Jimmy Smith wasn't a jazz organist. He was the jazz organist. He taught himself how to play in the 50's.
As you probably guessed from the title, Jimmy recorded this album in 1965, to try to put to music the way everyone was feeling over the sudden arrival of birds on the planet the previous year. (Incidentally, this was also the reasoning behind the title of the reissued LP—Christmas Cookin' —in reference to the discovery that birds tasted great.)
Three of the songs feature a trio, with Smith backed by electric guitar and drums, thus giving Smith a bit more of a spotlight for soloing. Five of these songs feature Smith backed by a full big band. Interestingly, there's no saxes or other reeds, just brass (including french horns and a tuba) and the rhythm section. This gives them a bit more of a classical sound than the usual jazz orchestra, but it also reflects the grim economic reality of the times: for obvious reasons, reeds were hard to come by. It would be another three years before the industry recovered to its pre-1964 levels, and poor Jimmy Smith couldn't afford to hire any of the few remaining sax or clarinet (or even cor anglais) players for a simple Christmas album.
But in spite of these setbacks, Smith was able to record eight tracks worth of Christmas magic. And that's what Christmas is all about: in the midst of frightening changes and uncertainty about the future, you cling to the stuff that you know to be true and ancient: songs like "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" and "White Christmas" that were written, like, twenty years ago. Twenty years, that's like, forever, man.
Yes, the first Happy Christmas compilation sold well enough that Tooth & Nail decided to put out a second the following year. SPOILERS: So far, they're up to Happy Christmas Vol 5, which just came out this year.
So is it an Even Better Sequel? Sequelitis? More of the same? Less of the same? More of less?
Let's listen and find out.
MxPx — "Christmas Day" Nothing says Christmas like generic pop-punk. It's listenable.
Haha, after my comments about the punk stuff on the first Happy Christmas, and my thoughts on punk in the Album Exchange Club thread, I must totally be coming across as some jerk who doesn't like punk.
Sixpence None the Richer — "You're a Mean One, Mr Grinch" Heck yes. Leigh Nash is the exact opposite of whoever it was that sang the original version of this song. But aside from that bit of humor, her voice is really nice, and Matt Slocum's instrumental arrangements are darn near perfect.
All Star United — "I Wish It Would Be Christmas Everyday" This is yandere converted into musical form. Listen closely to the beginning. About ten seconds in, someone shouts "I'm so happy!" But he sounds like he's in pain. That's you're warning to stop listening while you still can. In this song lies madness.
And the song wastes no time getting weird:
When the snowman brings the snow well he just might like to know he put a great big smile on somebody's face!
On first listen, nothing seems terribly off about these lyrics. It's only when you really think about them that you realize how off they are. Here, the singer's reference to "the snowman bring[ing] the snow" shows that he either doesn't understand the cause-effect relationship between snowfall and snowmen, or he's gotten Jack Frost and the common snow man mixed up.
Don't you lock the doors you know that sweet Santa Claus is on his way
But, Santa comes down chimneys; whether the door is locked or not won't help or hinder him in the slightest.
When you're skating in the park and the storm clouds paint it dark then your rosy cheeks are gonna light the merry way!
Normally, I would chalk this sort of overly-literal interpretation of Luminescent Blush up to artistic license, but the rest of the song makes me wonder if that's really what's happening here.
Now the frosticles appear and they're frozen up my ears, so we lie by the fire till the heat simply melts them all away!
Frosticles? Seriously? The heck is a frosticle? I can get them frozen to my ears during a simple skating excursion?
So when Santa brings that sleigh all along the Milky Way\\
Wait. Santa flying through space? It's all starting to make sense now. Clearly, Wizzard (the band that originally wrote this tune) were actually aliens. This song is their best impersonation of that art form the native Earthlings called a "Christmas Song"; considering that they lacked our historical context, it makes sense their ersatz carol is going to feel a little off.
I'll sign my name in the rooftop in the snow and he may decide to stay!
I would wonder why signing one's own name on the roof would convince Santa to stay—and for that matter, why one would want a fat, magical elf living in one's house, rather than doing his job making toys at the North Pole—but we're dealing with aliens here, whose psychology may very well be incomprehensible to human minds. Clearly, we should pursue these matters no further, lest we be driven mad as All Star United clearly were.
Still, a good song.
Plankeye — "Jesu Bambino (The Infant Child)" Oh, that piano is lovely, this is going to be a pleasant DOW! DOW DOW! DOW DOW! DOW DOW! It's almost like it's rocking my face off, but it's really pleasant about it.
Hangnail — "O Little Town of Bethlehem" Stuff like this is why I don't write off pop-punk completely. A fun take on a good hymn.
Joy Electric — "Lollipop Parade (On Christmas Morn)" More synthpop from this guy. Took me a while to warm up to this song, but it's good.
