One Christmas at a Time by Erin Wade

Tis the season for all the holiday music to start filling the airwaves and the stores and our public spaces. It’s just possible that I’ve been known, from time to time, to refer to the onset of this event (which seems to start earlier every year) as a humbug.

Just possible.

But over recent years I’ve found myself softening on that perspective, mostly because it means that I can break out One Christmas at a Time by Jonathan Coulton and John Roderick:

One Christmas at a Time

Depending upon the circles in which you travel, you may not immediately know who these two gentlemen are, but you should.

Jonathan Coulton is a former computer programmer who decided to kick-start his music career by doing the Thing a Week podcast. This show was one in which he challenged himself to produce some type of audio content - usually a song - each week for a year. This led to a large standing catalog of music (much of it with a decidedly geeky bent), and since then he’s gone on to put out an album with a record label, start an annual geek-entertainment focused cruise, and take the role of House Musician on Ask Me Another.

John Roderick is the frontman and songwriter for The Long Winters, a former member of Harvey Danger, and a podcasting tour de force. He started with Roderick on the Line, which he still does with his co-host Merlin Mann, a podcast that is effectively the best conversation you’ve ever had with a good friend, over and over again. He has since added Road Work with Dan Benjamin, and two network podcasts - Omibus (which I reviewed here) and Friendly Fire, in which John and his co-hosts take apart war movie after war movie.

One Christmas at a Time is what happens when you put two ambitious, creative, out of the box thinkers together and have them make a holiday album. Note - I’m not avoiding the word "Christmas" here for politeness, but rather for accuracy. Christmas is addressed, but so are multiple other components of the holiday season. _The Week Between__, for example, targets that odd period of time after Christmas, but before New Year’s Day where our usual world is in a sort of limbo.

And there’s more - Uncle John is about Christmas, in a way, but mostly it’s about maybe not choosing to invite that one relative - the titular "Uncle John" in this case - who always ruins everything.

2600 will cause anyone of a certain age (and that age is between 45 and 50-ish) and predilection to experience waves of nostalgia. And, depending upon how those youthful Christmases went, perhaps make them a bit bitter. Again. If you are that person you’ll get the title. If you aren’t, well, find that person and ask them.

And there is more, of course. As one can probably tell from the descriptions here, many of the songs have a somewhat humerous bent to them, but this is not Christmas parody. Rather, with these songs you have the artists considering the holiday season from a different angle than we usually see in more traditional seasonal offerings. For this reason, and due also in no small part to the talent of the men on the album, it’s re-listenable in a way that a parody album could never be. It is, in fact, delightful on first, fifteenth, and fiftieth listen.

If you are looking for a bit of holiday listening that is different from the standard fare - a respite from the repetition you find on every channel and in every store - but still want to engage in the holiday spirit - One Christmas at a Time may be just the thing.

It’s available at:

Halestorm by Erin Wade

Heavy metal music as a category can be somewhat confusing nowadays, particularly if you come at it as a more... seasoned fan. For those of us who grew up listening to the likes of Judas Priest, AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, and Sammy Hagar, modern offerings in the category can be somewhat perplexing. Frequently exploration of the category in the modern era results in encountering indiscernible vocals that suggest a singer trying to clear a decade’s backlog worth of phlegm, backed by guitars crunching in a non-melodic pattern that are reminiscent of sandpaper being run across the strings.

Halestorm stands in distinct contrast to that trend. All of their albums are excellent, and their newest release - Vicious - scratches the heavy metal itch in all the right places.

Vicious - which came out July 27th, 2018 - is a vocal tour de force, with Lzzy Hale front and center. She is the force.

I’ve been listening to Vicious for the better part of two months now and, while the band absolutely has its own distinct sound and character, 30-plus years worth of listening to music makes my brain inevitably draw comparisons. And with respect to that, the comparison I keep coming back to is Ronnie James Dio.

Heavy metal, new and old, is full of singers who can wail or put that low, gravelly timbre into their voices. But few vocalists have demonstrated the range of Ronnie James Dio - that ability to put all of that range on display in a single song - Don’t Talk to Strangers being a prime example of that:

Black Vultures - the opener on the new album - is the song that most makes me think of this comparison.

