This year, we've wrapped our roundup of holiday albums a bit differently. Instead of delivering it to you in one big lump (like coal), we're parceling out the reviews online, with a blog each weekday through December 24 devoted to recordings in a different category. Part five brings you "Christmas Alternatives" -- new holiday releases by performers who kinda/sorta fit into the modern-rock category. They include the Flaming Lips, the Almost, Julian Koster and Martha's Trouble.
A companion disc to Wayne Coyne's years-in-the-making movie curio, The Flaming Lips' Christmas on Mars (Warner Bros.) is dominated by eccentric (and not especially hook-filled) soundtrack backgrounders, not yuletide favorites. As such, anyone expecting an actual holiday album -- or even a typical Lips offering -- is likely to be disappointed. On the other hand, what family meal wouldn't be improved by a listen to future classics such as "The Horrors of Isolation: The Celestial Dissolve, Triumphant Hallucination, Light Being Absorbed," "In Excelsior Vaginalistic" and, of course, "The Gleaming Armament of Marching Genitalia"?
Despite its moniker, No Gift to Bring, a Tooth & Nail Records release by The Almost also falls short of qualifying as a true yule effort. There's only one real Christmas song: a not terribly distinctive take on "Little Drummer Boy." But because Aaron Gillespie, the act's guiding force (as well as drummer for Underoathe), is a Christian, cuts such as "Awful Direction" either name-check "the Lord" directly or allude to various Jesus-y subject matter. And, as I understand it, Christmas is related to that stuff.
Julian Koster, an Elephant 6 alum whose credits include work with the Music Tapes and Neutral Milk Hotel, sticks to traditionals on The Singing Saw at Christmastime (Merge). Listeners will recognize "Frosty the Snowman," "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" and so on. However, the album's title is meant literally, not whimsically. Every song is indeed played on a singing saw, or at least what most of us figure a singing saw would sound like. Furthermore, there's almost no accompaniment aside from incidental noises like simulated icicle tinkling on "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Hence, the joke gets old mighty fast. By the end of the CD, most listeners will want to take a singing saw to their throat.
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Which brings us to This Christmas, a self-released disc by this fairly obscure group from Auburn, Alabama, whose creative efforts can be found online at MarthasTrouble.com. The album consists of eight sweet, primarily acoustic takes on holiday staples distinguished by lead singer Jen Slocumb's pure, beguiling voice, with the standout being a gorgeous rendition of Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" that I prefer to the original. At least for this season. -- Michael Roberts