A scan of winter 2016 album releases tells me what I already know: There is almost nothing worse that an artist—pop, country, metal or otherwise—can do than to take a stab at remaking Christmas music. This year's selection makes the point without even trying. Jimmy Buffett's "Tis the SeaSon" (with a cover image of Buffett in a summery Santa outfit balancing on a paddleboard) includes a baffling cover of "All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth" and, more predictably, the tropical holiday song "Mele Kalikimaka." Garth Brooks' and Trisha Yearwood's "Christmas Together" showcases twangy rehashes of "Santa Baby" and the creepy "Baby, It's Cold Outside." The Killers' collection "Don't Waste Your Wishes" features the band's Christmas songs spanning from 2006 to 2016 and includes a horrible spoken-word version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas."
Recording Christmas songs is always a bad idea—except when it turns out to be a really good idea. The locally produced 25 Daze of X-Mas: A Cassette Compilation is one such exception. The brainchild of Foster Caffrey—one of the organizers of Missoula's annual Camp Daze music festival—the comp features 25 artists mostly from Missoula, but also from Bozeman, Olympia, Denver, Nashville and New York City. The mix of covers and originals is not so entrenched in Christmas motifs that it couldn't be played year-round. And the album's tone, colored with shades of irreverence, melancholy and just a bit of good cheer, avoids the grating novelty of, say, Twisted Sister's "Oh Come All Ye Faithful."
Olympia's Blood Orphans do a fantastically moody cover of Low's "Just Like Christmas." While Low's version gallops along at a pretty pace, the Blood Orphans take evokes Casiotone for the Painfully Alone in the way it lingers in a quiet dusk of warped piano chords and guitar fuzz. Grant Atticus' acoustic cover of Blink 182's "I Won't Be Home for Christmas"—a fun, snotty song about ending up in jail—is way better than the original. Cory Fay's "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis" begins just as lounge-ily as the Tom Waits' version but turns R&B by the end with dramatic drum fills and xylophone, swapping out Waits' easy gravel for desperation.
Other highlights include The Whoopass Girls' "I'm Dreaming of a Jack White Christmas," Caroline Keys and Nate Biehl's cover of John Prine's "Christmas in Prison," Pender's "Christmas Dirt" and Tiny Plastic Stars' heart-wrenching "It's Christmas Somewhere." Almost every track is worth a listen. (There are 50 copies of the cassette and unlimited downloads available for purchase at the Camp Daze Bandcamp page, and all proceeds go to support families affected by the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland.)
Every year, someone makes a treacly version of "The Christmas Song" ("Chestnuts roasting on an open fire") or does a sillier take on "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," and the only thing that comes of it is that retail stores and local restaurants have one more tool for torture in a season that seems to begin earlier every year. And when it comes to alternative takes on Christmas, no one is settling in for a night of listening to "We Wish You a Metal Christmas." Not even—especially not—metalheads.
The Camp Daze comp is a genuine alternative for the season. It isn't really for those who love decorating the tree to a soundtrack of Bing Crosby classics—but if that's you, you already know where to get your music. Instead, it's a nice collection of some super-talented musicians playing holiday songs that don't make you feel like you're trapped inside a candy cane carnival. These are songs peripherally about Christmas, but mostly about the exquisite pleasures and disappointments we feel all year round.
Camp Daze presents an album release party at the Palace Thu., Dec. 22, at 9 PM.