Mean Mary “I’d Rather Be Merry”

Woodrock Records, 2023

If you want festive tunes to go with the presents and mulled wine this is the album to play. Non-cliché Christmas music.

“Mean” Mary James is 18 albums into her career and clearly the time seemed right to tackle the potential minefield of a festive album. She starts with ‘I Saw Three Ships’, and to her credit uses all the verses which is a tick in the research box. Another tick is managing to avoid it sounding like a children’s song with an arrangement that respects the most commonly used tune while adding flourishes and a guitar solo from her brother Frank, who also duets with her on parts of the song.

Four originals are included ‘Cardboard Box’ is a post-break-up song with some wry humour around getting an unexpected gift from an ex. You’ll need to listen to it for the very funny pay off though. In fairness ’Jingle Bells’ is almost impossible to do something new with, but the James’ have succeeded, again by using all the words rather than the couple of verses usually sung. Bluegrass or Country is clearly the medium for cheery festive tunes as again this is more than listenable.

An original instrumental ‘Snowy’ is next and shows off Mary James’ considerable Banjo chops. She manages to bring a feel of snowfall to it and winds the tune up with a descending run that Greg Lake would have been proud of. Of the other traditional tunes ‘Deck the Halls’ ‘The Holly and The Ivy’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ are arranged as English folk tunes, with the interaction between David Henry’s Cello and Frank James’ 12-string guitar the standout instrumental sections on the lats of these.

And that points the way to the reason behind making this album. Her goal was to “make a fun, laid-back holiday album” that featured the style of music she and Frank played as children. She says “To be frank, I’d rather be merry is the catchphrase from the title track of the album, a play on their names, and the main theme of the album. Frank has always been the glass-half-empty person and I’ve always been the optimistic, happy one. I think everyone can relate to both personality types during the holidays. But I think most of us will agree, it’s better to be merry!” The words are offered with tongue firmly in cheek, with some gentle teasing of her brother in the verses.

Mary “We could build a snowman?
Frank “Is that really necessary?
Mary “Let’s make ornaments for the tree.”
Frank “Or we could use the old decorations.”
Mary “Christmas is a time we all should be happy.”
Frank “You have very, very high expectations”.

O Holy Night” is played straight with Mary’s vocals and piano, as is ‘It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.’ The album closes with the last original ‘Ding Dong Day’. This is the one they are clearly hoping for airplay from as it as a more commercial country flavour to the tune and the sort of radio-friendly arrangement that would make it stand out from the usual Christmas mush.

Has Mean Mary succeeded in making a holiday album you would actually want to play? Yes, she has. The originals add some humour to proceedings and the traditional tunes are presented with enough of a slant to make then sound fresh.


About Tim Martin 230 Articles
Sat in my shed listening to music, and writing about some of it. Occasionally allowed out to attend gigs.
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