Donnie Iris & The Cruisers
A pop artist making a Christmas album has a choice of several tropes: the "update," with contemporary instrumentation; the jazzy, we're-all-adults-here Christmas album; the jokey, novelty album. And then there are the serious Christmas albums, which try to make our holiday standards more respectable, usually through vaguely classical arrangements.
On first listen, Donnie Iris' Christmas album, Ah! Leluiah!, seems an odd hodge-podge of all these approaches, until you realize he and The Cruisers have actually made a classic-rock Christmas album. While the album's centerpiece, "The Hallelujah Chorus" is ostensibly classical, Iris' 81 overdubbed vocals lend it a "Bohemian Rhapsody" quality -- a little silly, a lot awesome. Similarly, "Panis Angelicus," dating back to 1263, stops just short of Procol Harum.
Then there are the rockers, of course: the slashing guitars on the epic "Angels We Have Heard on High," the raw and snarly "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," and the lone original, penned by Cruiser Mark Avsec -- the upbeat anthem "This Child."
To his credit, Iris eschews any "Picksburgh" guffaws or pandering. And his voice, at nearly 68, sounds great -- a unique instrument with a deceptively everyman quality.
Some production choices, though, are baffling. Why put Iris' perfectly great vocal through a vocoder? Why add a canned "live" audience to some tracks? And why -- for the love of God -- settle for Avsec's synthesizer versions of upright bass, trumpet and strings? Do these life-long musicians not know anyone who plays trumpet?
Then you realize that all these slightly cheesy devices are trademarks of the 'DVE playlist. It is totally rock 'n' roll -- classic rock 'n' roll -- and totally proper for Iris. If he'd hired a string section, or didn't try to sing "The Hallelujah Chorus" all on his own, it would be verging on one of those "serious" Christmas albums. Donnie's, instead, is simply honest.