On a day when big(ish) names such as The Beths (I really dug their record) and Wavves have released…. disappointing Christmas records, I find myself rejuvenated by one of my favorite yearly traditions. Today is the release of Charlie’s Hand Movements‘ (I will now use CHM for brevity’s sake) yearly offering to the gods of underground Christmas music. No two CHM release feels quite the same to me – they manage to mix it up enough sonically to keep me forever guessing. This year’s is a slow, beautiful nostalgic burn, with much less orchestration than I’ve been accustomed to. This slightly stripped-back CHM does not skimp on lyricism though. The song starts off with this absolutely gorgeous line: “The seasons will surely change / as we stay the same, / recalling stories that mesmerize / still seeing through young eyes.” There is even some subtle politics worked in: “temperatures rising every year / maybe a summer souvenir.” Then how about the f*ing chorus (which appears to change slightly in the second instance): “Lawns of ivory/ Powdery patterns surrounded me / Beneath moonlit canopies / By the next morning, a drunken dream” So. Damn. Cool. This band really can’t miss.
Bottom Line: Charlie’s Hand Movements are an absolute treasure.
Buy: Bandcamp | iTunes | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3
Phoebe Bridgers dazzled us last year with her beautiful rendition of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” It truly was a highlight of the season, and in what appears to now be a seasonal tradition, Phoebe has returned, this time with Jackson Browne! Phoebe and Jackson have done what I desperately wish more bigger artists would do – cover smaller artists. “Christmas Song” was originally penned by Dan McCarthy of the band McCarthy Trenching. My dream is to help someone put together a Christmas record that, for the general public, would appear to be all originals. But the sneaky thing would be that most of them would be covers, killer, killer covers of amazing songs they had never heard. Phoebe – you are on the right track here.
One more thing – everyone is publishing the bit from the press release (I am much too small a blog to have them send it to me), and if this is your first exposure to the track, you need to read this too.
“McCarthy Trenching is singer/songwriter Dan McCarthy’s band. We played a show together in Omaha this last year. They named the band after the trenching company owned by Dan’s uncle so they could sell those t-shirts instead of having to make their own. The first time I heard this song it hit me like a ton of bricks. A lot of McCarthy Trenching songs do that. It’s not that often that I hear a Christmas song that doesn’t make me want to quit music. I played a show in L.A. around the holidays last year where I covered it for the first time. Jackson Browne was there, and he came up to me after the show to tell me how much he loved the song. A couple days later, Dan got a Bandcamp notification on his desktop computer that someone paid 50 bucks for his record and wrote a nice note and signed it Jackson Browne. He thought someone was fucking with him. So when I decided to record a version of the song, I knew who I wanted to sing on it. Plus, I have wanted to make music with Jackson as long as I’ve wanted to make music.”
How damn cool is that?!
Bottom Line: This song surpasses last year’s, and suggests that we might have many more years of incredible Christmas covers from Phoebe + Crew. Hell, I’m down with her teaming up with Jackson on every single one – they sound spectacular together.
The latest collection, in a long series of excellent indiepop Christmas releases, finds Charlie Darling’s Les Bicyclettes de Belsize in full-album form; Twelve more songs to add to an already large and excellent catalogue. On “Every Christmas Eve,” Charlie seems to be channeling a Clientele vibe, which is most certainly up my alley. “Bad Christmas Cover Version” and “Andy Partridge (From XTC)” have some of the fantastic band references that I’ve loved in previous LBdB classics like “A Very Indie Christmas.” The shared secrets and upbeat groove of “Under the Mistletoe” nicely blends sweet and saucy to create a warm feeling of nostalgic holiday romance. There truly are a lot of nice moments on The 12 Days of Christmas, which shine even brighter the more you believe in indiepop Santa.
Bottom Line: Les Bicyclettes de Belsize add some indiepop gems to their already substantial chest of Christmas tunes.
I haven’t given you all much this week. It might be a light season over here at CU, as work is nuts. HOWEVER, I can take 2 minutes to let you know that Richard Walters, who released the spectacular “The First Snow in Years” last year, has just released a true-blue Christmas single, “Lights On.” It is absolutely beautiful. “Oh when I woke / my body spoke of / dreams beyond my thinking.” I could pretty much pick any line and you would would be impressed. You’ll probably want to buy this one.
Bottom Line: Richard Walters’ latest is pure beauty.
