[8 December 2004]
Do you really need to be told what a Barenaked Ladies Christmas album sounds like?
Do you not already assume that their rendition of “Jingle Bells” is the version with the lines “Jingle bells/ Batman Smells /Robin laid an egg/ The Batmobile lost its wheel/ And the joker got away”?
That’s good. I figured as much. And while this silly Christmas disc is very much for fans only, quite a few of them will probably enjoy these free-spirited renditions of a lot of Christmas and Hanukkah standards as well as some quite-good, tuneful new cuts. A lot of the band’s longtime fans, the ones left over from the Gordon era, felt that the last three Barenaked Ladies discs were getting a bit too serious (in spite of goofy lead singles, all of them were filled with songs about dread), so this is a nice respite: Silly, rollicking, goofy, and fun—a bit like their live shows.
Backing away from some of the big pop arrangements that have marked their last few albums (especially 2003’s underrated Everything to Everyone, which was a platter of musical styles and textures), Barenaked For the Holidays is largely a lighthearted affair, with skeletal arrangements heavy on acoustic instruments—the whole disc is shrouded in the sort of warm yet subtle glow that marked their debut album, Gordon. The synthesized cuts sound no less organic—the use of cheap and goofy keyboard riffs recalls the band’s attempts on things like “Box Set” far more than sophisticated synth pop like last year’s “Shopping”. Barenaked For the Holidays feels tossed off, but never in a bad way—it’s the kind of light and un-serious album that many fans have been hoping for for awhile, except that the songs are all about Christmas or Hanukkah. The band actually gives almost equal time to each holiday, something of a pleasant rarity (and certainly very politically correct, which BNL generally are).
The disc includes quite a few standards, some delivered straight up, like the serious “Carol of the Bells” or “Auld Lang Syne”. Others, like the aforementioned “Jingle Bells”, or “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” (which is dispensed as a cheap, instrumental casio-driven bossanova cut—strangely the result is like some of the waltzes on Blur’s Parklife) get the full-on goof treatment. The Barenaked Ladies also tackle a lot of more recent “pop” standards, like “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and ridiculous run-through of Paul McCartney’s awful “Wonderful Christmastime”. The disc also includes the band’s jaunty, jazzy duet with Sarah McLachlan, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”, which has become a perennial hit and was previously only available on a variety of Christmas compilations. Fans will be happy to have it.
Of the originals, “CSNY” is perhaps the most bizarre, built around just a half minute of the band caroling “Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young” with no instrumental backing. Some others, like “Green Christmas” approach rock territory and sound as good as many of their album cuts. Kevin Hearn, who tends to be the quietest member in the band, gets a fair share of vocal turns and even writes and sings one cut, the pretty and understated “Christmastime Oh Yeah”. In fact, the band take a more democratic-than-usual approach to songwriting duties, since this is the first disc since Born on a Pirate Ship to feature an Andy Creegan song, and while his style is notably more left of center than the Page/Robertson axis that the band usually turns on, he delivers the mock-standard “Christmas Pics”. Were it not for some trademark silly lyrics about those painful Christmas family photos, it might as well be a Bing Crosby or Dean Martin classic.
Frankly, Barenaked For the Holidays is very what-you-see-is-what-you-get: This is precisely the kind of Christmas disc you would expect to have the Barenaked Ladies name attached to. If such a thing sounds appealing, by all means go and buy it and liven up the next few Sunday mornings. If not, I think there’s a far less ironic new Christmas record by Jessica Simpson.