A Primer on Christian Alternative Rock: Happy Christmas, Vol. 1

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GENRE TAGS (OTHER THAN ALTERNATIVE ROCK): Dream Pop, Electronic, Holiday, Indie Pop, Indie Rock, Pop-Punk, Pop/Rock, Punk Rock, Reggae, Singer/Songwriter, Ska-Punk, Slowcore, Synth Pop, Third-Wave Ska


WHAT IS IT? Tooth and Nail Records announced its arrival as a mainstream Christian label with this 1998 collection of some of their most popular artists, performing a variety of original and classic Christian songs. Importantly, some of the artists came from Tooth and Nail subsidiaries BEC (a label for more radio-friendly acts like the O.C. Supertones) and Plastiq Musiq (a vanity label run by Joy Electric’s Ronnie Martin, featuring electronic acts). A few bands come from other Christian labels—most notably Seven Day Jesus, on loan from Forefront.

As with any multi-artist compilation, the results are mixed—and yet for people my age, Happy Christmas has achieved a kind of legendary status. T&N would release four further volumes, only the second of which matches the quality of the initial installment. (I may eventually do a holiday write-up of that second installment, which features a gloriously absurd Lost Dogs performance of “The Chipmunk Song.”)

Obviously, since I’m talking about a single album, this essay will be structured a little differently than previous installments—the various discography categories below will belong to songs rather than albums, and my write-ups of each song will be shorter than usual. Lay off me—I’m in the middle of grading final essays and exams.


MUST-HEAR

Chasing Furies, “O Come Emmanuel.” Chasing Furies is one of the great lost bands of the ‘90s—a female-fronted family band that specialized in moody, atmospheric rock. (Eisley would get much more success with a similar vibe; I wonder if the Duprees listened to Chasing Furies.) As far as I know, they put out only one record, With Abandon, which wasn’t even released until the year after Happy Christmas. Even so, Brandon Ebel wisely gave them the third track on this compilation, and they fill it with the most popular advent carol there is. They understand the deep moodiness of it, and allow it to explode into ecstasy on the chorus.

Starflyer 59, “A Holiday Song.” I wrote about this original song in my write-up on Starflyer, so I won’t belabor the point here—but it’s a very pleasant lounge-pop number and one of the best songs Jason Martin ever wrote. It appeared basically concurrently here and on Starflyer’s The Fashion Focus, released just a few weeks earlier.

NEXT STEPS

Bon Voyage, “Holly Jolly Christmas.” Jason Martin’s wife, Julie, sings Burl Ives’s signature Christmas song over a jangly country-rock backing. Her vocals, as usual, are as light as air, which only makes the song better. If what you’re looking for in a Christmas song is the incandescence of a living room in a snowstorm, you could hardly do better than this.

Sarah Masen, “Heaven’s Got a Baby.” I liked Sarah Masen a lot in the late ‘90s—as a singer/songwriter, she didn’t try too hard to have a perfect voice, and there was always room for mystery and doubt in her lyrics, a relative rarity in the CCM of the time (or any time). “Heaven’s Got a Baby” is an original song for acoustic guitar and accordion, and if it’s a little twee at times, it more than makes up for it in charm. What other Christmas song features a line like “The peasants in the market are working out resentments”?

Five Iron Frenzy, “You Gotta Get Up.” The best of the “big three” Christian ska bands (alongside the O.C. Supertones and the truly execrable Insyderz) covers a Rich Mullins song about a kid who can’t wait to open his presents. (There’s some religious stuff thrown in there, too.) Mullins’s original is relatively slow, but Five Iron adds a jittery energy that matches the subject matter quite well.

Almonzo, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Almonzo—who, as far as I know, appeared only here and on another Tooth and Nail compilation—was a mystery band rumored to be fronted by label head Brandon Ebel. Their version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is very serviceable slowcore, even if the vocals are nothing to write home about.

Switchfoot, “Evergreen.” This is a pre-fame Switchfoot performing an original song about their favorite subject at the time: the yearning for faithfulness. The band hadn’t yet become the pop behemoth they’d be in a few years, but their song is sweeping and anthemic, like much of their work at the time. I don’t think about it very often, but when I hear it, I remember how much I liked Switchfoot at the end of the ‘90s.

