Holiday Messenger

The Old 97’s deliver something old, something Rhett

Rhett Miller’s The Messenger and The Old 97’s Love the Holidays

Holiday albums come in all varieties. Most artists — famous and otherwise — have offered up at least one over the course of their careers.

Admittedly, the majority of these titles can be enjoyed only once a year, given that a listen to “Hark the “Herald Angels Sing” during a hot, sticky July day is only going to bring on bitterness and the blues. And not a blue blue Christmas, mind you. A chorus of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” — ooops, let’s make that “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” to remain politically correct — simply seems like wishful thinking.

Still, let’s not be a Scrooge. There are in fact some holiday discs that have the potential to resonate throughout the entire year, simply because they’re so cool and quirky they can be enjoyed at any time.

We’re not talking “Do They Know It’s Christmas Time,” the all-star charity single featuring the cream of mid-80s British rockers, either.  That can get a bit tiresome. No, we’re thinking more like A Very She & Him Christmas, the Monkees’ fab new and current Christmas collection Christmas Party, and the various holiday compilations from Bloodshot and New West Records, not to mention alternative artist offerings from years past — A Christmas To Remember, Holidays Rule, the various editions of Maybe This Christmas,  Just Say Noel, Yuletunes, A Lump of Coal, You Sleigh Me!, Christmas Time Again, and Christmas on the Lam — all which could be considered somewhat essential for cultists and collectors.

The Old 97’s Love the Holidays, ATO Records 2018

Add to that list Love the Holidays, the new offering from those rowdy rootsy Texas rockers Old 97’s. Decidedly tongue-in-cheek for the most part, this collection of holiday originals is so upbeat and exuberant, it’s sure to become a turntable staple no matter what the season. The band adapt a playful posture throughout, although there are sweeter sentiments evidenced as well. “…I used to be so lonely/Until you appeared/My Christmas wish came true,” they sing on the tender “I Believe in Santa Claus.” It’s one of several songs where they tow convention and put a contemporary spin on the songs as well.

Of course, this being the Old 97’s, it’s expected that there would be a sardonic twist or two.They cleverly encapsulate the yin and yangs of Yuletide stress and celebration with these paradoxical lines from the title tune:

“People worry and they pray
As they pay and they say
I love the holidays.”

Nevertheless, capping with the album with a series of standards — “Auld Lang Syne,” “Angels We have Heard on High” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” — adds more than a touch of tradition that stays true to the holiday tapestry. To their credit however, they tend to rock these songs in ways that won’t be heard at midnight mass.

Rhett Miller

Meanwhile, the band’s principle singer and songwriter does double duty with the simultaneous release of his latest solo album, The Messenger. While there are no holiday references that can be easily discerned, there is a sense of melancholy that contrasts with the jolly mood purveyed by his band’s collective effort. Perhaps Miller has succumbed to the blue, blue Christmas the band retraces on Love the Holidays, because the songs on his furtive foray tend take a low key approach. The titles make that clear — “Total Disaster,” “Did I Love You As I Love You,” You Were a Stranger,” Permanent Damage” et. al. — just as Miller’s less than effusive vocals evoke that sense of sobriety. Here again, the lyrics lay it out succinctly, as evidenced by this stanza from the decidedly downcast “I Used to Write In Notebooks”:

“I lay awake and worry
Wonder when I’m gonna die
I’m never all alone
Got the reaper standing by.”

Miller’s morose alright, but then again, the holidays can affect people that way. Let’s hope his colleagues will rally him before the holidays are fully upon us. Perhaps a cover of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” might be the thing to induce a more upbeat state of mind. That might be a good bet for Rhett. Here’s hoping for a Merry Christmas for both him and his colleagues.

And don’t forget to tune into the band’s holiday extravaganza streaming live from New York’s Irving Plaza tonight on YouTube.


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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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