Oh, the Christmas record. Often viewed as a novelty and/or record company money-grab in the pop and rock world, it has a proud tradition in the world of R&B and soul the Drifters to Otis Redding to James Brown and beyond. Given the gospel heritage of these genres, it’s not surprising that Christianity’s most popular holiday got plenty of coverage but even secular holiday songs have gotten a lot of love. This year old-school soul revivalists (and evangelists) Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings have planted their own feet firmly in that tradition with It’s a Holiday Soul Party.
Trying to write a new holiday standard is a tall order and, truth be told, few artists would be wise to even attempt it. By my count the last truly universal holiday song to be added to the canon is Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” over two decades ago. Fortunately, though there’s a healthy amount of original music on It’s a Holiday Soul Party, Sharon and her band are wise enough to stick to their wheelhouse, with satisfying results. First of all, starting with a Hanukkah song is a great call and “8 Days (of Hanukkah)” isn’t just a novelty. The drum-heavy countdown fits in perfectly with the band’s aesthetic and, frankly, any song that includes the proper serving style for latkes (applesauce AND sour cream, please) is a winner.
The Christmas originals are also satisfying. “Ain’t No Chimneys in the Projects” follows in the footsteps of Brown’s “Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto” in bringing Christmas’s help-the-poor rhetoric into a modern context. “Big Bulbs” is the most frivolous and fun song on the record and would make an excellent kickoff of any Christmas playlist. Drummer Homer Steinwess contributes “Just Another Christmas Song”. It’s an ode to the half-weary/half-excited feeling that even fans of Christmas feel when they start burning out on the annual carpet-bombing of holiday cheer. None of these are likely to become any kind of new standard but they’ll slip in nicely to your holiday rotation and have the notable benefit of being fresher than the standard you’ve already heard 86,000 times on your local holiday lite FM station.
As for the covers and standards, Jones and her band do a good job of breathing new life into some often-moldy chestnuts. Both “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” are dangerously overplayed and yet the versions here are innovative and energetic enough to make them feel fresh. There are a few soul takes that neither offend nor enliven but those are outliers. Jones’ rendition of Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home For Christmas” is a most-welcome doo-wop style revival while the Dap-Kings’ jaunty instrumental take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is an inspired and funky way to wrap up the record.
Holiday albums can be a difficult needle to thread for “serious musicians”. It’s both easy and low-risk to bag on holiday music and too tired, crass, and cheesy. But seasonal and celebratory music is also an incredibly important in both an artistic and purely functional way. It ties years and generations together, gives order to our lives and often accompanies important (for better or worse) moments in our lives. It’s A Holiday Soul Party succeeds because it takes the importance of such songs seriously but not too seriously to have fun with them. And maybe it’s just me but don’t you think we need more things that can actually make the holidays feel fun?