The O.C. Supertones, “Joy to the World.” I was never the world’s biggest Supertones fan, but they do a great job with this hymn—which, provided you play it upbeat, is pretty hard to screw up. It works nicely within the confines of the then-popular third-wave ska, perhaps the last major movement in alternative rock that would allow for joy of any kind.


WORTH A LISTEN

Flight 180, “Mele Kalikimaka.” Flight 180 was Christian rock’s answer to Save Ferris, “Mele Kalikimaka” sounds like nothing so much as that band’s ska-punk cover of “Come on Eileen.” I hated everything else Flight 180 did, but, like the Supertones with “Joy to the World,” they picked a song that perfectly complements their sound, and the results are fun if not spectacular.

Seven Day Jesus, “O Holy Night.” I loved this track when the album first came out, but almost two decades later, its luster has faded. (I should have suspected it would—I never liked anything else this band ever did.) If you’ve ever been to a Christmas Eve service, you know that “O Holy Night” is practically an invitation for a soloist to show off her range, and while Brian McSweeney impressively hits the high notes (in falsetto) here, the rest of his performance is painfully overwrought. If you’re singing a classic, you have to let the song speak for itself; McSweeney effectively mansplains it.

Plankeye, “Away in a Manger.” Lead singer Scott Siletta had just left Plankeye, and so “Away in a Manger” is sung as a duet by bassist Luis Garcia and guitarist Eric Balmer. I like this manifestation of the band much more than the pop-punk version fronted by Siletta—the next year’s Relocation is the best thing Plankeye ever did, to my ears. But “Away in a Manger” is a rather rote pop-punk rendition of the hymn. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s nothing particularly special about it.

Joy Electric, “Winter Wonderland.” Synth pop is a cold, cold genre of music anyway, so it makes perfect sense that Ronnie Martin’s Joy Electric would do good things with a song about snow. “Winter Wonderland” is pure cotton candy—feather-light and sickly sweet—and that’s a sound custom-made for Joy Electric. Feel free to bump it up into the next tier if you like synth pop and/or Joy Electric more than I do, or if you’re some kind of “Winter Wonderland” super-fan. (That’s a thing that exists, right?)

Huntingtons, “It’s Always Christmas at My House.” The Huntingtons were Christian rock’s Ramones, a label that they wore with pride—they even released several albums that were nothing but Ramones covers. Their original songs all sound like they could have come off of Rocket to Russia, and “It’s Always Christmas at My House” is no exception. It’s fun and funny enough, but I’d rather listen to “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” myself.

Puller, “Saviour of the Fools.” Puller put the Christ back in Christmas the way only a (post-)grunge band could. “Christmas lights and trees can’t heal / Broken lives and hearts that feel,” Mike Lewis sings. It’s an appropriate enough closer for the album, especially given that it’s more than seven minutes long, with an epic, anthemic sound to match—but I find it pretty unmemorable.

THE DISCOUNT BIN

The Dingees, “We Three Kings.” If the Huntingtons were Christian rock’s the Ramones, the Dingees were London Calling-era Clash. Alas, this dub reggae hymn is not their finest work: The brass is nice, but Pegleg’s vocals ruin the whole thing. When I heard 311’s cover of “Love Song” a few years later, this is the first thing I thought of—and that’s no compliment.

Fold Zandura, “Asia Minor.” Fold Zandura was an electronic pop/rock project from Jyro Xhan and Jerome Fontamillas, both formerly of the influential Christian industrial act Mortal. (Fontamillas would later join Switchfoot just before they hit it big.) There was always a soft-rock undercurrent to Fold Zandura’s music, and it comes out in full force on this original song. Nothing about it has ever grabbed me, but fans of the band probably like it.

House of Wires, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is one of the more modern Christmas carols (it was written, believe it or not, in response to the Cuban Missile Crisis)—which is perhaps why it was given to Plastiq Musiq’s House of Wires, who turn in a plodding electronic performance, complete with synthesized pan flute, Ronnie Martin-esque vocals, and a vocoder. It’s not terrible, but I’ll stick with Andy Williams.

 

FOR FANS ONLY

Pep Squad, “Feliz Navidad.” I like Pep Squad’s two albums for BEC, especially Yreka Bakery, which is a very nice Pixies impression with some crunchy guitar lines and an unexpected disco song about sexual abstinence on the B-side. But Happy Christmas never sounds more ‘90s than on their rendition of José Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad,” complete with hi-lar-ious fake Mexican accents.

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