From drugstores to department stores, even on city sidewalks, the tinny barrage of Christmas music is impossible to escape this time of year. But although it's easy to churn out one more saccharine "Silent Night," original takes on the holiday canon are as rare as a white Christmas in this age of global warming.
And that puts pressure on musicians like singer Raul Malo, former front man for the Mavericks. "These songs have been heard millions of times, so you better do something different to them," says Malo, a "self-admitted Christmas music junkie" with upward of 400 Christmas albums in his collection. "Do you really need another straitlaced version of 'Jingle Bells'?"
Toasting the holiday spirit with amplifiers is always a challenge, either on stage or in the recording studio. In past years, the incognito surf instrumentalists Los Straitjackets have added Santa hats to their traditional wrestling masks. Hoboken noise-rock trio Yo La Tengo celebrates Hanukkah with eight straight nights of hometown shows, performing sets that honor such noted Jewish composers as Bob Dylan and Lou Reed.
Acts from the Blind Boys of Alabama to Clay Aiken will put their own spin on the music of the season in coming weeks, but it's doubtful any of them will match the rowdiness of Marah's annual TLA Christmas show, which takes place tomorrow. Tidings of joy might not seem to jibe with the bar-band grit of the typical Marah song, but guitarist Serge Bielanko says he and his brother, Dave, "have been Christmas freaks since we were little kids."
"We're definitely from the old school of gaudy Christmas lights all over the house," Bielanko says. "There's something about Bing Crosby singing 'White Christmas' that just eclipses everybody else's version. It's the one time of year that old music makes sense."
Counting the Days
EP includes a version of the Hawaiian-language "Mele," drawn from Crosby's Christmas album, as well as the off-kilter "Valley Forge," a colonial Christmas carol with lyrics by Sarah Vowell.
is composed of 12 bona fide yuletide classics, but their arrangements are far from traditional. Malo, who plays the Borgata on Dec. 14, gives respectful treatment to "Silent Night" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas," a WWII-era ballad he calls "an extremely poignant song, now as much as it ever was."
But the album's other songs range further afield, from a cha-cha-ized "Silver Bells" to a "White Christmas" accompanied only by upright bass and finger snaps. "It being a Christmas record, you take advantage of that license to be a little goofier than normal," he says.
Wary of "fake sentiment," the Smithereens' Pat Dinizio approached the band's first Christmas record with a mixture of skepticism and intrigue. "I was always fascinated by the Christmas album genre, this bastard child of the music business," he says.
Steering clear of the usual chestnuts,
Christmas with the Smithereens
plucks holiday one-offs from the catalogs of the Beatles, the Beach Boys and the Ramones, adding three originals to the mix.
The closest the album gets to a straightforward rendition is the lush harmony intro to "Auld Lang Syne," which quickly gives way to a twangy rave-up. "We start off with the proper amount of reverence," Dinizio says, "and then we throw that out the window, and we sound like we're surfing on acid."
For the band's Dec. 21 show at World Cafe Live, Dinizio promises a healthy mix of Christmas songs along with some sharp-edged originals, all decked out with a smattering from last year's track-by-track cover of
Meet the Beatles
Dinizio admits frankly that
Christmas with the Smithereens
was produced at the behest of the record label, although he feels the band successfully put its mark on the genre. "It turned out nicely," he says. "Was it something I was interested in? Not really. It was interesting to be in the recording studio in May or June or July and try and get into that holiday mood. I'm not certain even during the holidays how much of that mood I have."
Christmas may not be the easiest time of year for Sean Altman, who performs Jewish-themed novelty music under the name Jewmongous. But it is his most profitable. "It's kind of comical how Christmas has now become the biggest time of year for Jewish entertainment," he says. "It's sort of Jews' fighting back against the loneliness of the last 2,000 years." Naturally, he has special shows planned for Dec. 24 and 25, including a duet with a young man whose bar mitzvah he played three years ago. For his Dec. 19 gig at World Cafe Live, he'll be joined by University of Pennsylvania's Jewish a cappella group, the Shabbatones.
Jewmongous' songs parody musical genres and misconceptions. "Blow, Murray, Blow!" may be the only big-band song to feature a shofar solo, while the sea shanty "Christian Baby Blood" sarcastically endorses the ancient libel. Onstage, Altman relays deliberate misinformation about Jewish culture to the gentiles in the audience, prompting a hail of heckles and corrections. Although Altman is secular, his act was born out of a serious attempt to reconnect with his Jewish heritage. "I'm not a believer," he says, "so in the absence of prayer or going to synagogue, I did what I know how to do, which is sing and tell jokes."
A Christmas Kind of Town
, released in 2005, flirts with comedy as well, interspersing ragged carols with drunken skits. But Bielanko wants another crack at the genre, and with a straight face this time. "I'm dying to make another full-length Christmas record," he says. "No funny skits or anything - just straight-up music that you can literally give to your grandmother."