Salon: Sharps and Flats

Published December 10, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

Years ago on a panel show, the playwright George S. Kaufman, answering the question "What's your wish for Christmas?" said, "Let's make this one program on which nobody sings 'Silent Night.'" That's been pretty much the credo of all non-traditional holiday music since then. Yeah, "Silent Night" appears on Phil Spector's great "A Christmas Gift for You," but as the background music for Phil's unctuous/sincere thank you speech to his artists and fans. "Forget the kid in the manger," it seems to say, "I'm the Jew to celebrate."

Bringing some irreverence to Christmas music is usually a sure way to improve it, from Elvis' "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" to the Kinks' "Father Christmas" to the Canadian band The Odds' version of "We Three Kings." But if you're going to be irreverent, you at least need to sound like you're present, and too much of what's on "Just Say Noel," a collection of seasonal music from Geffen Records, feels as if it was tossed off between the shopping list and the card list.

Sometimes the casual approach works. Southern Culture on the Skids' version of Charles Brown's "Merry Christmas Baby," with its flat vocals and loping beat, is a relief from all the white bands who have tried to come off soulier-than-thou covering it. But for the most part, the collection comprises cast-offs (a number from the soundtrack to the Barry Levinson stinker "Toys," featuring Wendy and Lisa), or things that seem to have been hanging around Geffen's vault. On the other hand, Sonic Youth try too hard on their cover of Martin Mull's "Santa Doesn't Cop Out on Dope." As if the wash of feedback, static, and background tapes weren't enough, Thurston Moore's vocal has been recorded as if he's speaking through a megaphone into a defective mike. The whole thing drips affected blasi coolness. Wow! A distorted Christmas song about dopers. Rad, Thurston.

The best things here are XTC's simple and lovely "Thanks for Christmas," "The Little Drum Machine Boy," from the amazing Beck (of all things, a Chanukah song), and above all, Aimee Mann and Michael Penn's "Christmastime." An injection of the world-weary disillusionment of cabaret music into the holiday, "Christmastime" is the only song I've ever heard that gets the feeling of 4 p.m. Christmas day: The presents have been opened, you've eaten too much, and the realization that what you've knocked yourself out for for weeks is about to be over. If you can imagine the sigh John Lennon put between the verses of "I'm Only Sleeping" transferred to a Christmas song, this is it. Sometimes an acknowledgment of what's soul-killing about the season is the only way to keep it special.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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