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and memorable record, Christmas
Time was modeled (well, loosely) on Phil Spector's legendary "stable
of artists" holiday offering, A
Christmas Gift For You, and it has evolved and expanded considerably over several editions spanning 30 years, all the while staying fairly close to the Chapel Hill, North Carolina home base of Chris
Stamey & The dB's. The original Coyote Records 12-inch EP was released in 1985 under the banner of "The Chris
Stamey Group" with "special guests the dB's." Stamey, of course, was a member of the dB's, and their energetic performance of the title track is the EP's one true classic. The rest of the songs feature Stamey or members of the group he was then using for solo projects - most memorably keyboardist Cathy Harrington on the lovely "You're What I Want (For Christmas)."
Then in 1993, East Side Digital issued an excellent (if poorly annotated) CD version credited to "Chris Stamey & Friends." The disc compiled six
of the seven original EP tracks plus ten new songs plus Big Star's timeless 1975
holiday track, "Jesus Christ" (for a total of 17 tracks). To my ears, this is the definitive edition of the album, as it introduces several unforgettable songs including the dB's wild "Holiday Spirit" and "Christmas Is The Only
Time (I Think Of You)," sung by Stamey and local musician/producer Wes Lachot. Then, Alex Chilton contributes a straightforward, solo reading of Nat King Cole's "Christmas Song" that embodies everything odd and endearing about the late Big Star mastermind.
OK, following this? 'Cause it gets better. In 2006, the record got issued yet again, this time by Collector's Choice - retitled Christmas Time Again (get it?) and credited to "The dB's & Friends." This edition dropped several tracks from the earlier version but added six new songs - most notably Marshall Crenshaw's cover of the Orioles' "(It's Gonna Be) A Lonely Christmas" and Don Dixon's randy "Christmas Is Saturday." Plus, they tossed in the dB's fantastic 1987 country-tinged single "Home For The Holidays" (originally compiled on Just In Time For Christmas), swelling the disc to 21 tracks. (The online version of the album does not include Big Star's "Jesus Christ," though the compact disc does.)
And then, finally (I hope), the album was reissued again in 2015 by Omnivore Records using more-or-less the same artwork, title, and methodology as the 2006 edition - dropping a few tracks, adding a few more, for a total of 22. Christmas Time Again! (note the exclamation mark) seems to have been spurred by Stamey's involvement in a project called Big Star's Third, which took root around the time of the 2006 revision of Christmas Time Again and came to fruition in 2010, shortly after Alex Chilton died. The idea was to perform Big Star's third album (known as Third or Sister Lovers, depending on the edition) using the full orchestrations - something never done before. With a core band of Stamey, Mitch Easter (Let's Active), Mike
Mills (R.E.M.), Ken
Stringfellow (Posies), and
Jody Stephens - by then, the only surviving member of Big Star - a series of concerts began featuring a constantly rotating, eclectic cast of guest stars such as Cat Power, Van Dyke Parks, the Kronos Quartet, and Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner.
The Big Star's Third performances were ongoing at the time Christmas Time Again! was released in 2015, and the cast is featured throughout album - most prominently on a new version of "Jesus Christ" sung by Mike Mills. Several of the record's new tracks are performed by younger musicians involved in the project including Brett Harris, Skylar Gudasz, and Birds And Arrows. Altogether, though, Christmas Time Again! is a weaker album than its predecessor. Several essential songs are missing, including those by Don Dixon, Syd Straw, and Big Star themselves, and the new ones generally fail to impress.
One exception, however bizarre: Robyn Hitchcock's "The Day Before Boxing Day," a spoken narrative full of his trademark hallucinatory prose. "Christmas is a miserable occasion," he concludes, "an oasis of artificial light in a dark wasteland." Well put! Also, it's hard not to like "Eight Day Weekend" by Yo La Tengo and Jeff Tweedy (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco). Recorded live during an eight-night stand at a New Jersey club called Maxwell's, the song transforms an old Gary U.S. Bond single ("Seven Day Weekend," written by Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman) into a Chanukah rave-up.
No matter how you cut it, Christmas
Time is a very solid record with several spectacular high points including (count 'em) two of my Top 100 Christmas Songs, plus another widely acknowledged classic in "Jesus Christ." Interestingly, however, the two stellar tracks are very different. Backed by the dB's, Stamey's title track is a relatively sweet, intensely catchy power pop anthem. To the contrary, the dB's "Holiday Spirit" is a scabrous, high-speed attack on commercialism. It's great fun, though, as the dB's holler, "I've got that holiday spirit - gimme! gimme! gimme!"
Throughout the album, however, Stamey, the dB's, and
their distinguished guests have a merry
ol' time. Collectively, the record is full of strange and unexpected moments, such as aforementioned oddity by Robyn Hitchcock, or Ted Lyon's twisted western fantasy, "The Only Law That Santa Claus Understood." My personal favorite is by modern rock princess Syd Straw, who cannily transforms a spooky old Blondie song, "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear" (from the bands' second album, Plastic Letters), into a charming holiday love song - mostly by substituting "presents" for "presence." Ha!
Combined with the aggregated brilliance of classics by Stamey, his band, and their many friends, these willfully oddball nuggets help Christmas
Time add up to a must-own record for fans of the R.E.M. school of rock. Me? I own all four editions, and they each get played every holiday season.
Consumer Notes & Pointless Trivia. Thanks to its tortured chain of reissue, no single edition of Christmas
Time includes all cumulative 32 tracks. One of the songs - "Something Came Over Me" - appears only on the vinyl EP, and two tracks from the EP, meanwhile, appear in different versions elsewhere. "Something Came Over Me" was originally found on Stamey's 1984 Instant Excitement EP, and "It's A Wonderful Life" served as the title track of a 1982 album. And, both of those songs show up as bonus tracks on that album's 1992 CD reissue. Confused? Me, too.
Even more confusing, many sources list the release date of the original Christmas
Time vinyl EP as 1986 - not 1985 (as I do). Adding to this confusion, the East Side Digital CD gives recording dates of 1985-1986, and Stamey himself (in the liner notes to the Collector's Choice CD) implies that the original EP was released in 1986 - and the earlier CD in 1996, not 1993! But, like I said, I own all this stuff, and the vinyl LP clearly states ©1985 (further corroborated by the Twin/Tone website), while the CD clearly states ©1993. So there! Not that anyone cares but me.... Perhaps the confusion descends from the fact that Coyote released a remix of "Christmas Time" as a single in 1986, b/w another track from Christmas
Time, "Occasional Shivers." Or, perhaps not. [top of page]
- Christmas Is Saturday (Don Dixon, 2006)
- Christmas Is The Only
Time (I Think Of You) (Wes Lachot & Chris Stamey, 1993)
The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) (Alex Chilton, 1993)
Christmas Time (Chris Stamey, 1985) Top 100 Song
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.)
- The Day Before Boxing Day (Robyn Hitchcock, 2015)
- Eight Day Weekend (Yo La Tengo and Jeff Tweedy, 2015)
Holiday Spirit (The dB's, 1993) Top 100 Song
When Chris Stamey's 1985 EP, Christmas
, 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.
- Home For The Holidays (The dB's, 1987)
(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presents, Dear (Syd Straw, 1993)
- (It's Gonna Be) A Lonely Christmas (Marshall Crenshaw, 2006)
Jesus Christ (Big Star, 1975)
You're What I Want (For Christmas) (Chris Stamey & Cathy Harrington, 1985)
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