04 November 2006

Have Yourself a Tragic Little Christmas

First, let me give a big shout to Molly, who is both a friend from college and a member of that CD mix club I was talking about last week. She recently said some nice things to the club about "I Totally Hear That," and she also remembers a time I sang an original song, a cappella, to a group of friends at the SPICE House. I was terrified and exhilarated, since singing is something I enjoy but hardly excel at doing. A wet kiss to Molly for remembering that moment fondly!

And now, on with our sad, sad mission...

While describing her new Christmas album, "One More Drifter in the Snow," Aimee Mann asserts she has made a holiday collection "reminiscent of the 40's and 50's, but without any retro kitsch" (sic on the apostrophes).

Did she really need to say that? Can you think of anyone less likely to be kitschy than Aimee Mann? I love her music, but girlfriend will never be confused for the life of the party.

To wit: "Drifter" is filled with gorgeous songs, but they're all steeped in melancholy. Follow that link up there to hear her version of "I'll Be Home For Christmas." She sounds like she's got a snifter and a cigarette in each hand.

For those of you with iTunes, check out her arrangement of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." I loved that song as a kid. To me, it sounded like a rock and roll Christmas carol. Also, my friend Morgan had this Christmas carol parodies tape with a version called "The Restroom Door Said Gentlemen." It was about a guy who--whoops!--accidentally goes into the ladies room!

I even remember the first bit...

The restroom door said gentlemen
So I just walked inside
I took two steps and realized
I'd been taken for a ride

Oh my God, you guys. Do not try to top that.

Now if Aimee Mann had put that song on her album, it would have been kitschy. Instead, she turns the carol into a dark sea shanty, complete with ominous tuba and bells. She takes two steps toward Christmas and turns left at the Decemberists.

And for levity? She covers "You're a Mean One Mr. Grinch." That's the perfect choice, since acid irony is the closest she gets to whimsy.

In fact, I think this entire album could be heard as an ironic statement. Because if my friends and I were killing time at a restaurant, waiting for our Thai spring rolls to come out, playing a game called "Name The Three Worst Artists To Release A Christmas Album," I think I would put Aimee Mann second, right behind Marilyn Manson.

The reason is that Christmas symbolizes to me a kind of effortless joy. Meanwhile, Mann's music feels like the wrought emotional expression of a mind spinning itself into frenzy. Again, I love the results, but it's not what I want to hear when I'm wearing green-and-red novelty socks.

Put another way: last night, my friend Craig heard about the existence of an Aimee Mann Christmas album and said, "God, that sounds depressing."

Which is why I think "One More Drifter in the Snow" has got to be ironic. It's what happens when an artist known for aching examines a holiday that's supposed to be filled with joy.

And I know that the holidays see a rise in depression and suicide, but most people don't make albums about it. By doing so, Mann subverts the expected notion of what Christman music is supposed to be.

Which, really, is pretty interesting. It's the kind of gesture--intentional or not--that makes Aimee Mann so fucking cool. You've got to love the woman who wears black to the wedding or weeps her way past the eggnog bowl.

But an interesting idea--even a cool idea--is not the same as a good one. Really, how morosely ironic can I be at Christmastime? Even listening to samples of this record makes me want to cut myself, and I don't think I can handle that for an entire holiday season.

Which is not to say I don't love some Yuletide irony. I just want it to be festive. Give me drag queens chasing Jingle Bells with Scotch! Give me "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus!" If we're going to arch our eyebrows, let us also kick up our heels!

Or, you know, let us listen to something sincerely. There are plenty of Christmas songs that I love because they are traditions in my family, even if they are kind of ridiculous. To this day, I get honest-to-god pleasure from them.

What are those songs, you ask? For clues, go here. And here. And especially here. Then go check the restroom door.

It totally says "Gentlemen."

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At 7:25 PM, Anonymous AdamH said...

*sigh* I have that Bob Rivers CD. "Then 2 nuns, 3 old ladies, and a nurse..."

My most favorite Christmas music is the cheesy LPs of my youth. "New England Sleigh Ride" by Robert Way just has the grooviest dissonant 60's harmonies. And his arrangement of Jingle Bells using the word Jingle as Esquivel would truly has to be heard to be believed. Then there's the "Great Songs of Christmas" series of which I have volume 5. Steve and Eydie doing "Sleigh Ride" - my sisters and I can sing along perfectly, even down to the pop pop pop.

Just today I was at a tag sale while getting my snow tires put on, and darned if there wasn't quite the selection of Christmas LPs. I was good, though, and didn't buy any of them.

At 12:03 PM, Anonymous Adam said...

Dearest Mark,
What you clearly don't understand about Aimee Mann and her album is that she's directing it not at Christians but JEWS. Do you know how depressing this time of year is for us? We have massive guilt about killing your Lord and then Mel Gibson gives us a hard time about it and then everyone's singing all these happy happy songs! It's too much to take. So the Jewish community would like to thank Aimee Mann for throwing us a bone. (Hopefully, the bone of a baby. We love those!) But in all seriousness, I am very tempted to buy this album even though it is depressing. I can imagine sitting at my desk watching the snow fall and listening to this and thinking, "Ah, life is melancholy but pretty."
And then I'd go eat a baby.

At 1:28 PM, Anonymous Jenni Hohenstein said...

The Hohen-steins are all about instrumental Christmas Music. (That is when we're not eating babies with the rest of the Jews.)

Herb Alpert is especially fun. It makes you want to consume cocktails that have egg white in the recipe. And wear polyester. And smoke cigarettes inside the house.

(PS- I love that you love Dolly Parton even more than I do. That makes you really special.)

At 6:39 PM, Anonymous Molly* said...

Thanks for the shout out, Mark! I'm going to the CD listening party tonight ... too bad you can't be in DC and NYC at the same time. John has already said that your selection was "truly inspired."


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