Bad Religion do 'Christmas Songs' proudALBUM REVIEW: The irony, indeed, is lost in the classic punk band's take on some classic Christmas tunes.
By: Tony Bennett, for the News Tribune
Yeah, yeah — a well-known punk band that takes their atheism so seriously their logo is a cross with a red circle-and-line “no” symbol over it records an album of Christmas songs. It’s gotta be some smart-guy deal dripping with sarcasm and mockery, right? Actually, it’s not.
While Greg Graffin may be one of the most prominent atheists in music, what with his Ph.D and his background in teaching evolution at UCLA and Cornell, he hasn’t taken the opportunity with this release to get up on a soapbox. While the irony of Bad Religion tackling chestnuts like “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is about as subtle as a slap in the mug, the band smartly avoids any nyuk-nyuk moments and goes for reverent (maybe that’s the wrong word?) arrangements of Christian holiday hymns and standards.
Of course, just the fact that these songs have been turned into rat-a-tat punk numbers is enough to signify the opposite of reverence for most people, but the band’s well-known affinity for multipart, highly-complicated backing vocals means these songs are slathered in majestic harmonies and triumphant choirs. Somehow, this album works perfectly.
“Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” starts with a capella Graffins singing the refrain. He’s overdubbed to sound like a choir, and everything sounds like it’s supposed to — until the electric guitars come pick-sliding in and Brooks Wackerman’s light-speed drumming bashes the door down. Suddenly, we’re listening to a song that could’ve been on any of the past five or 10 BR albums.
It seems funny to hear Graffin exalting Jesus Christ, but he does it without a wink, without any comments. Really, it seems like he is taking the material seriously, while adapting it for the Bad Religion sound. He’s not singing “Glory to the newborn king” as an atheist — he’s singing it as a serious musician who is seriously interpreting a classic holiday song.
“O Come All Ye Faithful” in the hands of Greg Graffin seems like it should be unbearably funny or weird, but the guy sings about Bethlehem without one iota of wink-wink at all; it’s totally respectful.
Bing Crosby probably would clutch his head and run screaming from the room if he could somehow hear the version of “White Christmas” that’s on this, but if he gave it a chance, he’d surely have to give Graffin credit for his vocal arrangement, one that adds lilting, sad harmonies to certain sections. And, actually, while we’re talking about irony and jokiness — this one features one of the only tee-hee moments, as the song basically is built on a foundation of the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.”
“Little Drummer Boy” is a fairly unsuccessful moment on the collection, as the ceaseless snare-drumming grows tiresome fairly quickly; luckily, we’re into “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and more classic Bad Religion energy before long.
It’s hard to recommend an album like this to those of faith who like punk rock, but let’s do that, anyway. There’s no reason that believers can’t enjoy this just as much as heathens. Though it may be made by Bad Religion, there’s no commentary to be found here. Just classic holiday songs treated seriously by a classic band.
"Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" — Bad Religion (via YouTube from Epitaph Records)
Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.