First, a small confession. While I’ve been aware of Ben’s Ukulele Road Trips – a unique project by the eponymous Ben involving lots of independent travel and ukulele-based songwriting – for a while, it’s remained on my list of Things To Check Out Properly At Some Point (along with Breaking Bad and sushi), so I really hadn’t read or listened to any of Ben’s output. Until, that is, A Ukulele Christmas landed on my digital doorstep. A couple of listens later it’s made me keen to get on to the rest of the BURT oeuvre ASAP.
The artwork is the first thing you’ll notice: a fun, slightly bizarre, Christmas card-style tableau of exotic animals in boxer shorts having an extremely festive time. Why a monkey and a giraffe? Well, seemingly just because. I’m already a fan of this.
The songs themselves are all Christmas classics you’ll be familiar with: the opening track is We Wish You A Merry Christmas, so clearly Ben isn’t worried about choosing original material that’s niche in any way. However, it’s the arrangements that stand out and show off some true musicianship. That first song is uncynically cheery in its delivery and offers something new in every verse, whether it’s a new set of backing vocals, a quick change to the minor key and back again or a half-time tremolo-backed solo.
Further highlights include: a key-change-heavy, bilingual Jingle Bells; a version of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, in which the distinctly homemade sound only adds to the charm exemplified by a lazy mouth trumpet solo; an O Tannenbaum straight out of classic cinema, and a smoky-jazz-club rendition of Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire. Whichever gear it’s in, this collection seems to get the right feel for each song.
The overall sound is really pleasing, with Ben’s pure vocal occasionally reminiscent of Beirut’s Zach Condon and frequent lapses into French suiting the generally old-fashioned ukulele sound very well. The small reservations I had – a slightly harsh handbell tone reappearing a little too much, and occasionally one too many verses – could easily be dismissed by one less grumpy than I, as they show extra creativity and provide more to listen to.
There’s enough interest there to sit and listen to the album with no distractions, but the familiarity of the songs makes this a good one to play in the background at any time over the holidays: whilst unwrapping the presents first thing on the 25th, during the second or third board game or when half the family’s asleep on the sofa during the ‘drunken stupor’ portion of the day. If you like ukuleles and you like Christmas, go for it.
Click here to buy the album. You can get it as a digital download, by post with lyrics and chords, or even request a Christmas song to be delivered live over the phone by the man himself!
In my opinion, Ben’s Ukulele Road Trips is one of the most creative independent voices in the ukulele world at the moment, so do have a look at the blogs, original songs and podcasts and see what you think.
Related: The Ukulele Gift Minefield
Jon Allen: uke teacher and occasional songwriter