BRIGHT EYES: A CHRISTMAS ALBUM (2002)
1) Away In A Manger; 2) Blue Christmas; 3) Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem; 4) God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen; 5) The First Noel; 6) Little Drummer Boy; 7) White Christmas; 8) Silent Night; 9) Silver Bells; 10) Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas; 11) The Night Before Christmas.
My favorite Bright Eyes album ever, bar none. Not that I'd want to ever listen to it again, mind you, but there is one thing you cannot deny — no other Bright Eyes album has such a concentrated wallop of brilliant, hook-filled melodies over the course of a measly half-hour. ʽGod Rest Ye Merry Gentlemenʼ? Conor Oberst couldn't even begin to dream of writing such a brilliant tune. ʽWhite Christmasʼ? The entire Bright Eyes catalog is exchangeable for that one, and take half of Omaha's musical collectives as a free bonus. ʽThe Night Before Christmasʼ? Now that's what I call poetry, «you take all your smart modern writers», like Ray Davies said...
...okay, that's getting carried a bit too far, I admit. But seriously, as far as Christmas albums go, this one is no worse than most others, and as far as Bright Eyes albums go, I'd really rather have a Christmas album from these people than sixty minutes of their original «tunes». There is one added bonus: no matter how obnoxious and annoying Conor may seem in person (in «musical» person, I mean: in «real» person, I have no idea), he has this odd talent of attracting sympathetic female performers, sometimes endowed with the prettiest of voices and nicest of attitudes. Here, his main partner is Alabama-born Maria Taylor, who plays some of the keyboards, sings about half of the songs (praise God!) and co-arranges most of them.
Production values remain targeted at the indie market — several tunes are defiantly lo-fi, some are defiantly underarranged, and almost everything is made to suffer from a mild form of «un-listen-abili-tosis» one way or another (including sprinklings of electronic noises, echo and other effects cast over traditional instruments, absurdly slowed down tempos, whatever). But that's just to make sure that, God forbid, any of your grandparents should unexpectedly take a liking to the album and start playing it instead of their Sinatra records.
Under that slightly scratchy surface, however, rests a perfectly normal Christmas album with very nice folksy crooning vocals from Taylor (ʽAway In A Mangerʼ, ʽWhite Christmasʼ), attempts on Conor's part to sing in a normal voice — yes, he does have one, and even though it can never be completely free of whiny overtones, they are actually quite in place on ʽBlue Christmasʼ, and even more so on ʽHave Yourself A Merry Little Christmasʼ (after all, you can't expect to actually have someone sing this song to you in a merry mood and get away with it, can you?).
There is even some modestly successful experimentation here, like with ʽLittle Drummer Boyʼ, which they deconstruct by distorting every sound channel, and then punch up with some crunchy martial drumming to match the title; or with ʽSilent Nightʼ, where the vocals quickly disappear, giving way to a slow, supposedly-mesmerizing mix of dreamy country guitars with psychedelic effects. On the other hand, ending the album with a full recital of ʽTwas The Night Before Christmasʼ, blandly performed by some grumbly guy against a minimalistic piano backdrop, is, at best, an anticlimactic idea — provided that one could expect a «climax» from an album like this in the first place, of course.
Clearly, the whole thing was little more than a killing-time project, or, perhaps, just a quick cash-in on Conor's growing popularity — generous cash-in, since the proceeds of the album have been said to go to the «Nebraska AIDS Project» — but I was genuinely surprised at how much of the repulsive side of Bright Eyes was cut off here, while still leaving some of Oberst's typical, and least annoying, trademarks; and I am a bit puzzled at the frequently violent rejection of the record encountered among the fans. Yes, it is a «generic Christmas album», but hey, if you take Oberst as your guru, you have to try and put some sense into it anyway; and if you do not take Oberst as your guru, it's all the more nice to realize he's finally made an album where he isn't trying to teach you something. In the general line of things, it is quickly forgettable; in the overall context of Bright Eyes' history, it works better than I could have imagined.