Sunday, February 23, 2014

Originality Undermines Emotion On A Fine Frenzy’s Oh Blue Christmas!

The Good: Wonderful vocals, Musical accompaniment is interesting
The Bad: Short, Reinterpretations drastically change the emotions of the songs, Original tracks are entirely moody.
The Basics: Oh Blue Christmas is an extended play disc from A Fine Frenzy, which has Alison Sudol reinterpreting three Christmas songs and adding three original, anything-but-festive, songs.

One of the things I look for in a Christmas album is originality. I’m not impressed by albums that simply have the latest pop star doing their covers of ten to twelve familiar Christmas songs that virtually everyone knows. So, if anything, I was inherently biased toward Oh Blue Christmas, a six track EP by A Fine Frenzy, the band which is mostly the work of Alison Sudol. Oh Blue Christmas followed on the heels of Bomb In A Birdcage (reviewed here!), which was A Fine Frenzy’s sophomore album. Like Bomb In A Birdcage, Oh Blue Christmas takes the lyric-writing skill that was evident on One Cell In The Sea (reviewed here!) and combines it with an increased sense of musical richness.

Unfortunately, Oh Blue Christmas is half original, half standards. The standards are mediocre reinterpretations of “Blue Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” and the far more obscure “Christmas Time Is Here Again.” With six tracks, clocking out at 21:49, Oh Blue Christmas is mostly the work of A Fine Frenzy. The three original tracks were written by Alison Sudol, who is (for all intents and purposes) A Fine Frenzy. In addition to playing piano and providing the vocals on Oh Blue Christmas, Sudol is credited as a co-producer of the EP, so this is very much the work of A Fine Frenzy.

“Blue Christmas” is presented as an up-tempo track. While the intriguing, poppy version is distinctly different from the mournful, moody Elvis version, it pretty much guts the emotional resonance of the song. There is nothing blue about the sound of Alison Sudol’s vocals, so the tracks comes out sounding disconnected; like she does not know the meaning of the words she is singing.

Musically, A Fine Frenzy creates a very different track with their reinterpretation of “Winter Wonderland.” Sounding more like a vocal exercise at points than a fully realized song, “Winter Wonderland” is enriched with guitars and a trumpet that give it a very rich sound. The slower, more contemplative version of the song sounds more like the winter wonderland at night than the familiar, sunny, tune.

The first of three original tracks on the EP, “Redribbon Foxes” is a guitar-driven song that has a musical protagonist who is much more moody than the instrumental accompaniment would seem to indicate. Combating the materialism of Christmas, Sudol sings “For love doesn't come in boxes / Nor truth in a crowded shop / Those red ribbon foxes are not so easy caught / But the search it never stops / For faith doesn't come in boxes / Nor God in your silver cross” (“Redribbon Foxes”). Any song that riles against holiday-themed commercialism is decent in my book, but it is hard to imagine that “Redribbon Foxes” will be the argument that finally changes the nature of the modern holiday season.

Upbeat and poppy, “Winter White” is unlikely to be a new Christmas classic. The song is overproduced, even glossing over Sudol’s usually exceptional soprano voice. She sings a little lower than usual on the track, but the percussion and guitars overwhelm her vocals. The song, which is moody with lines like “The smoke of memories in my eyes / The real misleading kind / It comes in winter white / In holiday disguise / To sabotage my mind” (“Winter White”) is a rare “angry about Christmas” track and while it’s a nice twist on the usual holiday song, the use of “god damn” in it pretty much means A Fine Frenzy is singing for adults and angry teens only.

The penultimate track, “Wish You Well” has a good intent, but an awkward execution. “Wish You Well” is about an estranged sister and brother who are meeting up for the holidays. While the sister, the musical protagonist, has the desire to reconnect – “. . . I still love you brother / But I don't know what to make of you / When I don't know you anymore” – the brother “sit[s] by your plastic tree / And tell your friends you've no family” (“Wish You Well”). The song has no resolution, at least as a musical story, and that makes it more moody than inspirational.

Of the covers, “Christmas Time Is Here” is the most obscure track. A Fine Frenzy presents a vocally literal interpretation of the song. Instead of the lonely piano that accompanied “Christmas Time Is Here” in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Sudol’s voice is beautiful (her soprano opening to the song sounds a lot like Heather Nova’s voice!) on “Christmas Time Is Here” and she emotes well on the song. Her interpretation of the song, however, does not truly make the song her own or redefine it.

A Fine Frenzy gets good marks for originality, but Oh Blue Christmas is missing something on the commitment front. Alison Sudol does not commit to a full-length album or to making a truly memorable holiday recording. The covers are original, but a serious mixed bag for the direction
A Fine Frenzy goes with them and the songs unique to the album are hardly going to be new holiday favorites.

The best track is “Redribbon Foxes,” the low point is the incongruent reinterpretation of “Blue Christmas.”

For other holiday albums, please visit my reviews of:
The Gift - Kenny Rogers
Midwinter Graces - Tori Amos
Wintersong - Sarah McLachlan


For other music reviews, please check out my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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