Christmas albums tend to be cookie-cutter; a mixed bag if you will. Most interpreters of Christmas carols and all of the songs we've become so familiar with by now never bother with innovation or putting their own distinct style into the song. Instead, they approach the songs with a lazy, carefree attitude. After all, it is
a Christmas album, right? Right now, there is A Gene Autry Christmas
on the table next to me, and in the next room there are probably several, if not dozens of holiday albums that I will never listen to. Who needs another version of "White Christmas", "Jingle Bells", or "Joy to the World" when I could just go listen a regular album that has a lesser chance of instanteously sucking the life out of Christmas? Not me.
Merry Axemas - A Guitar Christmas
is a whole different holiday album altogether. Instead of pushing out generic string sections and lame adult-contemporary vocal stylings, we get an album that isn't afraid to rock out. Featuring the likes of just about every well-known "musician's musician": Kenny Wayne Sheperd, Eric Johnson, Jeff Beck, Brian Setzer, Joe Satriani, Steve Morse, Steve Vai, Joe Perry, Alex Lifeson, Richie Sambora (haha), and Japanese guitarist Hotei. While some of these guitarists certainly aren't my firsthand picks for dudes to perform on a Christmas album (Jimmy Page or even say... Thurston Moore, ahem, would have been wonderful candidates to perform a few Christmas songs), I was surprised with the attention to detail and unique interpretations of these Christmas tunes. Even though the main focus of the album is the guitar playing, anyone can enjoy it, considering that there is plenty of diversity int he musical backdrops and not as much harsh-toned rocking out as you would expect. Oh yeah, and it was recorded in spring!
Originally Posted by Liner notes from Steve Vai
Christmas Time Is Here
Whether it's joy, spiritual devotion or the proverbial good cheer, the holiday vibe inspires some of the warmest, most sacred - and yes, cornballest - melodies ever written. And what better instrument to praise these profound melodies than the guitar? The challenge was to invite special kinds of guests to this particular yuletide extravaganza: players who coudl coax, caress or slam out a unique voice from the instrument, and unite the spirite of Christmas with the beautiful tones of silver strings. And that's what we did. May this music become part of enchanting holiday memories you can cherish forever. Warm regards.
As you could tell from the varied list of guitarists, Merry Axemas - A Guitar Christmas
has a wonderful amount of variety, considering that after all, these are holiday season standards. Kenny Wayne Shepherd's version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is a sleezy blues-rock tune, where the main melody is driven by wonderful slide playing, with organ fills aplenty. The Brian Setzer Orchetra's "Jingle Bells" remains true to the man's style; it is a big-band, vintage rave-up with his familiar rockabilly stylings and somewhat odd, unique voicings and solos. It's easily one of the more fun songs, considering the uptempo drums and punctuating horn section. Along with the rest of the rock 'n' roll takes is Joe Perry's wonderful reading of "Blue Christmas", a lonesome, slide-guitar blues number. In great blues tradition, Joe's playing sounds as if it was moaning out every note. The only sign of singing here is the brief, low "ahhhs" that come in during one of the main solos. It ends, and then a fast, balls-to-the-wall version comes in right after, with sustained power chords and that same slide ass kicking. Good job, Joe (not Satriani, who obliterated "Silent Night" with an extended wank-jam. And I thought he was going to prove me wrong for once...)
Some of the most unique and easily enjoyed songs, however, tend to lean towards a more subdued, melodic feel. Jeff Beck's wonderful version of "Amazing Grace" is beautiful ine very way, from the ethereal backround chorus to his trademark, emotive playing. On "Joy to the World", Steve Morse sucessfully brings his technical, yet very melodic playing into a song which demands a certain amount of restraint. His use of soaring melodies, brief acoustic interludes, and just a tad of flash give the song the uplifting feel that it has always lacked, and that I am grateful for. Steve Vai's version of "Christmas Time is Here" it contains his trademark tone and playing, there is a good deal of gorgeous, sad piano, and gentle drums to add a counterpoint to his slightly annoying playing. Obviously, not anywhere near the best reading on this album, but certainly done well enough. "The First Nowell" is nice and pretty too. Like yo mama after a few drinks. Best of all, though, is the truly amazing "The Little Drummer Boy", arranged by none other than Rush's Alex Lifeson. What it makes it the best, you say? Alex, while still having a good deal of creativity infused into the song, still retains the traditional feel of the original song. Several tracks of acoustic playing, programmed drums, bass, and keyboards all make for a beautiful, well arranged, and original arrangement, which some songs on this album lack ("Silent Night/Holy Night Jam" and Hotei's cover of John Lennon's "Happy Xmas [War is Over]" seem to come to mind pretty quickly). I say "Bah humbug!" to them.
Happy Holidays from Nick Barrett, December 18th, 2005