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Wednesday, August 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 76.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
The Daily
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The August Teens turn traditional Christmas carols into festive surf-rock experiments

The August Teens' decision to mark Christmas with a Surf Holiday Dance Party at the High Noon Saloon on Saturday, Dec. 15 -- and with a similar show at the Frequency on Tuesday, Dec. 18 -- might strike some fans as eccentric. But this local band isn't really that peculiar. As it turns out, the connection between Christmas and surf-rock is much older than Trans-Siberian Orchestra's histrionic holiday noodlings.

The main inspiration for the shows comes from 1965's The Ventures' Christmas Album, on which that venerable instrumental-rock band cover such standards as "Sleigh Ride" and "Silver Bells," incorporating tremolo-bar dips, prickly muted picking and clever interpolations of melodies from pop hits. (A fascinating "Frosty the Snowman" combines the carol's melody with the rhythm-guitar parts from the Champs' "Tequila.") At the High Noon show, the August Teens will play the album in full. The show will also include a traditional Christmas-cookie exchange, and the Teens' friend Adam Zar will DJ tunes from the locally famous Christmas mix CDs he's been compiling every year for the last decade.

In addition to paying tribute to the Ventures, these performances are a chance for the band to tinker with tunes they may have disliked in the past.

"I normally don't like Christmas music," guitarist Dave Esmond says. "But I like it when it's done odd."

Nate Tredinnick of the Shabelles will join the Teens' four members to supply the all-important Christmas bells featured in the songs. By important, I mean obnoxious. Allmusic's review of The Ventures' Christmas Album sums it up nicely: "If not for the ubiquitous overdubs of annoyingly corny sleigh bells, this would rank among the better rock and roll X-mas albums."

The shows will also include arrangements August Teens singer-guitarist Dan Hardgrove created for some Christmas standards, as well as arrangements borrowed from another surf-rock band, Los Straitjackets.

Hardgrove and Esmond began playing surf-rock songs in part because Hardgrove has had trouble singing lately. The band hasn't been able to finish a follow-up 2010's lovelorn power-pop album A Kiss In Wisconsin. In the interim, Hardgrove has worked out an ambitious instrumental-rock version of "Carol of the Bells," which bassist Kyle Motor says is "so frickin' metal" thanks to its dramatic minor-key melody.

As a noted rock 'n' roll nerd about town, Motor also admires how the Ventures' version of "Blue Christmas" incorporates the jangly 12-string intro from "When You Walk In The Room" by the Searchers.

"They shoehorned it in, but it worked really well," he says.

Of course, it's easy to feel a little intimidated by people who dig so deep into pop history that they're willing to obsess over the unlikely intersections of instrumental rock and Christmas carols. But even if you've gone no further than ironically snatching up Kenny Rogers' Christmas LP at Goodwill, Esmond doesn't blame you.

"There's a metric shitload of bad Christmas albums," he says.

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