Despite my less than glowing review of his latest album, regular readers of this website understand the significance of Jack Johnson’s music to me. So please don’t think I’m unduly knocking the guy when I call Brushfire Records’ newly released This Warm December: A Brushfire Holiday Vol. 1 simply lukewarm.
I’m wary of contemporary Christmas albums because musically they tend to be flat and unoriginal- as if the artist realizes his album will spend most of the year gathering dust on a shelf somewhere. Why waste your imaginative tunes and best riffs on something that will be listened to for a maximum of 1.5 months per year? Most contemporary Christmas albums aren’t so much about Christmas spirit and traditions as they are about Christmas dollar signs. They’re mostly superficial nods to an already watered-down holiday.
The relatively small palette of holiday standards has been rebooted so many times that contemporary artists taking their stab at it tend to overreach in order leave their stamp. The result is an uninspiring, often mangled rehash of songs that simply don’t need rehashing. Surprisingly, the reboots on Warm December aren’t half bad. Mason Jennings resists the temptation to overdo “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” instead offering a pleasantly bare-bones version of the classic.
Jack’s “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” has been a family favorite ever since I got my hands on a copy of it 5 or 6 years ago (it’s definitely got that good old-school Brushfire Fairytales sound) It’s nice to see “Rudolph” appear on this album, though I would have appreciated some more new material.
Zach Gill’s “Silent Night” is another example of the beauty of simplicity when it comes to Christmas standards. Just one beef– he’s replaced the phrase “Christ the Savior is born” in the song’s second verse with a repeat of “Sleep in heavenly peace” from the first. Not sure whether this was for stylistic reasons or politically correct ones. I’d like to think it’s the former.
When rebooting the classics alone isn’t satisfactory, artists often feel like they need to add original tracks or covers– the love song that has nothing to do with the holidays but makes passing mention of Christmas in its hook in order to match the season; The generic lament about being alone for the holidays; a lame wish for world peace. And no contemporary holiday album would be complete without the classic “only wanting you for Christmas” song?
You know exactly what I’m talking about, don’t you? It’s because they’re on every single album. And Warm December is no exception. Here is where this album fits the mold of its sub-par contemporaries. I’ll be honest; the lyrics to Jack’s “Someday At Christmas” almost made me dry heave (Someday at Christmas men won’t be boys/Playing with bombs like boys play with toys…) You know I love you, Jack, but I’m sick of the politics. I’m sure it’s a hit with the college crowd, but it just ain’t doing it for me. All the same, Jack’s use of the subtle self-provided harmony on the track is very well done.
Matt Costa’s “All I Want For Christmas” might be ok if it didn’t sound like he’s singing “All I wants a Christmas is you” over and over again. Money Mark’s track has kind of a catchy synthesized melody, but the trite lyrics are cringeworthy. Similarly, while G. Love’s “Christmas Baby” and ALO’s “Christmas Time” are fine musically, the tracks on the whole are nothing to write home about. Covers by Neil Halstead and Rogue Wave are airy, smooth, and true to form– but ultimately forgettable.
The obvious standout on Warm December is newcomer Zee Avi’s “No Christmas For Me.” Avi’s dusky vocals are fresh, cheery and genuine. She’s the only artist on the disc that sounds like she gave this song her all. If you buy this CD, buy it for her track (or you can download the track alone for free as a promo from Jack Johnson’s iLike page. You can listen to the entire album while you’re at it).
I’ve been impressed by Avi’s talent and humble personality since I discovered her on YouTube several months ago, and I wrote about her in September. If the amount of hits I get on that post every day is any kind of indicator, the young artist formerly known as Koko Kaina has the potential to make it big. I still haven’t heard when Brushfire plans on releasing her freshman album, so “No Christmas For Me” and her YouTube vids will have to tide us over until then.
Bottom Line: Warm December is overall a lukewarm album. If you follow the Brushfire artists closely, are a completist, or prefer shallow holiday-ish tunes to more authentic Christmas music, you’ll probably like it. A good chunk of the sales profits will go to musical education for kids, making it a worthy purchase. Otherwise, download Zee Avi’s track and hope for a warmer December if a second volume is released.