Indigo Girls, Fred Schneider queer up the holidays, but Annie Lennox transforms them with carolful CDs
RICH LOPEZ | Staff Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
It took decades in the music business before the famed lesbian duo Indigo Girls got around to releasing their first holiday album. Holly Happy Days puts Amy Ray and Emily Saliers in country mode with hoe-down ready songs and a star-studded roster. They could have very well created a lesbian music lover’s wet dream in disc format.
They giddy-up quick with “I Feel the Christmas Spirit,” a ramblin’ tune that leaves out any jingling bells. The fiddle and banjo are the stars in this happy song that doesn’t sound anything like holiday fare —unless you’re in A Very Special Deliverance Christmas.
That same approach makes the traditional carols interesting at least. Neither sings that kind of vocal stretch you’ve come to expect hearing on “O Holy Night” … and thank goodness. There’s no vanity here — “Night” may come off underwhelming, but its Celtic undertones add welcome texture.
Because they respect the carols’ original structures, there aren’t many surprises. That’s made forgivable with easy-to-sing-along numbers like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Who doesn’t want that? The organ backdrop, though, on “Angels We Have Heard On High” feels like you walked in on an old hillbilly church with a two-voice chorus. There’s a charming majesty in the tune along with the layered instrumentation.
Not to discriminate, the Girls cover Woody Guthrie’s “Happy Joyous Hanukah” which almost had me run out to buy a dreidel. The bluegrass influence here is adorable, and despite its minority status, it fits right into the rest of the album. Mary Gaultier and Janis Ian even provide gorgeous background vocals.
They go pop with “It Really Is (A Wonderful Life),” a bouncy song penned by Chely Wright. You almost expect to hear it as a commercial jingle or sitcom theme, but it charms in a way you don’t expect.
For die-hards, Happy Holly Days is Indigo Girls doing what they do best: Acoustic folk (although revved up) and lush harmonies. The non-fan might initially be put off by the woodsy flavor and lack of fuzzy feelings, but with time, their simple approach is refreshing and they prove that less can be more. Besides, the Indigo Girls offer three ornaments in the packaging. Score!
When Fred Schneider branches out from The B-52’s with his side project The Superions to take on Christmas, well, you might as well throw any possible idea you have about holiday music out the window. Schneider and company don’t hold back from turning Christmas on its ear and into a hilarious party on Destination…Christmas! Just try singing these door-to-door without being chased by angry villagers carrying pitchforks.
They get the party started with “Santa’s Disco,” an over-synthesized dance dittie about all the revelry at the North Pole. Christmas Carol cuts loose / Crazy as a goose / It’s so insane / What she does with a candy cane. This alone should paint all the picture you need to see the band’s approach to the season. The “Santa’s Disco” chant gets a little much, but seriously, this is fun stuff.
When the first line is “Whatchu makin? / Fruitcake” in, um, “Fruitcake,” you expect hilarity to ensue. Instead, it’s basically the recipe set to music and as the second track, missteps already show on the album. The techno beat is engaging, but this song proves early on that this shtick could get old fast.
It does. The same mistakes happen on “Chillin’ at Christmas” and “Teddy and Betty Yeti.” Schneider opts to talk over great beats, but the stories are not even ridiculous, just, well, stupid. I’m not really sure what he’s trying to do here: Fun is one thing, funny is another, but either he’s trying too hard to be “out there” … or maybe he just doesn’t know what he’s doing. Maybe I just don’t get it, but maybe there’s nothing to get.
There is some redemption in the “Christmas Conga (Jungle Bells).” The ju-ju-ju-jungle bells lyrics and the conga beat are irresistible, with more of Schneider’s talk-singing. The goofiness here is what he should have been doing all over the album.
The production puts Schneider’s voice front and center, which isn’t a good thing. I don’t think I ever realized how bad a singer he is; perhaps neither does he. He’s much better doing the outlandish vocals as he perfected on “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack.” Side projects can allow for artists to change up their sound, but Schneider is so bad here, you start feeling sorry for the rest of the band having to endure it.
And yet somehow, it ends on a high note with “Santa Je T’aime.” An orgasmic fan moans for Santa Claus as he bellows ho ho ho. Think the holiday version of Lil Louis’ “French Kiss” with that climaxing groan.
Even for fans of quirky and out of the box, Destination…Christmas! remains an unworthy purchase. You’re better off selecting the songs you like and buying individually online.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from The Superions is Annie Lennox’s holiday release. Filled with sophistication and heart, A Christmas Cornucopia could be the holiday album this season. With carols most everyone has heard to those she sang as a child, the CD is crisp and festive.
Where we seem to have gotten a softer, kinder Lennox in her solo career, her intensity here actually reminds of how powerful the Eurythmics were in the beginning. “Angels We Have Heard On High” is a beautiful choral piece that bursts with glorious force. Where the Indigo Girls are intimate on this carol, Lennox pushes her voice with abundant strength. She continues that on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman;” both solidly open the album.
Lennox mixes Middle Eastern, European and African influences with ease. She may not sound completely genuine with the French carol “Il Est Ne Le Divin Enfant,” but her earnestness comes across sweetly. Her Middle Eastern touch on “Gentleman” only kicks the carol into a higher gear without stripping away its originality.
Lennox worked with the African Children’s Choir on “Lullay Lullay (Coventry Carol),” a song about the Nativity that is the album’s darkest moment. She compares the song’s message about King Herod’s slaughter of the first-born son to the plight of children in Africa. The tone turns into a borderline buzzkill but she refrains from going too heavy. Still, it’s a shift.
She includes one original song. “Universal Child” finishes the album off with a heartfelt ribbon that ties it up well, though is not especially Christmasy. The advocate work she’s done with children and women in Africa comes out in song here and it’s a gentle touch. (Proceeds from the song go to her foundation to help those communities.)
Lennox delivers wonderfully and producer Mike Stevens succeeds in showcasing both her voice and the different flavors of music and instrumentation. Like the present that’s well wrapped and heavy when you pick it up, A Christmas Cornucopia is a worthwhile one to open.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 26, 2010.