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Ho Ho Ho SpiceNearly 50 songs long and possessed of no discernible musical vision - folk, goth, punk, pop and more vie for the listener's attention - Ho Ho Ho Spice: A Hospice Awareness And Benefit Project (Volunteer Records, 2002) is a worthy effort that can be a taxing, discombobulating listen. That said, some very accomplished material is nestled here amongst a raft of rather anonymous, often amateur music. In fact, Ho Ho Ho Spice contains no less than five entries from my Top 100 Songs list, including super-rare tracks by the Reducers ("Nothing For Christmas") and Sonny Columbus & His Del Fuegos ("That Punchbowl Full Of Joy"), a not-so-scarce classic from NRBQ (Christmas Wish"), and two cuts from Chris Stamey's currently out-of-print Christmas Time (Stamey's title track and the dB's "Holiday Spirit").

Beyond those acknowledged classics, Ho Ho Ho Spice captures a number of worthy older efforts - some of them also quite rare - from notable artists. These include exemplary songs from Graham Parker ("Soul Christmas" from his out-of-print EP, Christmas Cracker); Wednesday Week ("Christmas Here Could Never Be Like That," a track from the legendary Midnight Christmas Mess series); Klark Kent ("Yo Ho Ho," a pseudonymous release by Stewart Copeland of the Police); and two cuts from the deleted 1991 power pop collection Yuletunes.

Plus, unexpected gems emerge beyond those stellar tracks. Some are "lost classics" unearthed for the project (c.f. the Hungry Dutchmen's 1988 pop nugget, "Looking For Santa") while others are newly recorded. Of those, tracks by Mike Daly (ex-Whiskeytown), Buzzed Meg (featuring Smithereen Jim Babjak), and Marina Belica (formerly of October Project) are particular standouts. Adding it all up, Ho Ho Ho Spice begins to look a lot like a Christmas cornucopia.

By the final tally, Ho Ho Ho Spice encompasses 24 essential Christmas tracks (see below). Bottom line, that's one very solid CD, albeit one that's spread over two very long discs. Nevertheless, Ho Ho Ho Spice sells for a bargain price, and it serves a very worthy cause (read more). So, buy one, then rip the good tracks to your hard drive - that's what MP3 players are made for!

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Holiday Heart

The relative success of Ho Ho Ho Spice spawned a sequel three years later. Holiday Heart: An Eclectic, Aural Celebration of Christmas and Chanukah (2005) is almost identical in format to its predecessor - two discs of eclectic, modern, original Christmas music. Beyond that point, the resemblance fades as Holiday Heart strays from the modestly stellar trail blazed by Ho Ho Ho Spice pnto the well-trodden path of mediocrity.

Unlike Ho Ho Ho Spice, most of these tracks were recorded specifically for the project and make their commercial debut herein. Nearly all of the rest were pulled from recent, independent releases, and none of the contributing artists are particularly noteworthy - save, perhaps, Rick Derringer, the man responsible for two of rock's greatest songs ("Hang On Sloopy" and "Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo") but who limps in here with the treacly "Christmas Valentine." In fact, many Holiday Heart artists qualify as positively obscure (most deserve to stay that way), and their contributions rarely reach beyond pleasantly competent. Which is not an overly harsh criticism; music is supposed to be pleasant, generally speaking. And, competence is hardly a sin, even for the most dissentious musician. But, we have a right to demand more from our art - pop or otherwise.

Much of the music on Holiday Heart (and a sizeable chunk of Ho Ho Ho Spice) was made possible by the digital revolution of the 1990's. The cheap technology that emerged from those heady days created a world where everybody can make a record. And, sometimes it seems like everybody does - nevermind talent, or something original to say, or demonstrable demand for their dubious art. Freedom is great, but it inevitably produces a glut of mediocre byproducts - the sort of pleasantly competent piffle that comprises most of Holiday Heart.

And, some of this stuff doesn't even rise to that modest level. At least a dozen of these tracks are frankly embarrassing. Bluntly stated, way too much of Holiday Heart is navel-gazing, sentimental crap: poorly written, badly sung, and produced with all the panache of a cheap demo tape. Really. Stop me when I've said too much...

Nevertheless, amidst such dross, a few jewels shine on Holiday Heart, though none approach the wicked genius of songs like "Holiday Spirit" or "Punchbowl Full Of Joy" from Ho Ho Ho Spice. The Montgomery Cliffs' "Christmas Lights" (from their Stocking Stuffer EP) is a lost power pop classic, and the Bitter Tears' "12 Days" is an unexpected, emo-tinged retelling of the hoary carol "Twelve Days of Christmas." I particularly enjoyed the Dismemberment Plan's dry reading of Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas" (though I'm not sure why), and Paula Kelley's frothy, charming "Why Christmas" triumphs over it's flat production.

