Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: Los Straitjackets, 'Yuletide Beat'

You know the old saying about how the best gifts come in small packages? Well, those masked men of surf, twang and glistening instrumental party rock, Los Straitjackets, have reduced that idea even further.

Unless you're one of the lucky 1,000 who were able to track down a hard copy of its second holiday album, Yuletide Beat, you will have to buy it the new-fashioned way: by legally downloading it. Hence there is no package at all. The limited-edition album is readily available from, iTunes and all major online stores.

Yuletide Beat is a wonderful holiday hors d'oeuvre of an album that offers 10 guitar-savvy takes on seasonal classics that race by in a mere 25 minutes. Much like its 2002 predecessor, 'Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets, the sense of cheer is abundant. And the references that the instrumental quartet embrace might seem predominantly retro, but the resulting music is anything but a museum piece. The guitar work of guitarists Danny Amis and Eddie Angel remains, as always, at the forefront, producing party pieces out of well-worn carols and holiday pop tunes.

But, as also is the case with all Los Straitjackets recordings, the performances are immensely respectful of the influences that inspired them. Like 'Tis the Season, the music on Yuletide Spirit is warm, inviting and consistently fun. And if a touch of kitsch comes with the surf accents, so be it. It's all part of the music's organic and good-natured cheer.

Some of the inspirations that surface on Yuletide Beat are fairly obvious. We Three Kings stutters, churns and roars with a whiplash guitar riff that quotes the 1963 Dick Dale surf classic Misirlou, while the intro to Jingle Bells employs the Bakersfield country riff that Buck Owens used to introduce Buckaroo in 1965. Then there's the album-opening Deck the Halls, which suggests the Texas hullabaloo strum that fueled the 1966 Bobby Fuller Four hit I Fought the Law.

On other tunes, the heritage isn't quite so specific. Jolly Old Saint Nicholas, revised and retitled here as Groovy Old Saint Nick, sheds its country-western leanings in the hands of Amis and Angel and better approximates Mott the Hoople's 1973 hit version of All the Young Dudes. And how about Silent Night Rock, which prefaces its jangled merriment with a melody strummed on guitar and what sounds like ukulele backed by the sweep of ocean waves? Or O Tannenbaum refashioned as the sleepy south-of-the-border serenade Que Verdes Son?

Yuletide Spirit's sleekest moment, though, is O Come All Ye Faithful, which comes drenched in twang and tremolo. Such a surf cocktail mix recalls many ghosts of Christmas past, but it ultimately sounds like no one other than the Los Straitjackets of today.