Flight 180 — "O Come All Ye Faithful" Very yes! Another hymn I like, this time done in ska-punk style with some odd tempo changes. Incidentally, this is the same band as One-Eighty from the first compilation; I believe they changed their name to avoid confusion with some sort of youth ministry somewhere.
Starflyer 59 — "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" Sf59 can make any Christmas song depressing! But in a good way! So of course they're perfectly suited for covering one of the most depressing holiday songs ever.
No, really, I love this band and I love this song.
Back when I was young and stupid, I thought that synth-cello was a real cello.
Viva Voce — "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" Another entry in the tradition of lulling you into a false sense of peace before rocking your face off, but unlike Plankeye, VV isn't half-hearted about it. Kung-Fu Action Jesus is gonna kick Satan's ass—are you comforted and joyful yet?!
The Normals — "Peace Child (O Come Emmanuel)" And now something genuinely pleasant. Took me a while to warm up to this song, too.
Fanmail — "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus" I think I heard that this band was started by one of the guys who left Plankeye? Also, one of their albums had cover art by Rob Liefeld. Moving on!
I can't help but wonder if this ending was from the original song or not:
I saw mommy kissing Santa Claus I didn't know it was daddy in disguise.
What? Seeing daddy, disguised as mommy, kissing Santa is gonna give the kid even more issues.
Norway — "White Christmas" Believe it or not, this intro is actually from the song as originally written by Irving Berlin. It was omitted from most performances, particularly Bing Crosby's iconic one, because that little bit of context made the rest of the song rather more bathetic.
And Auto-Tune what the heck how did I not notice that before this year?
Element — "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" Why are there so few honest-to-goodness rock versions of this song? I swear I've heard enough country and easy-listening pop versions that I wonder if they're actually talking about arranging rocking chairs around said Christmas tree.
Oh, yeah, this version. It's alright.
The Deluxtone Rockets — "Santa Claus is Back in Town" Very yes again! It's an Elvis Presley cover. Also, it has exactly the same guitar riff as Muddy Water's "Mannish Boy".
This particular band only released two albums before vanishing. Their first album was a loud, energetic mix of swing and rockabilly, like a smaller Brian Setzer Orchestra, on steroids. Their second album was straighter rockabilly and blues-rock. This particular track is very interesting because it features the band transitioning between the two, so they're playing blues-rock but they're still backed by their swing horn section.
House of Wires — "Caroling, Caroling" Oh, it's these guys again. Does Ensemble Darkhorse apply to parts of songs? Because those bells in the intro are clearly the best part of the song, and the whole song should have had them.
Lost Dogs — "The Chipmunk Song" This is a cover song, and it's a lot less funny if you're not already familiar with the original:
See, the Lost Dogs don't do a straight version of the song. They update it, to make it relevant to the new music technology and other concerns of 1999. I can't say more, because I don't think I can write anything as funny as the song itself.
And on that note, the album ends. Merry Christmas, and don't get replaced by robots!
It's Christmas jazz (vocal with one exception), remixed. What I think is interesting that it's electronic music (remixes, after all) but the first bunch of songs don't sound electronic—the Count Basie track sound bluesy, the Ella Fitzgerald track sounds like traditional pop, and so on—like the album is easing the listener into the whole concept. Then they bring out the synth-pop in the second half.
I also like that the vocals are mostly left untouched. Mostly.
I don't really have commentary on every single track this time:
Louis Armstrong — "'Zat You, Santa Claus? (The Heavy Mix)" Something makes me suspect the original multitracks of this song are gone. Because there isn't any actual remixing here; there's some minor cut-and-pasting of the song sections, and some louder drums and electric guitar overdubbed, and that's it.
Honestly, the finished product is so close to the original that it almost sounds like they were aiming to improve on it. Which is impossible.
Louis Armstrong — "What a Wonderful World (The Orb Remix)" This is great, but why is it considered a Christmas song? Is Christmas the only time of the year that we can get away with being optimistic?
Jimmy Smith — "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" (Oh No Remix) As I mentioned before, this was my introduction to Jimmy Smith. It made an impression. Having heard the original, I now realize that Oh No basically chopped the song into pieces, and the rebuilt it into... pretty much the same melody as the original hymn, over a rather hip-hop beat. And Jimmy's organ solos really got the shaft for some reason.
The last three tracks—Dinah Washington's "Silent Night", Mel Tormé's "The Christmas Song", and Nina Simone's "Chilly Winds Don't Blow"—are the exception to what I said about the vocals being untouched. "Silent Night" and "Chilly Winds" exemplify the "sample one line from the song and build an entire new song off it" approach to electronica. But "The Christmas Song" is more interesting, in that the verses are left alone, while the chorus gets mostly cut out, but a few lines remain, mainly "...know how to fly..." which is repurposed into the song's hook. It actually works pretty well.
