The Philly Specials – A Philly Special Christmas Special

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Two-thirds of the trio may have taken home a Super Bowl ring, but how do they fare in the recording studio? As the holiday season approaches, the year’s quietest release week has me turning in morbid curiosity to The Philly Specials, a group consisting of Philadelphia Eagles offensive linemen Lane Johnson, Jordan Mailata and Jason Kelce – yes, the brother of Travis, who does appear on the album himself and who has now transcended football after his entanglement with Taylor Swift. Surprisingly enough, despite a couple diversions into silliness that could only have been spurred by football players speculating about the funniest possible holiday songs out there, most of these tracks are better than competent, many of them reaching a level of engaging that it’s difficult to pull off when we’ve heard all of these songs so many times. Mailata especially is a gifted vocalist, while Johnson adds some twangy edge and Kelce’s gruff tone extracts some unexpected emotion, especially when paired with these sentimental lyrics. With a roster of local musicians both indie and iconic to guest and some jazzy flair in the instrumentation, it’s legitimately worthy of being added to any Christmas collection.

Gaining an assist from Philadelphia folk-rocker Amos Lee on the opener, one of the most enduring Christmas songs – hence its title, “The Christmas Song” – is played pretty straightforward, giving each member a bit of the song to showcase their unique vocal contributions. The slower, more demanding track isn’t the best place to see the full extent of their skills on the album, but the part where you might not believe what you’re hearing is when they come together for some tender harmonies – or the jazz piano solo. If you didn’t already realize Mailata was bringing some serious vocal ability to the album after hearing his show-stealing verse on the opener, he absolutely holds his own with the one and only Patti LaBelle in a duet of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas,” offering some impressive runs and even some scatting to fit in with the ongoing jazzy tone of the project. LaBelle might not have been going full force, but Mailata legitimately hits more impressive notes on the track.

Jason Kelce takes the lead vocal on the next two tracks, but if it wasn’t for his deep, rugged vocal tone, you wouldn’t have expected that they would have come from the same guy. Kelce probably has the least raw singing talent of the trio, but he certainly makes up for it in emotional delivery – something that doesn’t come across quite as much on the track “Dominick The Donkey,” a lesser-known Christmas novelty song that mostly finds him just goofing around in the booth over a garish synth keyboard. You get the idea of what the sessions were like when someone just starts repeatedly mashing the “hee-haw” sound effect near the end. Following immediately after, however, is an original track called “Santa’s Night” that Kelce apparently penned himself. Taking a darker spin on Christmas tales than you’d usually expect, the track finds Kelce singing from the perspective of the big man himself, having a difficult time dealing with the mental and physical toll that delivering presents all around the world exacts upon him and even having fleeting regrets about doing it at all – that is, until he finally sees the joy on the faces of those he delivers to. Kelce’s tone fits perfectly with the character, and the image it paints of a grizzled, stoic and determined Santa Claus committing to personal sacrifice makes the track’s eventual heart of gold hit even harder. In another odd move afterwards, however, the Philly Specials’ vocals are absent on the Charlie Brown classic “Christmas Time Is Here,” recruiting a children’s choir instead that offers it virtually no distinction from the original.

The idea of a football player singing “All I Want For Christmas Is You” was one of the primary reasons I wanted to hear this project so much – surely it would have had to be for comical effect, right? Actually, Jordan Mailata is once again fully up to the task, his teammates backing him up on the “and IIIIIIIIII…”s. Mailata even adds some new vocal runs of his own, as the instrumental boosts the brass section to make the track even more rhythmically engaging – all the way up to Mailata’s final falsetto notes. It often seems like the trio can’t quite decide whether they’re trying to go for comical juxtaposition or playing things completely earnestly, something that crops up once again on Lane Johnson’s “Pretty Paper,” which boasts an assist from beloved local indie star Waxahatchee. Dialling up the slide guitar to emphasize Johnson’s country twang, he tackles the track that Willie Nelson once did with charm. The subsequent “Dreidel Song” basically sounds like a bellowed drunken chant, as they stretch the song’s already-thin lyrical content out over nearly four minutes, letting instrumental improvisation take the heavy lifting. Still, it’s an inspired touch to invite Eagles general manager Howie Roseman, who is Jewish, onto the track to spotlight holiday traditions of his own.

There must be something about football players named Jordan, as the trio invite yet another Eagles teammate in Jordan Davis to join them for “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” – you have to wonder why Davis wasn’t already in the group, because he might have the best showcase of all on the track with a John Legend-esque wispy falsetto. Renowned by many bros as the greatest Christmas song of all time, the Kelce brothers unite on “Fairytale of Philadelphia” to give “Fairytale of New York” a local spin. But past the Philly-centric references, the two also make the track about their brotherly relationship. Of course, they take a couple jabs at each other – Travis even calls Jason a “jabroni” – but reaffirm by the end that they really have an unbreakable bond, and couldn’t have made it where they are today without each other. If Travis’ unexpectedly nasal and cheery vocals weren’t enough, it’s worth it just to hear Jason’s gritty voice bellow “I love you, brother” Finally, after a straightforward chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” with an assist from a local a cappella choir, most of the closing six-minute track simply finds key figures in the Eagles organization speaking about what they’re thankful for – eventually, nearly everyone from groundskeepers to equipment guys and chefs get a shoutout as the team draw reference to their connection forged in fire.

Now with back-to-back Christmas albums dropped this year and last, hearing The Philly Specials continue to sing – hopefully expanding their range to other musical areas as well – is something that I’d legitimately look forward to. This review was supposed to be a silly one. Instead, it’s a genuine recommendation.

Favourite Tracks: Santa’s Night, Fairytale of Philadelphia, All I Want For Christmas Is You, This Christmas, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

Least Favourite Track: Christmas Time Is Here

Score: 🏈/10

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