Don’t Call Me Ishmael “I Won’t Hesitate (This Christmas)” (2020)

DROMA Records
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Bandcamp

Five years in, and Stafford, England’s Don’t Call Me Ishmael are settling in as one of those bands that you can rely on for excellent new Christmas music. You don’t need me to tell you that 2020 is a particularly fraught year, and we’ve seen a whole lot of different directions that folks have gone. Some songs are specifically addressing COVID (see Christmas A Go Go’s ongoing posts chronicling that phenomenon), while others are looking for hope and grasping on to those tiny lights, flickering in the dark. “I Won’t Hesitate (This Christmas)” falls squarely in that hope category, as Don’t Call Me Ishmael are grasping for that human touch. While the song could certainly be mistaken for suggesting that you just kiss under the mistletoe without regard for safety, it is much more aspirational rather than prescriptive. In fact, I confirmed this fact with the songwriter, Jack Tasker, over email:

I would say it initially came out of the desire to hug and kiss the people you love after a year of separation (my wife and I had our first child this year and it’s been so hard not to fully share that with my family and friends), but then drifted into that aspirational world of ‘what would a perfect christmas look like after a year of distance’. Gary added the “Feed the World” reference as a bit of light relief. When I started writing it the vibe was very Mountain Goats – really fast palm muted acoustic chords, but it mellowed out as the rest of the band joined in.

Don’t Call me Ishmael will take your worst jumper, your driest turkey, your cheesiest song – they just want to connect. That is a feeling that we all can plug into, no doubt about it. The production is fantastic, despite the challenges of socially-distant recording, and that chorus is catchy as hell. Be on the lookout for their “12 Days of Ishmas,” twelve days of videos which they’ll be posting on their Facebook beginning December 12, because this band fucking loves Christmas.

Bottom Line: Don’t Call Me Ishmael keep the spirit alive once more with their most epic song to date. Also… I kinda want to hear that Mountain Goats-esque demo 🙂

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Grace Eden – Fortune (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

Continuing this season of phenomenal Christmas folk music, London’s Grace Eden has released three songs of exquisite beauty, each one with its own unique approach. There is an original, a poem backed by music, and a cover of her favorite Christmas carol. Her original Christmas song, “Hold You,” introduces us to her beautiful voice, often singing perfectly in harmony with itself. There is a warmth to this song – fuck, it is cozy as hell, and I am feeling it. “Oh, Let’s raid the fridge / Let’s pretend we’re still kids.” YES! I might normally skip over a poetic interlude, but after that first song, I was on board. “Fortune” is quite nice in its own right, adorned by a sparse guitar track, Grace has an unsurprisingly lovely speaking voice which I’m happy to listen to. The final track, “In the Bleak Midwinter” is a simple and lovely cover of a song that I am happy to listen to when done well, and this is most certainly performed and produced beautifully. With a portion going to Mind, a mental health charity, this EP is an easy buy.

Bottom Line: A perfect trio of holiday songs that can each stand on their own, but taste even more wonderfully together.

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Hanemoon “Christmas Time Goes By” (2020)

Jigsaw Records
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Bandcamp

Hanemoon has returned! Always a favorite on Christmas Underground, Hanemoon’s latest, “Christmas Time Goes By” is yet another fantastic addition to his ever-growing indie pop/indie rock seasonal catalogue. Feeling like 90’s-early 2000s indie rock, the groove is right there in my sweet spot. Frankly, when Hanemoon gave me a yell that he had a new song, I was 95% sure I was gonna love it because I just really dig his sound. The only thing that he could do is sing about how COVID shouldn’t be a concern or something (ugh… The Heathen and the Holy, why???) to keep me from loving it. So, gather up all the Hanemoon and Man Behind Tree Christmas songs, and you’ve got one of the best indie rock Christmas releases of the decade.

Bottom Line: Hanemoon has solved the equation for excellent indie rock Christmas tunes. So yes, I like these apples.

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Self Esteem “All I Want for Christmas is a Work Email” (2019)

A Fiction Records Recording / Universal Music
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7Digital FLAC/MP3 | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Self Esteem is Rebecca Lucy Taylor, previously known as half of indie-Christmas royalty Slow Club (RIP Slow Club). Her solo work is certainly more pop-forward than Slow Club ever was. While I don’t normally gravitate to pop, please be rest-assured, Self Esteem is not your normal pop project – the term experimental pop has been thrown around and I might be on board for that description. “All I Want for Christmas is a Work Email” doesn’t sound like anything else on my Christmas playlist, with a sparsely adorned mix of bitterness, self-loathing, and big pop vocals. Somehow I didn’t write about this last year, and since there is no expiration on good music or Twinkies, eat up.

Bottom Line: Here’s a pop Christmas tune for folks who don’t like pop Christmas.

