Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks
Crazy for Christmas
Dan Hicks has never exactly been the sort of troubadour one would readily associate with holiday recordings. A veteran San Francisco hipster since the city's '60s recasting as a psychedelic paradise, Hicks has long favored music that sounds too lyrically irreverent, too stylistically slapdash to convey any conventional seasonal reverence. And yet, here is Hicks with a delightful antidote for all manner of holiday hoopla.
On Crazy for Christmas, the singer and his longstanding gypsy cowboy swing troupe known as the Hot Licks stick to the shuffling, mid-tempo blues and jazz (blazz?) that they know best while steadfastly refusing to take Yuletide sentiment and spirit too seriously.
The album possesses a sort of rustic, rural feel, informed by the Hot Licks' wondrously indefinable swing. The album's 12 tunes shuffle and wheeze but with a lightness steeped in jazz design and a vocal and lyrical tone that suggests vintage John Prine (but without Prine's often darker narrative intent).
Hicks wrote about half of the tunes and liberally rearranged two others. Among the originals is a breezy but cautious confession of muted holiday jubilation titled I've Got Christmas by the Tail. Here, our man Hicks coyly celebrates the season but brushes off any intimation of holiday stress. "I'll show Christmas just who's boss," he sings with the sort of slushy reflection that suggests that happy hour has come and gone. "If Christmas don't like it, then it's Christmas' loss."
More tolerant of holiday tradition is Under the Mistletoe, a more carefree ode to pending holiday romance ("Look up and dig, it's tight green twig").
The spry album opener, Christmas Mornin' (a variation of Hicks' own Where's the Money?), introduces the rearranged works. But the cheery, brassy blues nugget Santa Gotta Choo Choo, which borrows liberally from the swing gem Choo Choo Ch'Boogie, imagines holiday soirees along the trail on Christmas Eve ("There was a function at the junction; it was quiet insane").
The closest Crazy for Christmas gets to something truly solemn is Carol of the Bells. But even here, Hicks and his vocal conspirators (credited, as always, as "The Lickettes") scat their way through the tune, deflating it into music that slips easily into the sense of acoustic vaudevillian swing that encompasses the album. As a bonus, Hicks offers all the scats in printed form in the album's lyric booklet. "Bob-a-day," "bob-a-doo" and "bob-a-deel" seem to be especially favored phrases.
Crazy for Christmas isn't for everyone. Traditionalists might not savor its boozy demeanor, especially the hoarse mumble pouring out of Hick's mouth that passes for singing. But with the holiday blitz heading into the home stretch and seasonal stress mounting by the day, Hicks has offered the year's quintessential yuletide chill pill.
WAlter Tunis, contributing music writer