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Advance Base “Christmas In Nightmare City” (2018)

Run For Cover
Buy: Bandcamp | Run for Cover Records (all the vinyl options available)

Owen Ashworth has a long, long history of indie Christmas music. From his early years as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone to his most recent project, Advance Base, he has consistently released solid tunes, all of which (I believe) can be found on his CFTPA/AB Christmas Mixtape (as one long track though). Some of those songs are covers, most are originals, but all of those songs are explicitly about Christmas. Which leads me to this latest track, “Christmas in Nightmare City.” This song is not about Christmas… but it does have Christmas in the title, and is used as a simile in the lyrics. Thus, I could have easily passed, if not for the more adventurous rule-benders that I feel are definitely out there. Owen explains the inspiration for the song in a recent Talkhouse interview, where the song debuted:

“I remember one night in early December, making my way through Gary, Indiana with Pet Semetary on my Subaru’s stereo, passing under the blinking street lights of an abandoned downtown, and then getting lost in the industrial zone. I got pretty creeped out, so I turned off the stereo and just listened to the eerie hum of trains, factories, and refineries rolling past. I was struck by the grace of the industrial work lights, twinkling through the mist. They reminded me of Christmas, and I found it all strangely comforting. That was the feeling I tried to get at when I wrote “Christmas In Nightmare City.”

So, inspired in December, with Christmas on his mind – I say it qualifies. The simple piano melody that drives the song elicits a soft, but constant rain, setting a dreary mood that I’m sure we’ve all experienced during a lull in the holiday season. Owen’s seemingly stream-of-consciousness, narrative style is reminiscent of Mark Kozelek’s latest phase (Advance Base was on Mark’s a label for a while too), but IMHO, Owen’s brand of realism is far more concise and interesting; Owen knows the value of editing. The brevity of the song leaves you intrigued yet fulfilled; This is the sweet spot that all songwriters should aim for, especially with Christmas songs which are often consumed out-of-context to the larger concept of an album. Dreary, yet satisfying, I’m happy to see Owen/Advance Base continue to expand his excellent holiday catalogue.

Bottom Line: An overcast pleasure from one of indie Christmas’ most reliable songwriters.

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School Damage “Xmas Song” (2018)

Chapter Music
Buy: Bandcamp

Melbourne’s School Damage reside in what I would call Christmas Underground’s sweet spot – DIY, underground indie pop. Thus, you might have thought I would have been all over this record from the start! However, it is thanks to the ever-amazing No Love for Ned, that I am now well hipped to both their fantastic new record, A to X, and also to the fact that there is a Christmas song on it! School Damage’s angle into a holiday song is to write a song that is not necessarily about Christmas, which immediately piqued my interest. Musically, it is quite sparse, largely comprised of a pulsing beat, with the only real hint of Christmas contained in the simple melody that bookends the song. Despite not being Christmas-specific, it is the lyrics and the sentiment of the song that make “Xmas Song” a noteworthy addition to your holiday season. An interesting mixture of nostalgia (“Riding down your old street / the years pile up”), stark reality (“And it can be hard. / It will probably get worse.”), and hope (“And you will get through / the black and the blue, / the thick and the thin, / the losses and wins – / everything”), the track creates a sense of realism not found in many Christmas songs. After a year of tough losses, I found the voice of support and friendship in this song to be quite powerful.

I hear the fear in your voice. / I know that you are feeling disappointed. / Don’t let your heart sink / or worry about what they’ll think. / Don’t try to hide / your fire inside.

Riding down your old street, / the years pile up. / We don’t have to always agree, / by your side I will stay / even when I seem far away. / Don’t try to hide / your fire inside.

And it can be hard. / It will probably get worse. / It will happen again, / but it’s not the end – / nothing time cannot mend. / And you will get through / the black and the blue, / the thick and the thin, / the losses and wins – / everything.

Bottom Line: Raw and emotional indie pop from down under.

