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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Aimee Mann: One More Drifter In The Snow


AIMEE MANN: ONE MORE DRIFTER IN THE SNOW (2006)

1) Whatever Happened To Christmas; 2) The Christmas Song; 3) Christmastime; 4) I'll Be Home For Christmas; 5) You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch; 6) Winter Wonderland; 7) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; 8) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; 9) White Christmas; 10) Calling On Mary.

This should be as good a place as any to expound the Teleology Theory of the Christmas Album. This constantly self-regenerating beast has a nasty tendency to produce a population explosion around the end of each upcoming year, but the motivation behind the explosion is quite different from procreator to procreator. Christmas Albums fall into the following categories:

the money album, the idea behind which is for the starving artist to make a couple quick bucks from the fans (hard to blame—don't you need a new Lamborghini for Christmas?);

the dedication album, the idea behind which is the artist's firm conviction that there is no better gift for the fans than another Christmas album — surely, all the previous ten billion Christmas albums must become irrelevant and outdated the minute The Artist enters the studio to record a new one;

the money-dedication album, the idea behind which is to make a money album, but to state in every subsequent interview that the idea really was to make a dedication album. This is arguably the most common category.

Every now and then, however, there appears a fourth category: the intelligent Christmas Album, an extremely rare breed since it requires a complicated combination of parameters. Chief among those is the requirement that it be an album that is more about the artist than about Christmas, because, after all, there is only one Christmas and we know all about it, whereas the same cannot be said about artists.

Of course, fans of any particular artist will always want to argue that it is this particular artist's Christmas Album that is the most intelligent of all, even when we're very clearly dealing with a money album, but it is possible to be a bit colder and more objective about these things, especi­ally if the default emotion is to detest Christmas albums. In the light of this, I'm happy to say that I don't find anything detestable about Aimee Mann's Christmas album, One More Drifter In The Snow, because, totally true to her identity, on this record she invents (or, at least, strongly up­holds) a new sub-genre: Christmas music for loners.

In other words, it would be completely useless, maybe even ridiculous, to throw it on at a lively Christmas party, or, in fact, any Christmas party. It is, however, a very cool record to put on if, by any chance, you happen to be spending Christmas alone (at the most — with your other, but not too heavy on the champagne). Certainly this is not a depressed album — Aimee is not that weird — but it is an album to be played at a quiet volume in a small darkened room. Aimee herself quotes the Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra Christmas albums as chief inspiration, records that weren't specifically targeted towards the party spirit either, but we've come a long musical way from there, and One More Drifter dispenses with the commercialism and superficiality in an even rougher way than Frank or Dean could ever imagine way back then.

There are chimes, and strings, but the arrangements are chamber-like, never symphonic, and on most of the standards — 'White Christmas', 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas', 'God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen', etc. — Aimee's morose singing rises way up high above the mix, sugges­ting you're having a serious little conversation with the artist rather than merely having yourself another merry little Christmas. Strong surprises are few: 'You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch' from the Dr. Seuss legacy, and two originals — Michael Penn's 'Christmastime' and Aimee's own 'Calling On Mary'; the former is sort of bland, but the latter is quite strong, sounding very much like an outtake from the Forgotten Arm sessions (same rootsy style) and embodying all that is significant about the album: an odd mix of happiness and loneliness, contention and desperation.

Aimee's intentions are, in fact, immediately clear: the song that opens the album is not 'Jingle Bells', but rather Jimmy Webb's somewhat grim 'Whatever Happened To Christmas', so that the album is established as a protest against the cheapening and the commercialization of the holiday (or, in fact, of everything). Given that the album failed to chart on the Billboard at all, I suppose it matched its purpose fairly well. If you happen to be somehow torn between the idea of hating Christmas albums and the necessity to own one, One More Drifter In The Snow may be just what you need. If you're an admirer of Aimee's charisma, One More Drifter In The Snow is quite a must-have rather than a slight footnote. Either way, it's a thumbs up, and a good excuse to throw all your friends out on Christmas' Eve and just get drunk in the good old-fashioned way.

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