That Crazy, Last-Minute-Shopping, Tree-Trimming Beat!!
Holiday Shopping Assists from Jolly old Saint Alan Jacobson
A Gift of the Blues.
An enjoyable, yet saccharine-free Christmas album? Can this be?
Let me grouse for a moment. I hate Christmas albums. Even the great ones suck. A Christmas Gift from Phil Spector has been overplayed to not only instant hackles-raising, but utter irrelevance. No, dammit! I don’t love a fucking sleigh ride!!
So this was a hard sell for me. The Blackstone Valley Sinners The Cold Hard Truth about Christmas is a Christmas album, so there’s a lot going against it. There is the Christmas Cliché Detraction Factor (CDF), but also the narrow scope.
Albums defiantly focused on a single, shallow, non-universal topic (not love, hate, etc) tend to get boring very quickly: save the whales, save Christmas, save gay marriage, save Jesus, save me from being harangued by this crap!
However, I like this album. Let me repeat: I like a Christmas record. I can truly foresee listening year-round to at least nine out of the twelve tunes on this disc, a great—and I do mean great--Xmas album in so many ways, it is even nicely packaged in the true holiday record tradition.
A classically marvelous gift tag graces the actual CD while the cover features quite the unique band photo. Rich Gilbert walks in on Slim Cessna, in full Santa gear and caught in post make-out shock with ex-Boogerhead Judith Ann Winters, who seems to be Rich’s wife, judging by his distress.
This comically camp snapshot strangely betrays the universal truths this album covers: loss, betrayal, sadness, the human heart and how it handles life amidst the holidays—a time that is supposed to be (and to be fair, often is) a lot happier than most of the rest of the year. Rest assured, though, this is no tired, ironic reactionary knee jerk to the CDF—any flippancy is tastefully doled out in small and appropriate portions to avoid inappropriate smugness.
Slim Cessna yodels his way through most of the leads in such excellent voice, that it would be downright austere if it were not so generously emotive. Upright bassist, Judith Ann Winters’ sweet vocal tone is used for backup, but she takes the lead once. Rich Gilbert, who plays everything but the drum machine (which is more Handsome Family than Chaka Khan) even does his level best to occasionally emulate Slim’s Hank Williams-esque high lonesome vocal cracks.
The Cold, Hard Truth about Christmas kicks off with a stomping vamp straight out of the 60’s and Frank Black sideman Rich Gilbert’s garage punk heart. Keeping a Christmas tone via a somewhat nominal, yet elegantly unifying tambourine jingle, the tune veers between country and rock. Shouted “Hay” punctuate this instrumental that despite its dainty length somehow manages to incorporate much of the best of the rock and country of the Fifties-forward in but a minute and a half. The kickoff track’s fusion of subtle Xmas sounds with feel of this music—an engaging combination of oldies austerity, outlaw country’s rebel spirit, and garage rock’s drive--nicely forecasts the rest of this collection of songs about the confusion of loss, a safety valve for the seasonally-depressed.
But there’s a brightness too: a real sense of humor, often lacking in even the best of modern country; with decent sense of reverent irony, much like that on display in Mr. Cessna’s main band, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. Take, for instance, guest star Tanya Donnelly’s complaint on her lack of gifts: “I’d like to hit him in his ho-ho-ho with a bunch of big snowballs” on The Sinners’ version of Loretta Lynn’s hilarious “To Heck with Ol’ Santa Claus.”
The Cold, Hard Truth thankfully lacks any clichéd “Jingle Bells” vapidity. Two songs serve as statements on how heartbreaking the season can be and how the best tunes about this kind of thing simply must be blues, the only music really resonant with a depth of suffering we all feel at some point. “Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day” and “Christmas Is Just Another Day for Me” are as similar in content as the titles suggest. But the execution varies wildly.
The former would be number 1, were it only December 1986 (the fun, electrikker part) and a perfect world. The latter is a 50’s-style country lament that brings to mind the fact that rock and roll was begotten from country just as much as it was a birth of the blues—see Buddy Holly (who started off as a country singer), Sun records, and Charlie Rich in particular. Country, as Lightnin’ once perceived brilliantly, is merely the white man’s blues.
There is only one original on this album. The superbly mournful “Katie Dang” sounds a lot like an Auto Club song; odd phrasing complements clever instrumentation. On the chorus, a banjo stirs a frothy foundation for Slim lamenting his missing love. In normal pop songs, as most Christmas tunes (ranging in style from country to Chipmunk) are, a cymbal ride usually accompanies the chorus, lending a heightened aural state to underscore the lyrics. But, as this wicked CDF-shattering original confirms, there’s nothing at all normal about Slim Cessna.
The wealth of Christmas-centric songs seems normal, but don’t let that deter you. The only familiar songs: “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Feliz Navidad” are wonderfully transformed. The fun of the Sinners’ ironically spot-on performances transforming what sound like midnight screw-offs into, respectively the former re-appropriated in a straightforward manner and sweetened by a real Chet Atkins guitar line and the latter a cheezrock send-up. This dead-on ability to gauge each song’s needs happens throughout the album and reclaims each tune for those of us whose scars will never heal from years and years of Christmas music abuse.