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Jetstream Pony – Grief of a Frozen Sailor / Hit the Snow (2020)

Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club
Buy:
Bandcamp (FLAC/MP3) | 3-Single Pack | Rough Trade | Banquet Records | Juno Records | Piccadilly Records | Jumbo Records

Even during this COVID-plagued monstrosity, when wonderful traditions like the Fowler VW/Blackwatch Christmas compilation are on forced hiatus, the Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club keep the fire burning. Each year, SCSC finds 3-4 bands that are game to record a new Christmas song A-side alongside a classic Christmas cover B-side, and then he unleashes the into the world in limited white vinyl glory. If you read this blog, you know that I often veer towards the indiepop goodies, and this year SCSC has offered a doozy. To describe Jetstream Pony as anything but an indiepop supergroup is absurd since the band features Beth Arzy (The Luxembourg Signal, Trembling Blue Stars, Aberdeen, Charlie Big Time, The Fireworks) on vocals, Shaun Charman (The Wedding Present, The Popguns, The Fireworks) on guitar and backing vocals, Kerry Boettcher (Turbocat) on bass and Hannes Müller (The BV’s, Endlich Bluete), who makes his debut on drums on this release. With a pedigree like that, you’d expect that the songs will be excellent, and I believe the expectations were beautifully met. The A-side original, “Grief of a Frozen Sailor,” begins those indiepop vocals and jangly rhythm guitars that I love until the reinforcements come in, and shoegaze guitars begin to rain down. Throw in some layered vocals and jingle bells, and this is a highlight of both the shoegaze/indiepop Christmas genre.

I’ve been waiting to write about this record until I could hear the b-side, as I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered a cover of the absolutely stellar Aislers Set indie Christmas classic, “Hit the Snow.” Jetstream Pony’s version has added some meat to the production, with heavier guitars than the original, certainly making their mark on an already fantastic song. An unexpected result of my writing delay was that, as wonderful as this release is, everyone else appears to think similarly. The 7″ is sold out on Jetstream Pony’s Bandcamp, as well as for individual purchase through SCSC (still available within the 3-7″ set). However, I do believe I have found a few stores that may be getting some copies and have listed them above.

Be sure to check out the other 2 releases from this year, and if you are new to this alternative Christmas music game, all the other year’s previous releases at Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club. There are some amazing tracks to be discovered, many of which have made my own personal Christmas mix (high praise!).

Bottom Line: Two sides of absolutely stellar indiepop/shoegaze Christmas tunes. This record is going to be one of those folks are going to be hunting down in a decade…

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Willie J. Healey “Merry Christmas” (2020)

Willie J Healey - Merry Christmas

Yala! Music
Buy:
Bandcamp? | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Wow. Just wow. Oxfordshire’s Willie J. Healey has just released an incredible new Christmas song, and proper fanfare is in order. This song has a heavy John Lennon vibe, but not necessarily tied down to a 60s sound – it feels timeless. Willie’s voice that steals the show here; There are these subtle moments where you get a good feel for how truly good his voice is without the showy fanfare that often accompanies that kind of talent. With some fantastic lyrics, a killer chorus, and that beautiful production, this should make this a surefire hit on your 2020 Christmas mix.

Bottom Line: Willie’s song made my morning Soundcloud journey one of absolute bliss. (Perhaps a Bandcamp listing soon? Fingers crossed!)

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Thom Stone – Christmas at the End of the World (2020)

Self Released
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Bandcamp

Thom Stone has been featured here on Christmas Underground many times before under his previous nom de plume, Young War, who were fucking fantastic (you can still buy their records! Buy them!). This time around, Thom is recording under his own name, and has more than doubled his previous holiday catalog in one shot. Having always wanted to write a Christmas record, Thom took the second lockdown in November and decided to make something positive out of it. So he gathered one microphone, one guitar and some sleigh bells stolen from his two-year old’s music set, and created Christmas at the End of the World. The album features eight songs, all of which blend the uncertainty and creeping optimism that so many of us are feeling right now. On “Merry Christmas (What a Hell of a Year),” Thom looks at our world running at 1/4 speed, and instead of focusing on the obvious crisis, finds reasons to be sincerely thankful and embraces the spirit of Christmas and a hope for change. I want to take this sentiment and bottle it:

Our time, we’re so terrified of wasting our time
But I’m thankful for the chance to waste mine
It’s a gift
Nothing else there, on my list

So hold on, something’s got to change
And I hear, something kind of strange
Sleigh bells, in the air
Magic, everywhere

And I apologize for getting sentimental
I’m only trying to be sincere
I guess there’s nothing much left to say
Merry Christmas what a hell of a year
Merry Christmas what a hell of a year

The lyrics on this record continue to impress, even when the song only lives for 50 seconds, as in “A Manger Incident:”

What if nobody ever found Jesus?
What if there was no star in the sky?
What if Mary told Joseph her secret?
And Joseph went out of his mind?

What if Gabriel just couldn’t make it?
And God couldn’t handle the guilt?
What if the three wise men were three wise women?
Imagine what we could’ve built

I could write about every single song on this record – the gorgeous sentiment of “Could It Be Christmastime,” the apocalyptic beauty of “Christmas at the End of the World,” the mantra of “Noel, noel, go ring the bell / I see the snow on the leaves” in “Snow on the Leaves,” as each song is deserving of appreciation. But alas, you all need to experience them for yourself as well, without the power of suggestion that a reviewer might add. So listen, then buy it. All proceeds from this record go to the Manchester Cares charity, a community network bringing younger and older neighbors together to tackle isolation and loneliness. If that isn’t something we all can relate to after this year…

Bottom Line: Thom Stone has tapped into something special with Christmas at the End of the World, the most poignant lockdown Christmas record of the season.

