Coast Highway Christmas
When Jim Hitchcock's previous release Grateful was reviewed in the Weekly three years back, we summed up his approach this way: "There's no pretension here, just a nice guy who wants to write and play nice songs." So little surprise that his third album Coast Highway Christmas -- released as a benefit record for cancer research -- is pretty much in the same vein, with Hitchcock, again playing with Missiles of October members Richard Bredice and Frank Cotinola among other guests, serving up a mix of carols, early Christmas standards and his own originals.
In that there's always a slew of Christmas releases to sort through each year -- and we'll be looking at more later in the month -- it's easy to feel cynical sometimes, but Hitchcock's earnestness and gentle delivery matches up well with his musical approach, clearly indebted to the Byrds in both folk- and country-rock incarnations (Greg Leisz's pedal steel guitar takes various bows throughout the album). Of the carols, "Joy to the World" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" are engaging standouts, while when it comes to the more recent standards, Hitchcock's rearrangement of "Do They Know It's Christmas" is a bit of a musical kick, but the Pretenders' "2000 Miles" couldn't have been more tailor made for him to remake.
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As for the originals, it's a mix -- the title track starts the album engagingly enough, but "Santa's Catching a Wave" is almost too relaxed for something that could be a perfect concept for either They Might Be Giants or the Aquabats while "Coming Home for Christmas" is a shade too cloying at points (the string section's a nice touch, the children singalong a little less so). However, ending the album on "When Grey Shades Turn to Blue," a reflection on standing by loved ones suffering through drawn-out health concerns, is a smart touch, a little reminder that it's not always just about cheery sentiments even at this time of year.