Lovers of classic rock’n’roll and power pop won’t want to miss this one.
It is hard to start this review with anything other than an acknowledgment of the talented Scott McCaughey’s recent health issue, in light of which his family and friends have been raising money to help with his recovery. It is worth noting, then, that proceeds of this album go toward McCaughey’s medical expenses. But above and beyond this unfortunate situation, this album is a fabulous effort, without a doubt the coolest “Christmas album” in a long, long while.
Well-known for his work as a touring member of R.E.M., Scott McCaughey is a member of many bands, of which The Minus 5 is perhaps the best known, having featured at various points Peter Buck, Ken Stringfellow of The Posies and members of Wilco, among others. Their latest, Dear December, is a Christmas album, with contributions by M. Ward, Ben Gibbard, former members of R.E.M. Peter Buck and Mike Mills, Colin Meloy, Chuck Prophet and more illustrious guests.
As anything involving Scott McCaughey, this is above all a blast of an album, full of lovely, Beatlesian songs with impeccable harmonies and charming arrangements, not to mention cute but not cloying songs about the holidays, much like The Baseball Project with Steve Wynn featured charming, delightful and unpretentious material about, well, baseball.
Of these songs, “When Christmas Hurts You This Way” is especially affecting, with beautiful pedal steel work and Big Star-worthy lyrics. There are more rollicking songs like “See You in December,” with M. Ward and Chuck Prophet, “Your Christmas Whiskey” and, with Kelly Hogan, the cheekily titled “Yule Tide Me Over,” and plenty of plaintive moments, too.
“Festival of Lights (Hanukkah Song),” featuring Mike Mills, replete with “sha-la-lahs” and other back-up vocal staples, is a wonderful, Byrdsy number, one of the more earwormy songs on the album. “Johnny Tannenbaum,” featuring Kelly Hogan and Norah O’Connor, is reminiscent of the Magnetic Fields feel, whereas “Merry Christmas Mr. Gulp Gulp” has a slowed-down Ramones feel—you can totally imagine the late Joey Ramone doing a great version of it.
The slower numbers like “The Fourth Noel” feature affecting lead turns by Colin Meloy from The Decemberists; on this one, in particular, you can’t believe it’s not already a yuletide classic. Likewise with “I See Angels,” featuring Death Cab for Cutie frontman Ben Gibbard, though this one has a more Kinks-inspired ‘60s feel. The album concludes with the rocking “I Still Believe in New Year’s Eve,” with great guitar playing and a charming vocal turn by McCaughey himself.
McCaughey is a Jerry Garcia-like figure, with a wonderful sense of humor (which comes out in the lyrics throughout the album) and considerable musical skills to boot. Since he himself is not necessarily a born vocalist, the rotating cast of characters throughout the album provides a welcome variation in style and tone, making this a must-listen soundtrack for the holidays, whether at an office party or at a family gathering (if you’ve got an especially cool family, anyhow).
Lovers of classic rock’n’roll and power pop won’t want to miss this one—religious or secular, this is a Christmas album that’ll make a believer of us all.