We’re barely a week into December, and already you’re sick of Christmas music.
WOLX 94.9 FM’s round-the-clock holiday playlist is like the sound of chewing tinsel to your ears. You have to wad cotton in your ears before you enter a grocery store. You can’t remember anything that Paul McCartney recorded besides “Wonderful Christmastime.”
Relax. You may be suffering from SAD (seasonal audio disorder), but there’s hope. You probably can’t avoid holiday tunes between now and Dec. 25, but there is better Christmas music out there.
In recent years, a new wave of artists, including Over the Rhine, Aimee Mann and even Bela Fleck & The Flecktones have aimed to reclaim Christmas music from the cheery and cheesy usual fare. They aim to provide a soundtrack for the entirety of the holiday season, the highs and the lows, Christmas Eves spent with family and alone.
“There’s something almost darker that comes to mind that’s not necessarily conveyed by a lot of jingly holiday music,” said Linford Detweiler, who with his wife Karin Bergquist makes up the backbone of Over the Rhine. “We’ve tried to capture some of that complexity on our Christmas records. Karin calls it ‘reality Christmas music.’
“It’s kind of a complicated, conflicted time of year for a lot of people,” he said. “Those of us who have buried parents or others, there’s empty seats at the table, or families end up breaking apart over this or that. It gets complicated.”
For the Cincinnati-based band, who play a Christmas show at the Majestic Theatre Friday, Dec. 7, holiday music has become a major part of what they do. The band almost always works Christmas shows into its schedule. In the spirit of the season, audience members who bring a new or gently used toy for Toys for Tots will get $2 off the admission price.
They have two Christmas albums, with a third coming in 2013. The music is spare and gorgeous, a mix of cover versions of songs like “Silent Night” and “The First Noel” and haunting originals.
Over the Rhine’s reputation as an indie Christmas band began almost 20 years ago, when a radio station asked them to come into the studio to perform some holiday music. But the turning point came in late fall of the following year, after the band had returned to Cincinnati after a long tour opening for Squeeze.
“We got home pretty tuckered out and felt a little bit disconnected from our friends and the Cincinnati music scene,” Detweiler said. “We decided to try our first Christmas concert at an old theater in the neighborhood of Over the Rhine (for which the band is named), somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,200 seats. It sold out and we never looked back.”
When he was a boy, Detweiler remembers, his father put together eclectic mixtapes of holiday music. He also noted that some of his first experiences as a performer were as a child in Christmas pageants.
“Both Karin and I have memories of some of our first experiences on stage being Christmas programs at a church, where the kids would pull out their flannel bathrobes so they could dress up like an authentic Middle Eastern shepherd,” Detweiler said. “We’d all stand around with our tinfoil stars and sing songs by candlelight. It felt kind of spooky and wonderful.
“We both hang on to some of those early performances as being kind of a big deal in our childhood. There’s part of us that’s secretly trying to re-create that feeling.”
Aimee Mann, who just had a sold-out show at the Stoughton Opera House last month, did a similarly bittersweet spin on Christmas music with her 2006 album “One More Drifter in the Snow.” It includes a couple of originals, and mix of melancholy and hopeful Christmas covers that range from Jimmy Webb’s lament, “Whatever Happened to Christmas,” to “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”
Lest one thinks Mann’s heart is three sizes to small, she puts on an annual Christmas variety show in her home base of Los Angeles, billed as “a Christmas show for people who don’t like Christmas.” At last year’s show, she opened by quoting from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” “I think there must be something wrong with me — Christmas is coming, but I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel. I always end up feeling depressed.”
But this season, she’s been so busy touring behind her new album, “Charmer,” that she’s taking the year off from the Christmas show.
Jazz-rock quartet Bela Fleck & The Flecktones have performed really radical surgery on beloved Christmas classics, coming up with some gleefully gonzo arrangements for their 2008 “Jingle All the Way” album, including “Jingle Bells” performed with Tuvan throat singers, and “The 12 Days of Christmas” in which every day was in a different time signature.
In a 2009 interview, Fleck told 77 Square that the risk of failure was one of the things spurring the band to be as creative and unorthodox as possible.
“The potential for it to be bad made it attractive,” he said. “You know what I mean? There was an opportunity there. Most of the time, when you think about Christmas stuff, most records are disappointments. That almost makes it easier, because people’s expectations are so low.”