Sunday, December 21, 2014

Nice Day for a...White Christmas?

One of the scourges of the Christmas season is the number of popular musicians who insist on performing traditional Christmas songs. The arrangements are either slavishly faithful to original recordings, whether or not the performer's voice can handle them, or gussied up to fit whatever genre the performer is most proficient in, whether or not the song fits in that genre at all and whether or not the touches actually make the song fit. A few of them are good, most are forgettable and more than you'd care for are just yucky.

And then there's 2006's Happy Holidays by Billy Idol. Mr. Rebel Yell takes on seventeen secular and sacred Christmas songs in what can, in most cases, be best described as full-on crooner mode. "Run Rudolph Run," "Merry Christmas, Baby" and "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" are really the only songs that would qualify as rock, and even they are nothing like the full-on fist-pumpers for which Idol became famous in the 1980s. In "Blue Christmas" he channels crooner Elvis with a whiskey throat and "White Christmas" (yes, "White Christmas") we get an impression of what Bing Crosby might have sounded like if he'd spent 25 years shouting "Nice day to ...start again!"

The hard-rock punk dimension of Idol's career always overshadowed his ability to bring out a smooth lounge tone, even though the contrast between the two helped give his anthemic choruses a lot of their power. At 51 when he recorded the album, he had a much rougher edge than he did during his heyday but he can still sell a significant number of the more laid-back tunes. And he gives a fine jaunty air to "Frosty the Snowman" (yes, "Frosty the Snowman") and even "Jingle Bell Rock," a song I wish someone would tell North Korea is all about making fun of their leader.

Some songs might have been better skipped -- the strain to reach the upper notes of "Silver Bells" is obvious and Idol can't muster anything like full power when he's trying. He does better with the higher register on "Silent Night" and it joins surprisingly effective renderings of "O Christmas Tree" and "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" as the slow-tempo highlights of the album. Idol's broad London accent matches the latter, a great English carol, so well you can almost see a Charles Dickens scene while you're listening.

Better than half of Happy Holidays' appeal is the novelty -- who wouldn't love the look on a friend's face when you play Billy Idol singing "Winter Wonderland" -- but a solid plurality of the songs are worth the listen in their own right and are loads more fun to hear than some bro-country dweeb or hip-hop diva butcher "Carol of the Bells" or "Away in a Manger."


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