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)
I will see how this week goes, but it is gearing up to be a challenging holiday season, time-wise. Thus, you may find my reviews becoming much more short & sweet; I am going to have a much shorter missive from me to you about this excellent record by artist/writer/singer Chad Thomas Johnston (CTJ as I will now call him). CTJ resides in Lawrence, Kansas, where he day-jobs as a writer, having pieces in many publications you might know such as Spin and In Touch Magazine. Come to find out, he also releases some damn fine Christmas records! Back in 2004, CTJ released a 10-track holiday album, All is Calm, All is Bright, and added tracks to the digital version again in 2005 and 2007. For 2018, CTJ has compiled all of his holiday tracks (all 30 of them) into this beautiful collection, wonderfully titled Stalking Stuffers: Coal for the Stocking in Your Soul. I prefer the secular stuff, as usual, but even the religious material is treated well. It is CTJ’s subtle orchestration choices (the heartbeat in “Joy to the World”) which really made we sit up straight and say “dammmn, that’s good.” The lo-fi crackling of “Oh Christmas Tree” was the track that initially got me – it established CTJ as having a certain taste-level that I knew I was going to get into. The record also includes CTJ’s entry into Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas song contest back in 2007, “Bethlehem (The 51st State).” It is no surprise that CTJ entered this contest, as I feel he and Sufjan would pair well as a Christmas-music double feature. That said, what makes this song fun is that he actually brings Sufjan directly into the song, which is a fantastically fun and interesting approach. In summary, CTJ has promised you coal, but he’s giving you much, much more with Stalking Stuffers.
Bottom Line: RIYL Sufjan Stevens, or if you ARE Sufjan Stevens. This expansive collection of beautifully-orchestrated Christmas songs is wholly worth your time.
Too Many Fireworks
Buy: Bandcamp | A Very Cherry Christmas Vol. 13 CD
If you have been following my blog, placing pins on the map every time I go international, grab yourself a pin and find Poland… because we’re heading off to Warsaw! Indiepop producer and songwriter Neil Milton (The Frozen North) has teamed up with Seattle-born singer and screenwriter Jules Jones (Ephrata) to create this new 2-track single, which is also their first recordings together as Milton and Jones! “This Life (This Christmas)” is a 60’s-wall-of-sound-inspired celebration of the end of a relationship. “We’ll never meet again / not gonna be friends / this is a happy end / This life’s gonna start, / this Christmas.” This fantastic premise was driven by Jules’ research into holiday music for her film’s soundtrack, and how she couldn’t find anything that quite fit:
“Researching holiday music for our film’s soundtrack, I couldn’t find any empowering break-up songs. Everything out there was either, ‘I want you back for Christmas’ or ‘I’m so happy we’re together under the Christmas tree.’ If I ever took the opportunity to write a Christmas song, I knew I would write something for those better off leaving their crappy exes behind them. A few months later, Neil mentioned the single and I was ecstatic – here was the chance!”
“This Life (This Christmas)” is a brilliant celebration of failure, and truly a success in my book. The b-side is equally successful, and even has its own cinematic connection. As you might have gleaned from the title, this beautiful little ditty about a happy couple, snuggling together watching movies… ends with them on Christmas day watching the modern classic Love Actually. “It’s Christmas day, don’t go away. / We’ll spend the day in bed. / “A movie’s on TV tonight- / Love Actually,” you said.” This pitch-perfect indiepop sweetness has everything you might want – soft vocals, simple production, dreamy imagery and pop culture references. Fun fact that will also knock your Christmas socks off: “Love Actually” went from nothing to a fully-produced song in 37 minutes! This song is truly a Christmas miracle!
Now… I’m going to cover this more in-depth later, but I do need to mention that you can also pick up the fantastic A-side on the brand-new A Very Cherry Christmas Vol. 13!
Bottom Line: Polish Indiepop perfection!