Holiday Heart also includes previously released cuts from notables Ron Sexsmith, Mary Karlzen, and Washington D.C. roots rockers Last Train Home, and it culls yet another track (albeit a minor one) from Chris Stamey's Christmas Time (Cathy Harrington's goofy "Sha La La"). So, is that enough to warrant a purchase? Given the cause - sure. As with Ho Ho Ho Spice, Holiday Heart has some great music, but it will benefit even more from some judicious slashing, ripping, and burning.

Consumer Notes. The back cover of Ho Ho Ho Spice warned, "This release is limited to the 2002 season," but both the original release and its sequel were still available through CD Baby last time I looked (or check Amazon). Read more at www.hohohospice.com, the home of Volunteer Records, who also sell directly to consumers. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • - Ho Ho Ho Hospice (2002)
  • And To All A Good Night (Five Chinese Brothers, 1997)
  • Another Perfect Christmas (Keith LuBrant, 2002)
  • Auld Lang Syne (Cucumbers, 2000)
  • Christmas Time (Chris Stamey, 1985) star Top 100 Song [close]
    Comparing "Christmas Time" to the dB's "Holiday Spirit" - a song much higher on my Top 100 - the former is in many ways a better song. It is certainly a more sophisticated composition and expertly played record. But while the manic performance and cynical perspective of the latter won me over, Stamey's earlier record (a virtual paean to Big Star) is a classic in its own right. From the letter-perfect power pop arrangement (chiming guitars, soaring harmonies, thundering drums) to the inventive way Stamey rewrites holiday homilies in his lyrics, "Christmas Time" bores its way into the subconscious and will not let go. (Both songs are included on the CD editions of Christmas Time, a collection of tunes by Chris Stamey and friends.)
  • Christmas Wish (NRBQ, 1979) star Top 100 Song
  • Christmas Here (Could Never Be Like That) (Wednesday Week, 1984)
  • Gift You Always Wanted (Boss Gremlin, 2002)
  • Holiday Spirit (The dB's, 1993) star Top 100 Song [close]
    When Chris Stamey's 1985 EP, Christmas Time, was fleshed out in 1993 to full-album length, the dB's "Holiday Spirit" was added and became an immediate Generation-X yuletide anthem. "I've got that holiday spirit - Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" Peter Holsapple screams over slashing guitars and a pounding, maniacal beat. In just one minute and twenty-six seconds, the band crams in three verses and three choruses of unrelenting sarcasm and sexual innuendo. Then, suddenly, it's over - efficient and brilliant, like Santa Claus himself.
  • (I'll Be Glad When) Christmastime Is Done (Bite The Wax Godhead, 1994)
  • It's About That Time (The Idea, 1991)
  • It's Christmas (Brave Combo, 1991)
  • It's Love On Christmas Day (Buzzed Meg, 2001)
  • It's Not Christmas (Kelley Ryan, aka the astroPuppees, 1991)
  • Joy To The World (Butties, circa 2002)
  • Looking For Santa (Hungry Dutchmen, 1988)
  • Merry Christmas Eve (Better Than Ezra, 2002)
  • Nothing For Christmas (Reducers, 1988) star Top 100 Song
  • O Come O Come Emmanuel (Marina Belica, 2002)
  • Something 'Bout This Time Of Year (Mike Daly, 2002)
  • Soul Christmas (Graham Parker & Nona Hendryx, 1994)
  • That Punchbowl Full Of Joy (Sonny Columbus & His Del Fuegos, 1983) star Top 100 Song
  • What We Call Christmas (Bleach, 2001)
  • X-Mas (Chinkees, 2002)
  • Yo Ho Ho (Klark Kent, a.k.a. Stewart Copeland, circa 1980)
  • - Holiday Heart (2005)
  • Christmas Lights (Montgomery Cliffs, 2005)
  • Home For Christmas (Last Train Home, 2005)
  • Maybe This Christmas (Ron Sexsmith, 2005)
  • (Not Just Until) The Season Ends (Mary Karlzen, 2005)
  • Shopping Mall (Holiday Music, 2005)
  • Ten Tubas (Professor & Maryann, 2005)
  • This Christmas (Dismemberment Plan, 2005)
  • Twelve Days (Bitter Hearts, 2005)
  • Why Christmas? (Longest Day Of The Year) (Paula Kelley, 2005)

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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