Growing up in the Kern household, Christmas was always a magical time full of beautiful sights, smells, and sounds; in short it was a confluence of Norman Rockwell-esque touchstones and traditions. There was only one problem: the frigid, iron grip my parents had over the holiday music selection, willfully dismissing my fervent pleas to stray from the well-heeled, vanilla stylings of crooners such as Bing Crosby and Andy Williams.
"When you're older and you get a place of your own, you can play whatever kind of weird-ass Christmas music you want," my father calmly told me, putting in yet another Mannheim Steamroller CD one year.
Years passed, and that day finally came. To fully capture the celebratory mood of the occasion, I decided to pick a record that would fly directly in the face of every bland Christmas record I had ever had to sit through growing up, and when I came across a copy of James Brown's Funky Christmas, I thought it would fit the bill quite nicely. Yes, that's right. Papa's got a brand new bag, but in lieu of toys, he's bringing us a stylistically diverse sampling of his Christmas songs from the '60s.
The title is actually a bit of a misnomer, as the ballads outnumber the funkier fare by a rather sizable margin, and several of the jauntier tunes are good but unremarkable. That said, when Brown does decide to turn up the heat on the rest of the up-tempo numbers, he's as combustible as a Douglas Fir watered with gasoline. The self-explanatory "Soulful Christmas" is classic JB, a horny, explosive sleigh ride replete with a dynamite groove built on crisp, hollow snare licks entwined with a naked, no-frills bassline, while "Hey America" is a tight, sexy X-mas song, far more Superfly than Santa Claus. The blend of fluid strings, brass, and slippery blaxploitation riffs behind James' powerfully shouted surreal, inscrutable lyrics would have made Curtis Mayfield beam so brightly he would have rivaled the North Star.
Surprisingly, Funky Christmas' greatest assets are its amazing ballads, in which Mr. Brown draws from a pool of disparate influences, synthesizing the smooth croon of Nat King Cole ("The Christmas Song"), the baroque inspirational trappings of Isaac Hayes ("Santa Claus Is Definitely Here To Stay"), and the bittersweet melancholy of Sam Cooke ("Christmas In Heaven"). None of these come close, however, to the album's masterpiece, "Sweet Little Baby Boy Parts 1 and 2." On this exceptional cut, James wrings out every bit of his adoration and reverence for the nativity over the morose and haunting crawl of piano and strings, simultaneously echoing both his own "It's A Man's, Man's, Man's World" and some of the more recognizable passages of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day."
While Funky Christmas may seem like a kitschy novelty to add to an already overwhelmingly large stockpile of Christmas records available, it’s a refreshingly well-rounded collection of finely crafted, nicely executed holiday music for all backgrounds to enjoy, which goes to show that while the world may share different values and beliefs around this time of year, soul is indubitably non-denominational.