For anyone struggling to get into the Christmas spirit, Hearts of Animals is here to help. Merry Christmas Anyway, the Houston indie mainstay’s new eight-song release, will make an ideal digital stocking-stuffer for anyone who can relate to the lyric, “Christmastime is a punishment for everyone alive.”
Fittingly, the woman who wrote that line has been contending with Christmas music for most of her life. Mlee Marie Mains, founder and driving force behind Hearts of Animals, grew up with musician parents. “Christmas music was always a really big deal in my house,” she recalls. In college, she wrote a Christmas song every year or so until there was enough for an album, which she released in 2012 as Mlee Marie Xmas.
Both records are available through Hearts of Animals’s Bandcamp page. Merry Christmas Anyway, however, is squarely a product of its time. For years, Mains and her fellow musicians have been regularly convening in marathon songwriting sessions under the auspices of the Immersion Composition Society, or ICS. Spread out across the country, chapters are known as “lodges.”
In Houston’s ICS, the Roger Lodge, the idea is to write as many songs as possible and perform them at the next meeting (during normal times). “We don’t really criticize each other’s songs, but there’s some kind of awesome transformation when you take your songs outside of yourself and show ‘em to someone else,” says Mains.
The pandemic put a twist on that: meeting over Zoom instead of in person, in August Mains challenged her bandmates—Stephen Finley, Clinton Heider, and Derek Keller—to pursue a holiday theme. “I had been already thinking about Christmas, and how it was going to be so weird this year,” she says. “I sort of had some ideas floating around in my head, so I was like, ‘When we meet next time, let’s have some Christmas songs.’”
The result is a sly and cynical record where pointed critiques of Christmas commercialism masquerade as shopping-mall jingles, or months of quarantine frustrations boil over into shaggy stoner jams like “Holiday Tinnitus” or the hilarious “Elephant.” (white elephant, that is.) One song, “Ho Ho Ho,” layers in dialogue from Bad Santa (the 2003 Billy Bob Thorton movie); “Christmas Drag” memorably recounts smoking needles from a cut-rate Christmas tree.
Probably the most optimistic song on the record is “Maybe This Christmas,” wherein Mains sings “maybe this Christmas, your Trump uncle will stay home because he has the virus.” Closing the album, “Covid-19” is a throbbing industrial track that samples several evangelists in action, including the same “Jesus is here!” clip as Front 242’s “Welcome to Paradise.” (The preachers are trying to pray away the virus.)
It’s not strictly a holiday song, Mains explains, but close enough: “It’s funny, because it’s talking about Jesus in the song anyway—which is a Christmas thing, right?”
Although the pronounced variety between individual songs is very much Hearts of Animals’s M.O., Mains admits the sardonic tone of Merry Christmas Anyway is a bit of a departure for her.
“That’s not really the way I typically write,” she says. “I write very visceral songs, but everything this year has just been so f****d that I think we are all coming from a place of just like, ‘F*** it.’”
Stream or purchase Merry Christmas Anyway at heartsofanimals.bandcamp.com.