I rate The Blackstone Valley Sinners’ The Cold Hard Truth about Christmas a 10 for the performances, a 9 for the tune choice, and will only knock off 1 point for the Xmas Cliché Detraction Factor. A Christmas album that is an 8.7 (or whatever my cockeyed math boils down to) and as fun to listen to as it seems like it was to create? I never thought it could be.
Order yours at: http://www.mirrorimage.com/bvs/merch.html
Wonderful gift ideas or just great renters for that solitary 2 AM Christmas Eve Wrapping party.
11. Twist (Ron Mann, 2002)
Where else could you witness: a poodleskirter flipping her beau over-shoulder while keeping the beat? A man doing a split through another’s legs? The Watusi? The Froog? Hank Ballard (writer) and Chubby Checker (popularizer) chatting on the biggest craze of them all, “The Twist”? First-hand accounts of how Dick Clark hired bodyguards for his stable of honky dancers, after they had stolen dance moves from Harlem? This tasteful documentary not only offers dance lessons, but it features charming footage of the dance craze days. A treat for nostalgics and the curious alike.
10. Staring at the Sea – the Images – The Cure (late 70’s through mid-late 80’s)
A collection of innovative and constantly entertaining videos from one of the most unique, inspired, adorable, and well-represented acts of the eighties.
9. School of Rock (Richard Linklater, 2003)
Singular director Richard Linklater and Mike White (he of Chuck and Buck) collaborated on this absolutely charming kid’s picture; this will make your grandmother and granddaughter bow to the power of rock while patronizing none. Amazing.
8. High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000)
A fine movie from an excellent book. Rare. Cleverly explores rock addiction and is responsible for thrusting Jack Black on an unsuspecting world. God bless it.
7. The Kids Are All Right – The Who
From the mid sixties through the mid seventies, the Who were architects and then crafters of stunningly overblown rock from crispy-fresh ideas. The fount of mod, powerpop, the rock opera, and that good ol’ “maximum R&B” displayed through a seemingly never-ending scruffily assembled string of inspired performances, this is a perfect survey—more rock collections should be like it. 1970’s Live at the Isle of Wight is great, too.
6. The Old Grey Whistle Test (various)
Back in the early 20th century, Tin Pan Alley composers tested their songs on elderly milkmen and the like. If one of them whistled the tune after the second play-through, it would be a success and would move sheet music, the era’s “single”. Whistle Test is the crème de la crème of the British musical variety show that borrowed this phrase merely to confuse, a great display of that rock attitude. Over 3 hypnotic hours of live performances from Randy Newman, Captain Beefheart, The Damned, Blondie, The Specials, Bruce Springsteen, and countless others chosen and re-presented by the original cast of music critics, not personalities, who made the show so great by doing this noble work in the first place.
5. This is Spinal Tap/A Mighty Wind (Rob Reiner, 1984/Christopher Guest, 2003)
Oh, so funny. So very, very, very funny. Both of these send-ups on the most overserious, yet often accidentally amusing, pop genres are relentlessly clever. A feel of love and sense of knowledge of the music helps bring these films over genuinely and guilt-free for all parties concerned.
4. Stop Making Sense – The Talking Heads (Jonathon Demme, 1984)
Holy dear god. Jonathon Demme made good films. Possibly the best American band at the time, by 1983, David Byrne had shared his Talking Heads with Brian Eno on some landmark albums. Here, Byrne decided to mix it up with a bright filmmaker. The staging and performance are unparalleled and translate perfectly to film. Untoppable.
3. Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones (Albert Maysles, 1970)
Brilliant crapheads caught live. Horror with no easy answers. Marvelous concert footage interspliced with some of the most chillingly greedy and selfish behavior ever captured on film. Witness the sun-shiney-Sixties come to a close at bloody, greedy, stinking Altamont. Ike & Tina’s performance ain’t bad either…and just why did Jefferson Airplane’s drummer fail to stop pounding while the Hell’s Angels security temps brutally beat Paul Kantner? The mind sways.
2. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School – The Ramones (Allan Arkush, 1979)
A hail to the flood of rocksploitation flicks that our very own number one inspired (I am certain Deliverance director John Boorman wishes he could forget The Spencer Davis Group’s 1967 vehicle, The Ghost Goes Gear). Very John Waters/Paul Bartel (who also features), we find our hero, Riff Randall, a girl-rocker stuck in a school that does not permit rock…that is until the Ramones blow the shit up. Look out for flying fun!
1. A Hard Day’s Night – The Beatles (Richard Lester, 1964)
The best and brightest captured at their apex. Amazingly prescient use of most decent music video techniques. Wildly irreverent. A blast of fun and fresh air no matter how many times you watch it. Best rock movie by a country mile. 1970’s Let it Be is pretty great, too.
Also very much worthwhile: Repo Man, Rushmore, Hairspray, Crybaby, and a few others, surprisingly including Josie and the Pussycats (2001). Now get thee to a video store, and rock around that Yule timber…but for real, daddy-o!!
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