Released Oct. 29th on Epitaph Records
It’s hard to imagine a band with such a staunch atheist stance as Bad Religion playing traditional Christian holiday tunes, but that’s exactly what happens on Christmas Songs. Such an idea doesn’t compute at first, and indeed seems antithetical to the band’s history of challenging theism, dogma, and fundamentalism. After all, what are hymns but ritualistic tunes that indoctrinate and reinforce religious beliefs? Of course, this is Bad Religion, so if they’re playing spirituals then there must be a subversive twist to it. There is indeed, in that 20% of the proceeds from the album’s sales are going to the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Using church tunes to help people directly harmed by the church…now that sounds like Bad Religion.
This isn’t the first time BR have tackled holiday songs. They’ve done it a few times for KROQ’s Almost Acoustic Christmas shows, but always with a twist: For example, setting “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to the tune of “The Answer” or changing the lyrics of “Joy to the World” and “The First Noel” to criticize or satirize Christianity. On Christmas Songs they leave out such irony and play things pretty straight, setting these tunes to punk arrangements but staying faithful to the melodies and lyrics of the originals. Greg Graffin has always had an ear for a good melody, and even as a lifelong atheist and a professor of life sciences he recognizes the inherent tunefulness of these numbers. The band’s classic “oozin’ aahs” are layered throughout, their expert harmonies adding an additional layer of infectiousness to the songs.
As on this year’s True North, there are musical references to old-school punk sprinkled in as little surprises. See for example the nod to the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” that opens “White Christmas”, or the tip-of-the-hat to the Dead Kennedys’ “California Über Alles” that runs through “Little Drummer Boy”. The technical proficiency on display in these numbers is amazing, particularly Brooks Wackerman’s drumming and the wild guitar solos of Brett Gurewitz and Brian Baker (Greg Hetson is absent from this album, and indeed has been absent from BR for much of 2013 owing to personal matters). The sinister rocking on “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is a particular highlight.
An added bonus on Christmas Songs is the inclusion of an alternate mix of Recipe for Hate‘s “American Jesus”, undoubtedly one of the band’s defining songs. This version was mixed by Grammy-winning producer Andy Wallace and originally released only to radio stations as a promotional CD for airplay. It sounds a little more “produced” than the album version, with a better mastering job and pretty much every instrument higher in the mix. Having it on an official public release is an added enticement for hardcore Bad Religion fans, and there’s a certain irony to following up a bunch of Christian traditionals with a song that outright skewers the highly Christian idea of American exceptionalism, adding to the subversive theme of the record.
Christmas Songs is a cool release, and highly proficient in execution, though it’s hard to shake the odd feeling elicited by hearing Bad Religion do hymns. It’s ultimately inessential, but worth it for longtime fans to check out.