(CLEOPATRA RECORDS; 2013)
I can’t listen to Christmas songs anymore. Not the cutesy ones like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “The Christmas Song” or “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”; not the Carols heard in church like “Noel” or “Away In a Manger.” I just can’t do it! I ain’t no Scrooge… I’ve done my share of caroling and was even a member of my church choir (okay, so I was asked to leave because I started singing the Hoyt Axton song when we did “Joy To the World”), but it just is not happening for me anymore. Why? It mostly stems from the absolute mindless inundation of the “holiday spirit” from, basically, the end of September through New Year’s Day. As an example, I was shopping for Halloween candy (something I usually put off ’til the last minute, but in an odd act of responsibility, I was about three weeks early) in a large box store (the Mart with all the Wals… you know the one) and, walking past one of those goofy inspirational music kiosks, I heard – I kid you not! – “Here Comes Santa Claus.” Seriously? Christmas songs the first week of October? You can understand, then, my trepidation regarding this new holiday offering.
But… guess what? I like it! I really like it! It isn’t as dark and menacing as, say, CLAWS (the twisted 1980 macabre masterpiece by Morgan Fisher’s Hybrid Kids) or anything produced by that stable of demented kiddies over at Disney, but it does have an underlying sense of… let’s call it familial claustrophobia, shall we? The songs are fairly standard Christmas fare, but tweaked just enough to give the listener a rather ominous vibe. The set starts off with a piece of warm and fuzzy lunacy, the opening track from Len Maxwell’s 1964 bizarro A MERRY MONSTER CHRISTMAS album. From there, we’re treated to some of today’s best psychedelic and space rock bands (with a few surprises tossed into the mix) waxing musical over the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ or the birth of Sol (for the pagans among us) or over that jolly elf favored by capitalists the world over, Santa (that last one, I suppose, works for everyone else, too). Anyway, I suppose that’s my lummoxed way of saying that you don’t have to celebrate the Christ Mass to enjoy this record… just grab your favorite – uh – whatever and give her/him/it a big ol’ smooch under the mistlethumb and dance like you’re in the mud at Woodstock!
Elephant Stone’s version of the Beatles’ “Christmas Time (Is Here Again)” is as trippily poppy as you would expect from such a high-end pairing. We are off to a great start here! “It’s Christmas Day” by the Cosmonauts is an odd jangle-pop thingy, kinda like an utterly drunken Tom Petty fronting the Byrds… so, it’s got that goin’ for it. The first “traditional” Christmas hymn follows. However, “Silent Night,” as performed by synth-puppet show duo, Quintron and Miss Pussycat, is anything but traditional. The beloved tune (in instrumental form) is hardly recognizable and is more psychotic (in a bossa nova sort of way) than psychedelic. I’m not too sure that this one belongs on a compilation like PSYCH-OUT CHRISTMAS, but I’m glad it is… I would have hated to miss hearing it! Hailing from Sweden (where we swiped a lot of their Solstice “rituals” and turned ’em into our Christmas “traditions”) is Dark Horses, weighing in with “Jul Song,” an original that totally oozes psychedelia, from the guitars to the vocals to the (if not indecipherable) vaguely incomprehensible lyrics. It could be that the meaning was lost in translation, but it really doesn’t matter; the beauty of the piece as a whole makes it a favorite.
Sleepy Sun’s take on “What Child Is This,” with its creeping bass line and minimal, plodding instrumentation and “sold-my-soul-to-Satan” type vocals from Bret Constantino, introduces a new kind of not-unwanted menace to the proceedings and, when the guitar duo of Evan Reiss and Matt Holliman kick in, they drive the tune to new psychedelic heights. A cover of Suicide’s “No More Christmas Blues” from the Vacant Lots is over almost before you know it. It offers a bouncy little synth riff and an airily (or is that “eerily?”) tripped out vocal. It’s a fun track (but then, aren’t all Suicide tunes?) but pales in comparison to the surrounding offerings from Sleepy Sun and Sons of Hippies. It’s somewhat fitting that, regardless of the apparent thematic disconnect (although, as is pointed out in the press release, Christmas is indeed “the season of loving”), these Hippies should cover a song by a group of Zombies. Hippies front-woman Katherine Kelly sums up the song best: “’Time of the Season’ was fun to cover. We replaced the organ parts on the original Zombies version with layers of distorted guitar leads and gave the drums an eerie, echoed intro. The PSYCH-OUT CHRISTMAS compilation is unique and spooky and we wanted to be part of that vibe.” Sons of Hippies aren’t currently one of my favorite bands for nothing and this spectacularly atmospheric cover is just more evidentiary proof of that statement (double negatives aside).
