Christmas records are like perennial flowers, sleeping silently through the seasons before bursting forth with cheery scent, wafting unavoidably everywhere between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.
Most spring from joyous normality. Emme St. James' "I'd Like You for Christmas" is rooted in stranger soil. The record makes a brief blazing run at being the "Bad Santa" of holiday albums before settling into a slightly singed conventionality. The packaging features the singer in a low-cut black dress with white fur trim, the holiday theme evoked by bright red lips against a dark green background. On the back she's whispering something naughty to a shocked Santa. St. James has the retro glamour of a '40s movie platinum moll, the temptress who gets shot in her heart of gold at the end, freeing the hero for unsoiled love with the dark-haired heroine.
The CD opening — a brassy, Samson Trinh-arranged big band romp through "Home for the Holidays" — could be the movie bad girl's big nightclub number. The next cut, the swinging, cynical "Santa Baby," is a more intimate celebration of gold-digger greed, a pricey wish in the verse, a goofily perverse invitation to "hurry down my chimney" in the chorus. (Is there a more twisted holiday song?) But after this wild start the record swerves into standard fare, the title song, "White Christmas," "Winter Wonderland," even that fragile, minor-key pretty ditty from "A Charlie Brown Christmas."
The band is fine, the players gleaming in their occasional solos, laying out a deep, high-gloss base for St. James to skate across with the occasional vocal arabesque. It's fine background music for trimming the tree or sipping eggnog — which is, after all, what most people want from a Christmas album. But the winking, wicked revelry at the opening is more bracing and sincere than the conventional sentimentality that follows. When the bad girl resurfaces in a brief coda at the end of the album, it's if she'd never left.
More Local Music to Buy
For maximum use, last year's Richmond all-star "A Season to Remember," from 32 Bar Records, should be purchased as soon as possible. Beyond the obvious — Matthew E. White's "Outer Face" expansion of his breakthrough "Big Inner," the duo of critically acclaimed releases from No BS! Brass, and the fresh-off-the-mold LP pressings of Todd Herrington's "Things" and My Darling Fury's "Licking Wounds" — are a number of recordings worth considering.
Bassist Jimmy Master's "When Trees Speak" was one of the lyrical highlights of the year. Glows in the Dark added hip-hop to its cinematic avant-garde jazz mix with "Research and Development." The Rootdowns' "Songs With Friends" found a new approach to the funky organ quartet. The adventurous trio led by saxophonist and trumpeter Marcus Tenney just debuted with "As You See It."
And if your shopping is complete by Dec. 22, you can relax at the annual all-star concert from the School of the Performing Art in the Richmond Community, organized by Jason Mraz, with big-band arrangements by Samson Trinh and more locals and guests than you can shake a candy cane at. They include K.D. Lang and Richmond favorite René Marie, whose new release, "I Want to Be Evil," is among her best.