Here we go again. It's the holidays, time for children to beg, spouses to nag, commercials to advertise stuff you can't afford, relatives you can't identify to show up at your house It's time for mall madness and parking-lot squabbles and for you to make an ass of yourself at the holiday office party. Why, it's the most wonderful time of the year!
Musically speaking, it's also the absolute weirdest. People who never sing, not even in their showers or cars, bellow out tuneless renditions of carols to total strangers, who stand there, in the comfort of their own homes, smiling fixedly and wishing nothing more than for all those drunken people and their squalling kids to just go away. But they won't go until they get some figgy pudding!
Which brings us to the songs themselves. At no other time of the year do we sing along with words that are so hard to decipher -- even if you're a James Brown, R.E.M. or Nirvana fan. We pretend to sing along with "Adeste Fideles" as if freaking Latin were our first language. We act like we know what we're talking about when we sing things like "a-wassailing among the leaves so green," "don we now our gay apparel" and "toll the ancient yuletide carol." Throughout the season, there files past the semi-drunken mind's eye a bizarre litany Reindeer with electric red noses living snowmen little green elves fat guys in red suits Jewish shepherds infants tender and mild little drummer boys turbaned, robed wise men from the East and, of course, round yon virgins. (Yes, I'm aware that "round" and "yon" are not adjectives modifying the Holy Mother -- but when I was a kid I thought Mary was fat and also "yon," whatever that was.)
We solemnly intone inherently silly choruses like "pa rum pum pum pum" and "fa la la laa la la laaa." And then, to top it all off, at the stroke of 12 on New Year's Day, we drunkenly embrace and slur the words to the utterly indecipherable "Auld Lang Syne." "We twa hae run aboot the braes," we bellow in our best Lowlands Scottish. "And pu'd the gowans fine / We've wandered mony a weary foot / Sin' auld lang syne." Well, actually, outside of Groundskeeper Willie types, none of us sings those words, but that's a pretty close approximation of the mush we spew across the land at midnight, under all our silly cardboard hats and amid all the buzzing party favors, plastic cups of cheap champagne and flying confetti. And immediately all this weirdness is done, and we go back to our Lil' Jon and Nickelback, our Killers and our Eminem.
Here in the Texas subtropics, the winter imagery is even more absurd. We pine for the white Christmas that Houston has never, ever had. In this land of armadillos and alligators, we adopt the reindeer, a species of elk native to Scandinavia and Siberia, as our animal totem. And we sing about sleighs, lots of sleighs, both "one-horse open" and otherwise. How many Houstonians have ever ridden in a real sleigh? Were it not for Christmas, would we even know what a sleigh was?
Which brings us to our round-up of this year's best and worst Christmas music. We'll start with the good stuff.
If the new compilation Christmas Gumbo (33rd Street, $16.98) is anything to go by, Houston's equally steamy neighbor state of Louisiana apparently has a healthy disregard for Yankee winter weather. Art Neville gives you the eponymous gumbo recipe, the majestic Irma Thomas unfurls a wonderful salute to Gulf Coast Yules on "Christmas Without the Creole," and Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias warn Santa about the dangers of obesity in New Orleans. But Theryl "Houseman" de Clouet takes the cake here with an instant classic. "Gonna pimp my sleigh," he growls over some top-notch second-line Crescent City funk, "make a funky ride / red and green lights / blinkin' on the underside / looking like the baddest sled on the scene / everybody gonna see me comin' up Canal Street." "Houseman" appears a little confused about the concept of a sleigh, as he refers to "chrome spinning on all the wheels," but hey, if he's gonna have a sleigh in New Orleans, he better hope he won't have to drag it across a snowy field.
If you're determined to drag our balmy weather winterward musically, you could do worse than to pick up one or two of the classy compilations put together by the former Rhino employees now at Shout Factory. Cool December, Yulesville and Under the Mistletoe each run the gamut from classic crooners such as Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, to funkier fare by the likes of Lou Rawls and Booker T. and the MG's, to a couple of tunes from oddball American originals such as Leon Redbone and Tiny Tim.