They are very different songs, to be sure, but the range within, from relatively soft and quiet to rasping scream, is there in both. Listening to the album, but especially this song, made me want to cue up Holy Diver and give that a listen thru as well.

What’s clear, with all of this, is that Lzzy Hale is a vocal powerhouse. I first encountered her as a guest for the title track on Linsey Sterling’s Shatter Me - a standout song on an excellent album that made me determined to find out out more about the vocalist. As is often the case, I discovered that, while she was new to me, the band has been active for a while, with an existing catalog. What’s delightful within that is that the catalog includes three other albums of original work - Halestorm, The Strange Case of..., and Into the Wild Life; and it includes three EP’s of covers, all under the title Reanimate (e.g. Reanimate, Reanimate 2.0, etc).

It’s that vocal flexibility that makes this so magnificent - Lzzy and crew’s love for the songs they are covering is clear and true on each of these. What’s more, they show her ability to sing virtually anything across the hard rock/heavy metal spectrum. One might expect that, for example, when seeing that Heart’s All I Wanna Do is Make Love to You is on one of these EP’s (Reanimate). One might be more dubious when one sees Whitesnake’s Still of the Night show up (on Reanimate 3.0 ). One would be wrong:

And lest one think that these covers sit only in safe, hard rock territory, realize that artists as diverse as Stevie Nicks, Lady Gaga, and Twenty One Pilots also get the Halestorm cover treatment on these EP’s.

This shines within the new album as the songs range from relatively soft and reflective (The Silence), to funky (Do Not Disturb, Conflicted) to solid hard rock/heavy metal (Buzz, and the aforementioned Black Vultures). And while Lzzy clearly enjoys that heavy metal edge to her voice, she also brings out the baby doll range where appropriate (e.g. on the aforementioned Conflicted).

Of course, a vocalist is not an entire band, and the albums would not be convincing if it weren’t for the rest of the crew as well. The guitar and bass work here is excellent, giving that crunch and funk where needed, in just the right measure. Drum work, handled by Arejay Hale - yes, Lzzy’s brother - is both supportive and complex. Drum work can take many forms, of course, but in heavy metal it often seems relegated to timekeeping with occasional accents for punch and fills. Here you get something different. Arejay‘s drum work has an expected heavy edge, but interesting, lighter rhythms fill in the spaces in-between, and often mirror and add to vocal lines. If you enjoy music where the drummer takes an active role you’ll find things to enjoy here.

While I’m drawing comparisons to Ronnie James Dio, the comparisons vary when we get to lyrical content. You won’t find songs full of angels and demons here. Halestorm‘s topic areas are quite different. Black Vultures opens the album with an anthem about rising up against, or in spite of, others trying to bring you down:

I don’t give in, I don’t give up I won’t ever let it break me I’m on fire, I’m a fighter I’ll forever be the last one standing

This leads into Skulls, which shifts gears into metaphor for people uncritically taking in the information they are fed, along with Lzzy’s inability to simply sit by and let that go:

Leave the TV on Believe what you want If you can’t see right or wrong...

And the songs continue, with a real-life and wonderfully earthy tone - Halestorm embraces the topic of sexuality openly and directly, and this is reflected in songs like Buzz and Conflicted, and more than directly in Do Not Disturb...:

I’m on the very top floor, room 1334 There’s a king size bed, but we can do it on the floor Turn your cell phone off, I’ll put a sign on the door That says "do not disturb" And if I were you I’d bring your girlfriend too Two is better than one, three is better than two...

And further on into relationships gone wrong and the subsequent pain - the album covers a gamut of experiences and emotions. It works excellently as a cohesive piece - in an era where some artists have set aside the album format in favor of serial singles, this is a coherent album true to the name, without a bad moment in the set.

If you have been looking for heavy metal music in the classic style and have been struggling to find it, you need look no further - it’s alive and well, right here in this album and in this band.

