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Chris IsaakThroughout his career as a suave, hipster balladeer, Chris Isaak has maintained an impressive balancing act, juggling roots rock, blue-eyed soul, and lounge-inspired camp. That's a lot of work - spinning such disparate musical plates without breaking a few - but Mr. "Wicked Game" has generally managed to keep everything in the air with aplomb (c.f. Forever Blue, 1995). Success hasn't suited Isaak's music well, however, as he has increasingly settled into a comfortable, relaxed groove. Without the urgent, sexual tension underlying songs like "Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing" and "Heart Shaped World," Chris' creative mojo has become inoffensive at best, somnambulant at worst.

Not surprisingly, then, while Mr. Wicked Game doesn't phone in Christmas (2004), neither does he break a sweat. Like too many holiday albums, this one seems to have been recorded mainly to please established fans (of which I am one), and they will not be disappointed. When Isaak and his so-tight, so-loose band get chugging, revelry always threatens to erupt - though it rarely does. Of particular note is their galloping rendition of "Blue Christmas;" a rapturous take on the seldom-covered "Last Month Of The Year;" and a jaunty adaptation of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town," featuring guest vocals by (of all people) Fleetwood Mac front woman Stevie Nicks. More typically, Isaak and the boys sleepwalk through the standards, their playful parody of cocktail jazz teetering on the brink of becoming what it parodies. More disappointingly, Isaak interprets several songs - Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper," for instance - that seem tailor-made for his smoldering style, yet the tracks end up more tedious than transcendent.

Chris IsaakThe most important offerings Chris Isaak's Christmas brings to the alter are the singer's five original compositions. While none are masterpieces, each lends a distinctive flavor to an album that, without them, would be notably bland. Nearly all of these songs dwell on love troubles - an Isaak specialty. The doleful "Washington Square" paints a vivid picture of a lonely man suffering through Christmas in the big city, while "Hey Santa!" - a rockabilly frolic punctuated with mariachi horns - is essentially an alternate, happy ending to the same story. I'm especially fond of "Christmas On TV," a country weeper packed with seasonal imagery and sexual infidelity. Isaak reserves his most passionate performance, however, for "Brightest Star," an otherwise unremarkable profession of faith.

Consumer Notes: To complicate matters, Chris Isaak's Christmas (originally released by Reprise) has been issued in (so far) three other configurations - the first two with Elvis-related bonus material. The first, sold only at Target stores, contained one extra cut: "Santa Bring My Baby Back," the spirited shuffle Mr. Presley originally made famous on his holiday debut, Elvis' Christmas Album (1957). The second, compiled for the Australian market, calls that track, then raises the stakes with "I'll Be Home For Christmas." Elvis covered this modern classic on the same album, and Isaak positively channels the King's mannered, quirky reading of the song.

Given the lackadaisical pace of the rest of Christmas, these two songs - now extremely rare - among the most enjoyable tracks on the album. Yikes! Sadly, then, Jimmy Buffett's Mailboat Records omitted both from their 2005 reissue of Christmas.

Postscript. As part of the promotional push for Christmas, Chris Issak taped a show for the PBS TV series Soundstage. Recorded live in Chicago and aired in December 2004, the set featured post-modern crooner Michael Bublé, neo-soul man Brian McKnight, and the aforementioned Ms. Nicks. Many years later, the show was released in a tandem CD/DVD package as Christmas Live On Soundstage (2017), with the full show on both media. [top of page]

Albums Albums

SongsSongs

  • Blue Christmas
  • Christmas On TV
  • Hey Santa!
  • I'll Be Home For Christmas
  • Last Month Of The Year
  • Santa Bring My Baby Back (To Me)
  • Santa Claus Is Coming To Town
  • Washington Square

Further ListeningFurther Listening

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