Old 97’s figured out how to do a proper (but not too proper) Christmas album.
Most artists get Christmas albums wrong. They tend, on the one hand, to play with too much seriousness, developing a staid sobriety that ignores the holiday’s religious and cultural contexts. Avoiding that Scylla has allowed Motown to put out some of the holiday’s most listenable music. On the other hand, artists also opt for cheesy or exaggerated, going for extremes that play as a carnival but not as anything deeper. (Even so, Twisted Sister’s A Twisted Christmas warrants at least one listen per year largely because it embraces that Charybdis.) Leave it, then, to an unlikely act—one known for despair, romanticism and recklessness—to get a Christmas album right. Those Old 97’s qualities let the group into the heart of the season with Love the Holidays.
The band rarely sounds this casual, meeting somewhere between their usual sense of rock and frontman Rhett Miller’s poppier sensibilities. The album largely works in its seasonal atmosphere, neither subverting the festive mood nor overdoing it. That’s not to say the album’s been tossed off. “Snow Angels” uses its spacey effects to enhance its message of reconciliation. A lesser band would have stumbled here, the sense of preciousness at the edges of the song held back by its artful delivery. Miller may have been jumping off risers for too many years, but he and his bandmates have learned their craft, even for such sideways use as a holiday album.
The opening title track is pure Old 97’s, right down to Philip Peeples’s drumbeat and Ken Bethea’s guitar solo, with a just a bit of a jazzier touch to make us remember that it’s mistletoe season. Despite cuts like “Snow Angels,” the group came to have fun, a point reinforced by numbers like “I Believe in Santa Claus” and “Gotta Love Being a Kid (Merry Christmas).” The band sounds at home, right where they should be to celebrate, without being blasé about it. They get together, do their thing and celebrate.
“Christmas Is Coming” stands out for sounding like a Miller solo number, right down to the poor, “What’s a boy to do?” character. He doesn’t have the money to spend on his beloved’s gift, so he’ll write her a song, and “It’ll go, ‘fa la la la la.’” The song edges a little too close to the center of Miller’s wheelhouse, but it manifests as his songwriting distilled into a snowy evening. The conversion of his protagonist from sad-eyed boy into chin-up singer works well, just the sort of touch needed for the season.
That ability to find the Old 97’s core and turn it to Christmas use (rather than making a radical use of either the band’s stereotypes or the Yule tradition). There’s a shameless train whistle on Murry Hammond’s “Hobo Christmas Song.” And it works! Rudolph meets Rudolphina on “Rudolph Was Blue,” and the whole comedy’s delivered with style (and a horn section). “Wintertime in the City” and “Here it Is Christmastime” indulge in Miller’s romantic wistfulness (maybe too much), but they aren’t out of place.
By being relaxed and artful, Old 97’s figured out how to do a proper (but not too proper) Christmas album. Even “Auld Lang Syne” is just a West Texas drinking song we save for a certain evening. For traditionalists, the band provides four bonus tracks and the only one of these that stumbles, “Up on the Housetop,” is the one that sounds forced. Of course, “Blue Christmas” fits the Miller-solo paradigm, even in this bluesy version, and the group knows how to make “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” their own. By just being their usual selves, Old 97’s created an unusual (and highly fun) Christmas miracle (not to be all cheesy or exaggerated about it).