By Keith Sharp
Hot news flash! Lee Aaron covers Slade! This writer’s bucket list is now complete.
The above statement may be more than a little facetious but to have Lee Aaron cover Slade’s proverbial annual Christmas chestnut, ‘Merry Christmas Everybody’ on her band’s latest 10 track `Almost Christmas’ album serves as a special treat for this writer who is an avowed Slade fan who has also supported and admired Ms. Aaron over the years.
At a time when it is apropos for any artist worth their salt to release a Christmas album, Aaron, husband drummer John Cody, guitarist extraordinaire Sean Kelly and multi-talent bassist Dave Reimer has concocted a collection of grab-bag tracks that allows Aaron’s unique vocal range of rockers, blues and jazz-oriented material to shine through.
Complementing the afore-mentioned Slade nugget are established favourites like Darlene Love’s “Baby Please Come Home” and a raucous cover of Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph”, more eclectic, obscure tracks like The Eels “Everything Is Gonna Be Cool This Christmas” and The Sonics’ punky “Don’t Believe In Christmas” Over The Rhine’s blues flavoured “All I Ever Get For Christmas Is Blue” and a jazzy take on Louis Armstrong’s “Zat You Santa Claus”
To top it off, the album’s first single is a rocking cover of The Pet Shop Boys’ “It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas” Aaron contributes an original track with the reprise of her own 1991 “Peace On Earth” composition and completes the song list with a superb acapella cover of Joni Mitchell’s “The Fiddle And The Drum”
“Let’s make a Christmas album became a passion project not only to keep my band family connected this year but we also wanted to do something as a gift to our fans to lift their spirits during these trying times,” explained the youthful Aaron over the phone from her Vancouver residence. “I said to John, nobody wants to hear me sing “Jingle Bells” or “Silent Night”. So we thought, let’s put out a Christmas album that we would want to crank up in the car, something that’s a little unique.”
It doesn’t hurt that Aaron’s husband; John Cody is a musicologist with a vast collection of vinyl (something like 250,000 records) so the weekend the pair set aside to hunt through possible tracks proved to be quite an adventure.
“I chose the material so we literally went through all kinds of stuff and when we landed on something that made my heart rise up I would say, `I’ve got to do that one’,” Aaron explained. “I was thinking, `how would the Lee Aaron Band perform that kind of song, what could we do to it to make it our own.”
Aaron says she has always been a fan of The Pet Shop Boys’ somewhat obscure “It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas’ but as they were a 1980’s synth-pop band, she wasn’t sure how her band was going to approach that track. “John set the tone for that by cutting a drum track that featured this Keith Moon style of drumming. My reaction was `Wow that’s wild’ and it gave us the incentive to follow that direction.”
With Aaron and Cody, and both Kelly and Reimer boasting their own home studio set-ups, the process of recording each track on files and sending them through to Aaron to mix at their home facility became quite an efficient exercise. Aaron, Cody and Reimer residing in Vancouver but Kelly’s home base is Toronto.
When it came to tackling Slade’s classic “Merry Christmas Everybody” (originally released in 1973), Aaron was warned by a British friend of hers not to mess up a legendary British rock anthem. But how could she possibly emulate Noddy Holder’s unique vocal growl?
“The trick there was to double track my voice,” laughed Aaron. “Nobody can sing like Noddy so we took the song up a couple of tones because I can’t sing that low. So with all the songs I selected, I played them on the piano in the keys I could sing, I sampled those keys and sent the files to Sean (Kelly)”
As for the Slade song itself, “I wanted us to sound like drunks in a pub so I got Dave (Reimer) to come over and we stood around the microphone and tried to sound like drunks singing in a pub.,” Aaron cracked. “And then we sent the files to Sean and asked him to be the third drunk in the pub.”
In choosing to cover Louis Armstrong’s “Zat You Santa Claus” and the Over The Rhine track “All I Ever Get Together Is Blue” Aaron says she was able to make this album unique by drawing from different stylistic influences. “This gives people a well-rounded view of who I am as an artist,” she explained. “My stuff is rock but it’s also blues and jazzy at the same time. The Over The Rhine song also showcases Sean (Kelly) as a brilliant classical blues guitarist.”
Kelly also gets to display his Chuck Berry chops on “Run Run Rudolph” while Aaron shows why Darlene Love’s “Baby Please Come Home” is rated as the No 1 Christmas rock song of all time by Rolling Stone Magazine.
But the album’s biggest surprise is Aaron’s acapella treatment of Joni Mitchell’s “The Fiddle and the Drum” which closes out the album. “John and I were watching an old Dick Cavett episode on television, it was the night after the Woodstock Festival in 1969 and Jefferson Airplane with Grace Slick were featured. But then Joni Mitchell came on and sang “The Fiddle And The Drum” acapella and I said to John, “I know we were only planning nine tracks but when I heard that song, I wanted to add it to our album.”
In recording the track, Aaron noted “It is an acapella number so it needed to be sung in one complete take and there were no instruments to reference for pitch, plus, it modulates up a tone halfway through. Trying to capture the emotion and reverence with no musical support was a bit intimidating…I did 4 takes but my husband thought the first take was the best – probably because I wasn’t overthinking it – and that ended up on the CD.”
Although it’s not a Christmas song per se, Aaron thinks it reflects the troubled times this planet has endured this year, especially with the political upheavals in the USA. “This song is a reflection of how I felt about what I observed this year. “I have American fans; I love that country but what has been happening down there is so disturbing. All the division, all the unrest, people separating into factions. I think that song makes a profound statement. I think some people will appreciate that song and some might not, but that’s okay with me.”
Understanding that this entire project was only planned in September, Aaron hasn’t had time to organize the proper distribution for `Almost Christmas’ but the social media response from her fan base has been outstanding. “On the first day the record was available, the mobile app crashed, we had so many orders.” Recognizing that Christmas albums are an evergreen project, Aaron plans to have a proper distribution system in place for 2021.
Aaron also gives credit to Frank Gryner (Emm Gryner’s brother) who not only mixed and mastered the album but also edited the “It Doesn’t Often Snow At Christmas” video.
When Aaron reveals that her band is already in the process of also completing her 17th studio album, due for release in 2021, she is asked why she remains so creative at a time, when classic rock stars receive either minimal or no radio exposure for new material.
“I took a decade off (2004-2015) when my kids were born so I was kind of in a mode of being focused on being a mom, I did a few shows but my attention was on my children,” Aaron explained. “But now they are older and independent, I am having a creative hay day again. I am having so much fun making music I don’t want to stop.”
For someone who has been independent since leaving Attic Records in 1992, Aaron has proven to be an astute businesswoman. From the Metal Queen image of her former persona, Aaron and her husband have operated a series of independent labels (Hip Chic/Slick Chic/Big Sister) from her Vancouver base, setting up distribution deals all over the world while servicing a large and devoted fan base with a number of recordings and merchandise items.
“The response from our fans has always been brilliant,” Aaron noted. “They remained faithful and encouraged my comeback and they are really dedicated in the way they stick by us. Because of them, we can integrate 40% – 50% of our set list with new material. They always want to hear what we are doing next.”
For more information on how to obtain Almost Christmas, please link to www.leeaaron.com