Monday, December 15, 2008

Christmas Music Review: Brian Setzer Orchestra

(Third in a short series noting my favorite Christmas CDs. Previous entries: Chicago; Bruce Cockburn.)

Brian Setzer loves Christmas. He’s released two Christmas CDs (not including the newer compilation CDs), he’s got a DVD devoted to live Christmas music, heck, he’s even got a Myspace page featuring just his Christmas material. I guess you could say the man likes Christmas.

And his music reflects that passion. Boogie Woogie Christmas (2002) and Dig That Crazy Christmas (2005) take some of the best—and unexpected—Christmas carols and gives them the jump blues and swing treatment. In addition, he writes some new songs that, while not destined to be standards, fit right in with the rest of the tunes. There’s not a bad cut among the twenty-five total songs across the two CDs.

The remarkable thing about these CDs is the bravado Setzer displayed in the song selection. He knows his strengths: retro-sounding guitar, kick-ass big band, and a warbly baritone that can challenge the saxophones of the Lawrence Welch Orchestra when doing vibrato. Setzer, however, takes some chances and the overall results are better for those daring choices.

His “Jingle Bells” is not all that daring but it’s a blast. The music soars out of the speakers like a 57 Chevy during a drag race in the LA River. Setzer’s guitar work is all but Chuck Berry on overdrive. This is a version that puts almost all other versions to shame, even with the lyric alterations. Ann-Margret lends her sultry voice to a delicious rendition of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” In “Sleigh Ride,” the saxophone section of the orchestra gives a distinct jazzy 60s-era spy movie vibe by means of the “Batman” theme song. “Santa Clause is Back in Town” here becomes a standard blues tune that would be quite at home deep in New Orleans. Setzer does his impression of Elvis Presley singing like Roy Orbison for “Blue Christmas” and it somehow works. Another track that works despite itself is “O Holy Night,” where Setzer shows that he can really sing straight when the need calls.

The standout, by far, is his big-band take on Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite.” As I wrote in my review of Setzer’s latest CD, “Wolfgang’s Big Night Out,” on the face of it, this selection might cause every listener’s eyebrow to cock with the obvious question: “Really?” Trust me: just listen. It’ll knock your socks off with the intelligence and passion for the source material. The woodwind sections gets to break out a few non-standard instruments in a big band—bass clarinet anyone?—and the drummer gets to play the bells. And midway through the song, the sax section gets to shine and the bari sax player gets to blat his way through the Trepak sequence. I’ll always love the traditional orchestral version…but this version is what I listen to more.

“Dig That Crazy Christmas” continues where the first CD left off, although now, we have some female singers that give the band a distinct 1940s vibe. And if their presence weren’t obvious enough, Setzer pulls out “Getting’ in the Mood (For Christmas),” a reworking of Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” with yuletide lyrics. It’s just…fun! Setzer pulls another carol out of left field. “Angels We Have Heard on High” is largely instrumental except for the choir in the middle section. Setzer’s guitar work provides the lead in this version. While it’s not as special as “Nutcracker,” it’s still a nice change of pace from the traditional church choir and orchestra. “White Christmas” is here, and Setzer definitely was inspired more by the Drifters than Bing Crosby. The band gives “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” a good reading and it’s not too difficult to close your eyes and find yourself on the dance floor on December 31st.

In “’Zat You Santa Claus,” Setzer tries on the jacket Louis Armstrong found so successful. While Setzer’s voice is too smooth for a direct comparison with Armstrong’s gravelly delivery, he compensates by singing in his lower range and half-yelling the title. It’s a fun version but, really, I’ll still take Armstrong for this song.

If there was one song destined for the Setzer treatment, it has to be “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” Not really a carol but equally famous, Setzer digs into the funnier lyrics, walloping the listener with his vibrato so warbly you can just imagine his Adam’s apple goggling up and down life Goofy from a Walt Disney cartoon. For the guitar solo, he tunes his guitar down. The result is kitschy evil, all the while his band is jiving at the background. It’s a real piece of work.

If the Chicago Christmas CD ranks as one of the best modern Christmas CDs with their distinctive take on traditional carols and Bruce Cockburn provides the antithesis to all that sparkles false in December, Brian Setzer’s contributions are just flat-out fun. I’ll give one thing to critics of this type of music: yeah, it is over the top, much more over the top than Setzer’s bouncing hair. But it’s just so much fun, I dare you *not* to tape your foot. You’ll feel like a kid again with the ebullient spirit of these CDs. And, in this season that is centered around children and the pure joy and exuberance in their eyes on Christmas morning, isn’t that worth something?


pattinase (abbott) said...

I may have already said this, but one of my favorites is the Motown Christmas album. I wonder if it would be any fun for those who didn't grow up on that music though. That wall of sound might be annoying. Also like Johnny Mathis' and Nat King Cole as well as Peanuts.

Scott Parker said...

Absolutely NOTHING wrong with that wall of sound. I love the Motown sound and, frankly, I haven't heard the Christmas one. Johnny Mathis' versions of "Winter Wonderland" and "Sleigh Ride" are without peer. No Christmas is complete until I hear NKC's "The Christmas Song." And the Peanuts soundtrack...what can you say? It's sublime.

August West said...

I've always loved Brian Setzer's version of "O Holy Night." Its becoming one of my favorite Christmas songs. Not swinging like most of his songs, be just belts it out with passion.

As for the other songs, a little swing to balance out your Christmas tunes is Yule cool.

David Cranmer said...

This is the second time you have reviewed Brian Setzer. I like his music but really don't have any of his stuff in my collection. I will correct that this weekend

Travis Erwin said...

I bet my wife would love both of these.

Chris said...

Nice review, Scott. Do you have Wynton Marsalis's Crescent City Christmas Card? It's worth checking out if you don't.

Noticed that "Baby, It's Cold Outside" is on this album. My wife and I think it's the most annoying holiday song ever. Thoughts? :)

Scott Parker said...

Don't have Wynton's CD. Since I enjoy my two Harry Connick Christmas CDs so much, I'm confident that I'll like the Wynton one.

Christmas time, it seems, is when folks who don't like jazz listen to jazz musicians do carols. Odd.

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" falls into that category of Christmas song that's not really about Christmas. I mean, Winter Wonderland and Sleigh Ride and Let it Snow all don't mention the holiday. But the holiday has annexed them. Of all of these, yeah, "Baby..." is not my favorite, even if it is supposed to be a love song. I much prefer "What are you doing New Year's Eve."

Chris said...

Funny, I was just thinking about "Baby It's Cold Outside" vs. "What are You Doing New Year's Eve?" and decided how much more I liked the latter. "Baby It's Cold Outside" has such a corny melody, and the back-and-forth between the man and woman has always annoyed me.