I have a confession to make. I didn't want to like this album-- Brian Wilson, after the artistic and critical triumph of "Smile" puts together a Christmas album. I mean, a Christmas album? Aren't these the bottom of the barrel of bad marketing ideas from the '60s? But you know, I'm a huge fan, so I dutifully picked it up on the day of release and eventually popped it into my CD player in my car, my expectations were about as low as they could get.
You can, of course, imagine my surprise when I thought it was fantastic.
Wilson assembled his touring band, augmented by a pair of extra horns and a string quartet, to tackle eight Christmas standards, a pair of Beach Boys Christmas classics, and a couple new songs. With top notch musicianship, a small orchestra at his disposal, and vocalists about as good as they come, one thing is increasingly clear to me-- Brian Wilson's power as an arranger is remarkably intact, moreso than one would ever guess based on his output of the past thirty years-- don't get me wrong, I loved "Love You" and "Brian Wilson" and a substantial amount of other material Wilson has done, but they were all missing some piece of magic, some magic that was captured on the 2004 re-recording of "Smile", and it's as though it was infectious. The arrangements on here are subtle, clever and inventive-- full of the kind of things that made a confessed music snob like myself excited about the Beach Boys in the first place.
Look no further than "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" for an example of what I mean-- the arrangement picks up a pseudo-Eastern European feel to it, sounding almost like a Russian folk song on electric guitars and a superb lead vocal by a more-confident-sounding Brian Wilson, superb vocal harmonies. It's got that certain-something that's been missing. This is pretty much true of about all the classics on here-- the arrangements are really a blast-- "Deck the Halls" picks up a funky, almost late '90s Chili Pepper sound, "O Holy Night" has all the subtleties that made the old Beach Boys recordings great, and "We Wish You A Merry Christmas"-- it's just one of those pieces. Opening with a piano and flute theme statement then moving onto bass harmonica and harpsichord for the vocal passages and eventually tagging in a double time chorus. Bass harmonica and harpsichord? There was only one arranger who ever though in those fashions. And certainly the a capella "Auld Lang Syne" is guaranteed to make any harmony fan happy.
The two Beach Boys pieces get faithful reinterpretations-- "Little Saint Nick" ends up being hot and exciting. The new pieces are decent enough-- "What I Really Want For Christmas" ends up being a pretty, laid back piece with fantastic, subtle percussion and a great, lush, string arrangement. "Christmasey" I'm a little less wild on, it's got a somewhat frantic and rushed feel to it that doesn't suit the piece.
The album is augmented by a trio of "bonus tracks"-- Christmas song "On Christmas Day" that Wilson recorded several years ago and released on his website, a moody arrangement of "Joy to the World" that ended up on a compilation in the late '90s, and the "Silent Night" arrangement that used to play on Wilson's website a couple Christmases ago. All of it is nice to have on disc.
For someone who's not wild on Christmas albums, I have to say I really enjoyed this one-- it's got my excited for the possibility of that rock and roll album Brian keeps saying he wants to do. Recommended.