Red by Erin Wade

A while ago I opined about the derogation that is directed towards Sammy Hagar when it comes to his time in Van Halen. This was inspired by listening to Van Halen specific playlists on Apple Music, and those playlists also reminded me that Hagar had come out with a memoir a few years ago, titled Red.

I'd come across the book by chance in a somewhat atypical bookstore in Denver - a place called The Tattered Cover - when we were there for a conference a couple of years ago. I was curious about it - I've been listening to Sammy Hagar since I was in junior high - but it wasn't available on Audible at the time (I've found that I typically can't keep my eyes open when I try to read in the evenings any more, so I capitalize on the opportunity to "read" when I'm driving and working around the house and yard), so I made a mental note of it and moved on.

Listening to the playlists fired up that mental note, and I did a renewed search on Audible, with success this time. A couple of clicks later I was the proud owner of the unabridged audiobook, and set about listening in the car, on my bike, working on my trailer...

...It is, as they say, possible to know too much about those you admire.

Perhaps unwisely, I had entered into the book with hopes of learning about Hagar's approach to writing music, pulling lyrics together, playing guitar. While I would never describe Sammy as a musical genius - for every thoughtful, interesting song like Remember the Heroes or Salvation on Sand Hill there is another like Sweet Hitchiker - his material has often struck me as presenting a working class philosophy, perhaps colored with a bit of California beach life for good measure. Within that structure as well he's always been a master of the hard-rock hook, producing songs with a musical edge that also stick with you.

After listening to Red I don't know any more about how he accomplishes any of that than I did before I started it. In fact, I couldn't even say whether he thinks about his music in any way even close to what I've just described above. The amount of time dedicated to anything about actual music production is so brief and poorly described as to almost leave one wondering whether he actually sees himself as a musician, as opposed to just a guy who shows up on stage in-between parties and expensive purchases.

Red is, in short, a tell-all book.

To be clear, my disappointment here is most certainly my fault. In retrospect, it is obviously the case that someone - either Hagar himself or a manager or publicist with his ear - encouraged him to produce something that covered all of the "titillating" details of his time with Van Halen before public interest dwindled to nothing. After all, his 10-year span with the band started nearly 30 years ago, in 1986.

But there's something more here.

When telling a story - even a tell-all like this book - one would like the author to have some self-awareness with respect to how he is presenting himself. He is, after all, the main character of the book, it's hero, for want of a better word. What we see of Sammy Hagar here, however, is a man in his 60's who, although looking back on his life, hasn't seen, is perhaps unable to see, the inconsistencies between who he describes himself as and who he actually presents as being.

Examples include passages in which he indicates that he doesn't really drink or do drugs, followed a short time later by descriptions of himself jumping into a limo and snorting coke with Eddie Van Halen; and indicating that he was largely faithful to his first wife, except, of course, for all of the random casual sex he had when he was on the road.

Perhaps the most troubling example of this, however, are the ongoing descriptions of how much time he spent away from home, and how difficult it was on his first wife, who nonetheless tolerated it and supported him; followed by his protestations that she was really bringing him down when he finally had to take a year off to care for her after she had a nervous breakdown; and that followed by his eventual breakup with her accomplished largely by avoiding her by moving from place to place ahead of her attempts to meet up with him and to bring his children to see him. At Christmas.

I actually found myself wondering whether he actually read the book after it was compiled (it seems clear from the way it reads that it was a series of stories dictated to someone else to have it out together).

I was grousing about all of this to my 13-year old daughter when I was about two-thirds of the way through the book. I went on long enough, apparently, that she felt the need to pat me on the shoulder and say "Dad, you know you can stop listening to it, right?"

But I couldn't. It was like passing an accident on the side of the road - you don't want to look, but you are compelled. I had to finish it.

There were interesting bits. Hagar is the second musician of his era whom I've learned has chosen to enter other businesses so that he doesn't have to rely upon music as an income (Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull being the first; I'm sure they are not unique in this). I learned that Marching to Mars, probably my favorite Hagar solo album, was a poor money maker. I learned that he owns a chain of bicycle shops.

And, fortunately, I find that I still enjoy the music.