This Cassie Ramone article was written by Stephen Butchard, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Lorna Gray.
Alternative Christmas albums are deceptively difficult to pull off. The gimmick of a holiday record means that most listeners will be expecting to forget the project by the time the turkey sandwiches have been scoffed on boxing day. Not just this, but in the popular music cannon, the festive playlist has already been solidified. Mariah Carey, Slade, the Pogues & Co. have set the template; trying to recreate the yuletide ecstasy of these classics is impossible without resorting to campy nostalgia tripping.
Instead of aiming to match the jolly spectacle of the classics, Cassie Ramone’s collection of Christmas covers adds a feeling of desolation to these songs that’s wholly her own. Like Sufjan Stevens and Bright Eyes before her, these covers bare little resemblance to their goofy originals. With brittle, lo-fi guitars and airy, reverb-splashed synths bringing a sense of misery which is completely absent in their source. Ramone, formerly of the Vivian Girls, developed this mood on her debut solo effort, and it’s at its bleakest on ‘Christmas in Reno’. ‘Run Run Rudolph’ is the most upbeat track present, but even in this moment there’s a feeling of emptiness that permeates every moaned vocal and wandering synth drone. The album nails its miserable atmosphere.
Sadly, the atmosphere feels unsatisfying when backing weak vocal performances and gutless melodies. The gloomy presentation is an exciting diversion on paper, but a lack of dynamism leads to little more than monotony after ‘Christmas in Reno’s ten tracks are up. ‘Rocking Around the Christmas Tree’ contains Ramone’s most dissonant vocal, but her amateurish qualities are grating rather than charming when backed with flat guitar lines and a lack of melodic progression.
The sloppiness of ’Sleigh Ride’ is similarly purposeful in its misery, but the thin production does little in helping Ramones’ unsatisfying delivery. One of the reason’s Bright Eyes’ subversive Christmas album succeeds in its depressive tone is in the subtle but significant variations the band colour their instrumentation with. Christmas in Reno’ sadly forms into one muddled mess in comparison.
Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Christmastime’ is a bad song by most standards, but what makes the original so enduring is the bizarre playfulness of hearing a former Beatle bumble along with a full children’s choir (“DIIIING DOONG DIIING DOOONG” etc). Ramone’s nasally rendition is similarly bizarre, with a downtrodden delivery and an overall aimlessness, but her flaccid guitar playing and muddy melody altercations make it hard to give many replays as Christmas approaches. Worst of all, hermoaning vocal take itself too seriously for the novelty cuts she sings on – at least McCartney’s brand of awful is fun.
Still, the homemade recording quality of ‘Christmas in Reno’ suggests that Ramone is well aware of the fleeting nature of the novelty record. This collection could simply a Christmas gift to her fans, who will undoubtedly appreciate the personality she displays on record. For those looking for a new soundtrack to gloomy Christmas evenings, this album will be more of a Christmas turkey than a Christmas cracker. For everyone else, Wham! and booze will be enough.