Holiday Music Quarterly: Santa's Crack

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Dancing Queen

Step into My Hot Rod

All Apologies

VIC CHESNUTT AND MR. AND MRS. KENEIPP
Merriment

(Backburner)
****

Vic Chesnutt sneaked a strange little album under the radar this year--yes, strange even for Chesnutt. Upon first listen, Merriment seems to have "side project" stamped all over it, evincing all of that appellation's fringeyness, fuzziness, and experimentalism. It takes a few passes to get the sly humor, and only a few more hearings to glean the brilliance. Songs that sound at first stilted or strained become comically mannered, and the apparent monotony of style opens up to accommodate layers of sonic and lyrical subtlety. This time around, Chesnutt, always the dark prince of idiomatic abstraction, slums in a burlesque nether zone between dirge and anthem, and the results are surprisingly beautiful. While outwardly the man might sometimes appear a folk-gothic Grinch, grouchy and misanthropic, inwardly Vic's heart swells with love; he peppers his off-kilter musings with a poetry of romantic yearning entirely appropriate for this holiday season. The title song, for instance, ultimately reveals itself as a tender treatise on the healing power of humor, inciting hilarity in the very act of explicating it. Merriment is a screwball delight, a collection of serio-comic ballads punctuated by some delightful silliness. And what could be better than to give someone you love the gift of laughter this Christmas? --RICK LEVIN

THE SQUIRRELS
Don't Fear the Snowman/ Son of Snowman

(PopLust/PopLlama)
*
***

This little gem is a local classic that finds its way into my tape player about this time every year. If the holidays leave you feeling a bit hebephrenic, this album is the perfect shot of scotch in your proverbial eggnog. "Do You Hear What I Hear" is done to the tune of "Riders on the Storm." "Deck the Halls" parades as Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall." Don Ho makes a guest appearance. It's twisted and almost genius in a way that makes it sort of embarrassing to play for your holiday guests. In fact, it's the Christmas album that Weird Al wishes he could make, sounding like Frank Zappa dreaming of the sugarplum fairies. And it is all hosted by Baby Cheevers, every elf's favorite talking Cabbage Patch Kid. Sure to drive away (perhaps drive insane) the lurking Scrooge in any soul. --NATE LEVIN

THE WALKABOUTS
Train Leaves at Eight

(Glitterhouse)
****

One could not ask for better traveling companions than the criminally underappreciated Seattle-based Walkabouts, who are intelligent, generous, and gifted with impeccable taste. On Train Leaves at Eight, they take the listener on a musical tour, interpreting the work of contemporary European songwriters. They transform all the songs with a unifying hue and subtle instrumentation, without obscuring the flavor of the original material. The songs have been faithfully translated to English, finding a universalism even in the political protest of Italian Fabrizio De Andre and Spaniard Lluis Llach. Their cover of Bosnian-born movie composer Goran Bregovic's "Man from Reno" is a standout. The Walkabouts also offer covers of Jacques Brel, Stina Nordenstam, Solex, Blumfeld, Deus, and Neu!. Their eclecticism never exceeds their grasp. The love they have for these songs and their creators is part of what fuels this excellent set of tributes. The other element is their sly use of these songs to create a sense of place and rootlessness, a portrait of a home away from home that has seeped into their dreams and stoked their creativity. The Walkabouts are anything but tourists in these songs. --NATE LIPPENS

SALLY TIMMS AND JON LANGFORD
Songs of False Hope and High Values
(Bloodshot Records)
****

THE MEKONS
Journey to the End of the Night

(Quarterstick Records)
*
***

The eight-song, limited edition, direct-from-the-label EP Songs of False Hope and High Values is arguably the best thing Mekons Sally Timms and Jon Langford have recorded for Bloodshot Records. Which is no small praise when one considers the prolific output of Langford with the Waco Brothers and the Pine Valley Cosmonauts, as well as his near-ubiquitous guest appearances. Timms, the self-described "laziest woman in show business," has also released two country albums under her nom de lament, Cowboy Sally. This EP finds Timms and Langford duetting and taking turns on three covers and five co-written tunes. "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" gets the trademark cool, crystalline Timms treatment replete with bicycle bells. The cover of Dolly Parton's "Down from Dover" is the pinnacle, suffused with grief and lost innocence. The originals are the best collaborations Timms and Langford have written since Timms' solo album To the Land of Milk and Honey. "I Picked Up the Pieces" and "Dark Sun" show the sly lyrics they are known for with the Mekons, with cultural references to Dr. Strangelove and blacklisting. "Horses" reprises the finest song off of Timms' long-unavailable first album. With its acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, and great vocal performances, Songs of False Hope and High Values is not a fans-only affair. It is worth the effort to seek it out and witness two punks play their skewed campfire tunes with heart. Journey to the End of the Night is a triumphant return to form for the Mekons after a few albums' worth of thin-songed, thick-concepted output that reached its nadir with the electronic-fueled Me. This new album is named after Céline's semi-autobiographical work about misanthropy, misery, and one man's dark-souled flight from himself and his world. In other words, it's a perfect point of departure and entry for a Mekons album. As on their best work, the caustic diatribes are accompanied by an amalgam of country, folk, and rock. Over the course of a dozen of their most accessible songs in years they manage to explore misery, love, dissatisfaction, and capitalism's diminishing returns. Not too shabby for a ragtag, 20-some-year-old, egalitarian punk band with a taste for appropriation and multiplicity. As Langford sings on "Tina": "And I want nothing/It's what I'm trained to believe in/But I can still dream of things/That have never been/But someday will be." Still doing a rain dance in a hailstorm of contempt and disregard. --NATE LIPPENS

