Charity X-mas CD is a break from holiday boredom

by Carl Burnett | 11/27/02 6:00am

"Alternative Christmas music" is one of the best oxymorons I can think of. It's really tough to imagine a Christmas song that goes beyond the melodies Americans of every religion have had drummed into their heads since day one, and even harder to think up "alternative" holiday sentiments.

But a new collection, "Ho Ho Ho Spice," is advertised as "an eclectic and friendly alternative-ish Christmas compilation" -- and it lives up to the moniker. This two-CD set contains an overwhelming 49 songs by 49 different bands, totaling over two and a half hours of music.

The compilation's title alludes to its motive: it's a fundraiser for hospice services, the organizations that take care of people on their death beds. It's not a cheery topic, to be sure, but it's a worthy cause for your $15.98.

Musically, we get everything from folk to rockabilly to ska. There's the 5 Chinese Brothers' "And To All A Good Night," a country-zydeco tune about a guy who contemplates killing himself on Christmas, only to be uplifted by TV Christmas specials (on a hospice benefit, surely there's some unintended irony here).

You'll dig Abney Park's electri-fied take on the Nutcracker's "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies," which gives the holiday classic a glass-rattling bass line and some turntable scratching -- with much better results than you'd expect.

Another highlight is Rocky Zharp & The Blues Crackers' "Merry Merry Christmas," a bluesy number you can imagine playing in the background of the Christmas scene of a hip movie.

This is a relatively low-budget project, so none of the featured bands are truly A-list, although there are a few familiar names.

Better Than Ezra contributes "Merry Christmas Eve," a sentimental ballad with some nice imagery ("The airport families wait on queue/And they shout as their loved one comes in view") but it's pretty heavy on the cheese, complete with an alto sax solo.

1980s indie-rock heroes the dB's contribute one song, the punky "Holiday Spirit" ("I've got that holiday spirit/Gimme gimme gimme gimme gimme!") and collaborate with Chris Stamey on another, "Christmas Time."

"Christmas Wish," a song from eclectic cult favorites NRBQ, is a top-shelf entry in the easy-listening Christmas tradition.

Nerdy polka and worldbeat enthusiasts Brave Combo give us the jazzy, Latin-flavored "It's Christmas," a knowingly kitschy but valuable addition.

With 49 tracks, there's a lot to like and even more to avoid. There's only so many ways to wish your listeners a merry Christmas or reinterpret "Jingle Bells," and they're all represented here. There aren't enough words in English and Yiddish combined to label all the tackiness, cheesiness, kitsch, schmaltz and schlock found herein.

Michelangelo D'Amico's "Heading Home for Christmas," sounds like an amateur John Mayer wannabe, which is never a good thing, while Ed Haynes' "Holiday Song" is a classic cheesy power ballad in a half-funny, half-serious vein a la Adam Sandler (sample line: "These yams with the miniature marshmallows are really where it's at").

Though it's not the emphasis of the compilation, there are a handful of versions of traditional Christmas songs, revamped in different musical styles. Kise contributes a very lo-fi cover of "Holly Jolly Christmas," while The Cucumbers' punk cover of "Auld Lang Syne" -- not technically a Christmas song -- is a rocking album closer.

There are enough notably unique cuts here that kitch collectors might consider the compilation a gold mine. Where else can you find Beatles cover band The Butties' hybrid of "Joy To The World" and "Please Please Me" alongside Pork Chop's rockabilly tune, "White Trash Christmas"?

The eclecticism of the whole compilation is its biggest asset. Put this on at a Christmas party instead of the same old tired renditions of "White Christmas" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," and people are guaranteed to wonder how many vinyl bins you personally dug through to put together the mix.

This is the first-ever release for New Jersey-based indie Volunteer Records, so don't go looking for this one in your local Borders. It's available exclusively through the label and at www.cdbaby.com.

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