Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys: Christmas Album (1964)


(Capitol)

While I have fond memories of listening to a cassette of this album as a young child, it's easily my least favorite of the Beach Boys' 1960s albums. This probably speaks to a bias; I cannot help being skeptical of the value of Christmas music in a rock & roll context. Maybe it's because I don't really see how somebody who's playing "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" on a Rickenbacker is connecting with his material. These Christmas efforts are rarely done for anything but money, a contradiction of sorts in itself, and it all seems like another charade, a costume. But it was, inevitably, a way for the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson to feed the demands of a punishing contract with Capitol Records. In 1963 there was all the filler; in 1964 there was this; in '65 there would be Party!, and all the greatest hits packages thereafter. At least Christmas Album was an easy score that kept the desperate stuff off the canonical releases.

The measure of holiday music is obviously how well it holds up in July or February or Labor Day weekend or whenever. The truth is, it rarely does. There are exceptions -- Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas is a worthy, universal tradition; and Phil Spector's A Christmas Gift for You is one of the best early rock & roll LPs of all. Spector's album doesn't just run as an undercurrent of inspiration on Brian Wilson's effort in this vein; its omnipresence as the obvious point of reference is almost comical. Brian fills out the first side of the album mostly with his usual teenage-oriented material, played by the band itself, and the second side is spent on traditional carols and classics that stumble along underneath labored string arrangements by former Four Freshmen associate Dick Reynolds. The failure, of course, is in the attempt to make this a respectable effort For the Whole Family, a trap that did not clamp down Spector, who as a mere record producer inevitably had a much smaller audience than the Beach Boys and so, perversely, more freedom.

A big part of the motivation for farming out the sugary arrangements on Side Two was to cut Brian's workload in half; his own enthusiasm for the project doesn't seem to have been terribly strong, and he seems to have seen this as just a stopgap. Thus it's no surprise that little of the second half is of much interest, unless just hearing the group sing well on songs like "Blue Christmas" sounds like a great time to you, while Brian's originals are fun if quaint, and less likely to induce indigestion. They follow generally in the vein of All Summer Long, which after all was seasonally tied down in its own way. The older novelty "Little Saint Nick," stripped of its ornamental overdubs, doesn't really belong, and "The Man with All the Toys" manages to spend a minute and half with all of its energies focused completely on irritating the living shit out of you. Otherwise it's charming, lightweight stuff, but you don't have to be familiar with Brian to realize he's coasting through it. The shocker is that he doesn't really go for broke on the production on any of this. In fact, much of what drives the better songs, like "Santa's Beard" and the terrific Al Jardine-led "Christmas Day," is the lack of embellishment. The latter has a fine organ bit, but really, you have to admire Brian for resisting the opportunity to go out on a limb and recruit the Wrecking Crew with sleigh bells and oboe and whatever else, a stunt he'd save, of course, for Pet Sounds. Speaking of which, Brian's Spector obsession is new and all over the map here. "Merry Christmas, Baby," perhaps the finest of the originals, is a tribute twice as obvious as "Don't Worry, Baby."

As for the rest, the vocals are usually quite good, but little else is worth salvaging. It's boring even to read the song titles -- "Frosty the Snowman," "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," "White Christmas" -- but two efforts stand out: "We Three Kings of Orient Are," with shimmering vocals and an especially fine string arrangement, and the mournful "I'll Be Home for Christmas." Curiously, the album skirts the "Little Saint Nick" b-side "The Lord's Prayer," a beautiful a cappella arrangement, replacing it with an equally breathtaking "Auld Lang Syne," but sadly this is disrupted by a painfully contrived spoken-word voiceover from Dennis, wrecking what could have been the album's most sublime moment (you can hear it stripped bare on Ultimate Christmas and its ilk). But it's all sure to bring smiles and happiness this holiday season blah blah blah.

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[Originally posted in slightly different form in 2003.]

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