CHRIS KNOX
Beat

(Thirsty Ear)
****

New Zealand indie-pop pioneer Chris Knox has been creating fascinating, off-kilter music since the late '70s. Knox started out fronting punk bands Toy Love and the Enemy before collaborating with like-minded visionary eccentric Alec Bathgate in the brilliantly twisted Tall Dwarfs. Their high-concept, lo-fi approach laid the template for four-tracking, bedroom indie troubadours throughout the late '80s and '90s, influencing musicians such as Guided By Voices and Barbara Manning. But it is on Knox's solo offerings that his minimalist Dada-pop and elaborate wordplay have best displayed the depth of his talent. On his latest album, Beat, Knox strips the instrumentation down to the essence, centering it on electric guitar and keyboards. It is an invigorating approach that hardens the focus on his lyrics, which range from the playful to the darkly luminous. Beat is also a more energized affair than much of Knox's previous works, and his most consistent since Polyfoto Duck Shaped Pain & "Gum." Beat features a more roughed-up sound without sacrificing any of Knox's illogical charm. "Everyone's Cool" is classic Knox: sarcastic and humane, with a strangely sing-along chorus. "I Wanna Look Like Darcy Clay" nods to his punk past with rue and whimsy. "My Only Friend" is a rarity for Knox--a romantic ballad and one of his finest at that. On a trio of understatedly powerful songs, he contemplates the death of his father. The best of these, "Becoming Something Other," is full of sadness, resignation, and acceptance. It demonstrates why Knox is still such a powerful force. He can throw curve balls with the best of them and still shoot straight for the heart. --NATE LIPPENS

DUSTY SPRINGFIELD
Dusty in Memphis

(Rhino)
*
***

Dusty Springfield must have pasted herself back together many times, settling the deep, vibrating string of pain, to create such a work of genuine, romantic emotion. Her sweet, raspy voice begs and pleads like thick apricot jam, "Baby, I've got so much lo-ove to give... more than enough to la-ast your whole life through... and it's all for you." Sometimes when I'm listening to this album, lying on my back on the floor with my eyes closed, my heart swells big and heavy until my chest hurts. Give this record to anyone, man or woman, you wish to bed. --JENNIFER VOGEL

VARIOUS ARTISTS
The Rounder Christmas Album: Must Be Santa!
(Rounder)
*
***

There is no more artistically conservative genre than that of the Christmas song. This is as it should be. In a season decked out on all sides with nostalgia, idealized familiarity, and the toasty warmth of safe sentiment, Christmas music provides the gentle auspices under which, but once a year, we reach back in time, daydreaming of static peace and totemic happiness, mooning through the woven gauze of childhood memory. Any changes in this scheme are unwelcome. Some ancient, unyielding law of cultural protocol dictates that Christmas songs must always be recognizable, derivative, utopian; their lyrical and harmonic cues must be silky smooth and as easy to grasp as the biggest bow atop the grandest gift. Nothing is riskier than the holiday album that steps outside this circumscribed realm of mellowized Yuletide tradition--those neo-Christmas albums that dare to assert themselves through innovation or revision. And yet, every now and then, a special work does come along that finds the perfect balance between the flair of artistic identity and the staunch monotony of holiday standards, proving itself worthy of entering the canon of Christmas classics. The Rounder Christmas Album: Must Be Santa! is just such a gem. The compilation opens, appropriately enough, with David Grisman's flawless reading on the mandolin of the traditional "What Child Is This"; from here, the record proceeds to move through a smart combination of beloved standards and new tunes. What is so amazing, and charming, is that the album invariably succeeds in making the old sound new and--what's more impressive--the new sound old, even timeless. (Of course the term "new," as regards Christmas songs, should be understood as highly relative, having less to do with specific dates than public exposure.) The Riders in the Sky's "Christmas at the Triple X Ranch"--both humorous and heartwarming--should immediately enter everyone's repertoire of singable, lovable Christmas songs, as should NRBQ's wonderful "Christmas Wish" and Barry & Holly Tashian's tenderly spiritual "Long, Long Ago." As for those oh-so-well-known standards: Mary Wells' soulful version of "Silent Night" is perhaps one of the finest ever recorded; equally stunning is the Brave Combo's polkafied rendering of "Must Be Santa." But it's two songs in particular that raise this record to the status of Christmas-collection masterpiece: Joseph Spence's drunken, grumbling, nearly incomprehensible version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" (he sings "Santee Chlor is coh-ming hmmm, nrrrr, bup"), and the Louvin Brothers' "A Shut-In at Christmas/Shut-In's Prayer," a melancholy ballad with harmonies to die for. --RICK LEVIN