What do jingle bells sound like underwater? It’s A Spongebob Christmas Album answers that Zen-like question and many others. It’s also of the most sophisticated and creative elaborations on Yuletiding you’re likely to find.
Cartoon-based music is often discounted, overshadowed by surreal characters and sound-effects (this despite a long history of amazing orchestrations, like the ones Carl Stallings and Raymond Scott composed for Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies). What’s often overlooked is the fact that the animated medium can encourage both experimentation and avant arrangement like few others.
“We don’t approach them as cartoon songs,” says Andy Paley, who both co-produced and wrote the music for SpongeBob. “A good song is a good song, and it doesn’t matter if a cartoon character sings it.” His more immediate role model might be the timeless melodies sung by Disney characters – “Someday My Prince Will Come” from Snow White stands out – but his approach is enhanced by his love of Phil Spector and Brian Wilson. Paley has worked with both; he was produced by Spector when he was in the Paley Brothers, a ’70s duo with a distinctly pop edge; and later he worked with Wilson on his solo comeback album; he’s also collaborated with such timeless artists as Madonna (on the Dick Tracy soundtrack) and Jerry Lee Lewis. Also, he has a fine taste in novelty records. (Let’s put it this way: he was the first person to play me the Shaggs.)
But Andy’s first love is the glorious soundscapes created by Phil and Brian in their golden era. “Phil’s records are not just about echo,” he explains. “That’s a cliché about him. It’s more the layering of textures.” The same could be said of Brian Wilson, especially the works-in-progress on display in The Smile Sessions. A self-professed Beach Boys “freak,” Paley spent long hours untangling these sounds and learning how to make them; this album reflects that sense of care and obsession.
He first began creating music for SpongeBob with the 2006 song “Best Day Ever,” which focused on that jaunty never-say-squish optimism that is our hero’s stock-in-trade. His lyricist and co-conspirator is Tom Kenny – the music aficionado who voices Mr. Bob – and their teamwork is infectious. All the characters on the famed Nickelodeon series have very specific characters and personalities – the lovable and dimmish bulb Patrick Star(fish), the Krusty Krab that is Eugene Krebs, the ill-tempered Squidward and Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel who lives in an underwater dome – and their distinctive personas give each tune on this album its own spin cycle. That said, it’s not hard to hear these songs outside the realm of Bikini Bottom: the lyrics tend toward the universal, and could be sung by any artist – and hopefully will be in the future.
Different genres provide distinct settings for each track. Sandy does the Cotton-Eyed Joe to “Ho Ho Hoedown,” which not only name-checks Waylon and Willie and Flaco and Sir Doug, but also spotlights Jeremy Wakefield on non-pedal steel, giving the track a western swing flavor not seen since the heyday of Bob Wills and Spade Cooley. “Christmas Is Mine” takes Plankton’s abrasive Napoleon complex and places it against the grain of a pastoral setting reminiscent of the Carpenters, featuring Corky Hale (whose orchestral harp flourishings also decorated records by Billie Holiday and Liberace). “Wet Wet Christmas” is street-corner R&B doowop; “Hot Fruitcake” is nutty asâ€¦; Patrick is dazzled by the tinsel and the wrapping in “Pretty Ribbons and Bows,” underscored by a psychedelic garage-rock riff and electric guitar solo played by Jonathan Richman. (Gazing at the tree, he exclaims, “That star on top is blowing my mind!”)
The various elements of the project began to gather under the mistletoe a couple of years back when Paley and Kelly came up with “Don’t Be A Jerk (It’s Christmas).” In that song, SpongeBob hopes to have everyone remember the spirit of the holiday; “Christmas Eve Jitters,” a stomping slice of honky-tonk rockabilly featuring Big Al Anderson from NRBQ, thematically recalls A Christmas Story, that cinematic holiday perennial that embodies the fraught anticipation of the holiday.
The album’s most moving moment – and strongest contender for Christmas standard – is “Snowflakes,” in which a wistful SpongeBob looks out his window to a world covered in crystal-white and sings atop a swirling wonderland that recalls the Brian Wilson of “Wind Chimes” and “Vegetables.” Hale’s harp shimmers and sweeps and Tommy Morgan, who also supplied the bass harmonica on “Good Vibrations,” adds extra resonance. Paley is able to pick from some of the best and most creative studio musicians in the Hollywood area (guitarist James Burton and ex-Wrecking crew member Nino Tempo also appear) and the cumulative effect is far beyond mere cartoon music. Maybe that’s the secret. “Because it’s SpongeBob,” says Andy, “we can make records like this, that are very authentic and sound like they come from another era, to resurrect musical style that shouldn’t be forgotten.”
But the best is saved for last, an in-joke so obscure that even compulsive cognoscenti will throw their hands (or fins) in the air in amazement. Both Phil Spector’s classic A Christmas Gift For You and the Beach Boys’ Christmas Album end with small personal messages directed at the listener. When Dennis Wilson says, “If you’re happening to be listening to this record now,” in his closing remarks on the latter, he stumbles on the word “happening,” pronouncing it “Hap-happening.” When SpongeBob closes out his album, he also adds the extra “hap.” A little extra holiday treat for the true music aficionado.