As many people know, in spite of my infidelic nature, I love Christmas music. I don’t confine myself to the time around the Christmas holidays, either; I’ll listen to a Christmas album in spring or summer just because I feel like it.
A few days ago, the Guardian reviewed A Very She & Him Christmas, one of my most anticipated albums of the autumn. Reviewer Alexis Petridis did not like aVS&HC; he said the album “doesn’t feel melancholy so much as joyless.” I thought about that. I didn’t quite agree with Petridis, not exactly. When the album arrived in the mail, complete with She & Him wrapping paper, I listened to it a few times, mainly at work as background music while I wrote, and it didn’t make an impression on me. Then on Friday, as I left the office, I saw the CD sitting on my desk, peeking out from under a pile of papers, and I shoved it into my bag so I could listen to it on the drive home. To my great frustration, I managed to listen to the album twice, beginning to end, all thanks to an accident that snarled traffic rather badly.
There were things I liked, and there were things I didn’t like, and it took a discussion about the Jethro Tull Christmas album for me to understand why.
Yesterday on Facebook, a friend wrote that he was surprised that there was a Jethro Tull Christmas album. There are actually two, I think — there’s the first edition that came out, and then there was an expanded edition that came out a year or two later.
Many musicians do Christmas albums these days. Just stop in Target and look at the section of Christmas music, and you’ll see acts big and small with a Christmas EP or full album. One of my favorite bands, Carbon Leaf, released one last year, Christmas Child, which I enjoyed a lot. Ringo Starr’s album, I Wanna Be Santa Claus, is one of his best albums. Christmas albums don’t really get a lot of notice from the music press unless they’re really expected, like Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart.
There are two kinds of modern Christmas albums.
There’s the album by a musician or band that happens to be about Christmas. This is where the Carbon Leaf and Jethro Tull albums both fall. Carbon Leaf’s Christmas Child is all original compositions, while Jethro Tull’s album is mostly original compositions. Then there’s the Barenaked Ladies’ Christmas album, which has a lot of familiar songs done in a completely unexpected manner. Because these albums have either new or mostly new music, they have more room to breath creativity.
Then there’s the album that happens to have a musician or band singing Christmas songs. The musician is covering a familiar Christmas tune. Sometimes, the musician brings something new to it. Oftentimes, the musician doesn’t. This is where Bob Dylan’s album falls.
I prefer the first category of Christmas albums — either something original or something familiar done in an unexpected style (like The Fab Four’s Beatlesque Christmas albums). The latter category? Not so much. It’s the familiarity factor.
However, I love Dylan’s Christmas album, just because it is so awful. It’s laugh-out-loud hilarious.
This brings me back to A Very She & Him Christmas.
The reason I’m ambivalent about the album is that it straddles both. It’s an album of halves — half of the album is a She & Him album, half of the album is She & Him doing Christmas songs. It’s a subtle distinction, I know, and I feel like the first album works while the second album doesn’t quite.
The first album, the “She & Him album that happens to be Christmas songs,” is the lesser-known Christmas songs. To be honest, I thought “The Christmas Waltz,” “Christmas Day,” and “Christmas Wish” were all original compositions; if I’ve heard any of these songs in their original versions, I’ve long since forgotten them. (We do have 24/7 Christmas radio over here, and in spite of my love of Christmas music, I’ve found I can only listen to it for maybe an hour at a time because the same songs get played ad nauseum.) I didn’t even realize that “Christmas Day” was a Beach Boys composition, and I think it would have made a better album opener than “The Christmas Waltz.” But there are familiar songs that also work as She & Him songs, like “Baby It’s Cold Outside” (or, as we called it at work a few days ago, “the date rape Christmas song”).
The second album, the “Christmas songs sung by She & Him,” is a bunch of old favorites, like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” These songs are, I think, too familiar — in those times that I’ve listened to the 24/7 Christmas radio station, I’ve generally heard them both — and my reaction to them is, “Oh, not another take on this song.” Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward aren’t doing anything wrong with these songs, they perform them quite well, but I also don’t feel that they’re doing anything revolutionary with the songs and making them their own. Maybe they should have chosen less-familiar Christmas songs to cover. Maybe they should have written something original to celebrate the season. Maybe.
I’ve listened to A Very She & Him Christmas more times than I’ve listened to Volume Two, which is an album that I’ve never managed to grapple with in any meaningful way. I like aVS&HC, definitely more than the Guardian‘s Alexis Petridis did. But even though it’s not a great album, even though I don’t understand M. Ward’s Jon Huntsman look, it’s still, in my opinion, She & Him’s second-best. It’s an imperfect album, it doesn’t integrate its two halves as well as it could, and yet I don’t mind. It’s a Christmas album, it’s pleasant to listen to, and that’s alright by me.