Under Review: Bright Eyes, ‘A Christmas Album’ (reissue)

Bright Eyes, “A Christmas Album”
(Saddle Creek Records)
Available now
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)

More than a decade ago, Bright Eyes put out its 11-song album of Christmas classics somewhat quietly. Until this week, the album was only ever available from the Saddle Creek Records online store.

“A Christmas Album” has been a holiday staple for those of us that enjoy Christmas and indie rock music for a couple reasons. It’s one of the few things that lies at the intersection of indie and Christmas. Second, this ain’t “a very emo Christmas,” despite what people-who-think-they’re-clever-on-the-Internet  say. It’s a very traditional, homey holiday album, and that’s what brings it so close to perfection.

Instead, Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and collaborator Maria Taylor arranged the album like they were going to play it for friends in front of a crackling fire while they wore old sweaters and sipped cocoa. Most tracks feature little more than a guitar, piano and Oberst’s vocals.

With a lightly picked acoustic guitar melody and Taylor’s serene voice, “White Christmas” is a most simple version of the tune, and it’s the album’s most effective. For my money, Oberst’s simple arrangement and fairly straightforward version of “Blue Christmas” is the best version of the song since Elvis did it in 1957.

Another standout is “Silver Bells,” which is sung by a chorus of Omaha-based musicians, which conjures up a vision of friends chiming in while someone taps out a beat on a snare drum. “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “The Night Before Christmas,” narrated by a grandfatherly voice, are a fitting finale to a serene record that anyone could play at their family get-together.

The only missteps come when they stray from the around-the-fireplace formula. The heavily-affected “Little Drummer Boy,” with its distorted vocals and drum and by-contrast-too-clean trumpet and piano melodies, sounds like Christmas in the post apocalypse and stands way out from the rest of the album.

Though previously only available via Saddle Creek, “A Christmas Album” is now available just about everywhere people consume music including iTunes, Spotify and record stores, and that’s all that’s different from the album’s original 2002 release. Still, it’s a perfect reason to revisit the record.

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