The Christmas album (as opposed to the Christmas Greatest Hits cash-in) is a tradition few outside the world of MOR uphold any longer. Once, some of our greatest pop stars thought nothing of interpreting classic crooners, while contributing a couple of new songs themselves to the canon.
Elvis Presley, at the height of his fame, recorded twelve Christmas tracks, of which one was the now staple seasonal song Blue Christmas. The Beatles would send out flexi-discs to their fan club marking the yuletide. The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons, The Osmonds, Jethro Tull and even the Barenaked Ladies, have all marked the occasion in their own idiosyncratic way.
Now it is the turn of Aimee Mann, the queen of alt-MOR and sounding more like Karen Carpenter than ever, to bring something of her own to the Christmas party. Except Mann is not really the sort to wear the pointy hat and pull crackers. Indeed, the only reason I can think she might go to the office shindig would be to spike the mulled wine with bromide and burst the balloons with a hair-pin.
She sets the tone with a tremolo guitar-led version of the Jimmy Webb written, Whatever Happened to Christmas? First performed by Frank Sinatra, it is possibly one of the saddest songs ever written for the time of year, and Mann heaps on the regret and chagrin for the line “remember how love was all around – whatever happened to it all?”.
Of a piece are her solemn version of The Christmas Song (the one that starts “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire”), and two songs most closely associated with Bing Crosby – White Christmas and I’ll Be Home for Christmas. The latter are, of course, letters home in song form from American Second World War soldiers to their loved ones, and with the addition of what sounds like a bodhran playing a solemn war beat to White Christmas and the unresolved jazz chord at the end, one can’t help but think there’s some nod to the situation of current US forces families contained within.
It is doubtful that there is any motivation beyond caprice and enjoying interpreting hoary old chestnuts, pun intended, to explain Mann’s decision to record this album. Ultimately she is, like all good popstars, indulging her ageing audience who want to be able to share their favourite singer-songwriter with their children, rather than relying on the music their parents made them listen to. This would certainly explain her decision to cover Thurl Ravenscroft’s You’re A Mean One, Mr Grinch from the original How the Grinch Stole Christmas cartoon, or perform a cheesy medieval version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.
Aside from a lovely version of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, it is Mann’s own contribution to the Christmas song tradition, Calling on Mary, that is the moderate highlight of this otherwise underwhelming album. A melancholic delight, sung, in true Mann style, “to all the lost souls” who are “alone like me”, and where the words “merry Christmas” sound spat out with as much venom as her husky lilt can manage. The other “original” song, Christmastime (written in 1996 for the Hard Eight soundtrack by husband Michael Penn and long-term collaborator Jon Brion), is Mann-lite, as lyrically bitter as winter in Alaska but sadly failing to really set any hearths alight.
Like most of Mann’s work, the miserablism shines through, which will please those who neither want nor expect more of her. It is no vintage – little she has done since I’m With Stupid really is – but for those with a touch of the Grinch about them who concur that “it is less a crime to be all alone at Christmastime” there’s enough here to (not) enjoy. Praise the Lord, and pass the valium.