With “Santa Claus,” the Fuzztones offer the first dose of overtly “traditional garage psychedelia,” with the obligatory farfisa organ, the dirty guitar sound (you know what I mean, like it’s being played through a blown amp) and a vocal that sounds like it was recorded with 1960s studio equipment. In short, all of these aspects make “Santa Claus” another favorite. Eli Cook”s “Christmas Tears” has a great bluesy stroll vibe, with Cook doing an awesome approximation of Hendrix channeling the great bluesmen of the past, both vocally and on guitar. The song also features a piano part that would have made Johnnie Johnson (the REAL “King of Rock and Roll”) proud. The Movements’ take on “Little Drummer Boy” is all swirling guitars and synths and a disjointed, ethereal vocal from David Henricksson. The one thing the song doesn’t have is… drums! Which just makes the thing all the more spooky and enjoyable. Quintron and Miss Pussycat are back (the only act to appear twice) with a more traditional vibe (or, at least, a more recognizable one) on “Jingle Bell Rock,” which clocks in at just under a minute-and-a-half. Candy Store take on Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” with their version of “Frosty the Snowman,” from a 1969 album called TURNED ON CHRISTMAS. The similarities between this anonymous studio concoction and Ronnie and the other girls is amazing, but then that’s what these “knock-off” acts were supposed to do – sound as much like the originals as possible so the record label (in this case, Decca) wouldn’t have to pay licensing fees to someone else. Anyway, it’s still a fun song.
Psychic Ills’ “Run Rudolph Run,” while remaining relatively true to Chuck Berry’s 1959 classic (even the vocal phrasing sounds like Chuck), muddies and sludges things up with enough over-modulated surf guitar to make Dick Dale blush. Tres Warren, the Ills’ guitarist and vocalist says of this recording: “I always liked ‘Run Rudolph Run’ because it was a song that I’d actually want to listen to regardless of what time of year it is, and Chuck Berry is as mythical as Santa Claus in my mind.” Somewhere, Don Ho is frolicking in his grave, listening to the echo-laden Hawaiian Christmas offering from Dead Meadow, “Mele Kalikimaka.” The band’s laconic approach is perfectly attuned to the odd vibe of this collection. The only thing missing is a ukelele! Another bizarre track from 1969 follows. It’s “Here Comes Santa Claus” (though it’s listed as “Jingle Bells” on this record and on the original, MERRY CHRISTMAS PSYCHEDELIC SOUND) by Korean instrumental gods, He 5. It’s really rather indescribable, which – I guess – is the entire point of PSYCH-OUT CHRISTMAS. After doing some checking, I did find this band’s version of “Jingle Bells” (the whole of their above named album is available on YouTube) and it is AWESOME! At a smidge under twelve-and-a-half minutes long, the traditional song morphs into “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida,” including a lengthy drum solo before shifting again to the Stones’ “Paint It Black” and then back to “Jingle Bells.” Probably the strangest, creepiest track on this entire compilation is the last, a fairly literal take on “White Christmas” by everyone’s favorite (latter day) Stooge, Iggy Pop. Mister Osterberg’s nearly gutteral baritone and morose, funereal reading of the Irving Berlin classic is sure to keep the kiddies up, fearing ghosties and hobgoblins will be coming down the chimney instead of the dude with the bag of toys. Ah, yeah… I guess Christmas music ain’t so bad after all.