Rock Christmas Album of the Year
By Mike Dow
The Grip Weeds - "Under the Influence of Christmas" (Rainbow Quartz Records)
Record store customer to clerk, drained from dealing with drunk Nickelback fans: "I'm looking for a rock Christmas album that succeeds in spreading holiday cheer as it continues to delight and surprise in its ability to actually rock. Chiming Rickenbacker guitars and groovy cameos are a plus."
Slightly jaded yet suddenly alert clerk: "You have given me the will to live. Let me introduce you to The Grip Weeds."
After 15 years of delivering acclaimed albums filled with ridiculously well-written, catchy power pop/psyche, The Grip Weeds have just issued their first Christmas album. "Under The Influence of Christmas" combines group originals, well-chosen (non-maudlin) covers and a couple of very cool "spot the influence" updates on some traditional holiday songs. Guest appearances include Pat Dinizio and Jim Babjak of The Smithereens, Mark Lindsay (former lead singer of Paul Revere & the Raiders) and George Cameron of 60's baroque-rock legends The Left Banke. What they came up with is a Christmas album you'll fall in love with this year and for many Christmases to come.
You could fit rock's great Christmas albums in a six-CD changer. The problem is, they usually stray too far from what fans deem acceptable. Seriously, how many Bob Dylan fans are still itching to hear his 2009 offering "Christmas in the Heart" (although "Must Be Santa" is freaking great)? How many Lynyrd Skynyrd fans will put on "Christmas Time Again" as they decorate the tree? Five bucks says it comes flying out of the machine faster than you can say, "What song is it you wanna hear?" The trick to making a great Christmas album is to keep it real, keep it fun and infuse the grooves with some true Christmas magic. The Grip Weeds succeed fabulously with "Under the Influence of Christmas."
Drummer and vocalist Kurt Reil says the band's mission going into the studio was to come up with a Christmas album that made them happy. "Our standard work ethic is to make something we love," Reil told me. "Otherwise, we wouldn't put it out. We wouldn't leave the studio if it wasn't as good as it can possibly be. There aren't a lot of Christmas albums that sound like our music - 'Power Pop' or whatever you want to call it. It's always our mission to get it right. We wouldn't release anything we don't love."
Band originals include "Christmas Dream", a psych-rock tour de force that deals with an adult's longing for the return of that magic Christmas feeling that comes so easily to a child. According to Reil, it's the song that kick-started the project. "I wrote it last New Year's Eve," Reil explained. "I was jogging in upstate New York and practically dreamed it during my run. I came back totally stoked, I wrote it in the afternoon and played it that night at a party. That's when I knew we had to do a Christmas album. I'm glad you picked up on that idea of the adult trying to recapture the Christmas feeling. At the end of the song, he's feeling the spirit of Christmas.
"We've never had guest artists on our records," Reil said. "This was a chance to do something different." On "Santa Make Me Good," Mark Lindsay fronts the band and offers a tongue in cheek reference to his past with the line, "It's been a really good year Santa, I had my fun. I got my kicks if you know what I mean." Kurt said the lyrics were written with Lindsay in mind. "We were looking for a swaggering personality for that track - like a Mick Jagger or Mark Lindsay - someone who could add that kind of character. Once we had Mark committed, we served him up with lyrics befitting a rock legend."
The boys from The Smithereens appear on "2,000 Miles" (originally by The Pretenders). "In my head, I heard Pat Dinizio singing the bridge to that song. We had to have both he and Jim on that track. I've done some production for The Smithereens over the past five years and we've become very good friends so it made sense to ask them to be part of this record."
Members of fellow psyche power poppers The Anderson Council assist on one of the album's finest cuts, an update on "Welcome Christmas." In "How The Grinch Stole Christmas," the song was originally sung by the very merry and warm-hearted Whos down in Whoville. This version sounds like it was recorded by The Who in 1967. "You nailed it," Reil said, laughing, when I said as much. "That's exactly what we were aiming for. It was our bass player's idea to do that song as if we were The Who. It fit the concept of the record. The title 'Under the Influence of Christmas' suggests being intoxicated by Christmas and that's why we chose the covers we did. On 'Hark The Herald Angels Sing,' we asked ourselves, 'If The Byrds recorded a Christmas single, what would it sound like?' Our version of that song is as close an approximation as we could get."
If your heart happens to be two sizes two small, this album will have you feasting on Who pudding and rare Who roast beast. Listen to The Grip Weeds' "Under The Influence of Christmas" and you just might find yourself recapturing that magic Christmas feeling you had as a child. Revel in those chiming Rickenbackers (go ahead, do some Pete Townshend windmills - I know you want to) and soak up a true rarity - a great rock Christmas album that you'll actually want to hear again next year.
If this is your introduction to The Grip Weeds, do yourself a favor and dig into their back catalog. Their double CD "Strange Change Machine" is among the best of 2010. Next for The Grip Weeds: a live album and a DVD due out in 2012. Kurt says the live record was captured in two different New Jersey venues while the DVD was shot in the band's studio. "We'll start recording material for a new studio record early next year," Reil said. "It should be out late next year or early in '13."
"Under The Influence of Christmas" is available as an immediate download via the band's website www.GripWeeds.com - $8.99 for MP3, $10.99 for HI RES 24bit/48kHz and $9.99 for the CD. You'll also find it at your local indie record store.