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There is no shortage of Christmas records, old or new. This is for sure. Boys and girls from all across the music realm feel compelled to record Holiday albums these days, with visions of prime placement in the Cracker Barrel gift shop dancing in their heads. The crush of recorded music to navigate through in the modern era is daunting enough. It’s even more difficult when it comes to Christmas releases, and downright perilous when trying to find something to lay your money down on for yourself or as a Christmas gift.
Whether the intention is mostly original Holiday music, or to try your hand on the old classics, it takes a special type of musical soul to really understand what is at the heart of a good Christmas record, and how to rekindle the Holiday magic in a way that will really withstand the test of time like all the old Christmas greats have. No time of year is nostalgia more at play than in late December, and that’s one the reasons the old souls of country and roots music have often been the ones to pen or record the defining renditions of the most beloved Christmas odes.
A couple of years ago it was Kacey Musgraves and her expert use of kitsch that allowed A Very Kacey Christmas to become the Holiday record of the season. This year it’s old school rock and roller JD McPherson who proves himself uniquely qualified to tackle the difficult task of recording a Christmas record worthy of listening to more than once. This is what he does on Socks. Enjoyable for everyone, this is no attempt at a restoration job of the old standards. The 10 original songs of Socks are JD McPherson’s rock ’em sock ’em effort to spark some Christmas listening traditions of his own.
Christmas is officially cool again after years of American popular culture being too cool for Christmas. But there was never a time when Christmas and music was cooler in America than in the 1950’s. There’s also never been an artist in the modern era aside for maybe Brian Setzer and a few select others who’ve truly understood what was so cool about that cultural era, from the rambunctiousness to the innocence, and all the musical identifiers that can be called upon to take you back to that time. It’s not just the surface styling, but the attention to minute details that really awaken the ghosts of Christmas past in Socks.
Sorry if you like your Christmas music doused in sleigh bells, or burdened with schmaltzy sentimentality. That’s not what JD McPherson is steering for here. Delightfully silly and steeped in deprecated language that awakens a time when life was simpler, Socks is the classic Christmas record that was never written. McPherson has made a career of acting like a living archivist via original songs perfectly interpreted into the styles of a different era, and he does it again here.
Socks also avoids a lot of the Christmas music pitfalls by keeping it lighthearted. A song about receiving socks for Christmas, or an ode to ugly sweaters, or one about Santa trading in his sleigh for a hot rod are the kind of songs that make the season bright without making you feel like you’ve morphed into your parents, mere steps away from offering your guests bowls of hard candy.
JD McPherson and his excellent band make Christmas music cool again, but they do miss the opportunity to make Socks more well-rounded. Ideally, a good Christmas record will not just take the time to laugh and be merry, but also to make you well up a little bit, and really feel the deep emotion that hangs in the air around the season. “All The Gifts I Need” and “Every Single Christmas” are basically love songs set to Holiday rhyme, but are a little too up-tempo to be considered emotional material. Looking to avoid the well-worn grooves of standard Christmas albums, JD and Company keep you from feeling self-conscious for listening. But they also fail to build in the little nip of sadness even the most happiest of Christmas moments includes.
JD McPherson is a master craftsman of vintage music. Many people wonder why certain music fans would want to hear old music, or music that sounds old, and understandably so. But Christmas is one of the times of year when most everyone craves the warmth of vintage sounds. The Holidays wouldn’t be right without them. With Socks, JD McPherson gives a new selection of old music to spice up the Holiday season, and like your copy of A Christmas Story, or the playing of the Peanuts or the claymation Christmas specials on TV, or that sentimental decoration that hung in your grandparents house and you could never bring yourself to throw away, it’s something you’ll take out next year at Christmastime to enjoy as well.
1 3/4 Gus Up (8/10)
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