They keep happening!
The OC Supertones — "Heaven's Got a Baby" Remember when I said, back in Happy Christmas 1 that I hated Sarah Masen's performance, but thought the song itself was good? This is what I was talking about. The 'Tones go acoustic rock instead of their usual ska for some unfathomable reason, but it's catchy. And Matt Moringsky's voice isn't that good, but it doesn't make me scramble for the skip button like Sarah Masen's did, so all in all I think this is a step up.
Relient K — "Santa Claus is Thumbing to Town" Yes. Relient K, this is how you do pop-punk. If you guys could consistently play fast, catchy stuff like this, rather than the watered-down crap on your normal albums, I would actually listen to you.
Cadet — "The First Noel" Listen to that flute/synth/synth-flute/whatever solo after the first chorus. It sounds remarkably half-hearted. I think it's very indicative of the entire song, and possibly Cadet's entire career.
Bleach — "What We Call Christmas" I know this is a song about Christmas, but it doesn't really sound the slightest bit like Christmas. It's still a good song.
Earthsuit — "Wonderful Christmas Time" I said this in another thread (but that hasn't stopped me from shamelessly plagiarizing myself in the past, so I see no reason to stop now) that it sounds like Earthsuit heard the original version by Paul McCartney and decided that it wasn't techno enough. But at least they had the sense to vocoder-ize the vocals so that aspect wouldn't be compared to Paul.
Kidding aside, I do like this song
Kendall Payne — "O Come O Come Emmanuel" Rather ominous production on this song. Some deep synths and dulcimer add up to something that sounds very dark and empty. Considering the lyrics, ominous is a very good fit.
Hangnail — "Do You Hear What I Hear" Yes again. These guys managed to take one of the worst Christmas songs and make is not just listenable, but really darn good.
Poor Old Lu — "What Child is This?" Poor Old Lu are classics of the 90's alternative Christian scene, but this particular track was recorded just prior to their 2001 reunion album.
The more cover versions of this song I hear, the more I'm convinced that the standard, sappy approach just doesn't cut it. The lyrics are about the dawning realization that a frail, crying, pooping-his-pants baby is also somehow God, who's going to save all of us. This is potentially paradigm-shattering stuff. This song should convey a mood of holy terror, not "Aww, what a cute kid".
So, I think this is pretty good, but I think Poor Old Lu's musical approach would have fit better with some other song, rather than this one.
Joy Electric — "Mrs. Santa Claus" Warning! Ear worm approaching!
Denison Witmer — "A Christmas Song" I knew that my taste in music and overall outlook on life had changed in a fundamental way when, some years after first getting this album, I listened to this song again and not only enjoyed it, but actually thought it was uplifiting (and not a mopey ball of depression, per my initial impression).
Ace Troubleshooter — "Have It All" What is this track doing on here? How is this a Christmas song? It doesn't sound like Christmas, and I have to squint at the lyrics to figure out how they relate. Maybe this is actually a b-side from Ace Troubleshooter's album. Oh wait, they say "tis the season" in one of the verses that doesn't count you slackersStarflyer 59 — "I'll Be Home for Christmas" I love Sf59, but this is the weakest of their Christmas offerings. It's still supergreat, but not as supergreat as the rest.
Aaron Sprinkle — "A Christmas Song for All Year Round" Ah, yes, the one thing our Christmas music was lacking: annoyingly preachy stuff. It's not like there's any shortage of hymns about the True Meaning Of Christmas; do we really need a song about hoping everyone else gets what Christmas is all about? The hymns generally have better lyrics, too.
Skyline Drive — "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" Yeah! Melancholic Fender rock is a great fit for this song.
I've never been able to find anything else this band did, which is a pity. There's a band on iTunes called The Skyline Drive, but they really don't sound like the same band.
Matt Thiessen and the Earthquakes — "I Hate Christmas Parties" Oh, look at that kooky title, this will be a fun song, right? WRONG
Yes, this is Matt Thiessen of Relient K. And it's a pretty good song. And it's part of the reason why I dislike Relient K so much: Matt T has proven that he's capable of writing fun punk songs (see "Santa Claus is Thumbin' to Town", above) and that he's capable of writing good pop songs (this one right here), yet on the albums he persists in writing pop-punk that somehow manages to be less interesting than either of its constituents.
And on that note, the album ends. Someone at Tooth & Nail Records hates us, and they somehow got put in charge of the song order for this compilation.
This must have been the source of the weird Christmas remixes I kept hearing played at the Whole Foods I used to work at on Christmas. Although, are there multiple volumes, or maybe a different label using a similar idea? Because I remember there were remixes of songs that aren't on there.