It’s not the first time I’ve heard it at Christmastime, nor will it be the last. While the hipsters bag on the million annual spins of Mariah Carey (“All I Want For Christmas Is You”) and Whamageddon (“Last Christmas), others in my circle simply can’t stand either Gene Autry’s original or any of the billions of renditions of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” – and immediately switch the station or forward the playlist when its eminent corniness assaults their ears (their opinion, not so much mine). Chuck Berry’s rock classic takeoff “Run Run Rudolph” remains a bit more palatable, it’s left to Tom Ciurczak, the dazzling and inspired, ageless and timeless rocker with the “never grew up” Peter Pan syndrome going full force, to work a full-on musical Christmas miracle.
On California Christmas Tales, the festive and adventurous, high octane follow-up EP to his defiant 2023 breakthrough album I Ain’t Ever Growing Up, he includes “C’mon C’mon Rudolf,” a remarkable new spin on the crazy reindeer games – cleverly almost taking Santa’s red nosed friend out in the process yet giving him one last chance to fly. Either way, haters of the classic song can rejoice that he’s given a fresh and badly needed storyline. Though Tom spells his name differently in the title, there’s no mistaking the protagonist as he encounters a new problem. Seems he spent too much time at the watering hole and is in no shape to guide the sleigh. So Dasher Prancer, Dancer and the rest of the gang stage a coup and tell Santa it’s time for “Rudolf” to retire.
In a twist though, with clever lyrics that leave listeners to imagine exactly how things all went down, they realize a stormy night with limited visibility is the worst possible time to push the freak in their midst off a cliff. So they “fix him up, get him straight” because “We need his red light to pull us through. . .for one last final ride.” Add some bell effects and high spirited “Fa la la” choruses (sung by Tom and Grant Gary) and we’ve got a contemporary holiday winner – anti Rudolph enough to appease those who wish he’d fall in that watering hole for good, yet triumphant enough for fans to say their boy’s still got the magic. Pure holiday music genius, complemented by the tasty electric guitar fire and licks of Matt Hornbeck.
Had that been a standalone single, Tom would have already saved our musical Christmas, but he includes two other equally delightfully clever tunes to add fresh cheer to even the Grinchiest, Scroogiest mood or playlist.
Starting off with a hypnotic jangling rhythm guitar riff, “Santa’s Got a Brand New Bag” riffs mightily on the James Brown aesthetic, starting with the adaptation of the song title “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and punchy funk-rock grooves on down to the Maceo Parker-esque sax sizzle of Fabian Chavez. The narrative is cool too, asking “Santa what’s in the bag?” and checking off all the symbolic elements of Saint Nick mythology: kids waiting by the tree for toys, reindeer can fly, Hohoho, etc. He even gets a “Rudolf” reference in there (“See that red light through the snow”). Tom also gets in a sweet reference to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” via the line “Where did Mom and Santa go? Check Under the mistletoe.”
The third song, a jangly rock and funk filled, harmony vocal laden satire on “Christmastime in Hollywood,” further showcases Tom’s uniqueness as a lyricist. In his eyes, even when the typical seasonal magic (holiday music, carolers singing, snow falling down) is happening all around, it’s as if Hollywood has created it for us via smoke and mirrors – and these days, CGI and AI. Even though the tempo is up and the music uplifting, we can hear a tinge of sadness when he sings “But none of this is real in Tinsel Town.” In the second verse, he addresses a problem that goes beyond the confines of Los Angeles. That we’re all “too busy in the fast lane and no way to slow down” to reflect on what Christmas is all about. Whether we neglect the religious or family love aspect of the season, in his eyes, without that true spirit, “that groaning just goes on and on.”
Then he gets back to Hollywood specifics, where “Movie stars tell us what to do, what presents to buy and how to act.” But, kinda in the spirit of (gulp) Mariah Carey, he tries to rise above the manufactured hustle/bustle, declaring “I don’t care about any of that/As long as my Christmas is with you.” After referencing angels and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” he gets back to the theme at the end: “I just want my Christmas to be with you.”
A remarkable 11 minute set, California Christmas Tales is a three song, rockin’, soulful kick ass holiday philosophy session which gives “Rudolf” new life as a survivor of bad water and an attempted coup), Santa a James Brown makeover and shares the real meaning of Christmas beyond the Hollywood glitz and glam.
If Tom Ciurczak is new on your radar, or if you missed his spectacular aforementioned album, please check out my review, which includes the reason he’s rocking and the great story behind the music. Please click on: TOM CIURCZAK, I Ain't Ever Growing Up, Volume I (jwvibe.com)