Edit: Working on the embed. Sorry if you can’t see it 😛
Those in the indiepop know are already well aware of this upcoming record being released by Where It’s At Is Where You Are (WIAIWYA). Stars was teased in a e-mail back in September (when it was supposed to be a 10″ – it’s a 12″ now because the songs were too long!), and I pretty much flipped out. WIAIWYA’s last seasonal comp, Christmastime, Approximately, was a fantastic release, thus this one has a fine pedigree to build upon. The lead single, the Catenary Wires‘ “Christmas Tree (Burn Burn Burn)” is a stellar piece of indiepop that grows on you with every listen. It has that classic indiepop signature of terribly sad lyrics with beautiful music, which I obviously adore. The two narrators sing through a fog of melancholy as they guide us though their relationship, bookended by Christmas at each end. The Catenary Wires are Amelia Fletcher and Rob Pursey, partners in music and life, as well as veterans of many notable indiepop bands such as Tender Trap, Talulah Gosh, Heavenly, and Marine Research. They seem to specialize in songs of fraught relationships, while maintaining a happy life in Kent. One would have to think that this is a form a therapy – kind of an exorcising the demons with an indiepop twist. I tell ya, those demons sound real pretty… This is only one song of an entire record (minus the tracks of bells – very nice tracks, but bells) of fantastic indiepop Christmas tunes found on this upcoming release, Stars. I’ll have to review that soon too… (Of note, those who create Christmas mixes, and take it seriously, will love Whoa Melodic’s “Christmas Stars.” Trust me.)
Bottom Line: Melancholy indiepop? That is practically the name of this blog!
Here it is! The world premiere of the video for the Catenary Wires’ “Christmas Tree (Burn Burn Burn)”
Brown Bear Records
Brown Bear Records released three largely DIY/punk/experimental Christmas comps between 2013-2015, and as with any DIY Christmas release, the quality can have pretty dramatic swings from song to song. That said, there is a LOT to go through when you look at all 3 releases, 66 songs in total, and I thought I’d put a big ‘ol spotlight on the best of the best, this deliciously-titled track by Chicago’s Gypsy Charms, “It’s Mother Fuckin’ Christmas.” A punk rock track, delivered with attitude and ramshackle, profane glee, this song is brilliant and less than a minute. Yes, I see the 1:40 next to the track title… but believe me, this thing really begins at 0:50. They kick some ass, then get out of the way, which is a sure fire way to win a fight.
Bottom Line: This is expertly crafted punk rock Christmas.
Buy: 7Digital | iTunes | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3
Lola Kirke, best known as an actress in projects such as Mozart in the Jungle and Gone Girl, is also a talented musician in her own right. Having released her first LP, Heart Head West, earlier this year, she has quickly followed it up with two seasonal tracks which debuted today. The first, “Little Drummer Girl,” flips the gender within the traditional song… but any reader will know how I feel about that song – so we will move on. “Cross You Off My List” is her first original Christmas song, and what a start! Originally written following the 2016 election, she tells PAPER Magazine, “It was a much more somber sounding song that set out to question how to celebrate Christmas in such a fraught environment. While we’re still conflicted about how to invoke the “spirit of Christmas” in today’s political climate, we decided to revise the song—set it to a more a upbeat chord progression and dash it with a bit more hope.”
There are some just killer lyrics too:
“There must be another day / to spend this holy holiday. / Maybe I should run away / or find a better way to stay.
All I want for Christmas / is to dance. / Forget romance, / I’ve made new plans / Maybe cause it’s Christmas, / I should take a stand, / and give my hand / to a better land.
All I want for Christmas / is to be less complicit / and love all those who need it. / You can take your kisses / and cross them off of my list.”
The song was co-written and beautifully produced by her partner Wyndham Boylan-Garnett, and together they have made one of the strongest songs of the season. I can’t wait to find out where you can pick it up – because right now, I got nothing!
Bottom Line: Great production with absolutely killer lyrics, this song deserves your ears.
Marathon Artists/Universal Music Australia
Buy: Bandcamp | 7Digital | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3
So many Aussies, so little time. Pond is a fantastic psych rock band from Perth who are the spiritual brothers of Tame Impala, even sharing members at times. “All I Want for Xmas (Is a Tascam 388)” came off of Pond’s excellent LP The Weather, released way back in May of 2017. I know Jim, you’ve known about this for a while, why now? Well, I got nothing – time is a fickle beast, and who knows when our time (or a song’s time) will come. This is a psychedelic delight with wonderful layers of synths, chunky beats, and a deep yearning for that Tascam mixer. Clocking in at just about 2:30, it also doesn’t overwear its welcome; Brevity is essential for a Christmas song that really only has one point to make. Santa, go grab that guy a Tascam 388!
Bottom Line: Mixing it up a bit with some psychedelic Christmas tunes, which can be hard to come by. Pond are top tier psych, and this is a pretty fun song.