Tuesday, March 16, 2004

Christmas (the band, not the holiday) have vanished pretty thoroughly from the public consciousness. These days, they're best known as 1. the band that James McNew was in before he joined Yo La Tengo on bass and 2. The band that turned into Combustible Edison. Since an awful lot of people have no idea who James McNew is and never heard of Combustible Edison, that leaves Christmas with a fairly poor shot at ever making the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. I think it's distinctly possible that they're not even as well-known as Dump, which is a pretty scary thought.

Adding to their woes is the fact that their great first album In Excelsior Dayglo gets a pretty half-assed review in Allmusic. To be fair, Trouser Press also drops the ball a bit (all this IMHO, of course). Here's the Allmusic review:

Fans of Christmas' earlier singles and their high-energy live show were surprised when the Boston-based trio released their debut album, 1986's In Excelsior Dayglo. Gone was the punky noise (most of it, anyway) and the more aggressive aspects of the group's presentation in favor of a skewed version of folk-rock with acoustic guitars, deliberately goofy lyrics (the Paul Reubens tribute "Peewee" and the Cramps-like raveup "Dig We Must" being two of the sillier tunes), and a sound and vision closer to childrens-music-era Jonathan Richman than, say, Roky Erickson.

I just want to interrupt here by saying that while all of the above could probably be defended in court by a high-paid attorney, it does paint a pretty skewed picture. For one, the album (to be blunt) doesn't sound anything like Jonathan Richman at any point in his career. Likewise, I can see the root of the Cramps comparison for Dig We Must (minimal drumming, "Surfin' Bird" type lyrics) but the song ultimately sounds nothing like the Cramps. The album does have some acoustic guitars, but it also has a lot of electric guitars (many of which are pretty noisy and un-folk-like) and, really, the main spot where a folk-comparison is in order is with singing drummer Liz Cox's vocals. Finally, you might get the impression from the above that Christmas' early singles were high energy things of wonder: they weren't. Here's one example that's not atypical, called My Little Book of Lies from Gerard Cosloy's Bands That Could Be God compilation that came out in 1984. If I can offer one piece of advice it's this: don't waste a lot of time/money on early Christmas material, as most of it is "promising" at best. Back to the review:

These are not necessarily flaws, but to longtime fans, In Excelsior Dayglo seemed a bit tame. In retrospect, the album could certainly benefit from a stronger mix and beefier production, but the lyrical and melodic charms of songs like "Big Plans" and the witty "Everything You Know Is Wrong" are still plainly obvious. Unfortunately, thanks to the band's misguided signing to Bigtime Records, which went under not too long after this album was released, the LP (it never came out on CD) is frustratingly hard to find.

Again, I just don't hear this tameness in comparison to their early recorded material, and it seems silly to compare an album to early live shows. The production could be better (this was an indie band in 1986) but there's nothing particularly wrong with it either. Reading the review, I think you'd expect something along the lines of the folkier side of the Donner Party (a great band also) and that's not quite what you'd get. With hindsight, signing to Bigtime didn't work out so well, but I did manage to buy this record at a New Jersey shopping mall, so it's not like it didn't get distribution. The fact that it didn't come out on CD wasn't unusual for the time, and it did get attention upon release: I found out about it because Spin gave it a plug in their front pages as one of the best debut albums around.

Here are a couple of my favorite songs from In Excelsior Dayglo (by the way, the cover of the album is cute: a Jenny Invert that someone has used as postage). First, here's Pig Amongst Men which shows off one of their strengths: combining simple sounding chord progressions with ingenious vocal melodies. Go ahead, sing along and try to hit all the weird intervals.

Here's a song called True Soldier of Love which has such a cool chord progression in the verse that they're able to repeat just that for most of the song and it still sounds great. Christmas got a rep for clever/funny lyrics, but they could write some pretty good lines and this song includes one: "Take this nail and then use it to hang my heart upon the wall and leave it bleeding, then when company calls you can tell them all about a girl who fell for you."

Finally, here's the second song on the album, Loved Ones. I'm not sure just how much higher energy the Allmusic reviewer wants this to be. I'm also not remembering any Jonathan Richman songs that begin with Hitler's suicide and then proceed to examine the best way to off yourself for maximum sympathy from your loved ones.

You know, I've decided that I want to do more on Christmas. I just recently transferred my vinyl to CDR, and I was kind of surprised at how well In Excelsior Dayglo has held up. I'm also surprised by the difficulty I have finding comparisons for the band. At first listen they don't sound that unusual, but when I try to find anyone who they actually sound like I start drawing blanks. Actually, the Donner Party does get into the ballpark, but Christmas wrote more complex songs/chord changes, played their instruments better, and had more "grown up" lyrics. None of which makes Christmas better or worse than the Donner Party...just different, but I do see a conceptual similarity.

More tomorrow...

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