a little too much like a precious novelty. But with three installments out now, including the new A Very She and Him Christmas, it’s probably time. It’s not that I don’t like this. It’s cute and fun and fluffy. My biggest problem with it is one that isn’t going away anytime soon, though: Zooey Deschanel has a barely passable voice, and occasionally her wavery tone really bothers me. She’s about as good as the average karaoke singer at your office Christmas party.
But she’s adorkable, whatever that means, so I guess we persevere. And if you can get beyond the vocal weaknesses, A Very She and Him Christmas is a bunch of fun. It’s remarkably traditional, but that’s in keeping with the two previous volumes by this pair. I expect this entire record exists because someone thought it would be cute to have Ward and Deschanel sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” which they do pretty well. Aside from that, it’s acoustic guitar and your usual assortment of holiday tunes: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” etc.
Ward and Deschanel pull out two Beach Boys Christmas tunes, which is a treat – they do sturdy versions of both “Christmas Day” and “Little Saint Nick.” Better than that, they pull off a delightful take on NRBQ’s “Christmas Wish.” Deschanel is quite good in a supporting role on that song, behind Ward’s rough-and-tumble voice.
When she takes the lead on standards like “Blue Christmas,” the results are mediocre, but She and Him are not out to change the world, or redefine Christmas music here. This record sounds like one of those holiday gifts recording studios used to offer – they provide the music, and people off the street get to come in and sing over the top, then give CDs of their performances to family and friends. It’s cute, if sometimes shaky, but if you think of it as a warm and good-hearted holiday present, it’s enjoyable stuff.
On the list of unbelievable things that shouldn’t exist, Zooey Deschanel’s singing career has nothing on Scott Weiland’s Christmas album. Yes, that Scott Weiland, of Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver fame. Yes, Scott Weiland has a Christmas album, called The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Yes, he appears on the cover in a tie and a Sinatra-style hat, looking like he has no idea what his agent has gotten him into. No, I am not making any of this up.
Weiland’s inexplicable holiday effort contains the same smattering of traditional songs, performed mainly with strings and pianos and subtle jazz guitars, as if Tony Bennett were going to provide the vocals. But instead, we get Weiland’s stoned-sounding, pinched voice. If you think the guy who sang “Sex Type Thing” might be an odd fit for “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” let me tell you, you have no idea. Part of me hopes that this is an Andy Kaufman-esque joke, but part of me is praying he’s really serious about this, and keeps making orchestral ballad albums.
OK, so this is pretty awful, and almost entirely laughable. It’s worth hearing once, just so you can prove to yourself that it really exists. I mentioned “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” earlier – Weiland sings this one like a Muppet with a head cold. It simply must be heard. “White Christmas” is similar – the vocals are insanely bad. He fares better on a sort-of-Hawaiian spin on “Silent Night,” complete with cheesy Casio drums, but the music is so awful it beggars belief. It’s clear Weiland didn’t take much of this seriously, but that raises the question: why the hell did he do this?
Every time you think Weiland will pull this off, as on the jazzy rip through “What Child is This,” he delivers another hilarious stumble, like his terrible Perry Como impression on “Winter Wonderland.” The lone original, “Happy Christmas and Many More,” doesn’t exactly expand the pantheon. And I can’t even describe the horror of the closing track, a reggae spin on “O Holy Night” that will make lovers of the traditional carol weep and moan.
While I don’t understand just how something like The Most Wonderful Time of the Year becomes a reality, I guess I admire Weiland for not caring at all what people will think of it. For instance, I’m sure he doesn’t care that I laughed out loud from first note to last, and lamented my lost twelve dollars. He’s got those twelve bucks now, and I hope he enjoys them. Merry bloody Christmas, Scott.
But it’s not all rancid sugarplums this year. In fact, I’ve got what promises to be a bona fide holiday classic around my house in years to come, and I’m beyond glad that I discovered it. The album is Silent Night, and it’s the third effort by Nashville harp player Timbre.
I first heard Timbre Cierpke at last year’s Cornerstone festival. She has a lovely voice, a deft touch with the harp, and the arrangement skill of someone much older than her 27 years. She makes patient, impossibly beautiful music with the help of her family and a cast of dozens. On her last album, she covered Radiohead’s “Like Spinning Plates,” and managed to make a real song out of it. She’s very impressive, and her holiday record is, frankly, stunning.
If you’re not sold by the time you finish “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” I don’t know what to tell you. Timbre’s voice draws the best out of this haunting carol, and she accompanies it with sparse harp and bells at the beginning, slowly folding in strings and horns and choral voices. It’s one of my favorite versions of one of my favorite Christmas songs, and the record never comes down from there. The instrumental “Carol of the Bells” is delightful, rich and full and powerful, and “The Robin Red Breast,” a Timbre original, fits right in with the traditional pieces here.
Timbre gives us three versions of “Silent Night” – a full studio reading (which is breathtaking), a snippet of her three-year-old self reveling in the song, and a closing recording of the audience at one of her shows reverently singing it. That last one is the perfect way to finish off this album, a warm and generous embrace on the way out the door. Before that, though, get lost in the positively lovely “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” pump your fist to the tricky and energetic “Joy to the World,” and let the sheer beauty of “What Child is This” wash over you.
One listen through to Silent Night, and I’m in the holiday spirit, fully and completely. I love this record, and it in turn makes me love the Christmas season. Hear and buy it here. And merry Christmas, every one.
Next week, what I promised for this week: a bunch of people I know, including Noah Gabriel and the artists of Made in Aurora. Leave a comment on my blog at tm3am.blogspot.com. Follow my infrequent twitterings at www.twitter.com/tm3am.
See you in line Tuesday morning.