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Ben Caplan “O Holy Night” (2020)

Rhyme and Reason Records
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Bandcamp

I think this may be the only time I’ve ever written, or will ever write, about “O Holy Night” on this blog. I don’t normally warm up to the classics, as the classics are classics for a reason… they are done, and done, and done… so to me, they are done. Ben Caplan, this Canadian, Jewish, folk musician has managed the near-impossible… because here we are. On his Bandcamp page, Ben writes about why he decided to record this song, and it is enlightening:

I didn’t grow up listening to much Christmas music. Being Jewish, Christmas wasn’t a big thing in my home [read: non-existent]. That said, we all know it’s pretty hard to ignore the Christmas season; just like everyone else, I am constantly bombarded with Christmas cheer outside of the home. I have to admit that I find a lot of that music a bit corny. Where is that minor fall? Where is the major lift? Where is the bafflement?

I’ve always loved the idea of recording my own take on this music. There are a lot of great Christmas songs out there, but I don’t love all the aesthetic choices. Where are all the violins and clarinets!? I have a deep felt belief that if you don’t like something, you should do something about it. It’s not enough to complain from the sidelines!

I had my first opportunity to dip my toe into the icy Christmas music waters in 2012 when I recorded Fairytale of New York with Norwegian artists Katzenjammer and Trondheimsolistene. On that project, I got to work with a huge string ensemble and a terrific arrangement. On my recording of O Holy Night, I wanted to use a similarly lush and over-the-top arrangement, but take it in my own darker direction. That said, I can’t take much credit. I owe a lot to my collaborators.

Ben then goes on to break down the full journey of this recording – from the intital concept, to the particulars of the recording. All said, he worked with sixteen other artists over four years from concept to final song. There is a dedication there that you can truly hear in the music – there is not a note off, and those notes are fascinating. Ben has imbued “O Holy Night” with power, perhaps unsettling at times, that you did not expect, and cannot deny. The song is stirring and emotional, and it leaves me amazed. I tip my cap to Ben Caplan, as well as the sixteen other musicians and artists involved in this triumph.

Bottom Line: Ben Caplan and Co. have taken white bread and created a bloody feast.

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JW Francis “Christmas Heartache” (2020)

Sunday Best Recordings
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Bandcamp

You think there is a method to my searching? Well, there is SOME method, but a hell of a lot of it is just random searches. I hadn’t heard of JW Francis until a few weeks ago, when I was scouring DIY and caught a whiff of a possible Christmas song. JW Francis looked right up my alley, as lo-fi indie rock from New York is just about enough description to get my head spinning with possibilities. So I checked out We Share Similar Joy, his non-Christmas record (because people feel compelled to do write non-seasonal songs – go figure!), and it was awesome. Flash forward a few weeks, and JW has released a 4-song EP, JW Christmas. The record contains three covers, with “Wonderful Christmastime” being the strongest of the bunch. But I live for new, original Christmas tunes, and “Christmas Heartache” delivers. The jangly groove, the odd vocal drops (WHO DOES THAT REMIND ME OF?! IT IS DRIVING ME NUTS!), the simplicity, brevity and interesting choices make it a fantastic bite-sized snack of a song. Kick those covers to the curb, I’d love to hear some more originals from JW.

Bottom Line: Short, sweet and interesting lo-fi indie rock from JW Christmas Francis.

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Stephen Elliott “Cary Baru” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

I feel like most things I’m finding this year can be filed under pretty excellent folk music. This isn’t quite the reaction to four years of post-Brexit and Trump rule that I was expecting. Then again, perhaps it makes total sense – we are all trying to calm our nerves after years of uncertainty…

The latest beautiful folk find is Stephen Elliott‘s “Cary Baru,” a song truly untethered to time nor place. This is one of those songs that sound like it could have easily been recorded last week or 40 years ago. Those first few moments of guitar picking and your mind will ping Nick Drake. Then you quickly get hints of Beatles, and back around to some more Nick Drake percussive bits amongst the metallic finger sliding residue of an early Elliott Smith record. The rhythm and pace of the song is a brisk walk, perfectly complimenting the lyrical basis of the song, which Stephen was kind enough to further describe to me earlier today.

Cary Baru is a short meditation on perseverance, on persisting in anticipation of a moment’s clarity, and on moving between these states. I wanted to compose something that embodied that sense of movement.

While the scene is set during the Christmas season, I initially found the lyrics to be ambiguous in the way that so much poetry is, allowing me to walk down multiple avenues, imagining different main characters, and leaving me wondering where the true story lied. After Stephen’s explanation, the song feels far-less personal than I had imagined, and it blossoms into a more universal story that everyone can take a piece from. This is one of those songs that benefits from multiple listens, so grab a jacket and add it to your playlist – we’re heading out (masked, of course).

Bottom Line: Stephen is learning some shiny new gear while under these COVID restrictions, and it sure seems he is getting the hang of it well.

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