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Christmas Albums By Rodney Crowell And The Monkees Capture The Spirit Of The Season

Dec 12, 2018
Originally published on December 13, 2018 1:46 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Every year, pop music artists release new albums of Christmas music. Some of them cover familiar holiday songs. Others write new material for the season. Rock critic Ken Tucker listened to a big batch of new releases and winnowed his pile down to two - Rodney Crowell's "Christmas Everywhere" and The Monkees' "Christmas Party." Here's Ken's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS EVERYWHERE")

RODNEY CROWELL: (Singing) Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas everywhere. Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, Christmas, pulling out my hair. Shoppers lined up out the door, traffic backed up miles and more. It's Christmas time, so what the heck? Let's go spend the whole paycheck. Christmas, Christmas...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: It's that time of year when people you didn't expect start releasing Christmas albums. First on my list is Rodney Crowell, the veteran singer-songwriter who freely admits he never considered putting out a Christmas album until now. Crowell has described himself as having gone sour on Christmas just due to his own moody nature. But recently, his attitude changed for a variety of reasons, among them grandchildren, whose own joy in making Christmas music warmed his ornery, old heart. I like the way he sets melancholy to a jaunty beat on "Christmas Makes Me Sad."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS MAKES ME SAD")

CROWELL: (Singing) Christmas makes me sad. Christmas makes me blue. Christmas makes me lonely without you. I wander down these city streets. It seems like everyone I meet is happy 'cause it's Christmas time, but something else hangs on my mind. The sights and sound around this old town says it's that time of year. But you’re not here, and I'll spend my silent night alone.

TUCKER: Crowell approaches Christmas through some interesting, eccentric directions. The cheerful song that opened this review called "Christmas Everywhere" includes a very odd interlude two-thirds of the way through in which a child asks Santa for a time machine in which to go back and prevent John Lennon's murder. On another song, "Christmas In Vidor" Crowell invites the author Mary Karr to yowl along with him. Co-writing, they create a vividly bleak holiday scenario in the town of Vidor, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS IN VIDOR")

CROWELL: (Singing) I won't build no snowman, won't drink no nog, just wander around in a bayou fog.

MARY KARR: (Singing) Take out the turkey, lay down the grub, fix my face, do the dishes, throw the kids in the tub.

CROWELL: (Singing) Spend the late night standing inside the fridge door, bathe in the green light and hungry for more

KARR: (Singing) Backdoor's wide open, here's what I know. The end of that driveway is as far as I'll go.

RODNEY CROWELL AND MARY KARR: (Singing) It's Christmas in Vidor.

KARR: (Singing) Eighty-eight degrees.

CROWELL AND KARR: (Singing) It's Christmas in Vidor.

KARR: (Singing) Oh, Jesus, please.

CROWELL AND KARR: (Singing) It's Christmas in Vidor.

KARR: (Singing) Leave me alone.

CROWELL AND KARR: (Singing) It's Christmas in Vidor.

TUCKER: Let's shake off that holiday dolorousness with the new Monkees album titled "Christmas Party." Yes, The Monkees - three-quarters of whom are still alive and playful. Micky Dolenz tackles a wide variety of holiday songs here. The album has one track from Peter Tork and two tracks from Mike Nesmith that sound as though they were recorded in brooding isolation. The collection also features two tracks that include vocals by fourth Monkee Davy Jones, who died in 2012. It is, in other words, something of a jury-rigged Monkees album. But I'll be darned if the whole thing doesn't come together in an entertaining way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNWRAP YOU AT CHRISTMAS")

THE MONKEES: (Singing) I can't wait to unwrap you at Christmas. You're the gift for me. I can't wait to unwrap you at Christmas under the Christmas tree. I can't wait to unwrap you at Christmas. I dream of nothing more. So dear Santa, when you read my letter, please drop her at my door.

TUCKER: That's "Unwrap You At Christmas," written by XTC's Andy Partridge - presumably, not in a pear tree. This Monkees album has been primarily produced by Adam Schlesinger, who knows from good pop rock music as half of Fountains of Wayne. Turns out, Schlesinger also wrote the best song on this album - or rather co-wrote it with none other than famous novelist Michael Chabon. The tune is called "House Of Broken Gingerbread." And it's a musical stocking filled with verbal goodies, such as a reference to, quote, "one of those French cakes disguised as a log." This song is its own buche de noel of melancholy bliss.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE OF BROKEN GINGERBREAD")

THE MONKEES: (Singing) Two mountains of presents, two glittering trees, both frosted in tinsel and blue LEDs. Two platters of cookies and peppermint bark, two baby messiahs aglow in the dark, two decks of Uno and two sets of Clue. There's double the Christmas, but I'm torn in two. In the house of broken gingerbread, butterscotch and candy cigarettes, sugar snow on the flowerbed in the house of broken gingerbread. Fa la la...

TUCKER: For both Rodney Crowell and The Monkees, Christmas is a time for taking stock, of drawing up a gratitude list and placing the year in perspective. The results aren't always jolly, but they're certainly sincere and passionate.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Rodney Crowell's "Christmas Everywhere" and The Monkees' "Christmas Party."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Richard E. Grant, who stars opposite Melissa McCarthy in the film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" He's won a couple of awards for his performance and is nominated for more. He made his film debut in "Withnail And I." He grew up in Africa in Swaziland, where his father was the well-respected director of education. But he was also an alcoholic and at night, could turn abusive. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHRISTMAS PARTY")

THE MONKEES: (Singing) Now you've heard that some people say, wish every day could be Christmas day. I don't know, that might be too much. One Christmas party a year is enough. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.