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The Technicolors “Santa’s Claws” (2017)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

Have you ever asked yourself, “what if Pavement wrote a Christmas song?” Phoenix, Arizona’s The Technicolors have answered this question with their excellent “Santa’s Claws.” The phrasing, and even the lead singer’s voice, both left me drifting off to comparisons with Stephen Malkmus’ signature delivery. Pavement have long been a favorite of mine, so I’m totally down. The premise of the song has a young dude falling in love with Santa Claus’ daughter over AOL, and Santa is not happy – loving this premise. My only gripe would be the somewhat campy “voice of Claus” that pops up through the song – makes a pretty killer song just a tiny bit cute. Thankfully, they don’t cross all the way over the cuteness line, so I’m still on board. Hat tip to the truly wonderful Lie in the Sound for hipping us all to this track last year!

Bottom Line: The Technicolors come to the table with a wonderful homage to Pavement and an equally fantastic premise. Diggin it.

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Phosphorescent “Christmas Down Under” (2018)

Dead Oceans
Buy: Bandcamp

The latest “Christmas” tune to make the rounds on all the big boys (Stereogum/Under the Radar/Brooklyn Vegan/etc) is the second track to be released off the new Phosphorescent record, C’Est La Vie, due out Oct. 5 on Dead Oceans. It has been five years since the excellent Muchacho (with that brainworm “Song for Zula“), and this new record promises to be damn interesting. The first track, “New Birth in New England,” strikes as a stellar, upbeat Paul Simon track, while “Christmas Down Under” is an auto-tuned slow burn. Pedal steel and haunting lyrics forge the solemn atmosphere that permeates this song, yet not without revealing its own scuffed beauty.

Bottom Line: Phosphorescent’s end-run around what we expect from a “Christmas song” yields fascinating results.

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Dinosaur City Records Christmas Compilation

DCR Mixtape #3 – A Christmas Compilation (2017)

Dinosaur City Records
Buy: Bandcamp

Dinosaur City Records… what can I say? Why would you release such a great Christmas release only 3 days before Christmas? This record is PACKED with excellent indie pop (naturally), indie rock, electro-pop, as well as some that forcefully eschew categorization. This comp deserves more than 3 days of listening! I am finding myself fighting the urge to get too specific, to single out any tracks I particularly enjoy, and I want to simply highlight the general strength of the whole damn thing. There is likely a song on here for everyone… and I want you to buy the whole thing. Lets to encourage Dinosaur City Records to do this thing again, because this whole release has left me smiling.

Bottom Line: There are few Christmas compilations that make me feel so warm and fuzzy about them… this is one. I wish I had found it before they sold out of cassettes…

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Saintseneca “The Wandering Star” (2017)

ANTI
Buy: Bandcamp

Back in 2016, Saintseneca released one of the best holiday EPs of recent note, with their holiday compilation The Mallwalker EP. This past holiday season, they continued what has been established as a near-yearly tradition of releasing a new holiday song, “The Wandering Star.” Unfortunately, by December 23rd, I am running on 10% power and the final warning window has popped up. Thus… I am only getting to this song now. “The Wandering Star” is immensely interesting and enjoyable, instantly reminding me of one of the more adventurous tracks you might find on a Sufjan Stevens’ holiday opus. There is more religious imagery in this track than I’m used to from Saintseneca, but they dress it up well enough to keep things interesting. (Avid readers know that this blog is here to write mainly about the secular songs of the holiday… read my about page if you are so inclined.) Saintsenica know their way around a song, and the intro’s finger picking and layered vocals set a thoughtful, yet powerful mood. However, when the pace picks up and the bass kicks in, this song truly blooms. This journey they set the listener on culminates with both a feeling of power and serenity – it is truly impressive. Once again, Saintsenica prove that they are in the top tier of underground, original Christmas music.

Bottom Line: Add this track onto the pile of wonderful Saintseneca holiday songs – and check out their new full-length LP, Pillar of Na, only released about a week ago!

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wejzak – Merry Christmas! (2016)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

I know I have been strolling down the dark alleys of Christmas music of late, but I happened to stumble upon a brief ray of sunlight (despite the news’ best efforts). Will Ejzak released a short Christmas EP back on December 30, 2016, which through unfortunate timing, got lost in the shuffle. But then again… this release wasn’t really for us; Will wrote and recorded these songs as a Christmas gift for a very lucky Lauren. Three tracks of tender guitar, each accented sparsely with violin, provide a lovely bed for Will’s layered vocal harmonies. I can’t help to think that this is how Anohni’s Christmas demos might sound… which is high praise in my book. Bravo.

Bottom Line: These songs are simply adorned, yet perfectly dressed for the occasion.

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