by Paul Bowers
For rock songwriter Mel Washington, Christmastime is full of contrasts: cherished memories of warmth and laughter with his family coupled with moments of solitary reflection. So when he recorded a Christmas album, he wanted it to sound that way.
"It might seem as if it's all over the place," Washington says of his new record, Celebration, which will be released digitally on Friday. "You know, it starts off kind of somber, and then the next song is like a bossa nova version of "White Christmas.' But that's what it is to me."
Since his years spent touring with indie-rock band All Get Out, Washington has returned to a fruitful solo career and set himself a few musical challenges. This February, Washington's album Houses saw him taking an occasional turn toward Southern rock power-balladry, and this winter, he's got a few new musical endeavors in the works. One is the Christmas album; the other is a project tentatively called Petty Cash, a collection of re-imagined Tom Petty and Johnny Cash tunes. The holiday record was plenty challenging in its own right, he says.
"You'd be surprised. Christmas music is not the easiest music to play," Washington says. "At the same time, I wanted to be careful to have a unique way of presenting it without going too far off the beaten path."
Over half of the songs on Celebration are fireplace fare — the sort of cozy, romantic standards like "Let It Snow" and "Baby, It's Cold Outside" that Bing and Frank once used to melt frozen wintry hearts. Washington is joined on several tracks by Athens, Ga.-based singer and blogger Sarra Sedghi, and the two show real chemistry on the duets. Washington recorded the album in Macon, Ga., with the help of Charleston producer Wolfgang Zimmerman (of Brave Baby) and multi-instrumentalist Alec Stanley, and they hired some local Georgia talent as well, including a violinist, a trumpeter, and a few opera singers from Macon.
The oddball standout on the album is "A Chorus of Hallelujahs," a medley of Leonard Cohen's classic "Hallelujah" and the Hallelujah chorus from Handel's Messiah. Washington says he intentionally left his vocals untouched in the studio, imperfections and all. The result is an aching and powerful addition to the ever-growing canon of "Hallelujah" cover versions.
"My voice breaks at the end unintentionally," Washington says. "It's a literal broken hallelujah."
Celebration will be available for download Friday via iTunes, Amazon, and other online outlets. Washington will also play a free Christmas concert on Thurs. Dec. 12 at the Goorin Bros. Hat Shop (377 King St.) from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Physical copies of the album will be available for purchase at the show.