Husky Team
-Christmas in Memphis-

Jon Graboff
-For Christ's Sake!-

Kustard Kings
-A Kustard Kristmas-

The fine folks at Confidential Recordings decided that what their roster really needed was a trio of instrumental Christmas albums designed for today's jaded youth.

Husky Team weighs in with Christmas in Memphis, twelve tracks and thirty-two minutes of Yuletide goodness. Comprised of Dave Amels, inventor of many keyboard products, and Dennis Dikens, former drummer with The Smithereens, Husky Team have striven to combine classic Memphis R&B grooves with a classic Christmas sound. The first track that caught my attention was their take on "Auld Lang Syne" where they combine this treasured song with the memorable riff from the Booker T. and the MG's instrumental rock classic "Green Onions". The other catchy track is "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" where a skating-rink organ is punctuated with a screaming guitar lick. Other tracks include such standards as "Silent Night", "We Three Kings", and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing", each done with a swinging style that incorporates lots of Hammond B3 organ, Wurlitzer piano, and dead-on drumming. However, the sparse instrumentation throughout and the fact that the organ takes the melody on nearly every track makes this the least interesting of the three, at least to my grinchy ears. Still, if you love the early rock Memphis sound or Hammond B3 to the point that you have performed unnatural acts with this instrument, this album will certainly bring many smiles to your face.

Next up on the chopping block is the first solo album from multi-instrumentalist/producer/arranger Jon Graboff, For Christ's Sake!, an even mix of traditional carols, albeit done in creative ways, and newer favorites. The album kicks off with a Nashville-flavored "Sleigh Ride" with lots of fancy pedal steel guitar playing, sleigh bells (or course), wood blocks, and a bevy of real violins! "Winter Wonderland" finds both Spanish and Hawaiian dobros taking the melody in this innovative remake that also includes a Wurlitzer and a bowed upright bass. NQRB's "Christmas Wish" would have become a twangy country song had it not been for the inspiration of adding bongos, mandolin, mandocello, and theremin, all played by Graboff. Pedal Steel guitar on the melody ensures a country sound on the Beach Boys' "Merry Christmas Baby" yet the expertly played tenor and baritone saxophones give just the right balance to keep most of the twang away. The original "Christmas Shopping" reveals Graboff's mixed feelings of the holidays with expressions of good cheer mixed with trepidation, expressed by the piano and guitar doubling the melody for a very nice, relaxed sound. Laura Cantrell's "Too Late For Tonight" opens with Graboff at the sitar before transitioning back to the western world with pedal steel guitar on the melody. The obscure "Thanks For Christmas" by XTC is given a joyous air of distinction with Hammond organ, mandolins aplenty, and pizzicato strings. Other tracks include a Johnny B. Goode-styled take on "Run Rudolph Run" with lots of ragged piano, and the shuffling upbeat groove of "Joy To The World." Although a brief thirty minutes, it's an excellent, creative, alt-country exploration of these treasured songs.

Saving the proverbial best for last is A Kustard Kristmas by the wickedly tight alterna-pop house band at Loser's Lounge, The Kustard Kings. With nearly an hour of material these five kings bear sixteen instrumental gifts guaranteed to even make Scrooge tap his feet. The medley "Holly Jolly Christmas/We Are Santa's Elves" from one of those Rankin/Bass animated Christmas specials is a surf-guitar and organ duet injected with the sugar of three dozen Christmas cookies. The Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick" mixes the classic version with a riff influenced by "Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress" for another energetic excursion. More surf rock is to be found in the original "A Kustard Kristmas" which showcases their classic pop-funk-lounge sound with tastefully restrained guitars and organ juxtaposed with a crushing wall of guitars. "Christmas Night in Harlem" features varied percussion and layer upon layer of squishy, fun keyboard sounds and a colorful Lincoln-era They Might Be Giants sound. As heavy as last years fruitcake is the original "U Sleigh Me" with a monsterously fuzzed-out guitar riff sure to make your behind shake and wiggle. Sporting a groovin' bass line similar to Edgar Winter's Group's "Frankenstein" is the King's take on "Welcome Christmas" from the classic "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" special. With a cowbell recklessly joining the mix of banjo and cartoonish sounds, a wheezy keyboard duels with a strep-throated guitar to make this version delightfully memorable. Another killer track is "Heat Miser Strut", based on the song from another Christmas special, "The Year Without A Santa Claus". Steamy and murky, the melody oozes like lava from a scorching keyboard with subtle wah guitar that later gives way to electric piano that further explores the catchy melody. There are no monster egos in this tight quintet… they are a true ensemble cast and it shows in the musical variety where everyone gets their time in the limelight. The best thing I can say about this crazily inventive album is that I will not be surprised to find myself listening to it in the dead of summer. Yes, it's definitely one album that won't be packed up with all the other Christmas CDs on December 26.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, December 2002.