The Minus 5
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
“The last thing we need now is another Christmas album,” you’re probably thinking. And generally it’s true. But the redoubtable Scott McCaughey will make you reconsider that opinion.
McCaughey has been using his Minus 5 moniker as an umbrella under which he assembles a sprawling assortment of musicians who share his indie pop/rock mindset. He also utilizes it for various theme projects, most recently a tribute to the Monkees, where the different sounds and approaches of the participants coalesce under his somewhat skewed although innovative and creative guidance. So it is with these 11 holiday-themed tracks.
Forget those Christmas standards; McCaughey composes 11 originals, not all of them about Christmas, and even less about promoting the good cheer of the season. Along for the ride are a typically diverse batch of indie rock/singing songwriting cohorts ranging from Chuck Prophet, M. Ward, The Posies, Kelly Hogan and familiar R.E.M. friends Mike Mills and Peter Buck (who seems to be the most dependable guest on Minus 5 albums). The resulting songs range from the straightforward, serious jangle pop of “Festival of Lights (Hanukah Song),” (strongly influenced by “The Ballad of John and Yoko”), with Mills and the dreamy, psychedelic “I See Angels” featuring Ben Gibbard, to the loose, Chuck Berry/Stones-styled rocking of “See You In December,” with Ward and Prophet cutting loose.
It wouldn’t be a McCaughey project without wry, twisted lyrics worthy of Randy Newman at his most acerbic. That’s what you get on the snappy, double entendre “Yule Tide Me Over,” where the protagonist just wants his temporary hookup to hang around through Christmas with the far-from-romantic pick-up line of “Don’t try to fool me with disinterested looks/ If it’s not right I guess we’re old enough to know” set to a twangy country melody. And for those in a more melancholy mood, McCaughey teams with The Posies for the reflective, rather gloomy “When Christmas Hurts You This Way,” as he sings “The apartment is getting colder every day/ I’d burn some Christmas cards but all I get in the mail is more bills to pay,” urged along by somber pedal steel.
The vibes goes retro on the story song “Johnny Tannenbaum,” the tale of a good kid run out of town told by the girl he left behind, that wouldn’t have been out of place on a ’60s Shangri-Las album. There are plenty of liquor references too, particularly in “Your Christmas Whisky,” a song about getting through the season by staying sloshed.
Even if the 11 selections start to sound similar as the disc progresses, these 33 minutes won’t tax your already limited seasonal time. And the professional yet loosely communal tone obvious on the performances is as much a reflection of the holiday’s togetherness spirit as a more traditional set of warmer, less lyrically biting tunes.
It may not be a new Christmas classic, but you’d expect nothing less from Scott McCaughey as he takes the form of an indie Santa Claus, delivering his own batch of presents on the enticing Dear December.