Tiny Tim -- the bushy-haired, hook-nosed, falsetto-singing weirdo of the ukulele -- is also featured on this year's sickest Christmas CD. I speak, of course, of A John Waters Christmas. The pencil-thin mustachioed connoisseur of the crass (crassosieur?) is quite the Christmas freak -- he's hosted a holiday party back in his Baltimore digs every year since 1963, and he also admits to being a frustrated DJ, the kind of guy who is always dragging people to his house after closing time to listen to records. (Come to think of it, I've done that a time or two myself.)
These traits, matched with Waters's well-known and unerring eye for the absurd, the tacky and the grotesque, result in a must-have holiday CD. There's "Happy Birthday Jesus (A Child's Prayer)," the utterly sanctimonious recitation by Little Cindy -- sure to turn the stomachs of anyone who has ever been exposed to Christian fundamentalism. Rudolph and Gang contribute the anti-Santa diatribe "Here Comes Fatty Claus," the chorus of which goes like this: "Here comes Fatty with his sack of shit / and all his stinkin' reindeer." There's "Little Mary Christmas," the story of, as Waters puts it in the notes, a "pathologically maudlin" crippled orphan girl passed over year after year by potential adoptive parents and who is ever forced to buck up for another year as she "hobbles back to her room." And this CD even has a Houston connection: Also included is Jimmy Donley's "Santa! Don't Pass Me By," which was produced by none other than Huey Meaux, whose sordid secret life has always seemed like a real-life John Waters movie anyway. (Waters would really dig little details like Meaux's gynecological table and his drawerful of costume jewelry, cheap booze and cocaine.)
Bad, bad, very bad stuff there, but at least Waters views grotesqueries like these with a detached eye, and Meaux had sense enough to keep his jailbait sin den under lock and key. No such luck with Trans-Siberian Orchestra -- purveyors of solemn, theatrical rock bluster so pompous and bombastic that even the likes of Rush, Styx, Yngwie Malmsteen and the entire assemblage of early 1970s British art rockers seem positively down-to-earth by comparison. Imagine the happy-clappiness of the Polyphonic Spree crossed with Iron Maiden's ax-shredding fury and Yes's ludicrous high-art yearnings, and you have the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's latest Yuletide oeuvre, The Lost Christmas Eve, which is, as befits all acts like this, a concept album. No, scratch that -- it's the final chapter in their "rock opera trilogy." (Something about angels, crack babies, broken families and, naturally, redemption.) It's all quite well played technically, but like the guitar-playing of Joe Satriani, it has as much soul as a Wal-Mart parking lot. Avoid it, unless your vision of Santa has long, feathered hair and dons such gay apparel as a silver codpiece and a red spandex suit.
Houston's own El Orbits are far too natty to ever don such monstrous gear as that, and The El Orbits Holiday Album is the perfect antidote to the TSO's operatic zeal. Wisely, the El Orbits view of holiday music extends beyond such traditional fare as "White Christmas" and "Winter Wonderland" to include wintry tunes like "Candy Man" (Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was always on TV here at Christmastime in the '70s) and random oldies like "The Spanish Flea," "Hey Baby" and "What a Wonderful World." As always, the band delivers the tunes with charm, humor and plenty of cheer.
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Which is what we could all use more of this time of the year. So, to quote John Waters, "Have a merry, rotten, scary, sexy, biracial, ludicrous, happy little Christmas."
And may all your virgins be round and yon.
One way to accomplish Waters's command is to, like, go out and help some sick kids or something. And with the help of Crazy Tony Avitia, you can do just that at Crazy Tony Loves Da Kids!, a benefit show for the M.D. Anderson Children's Art Project at Fitzgerald's this Saturday. Hip-hoppers I-45, Studemont Project and Q.U.E. head a rap-heavy bill, with Sugar Land's 57 State representing for the rockers. DJ Destro, DJ Vango and DJ Sqince will all spin at the event, which will be attended by some of the young M.D. Anderson cancer patients the show's proceeds will be helping.