When we look at a Christmas album as a potential purchase, we’re generally not looking for creativity in songwriting. We know the songs associated with Christmas, and chances are, we’re familiar with at least a few of the popularly accepted “definitive” performances of said songs. Bing Crosby’s second recording of “White Christmas” is the one we’re all familiar with, Elvis’s version of “Blue Christmas” was written 10 years before he ever recorded it, and the off-key caterwauling of Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is quickly, inexplicably, rising to the status of the untouchable few. It’s not always the songs that we remember, but the way they’re sung.
Noting this tendency, the modern Christmas album is often guilty of trying to do too much in the quest to come up with the “perfect version”. Pop stars will invert, twist, and melisma a song until the emotion is wrung out of it like water from a washcloth. Stars of modern operatics (Il Divo, Josh Groban and the like) drown the songs in overproduction and melodrama. Genre-specific Christmas albums tend to ignore the universal appeal of the songs themselves.
Here to counter this overambitious approach is Martin Sexton. Sexton is a singer-songwriter renowned for the emotional roller coasters present in his songwriting and his take-no-prisoners approach to performing. Neither of these attributes, however, are anywhere to be seen on Camp Holiday, Sexton’s hat thrown in the Christmas album ring. Instead, Sexton chooses to kick back, start a fire, call his family, pick up his acoustic, and start playing some songs.
These songs were literally recorded in a cabin. His father and daughter are the only guest vocalists. And all but one of the songs on Camp Holiday are flat-out standards, the kinds of songs that even non-Christians sick to death of the pomp and circumstance of the loudest and most commercial of Christian holidays will admit to liking just a little bit.
This quiet, acoustic take on the standards serves Sexton well throughout the majority of Camp Holiday. He opens the album with a tender, simple take on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”, adding some multi-tracked doo-wop style four-part harmonies toward the end, even speak-singing a bit under the new vocals to add to the classic feel of the song. I never thought I’d enjoy a performance of “Blue Christmas” that wasn’t done by Elvis, but lo and behold, Sexton takes a wonderfully slow approach to the song that just kind of lets notes hang in the air for a second before he moves on. And then there’s the poignant close of “Let There Be Peace On Earth”, where Sexton gives his precious guitar a little bit of rest for a minute and a half to allow for a solo vocal performance that contains at least as much emotion (not to mention a hint of political nudging) as anything on the rest of the album.
Sexton adds some special touches to Camp Holiday that bump up the intimacy factor even further. As mentioned, his father and daughter guest on an otherwise unnoteworthy “Silent Night”, while his father returns for a small cameo encore as “The King” in “Do You Hear What I Hear?”. Sexton adds instruments where necessary, though he often simply uses his voice; a vocal approximation of an alto sax. This effect shows up in “Holly Jolly Christmas”, while he appends slowly morphing approximations of the word “long” to represent the bells in “Silver Bells”. The tricks show off Sexton’s versatile voice, while the knowledge that it is his voice making these sounds lends even more to the stripped-away feel of the album. You don’t miss the instruments he’s imitating chances are, you’re too busy trying to imitate his imitation.
The only drawbacks of Camp Holiday are a well-intentioned original (“Welcome to the Camp”) that never quite gets the welcoming-but-down-‘n-dirty vibe that it’s striving for, and a general sense that there’s no chance that these versions of the classic songs could ever hope to become “definitive” versions of the songs. It’s a lovely album, but it’s an album to be enjoyed as the vaguely familiar background of a small family gathering, preferably with a warm fire crackling in the background. It’s not an album that’s going to make people fall in love with the songs all over again. But then, it’s the easygoing nature of Camp Holiday that gives it its charm, for sometimes in this hectic season, we just need to relax. Martin Sexton is here to teach us how to do just that.