Christmas music has soul. Sure, you could dismiss the festive genre as a cloying mix of schmaltzy lyrics, tired references to comically named reindeer, and saccharine sentiments about returning to one's place of origin. And sure, Mariah Carey's recently rekindled commitment to holiday music, Merry Christmas II You, might be the sickly aural equivalent of sprinkling too much cinnamon into the pumpkin pie mix. But the Christmas season has also inspired some compellingly soulful music — whether by the illustrious likes of Marvin Gaye and James Brown, or curios such as Honey and the Bees' bells-propelled “Jing Jing a Ling.” You just need to dig a little to find the season's real spirit.
San Francisco's Grillade ensemble — producer Keelay, singer Ragen Fykes, and rhythm section the Park — has just released its own addition to the valid holiday vault, “Just A Sad Christmas.” Originally slated for a Christmas-themed compilation project that petered out, it's a cover of an obscure late-'60s, single-only release by the Soul Duo. Bluesy and cut through with a damp melancholy, the lyrics deal with estrangement and somber feelings during the season of goodwill: “Green, red, and blue are the colors of the lights and decor I see/Gray, [grim] gray and black are my moods 'cause you're not here with me.”
Authentically soulful Christmas music like Grillade's is rare these days, but it wasn't always that way. Hearing Donny Hathaway's turn-of-the-'70s “This Christmas” invokes a sincere feeling of joy, for example. Asked about the contemporary aversion to the genre, Grillade's Keelay chalks it up to the stigma attached to Christmas music. But holiday clichés and corny imagery existed long before artists started making great songs about the season. The best musicians simply used those elements for inspiration. Marvin Gaye's “Purple Snowflakes,” from 1964, evokes a beguilingly frosty take on wintertime, with lyrics that refer to “blankets of white” and the conclusion, “I'm sure that snowflakes fall from the gloom.” Five years later, James Brown whisked Santa away from his seemingly natural, idyllic setting — small villages of snow-topped cottages — for the reality check “Santa Claus Goes to the Ghetto.” It's a punchy piece of festive funk that at one point sees the soul icon hollering, “Tell 'em James Brown sent you!” (For humorous kicks, check out Gary Walker's “Santa's Got a Brand New Bag,” a Yuletide reworking of Brown's “Papa's Got a Brand New Bag”: “Come on children, dig the crazy scene/He's oh so fat, but his beard is pretty clean,” the lyrics inform us in a not-totally-reassuring manner.) Carla Thomas' “Gee Whiz, It's Christmas” takes the idea of an invite to a party, extends it into a bittersweet lament on lost love, and wraps it up in cute phrasing: “My best friend's having a party and everybody's going/I know it's gonna be a lot of fun,” she sings, then, as an exquisite a cappella aside, “Oh, by the way, it's snowing.”
But even if you're content to just cover the classics — carols, clichés, and all — Christmas lyrics, with their simple rhymes and familiar imagery, offer a sturdy canvas for musical embellishment. Keelay cites the Jackson 5 Christmas Album as a starting template for how to “flip the traditional Christmas songs like 'The Little Drummer Boy' and make them soulful and into their own Jackson 5 sound.” Likewise, Otis Redding's take on “White Christmas” sees him imbuing the standard with a vocal delivery that borders on pained staccato.
The strength of emotions invoked during Christmastime should inspire expressive and poignant songwriting. Sorrowful lows smart harder during the snowy season. The run-up to Dec. 25 can be a bountiful playground for artists who like to dwell in creative melancholia. Grillade's Fykes was first unswayed by the potential of Christmas music, but found herself won over by the honest feeling of the group's “Just a Sad Christmas.” “It's true to me,” she says. “It's not some fake happy Christmas song like, 'Happy Christmas! Yes, let's all have some egg nog!' It's some real, 'No, Christmas sucks this year, buddy.'”
Like the best Christmas music, it's a song whose quality shines bright despite the seasonal context, but whose soulful pull still comes from it.