I am just going to be honest. I am not a huge fan of Christmas music. It's the same songs every year, concentrated over and over again for a month. On top of that, some of the songs are dreadful. "Silver Bells?" Awful. "The Little Drummer Boy?" How about I throw your drum into a trash compactor? Is there any hope for me? Let's move on.
When I was a child, Christmas was terrifying. I don't mean "bad" terrifying. I mean the kind of "scary" you welcome as a child. I had this strange dream/fantasy where Christmas Eve night would last forever, and everyone on Earth would disappear as I waited for Santa in my living room, which was lit only by the fireplace and the faint lights of the Christmas tree. People who had also been trapped for centuries would waft in and out of the house, the fantasy's only other inhabitants. For this whole imagining, you can blame Charles Dickens, the Nutcracker, and every early-80's Sesame Street special involving ghosts, ESPECIALLY this one.
Unfortunately, most Christmas music is schmaltzy crap, and doesn't touch upon the holiday's inherent darkness...until now!
Last year, my wife and son and I were using some gifted money post-Christmas to peruse Baton Rouge's only surviving music store, FYE. FYE's used section is massive, and with less and less people being cool enough to buy CD's, it isn't shrinking anytime soon. As my son and I met my wife at the cash register, we proudly held up our finds. "Look at this!" my wife said ecstatically.
For some reason, my wife loves Canadian bands who are big in their home nations, but only have one or two mid-90's hits here. You can't argue with $1.99, though.
On the way home from FYE, as Crash Test Dummies 2002 opus, Jingle all the way..., crept out of my car speakers, I suddenly started to feel a slow-building wave of long buried nostalgia. What were these festively terrifying sounds? Could these be created by the same band who made a nation go "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm?"
Yes, they could! Lead singer Brad Roberts' inhumanly deep voice sounds even more inhumanly deep than it did during the Clinton administration. With an absolute black sense of humor, Roberts rings menace out of any Christmas tune line from which it can be construed. "What fun it is to ride and sing a sleighing song tonight!," "To save us all from Satan's power," "Bring me flesh and bring me wine." The macabre, yet jaunty, near medieval arrangements are a beautiful, black sleigh for Roberts to spread his cheer from. He sounds like he is grudgingly having the time of his life (in the liner notes, he thanks rum and eggnog, the Grinch, and himself). An entire album of this would soon wear out its welcome, though. That's where Crash Test Dummies unleashes its secret weapon: Ellen Reid. You can hear and see Reid in the background of the "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" video, but on Jingle all the way... her starkly gorgeous vocals lead half the tracks. Reid's songs display a desolate elegance, glacially rolling over vast, frozen, aural landscapes. The juxtaposition of Roberts' songs with Reid's showcases the meeting of secular and sacred, earth and heaven, which after all, is what Christmas is all about.
Case in point, the joyfully frightening, Roberts-led "Jingle Bells"
is immediately followed by Reid's achingly beautiful, reverent, "In the Bleak Midwinter."
The two singers don't always split up, though. They often combine their powers and both styles for maximum impact. The result is an album that will affect everyone differently. Many will be reminded of a roadside diner playing Christmas music on a jukebox...in a horror film.
For me, though, the inside album cover says it all:
It's an empty living room, lights off, ancient radio in the foreground, fire roaring, tree lights shining, an odd midnight light coming through the window. I feel like I'm six years old again.
BONUS: Track seven is the only tolerable version of "The Little Drummer Boy" ever recorded.