Better than a sweater party
The Fogcutters add to our Christmas cheer
When done right, Thanksgiving through Christmas is a month-long party of friends, family, and whatever beverage-and-food combination turns you on. It’s also the only opportunity you have all year to bust out the Christmas-music playlists for the gathering du jour. The pressure’s on. Do you go all-Christmas, maybe just leaving on WHOM or putting together an ironic mix centered around “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” or do you sprinkle in Christmas tunes that won’t be obvious outliers into a broader party mix?
That latter is much harder, as the normal songs set unfair bars for the Christmas songs to get over, but it’s helpful when you’ve got an ample supply of contemporarily recorded material. Better yet if it’s local and you’re inclined toward local mixes. Recent efforts from Don Campbell, the Sea Captains, and Cam Groves have helped in that regard, but this year’s contributor is remarkable for fitting in so seamlessly with your Etta James, Sinatra, and Bing Crosby LPs.
The Fogcutters continue to demand attention for big band-style performances and arrangements by simply overwhelming listeners with creativity and competence. They’re no nostalgic novelty. With yet another State Theatre performance looming Dec. 7 , the Fogcutters whet appetites with Jingle These Bells, a five-song Christmas drive-by that offers equal doses of Rat-pack class and Buena Vista Social Club fire.
The opening take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is full of the latter, with chiming and teasing horn lines of the central melody that are upbraided by salsa rhythms. There is a sway and ripple to the way the British and Latin influences co-mingle and John Maclaine’s arrangement is very danceable. It also serves as a pretty setting for sax, trumpet, and finally an electric guitar solo from Max Cantlin that’s as laid back as your first neat whiskey of the night.
Finally, with 30 seconds to go, the horns play the song as straight as could be in homage to what, at its core, is a delightfully melancholy number: “When we were gone astray.” (Also: Annie Lennox did a version of this song? Jars of Clay?)
The middle tracks are jazz-traditional vocal-led, featuring a highly resonant and big-voiced Chas Lester on “The First Noel,” where he positively fondles the word “Israel,” and a delivery by Stephanie Davis on “Silent Night” that plays up the lullaby angle enough to make it a little dangerous for late-night parties where people are already well into the nog. Add a woodstove and people will be dreaming of mistletoe.
When Lester and Davis come together on the classic “Oh, Christmas Tree” duet, their back-and-forth is like the Drapers in A Very Mad Men Christmas.
The closing “Jingle Bells,” though, is the attention grabber. It’s possibly too quick to catch on with holiday parties, but its legitimately breakneck pace is impressive. Lester crams words into spaces that hardly exist over straight percussion and when the horns jump in it’s a drop worthy of Skrillex (that may be an exaggeration).
When normal people sing in unison it tends to make them slow down, all waiting to make sure they’re not ahead of others, and so we think of so many of these Christmas songs as near-dirges, but when performed by a band this excited about what they’re doing, a song like “Jingle Bells” can truly sparkle, adorned with every glittering colored light arranger Brian Graham could wrap around it.
The hardest thing is keeping the lead vocal far enough forward in the mix as the full band increases in activity as songs go deeper, but Lester puts a bow on the tune with an extended “sleigh” that finishes the song and album on a high note.
It’s only a side A’s worth, really, and less than 20 minutes, but I expect this isn’t the last holiday offering the Fogcutters will produce. Plus, you want to leave plenty of time for Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas and your rare Beatles Christmas record, only sent out to members of the fan club.
It just wouldn’t be Christmas without those.