All right, so, full disclosure: I’ve got a little Christmas music problem. Sometime around September, I start scouring the cobwebs of Amazon for cheap holiday tunes; the strange, the sublime, anything to boost my ridiculous playlist. I’m especially up for the fringe stuff, but I like it all: radio shows from the ‘40s, bebop carols, modern originals from the sincere (“Fairytale of New York”) to the cheesy (“Christmas Wrapping”) and the cynical (“I Believe in Father Christmas”).
I’m not a total schlub—you’ll never find synthy pap from Carrie Underwood and her ilk on MY iPod, thank you very much, and I’m the first to admit that most songs with “Santa” in the title are nigh unlistenable. But when December rolls around, I still find holiday music an essential ingredient which, along with sprigs of holly and Linus explaining what Christmas is all about, helps me cast aside all world-weariness and feel something like a kid again for a couple weeks.
But I’m fully aware that there’s nothing remotely cool about my habit. Even the hippest Christmas song (“Christmas Night in Harlem”, maybe) is still pretty square, dad. So when a buncha punk-pioneer anti-churchites like Bad Religion put out a Christmas disc, especially one full of churchy songs like “O Come O Come Emanuel” and “What Child is This”, I have to assume they’re putting me on, calling me out for being the dork that I am.
But I’m fine with that. Holiday tunes, after all, have maybe a four-week life-window each year –- even I’m not loony enough to bust out A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector in July – and most are played once and put away forever come January. But punks who release songs about tidings of comfort and joy are really putting themselves out on a limb, especially when they’ve made a career of reminding us life is hell and LA is burning. As a concept, Christmas Songs screams “novelty punk”, and that’s a muddy zone indeed, one designated for bargain bins and posers (it only takes one misplaced smirk to turn “Slack Motherfucker” into “Why Don’t You Get a Job”). The very idea that Bad Religion has released a Christmas album is good enough for a cheap laugh or two – do you even need to listen to the record?
You do. Because Christmas is awesome, Bad Religion is still pretty damn good and two great tastes go great together. Greg Graffin, Ph.D and the boys plow through nine songs (including an unnecessary remix of 1993’s “American Jesus”) in just 19 minutes, with amps turned to 11 and tempos a-blazin’ while managing to treat each cut like a real song, not just an easy target. There’s a minimum of fuss –- some sleighbells here, some handclaps there –- but it’s mostly Bad Religion just doing their bone-punks-n-harmony thing, allowing us to acknowledge the music behind “Angels We Have Heard on High” wouldn’t be all that out of place on New Maps of Hell.
They kick off the set with “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, which opens with the vocal triads we’ve come to expect from Bad Religion, and you know what? The damn thing sounds like rock and roll, with a great snarky lead from Graffin, killer changes and a melody better than anything the Fleshtones ever puked up. They not only put just enough thought into the arrangement, but they even solve the rhyming problems that have been plaguing every church choir for decades (“proclaim” with “Bethlehem”, for one) without changing a word.
And that’s how it goes on Christmas Songs. Highlights include the thundering drums of “O Come All Ye Faithful”, the Ramones-tribute attack and sunny harmonies of “White Christmas”, the “Running Scared”-rhythms of “The Little Drummer Boy” and ah, hell with it, they’re all good. It’s goddamn Bad Religion playing goddamn Christmas songs and sounding like they’re having a great time doing it. If you’ve read this far, you know this album’s for you… what are you waiting for?
But what about that remix of “American Jesus”? Sure, it’s a little punchier here than it was on Recipe for Hate, but it’s the same recording, the same faceslap to countrymen who use religious institutions to justify our wicked American ways. So it’s here to provide a little perspective, to remind us that Bad Religion are still the Band of the Crossbuster, that the whole album is a goof and these evil little songs provide the soundtrack to a corrupt and false holiday…right?
If so, the band is being awfully insecure. But remember, the last line of “American Jesus” is “I’m fearful that he’s inside me,” so maybe Bad Religion simply want to acknowledge that we ‘Murrkin punks like to have it both ways –- we bash the mind-controlling fascism of religious institutions, but we still get all squooshy at the smell of a Christmas tree. And maybe that’s okay. Sure, Christmas Songs is a goof, it’s a gag, it’s a wicked little joke to play on your mom when she asks you to put some music on while she trims the tree, maybe that one with John Denver and Miss Piggy. But I betcha I’ll be playing it next December, and the December after that. And you will too. Hey, don’t judge. It’s Christmas.
P.S. You’re still not forgiven for “Falling in Reverse”, Gurewitz. Not by a long shot.