The singer/songwriter/guitarist/bass player Aimee Mann has been on my musical radar for nearly twenty-five years, initially popping up on the television screen with her much-played video for the song "Voices Carry" during the mid-1980's. And though her style of songwriting has undergone some fairly dramatic changes these past two decades (as has her hairdo), Ms. Mann continues to make intelligent music with sharp, witty lyrics. Her song narratives are always well thought out. She's an excellent musician and -- just as a quick side-note -- she's also happens to be REALLY quite good in concert, so I do recommend catching one of her shows if she comes through your town.
But that's not why I'm writing this blog post...
As luck would have it (at least, with the holiday season upon us), Aimee Mann is perhaps the only artist I know of who's somehow managed to release a full album of Christmas music that's absolutely, completely, 100% listenable from the first song to the last. Even after the holiday is over!
Please -- excuse me while I gush -- but Aimee Mann's "One More Drifter In The Snow" album (Amazon Link, BTW) is absolutely brilliant. Honest! Ms. Mann has taken a collection of well know (and not so well-known) Christmas tunes -- many of them written more than fifty years ago -- and somehow managed to make each song sound fresh, modern, and timely.
In order to achieve the impossible (i.e.: making old and overplayed Christmas tunes sound fresh and new), Aimee Mann surrounded herself in the studio with a great collection of side-musicians in supporting roles -- and a special shout out needs to go to the amazing Duke Levine for his guitar, banjo, and mandolo playing. If ever there were a "player's player," well, Duke Levine is the man, and if you (the reader of this blog) are in any way a self-acknowledged guitar geek, then repeated playings of "One More Drifter In The Snow" are absolutely mandatory.
From a singing/performing point of view there are several tracks that stand out on the album, though the true highlights can be found in Aimee's reworkings of "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)," "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "Winter Wonderland," and "You're a Mean One, Mister Grinch." Duke Levine's guitar playing is especially effective on "Winter Wonderland" (probably the only time that you'll ever hear a country/hawaiian/rockabilly guitar solo applied to that particular song), and Aimee's singing on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is completely heartfelt -- an absolutely gorgeous version of an incredibly emotional song.
From the "Wow, I wasn't expecting that" department, Aimee's version of "You're a Mean One, Mister Grinch" is the album's unexpected gem and a holiday classic in the re-making. Silver-tongued Grant Lee Phillips (in the role that he was born to do) serves as the song's narrator and co-singer, both chewing up -- and spitting out -- the twisted rhymes of Doctor Seuss with fun and abandon. Great, great stuff -- and completely worth it just to hear Mr. Phillips and Ms. Mann harmonize on the lines: "You nauseate me, Mr. Grinch/With a nauseaus super-naus/You're a crooked jerky jockey/And you drive a crooked horse/Mr. Grinch."
Be sure to check out this YouTube performance of Aimee Mann and Grant Lee Phillips on the Conan O'Brian show (though do ignore the last four minutes of the video, during which a freeze frame image of the credits sits parked on the screen):
As a quick little side note (and a somewhat related factoid): My grandmother was the next-door-neighbor of Theodore Geisel (a/k/a: "Dr. Seuss") in La Jolla, California.
As a second little side note: Aimee Mann's husband -- Michael Penn -- is another artist who's quite good in concert, and worth checking out if he comes to your town. He also composed one of the standout tunes on the album, a song entitled "Christmastime."
As a third little side note: "One More Drifter In The Snow" was originally released in 2006, though it's the sort of album that's worth digging out every holiday season.
As my forth (and final) side note: Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, "One More Drifter in the Snow" is simply a great album -- sung and performed by absolutely top-notch musicians.