The Very Most – Winter EP (2009)

The Very Most - Winter EP

Indiecater Records
Buy: Indiecater MP3iTunes | Indiecater CD

You would be hard-pressed to find a band who loves Christmas more than Idaho-based indie-pop band The Very Most. For years they have been steadily producing indie-pop Christmas classics, and their 2009 Winter EP is the strongest of the bunch. This was the last of the series of season-themed EPs, which were later compiled into the full-length, A Year with the Very Most. All three songs featured on the EP are extremely good, beginning with a fantastic indie-pop take on “Away in a Manger.” If the focus of your mix is to give traditional tunes new life, then I would highly recommend The Very Most’s take on that classic. The next two songs are both originals, which I very much appreciate. “It’s the Best Thing” sets the scene in the evening, lit up by the streetlights just as snow begins to fall. All is quiet, except for the excited shrieks of his giddy children. It’s a beautiful scene, so honest and so easy to place yourself into. I truly love that song. Finally, “When Does the Goodwill Start?” rounds out the EP, wondering (because it’s Christmas) when the goodwill and peace on earth will start. Its a melancholy Christmas song wrapped in indie-pop paper – truly wonderful in its execution.

Bottom Line: You can’t get indie-pop Christmas better than this. 5/5

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Mark Kozelek – Sings Christmas Carols (2014)

Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Carols Cover

Caldo Verde
Buy: 7Digital FLAC/MP3 |Caldo Verde CD | Discogs LPs | Amazon UK

Mark Kozelek took his classical guitar into the studio in November/December 2013 and recorded a (largely) classical guitar, classic Christmas record. Classic, you say? Yes, but I mean it more in the terms of the subject matter than the execution. The whole tone doesn’t exude the warmth that most classic Christmas records do – I don’t know if Mark Kozelek could do warm & fuzzy, it’s not in his (performing) character. Don’t get me wrong though, the record is lovely. So, if melancholy classical guitar Christmas loveliness is what you’d like, then this LP is for you. This record will fit the bill if you have left-of-center tastes (as in, you love that Low Christmas record) and have a soft spot for very traditional Christmas tunes.

Mark excels in the early traditional songs on this record, such as “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and “Away in a Manger.” There are moments that you can imagine one of those songs being played over a melancholy scene in a Christmas movie. The more contemporary you get, the more hit-and-miss it can become. “Christmas Time is Here” is a standout track; the classical guitar approach is refreshing on a song that has been covered more often than it should, and the spoken word section adds a bit of humor that is very much appreciated. “O Christmas Tree” is a misstep if only for the song selection. Do you know anybody who really loves that song? It’s Christmas white noise, one of those songs that you hear, don’t hate, but truly… never love. Mark’s stab at the Pretenders’ “2000 Miles,” while pretty straightforward, is also excellent (though its ending feels quite abrupt). It’s simple, and quite lovely. I very much admit my bias here, as I lean toward new Christmas, rather than classic Christmas, when it comes to my Christmas mix. There is nothing on this record that I completely disliked, probably because I enjoy Mark Kozelek’s voice too much. However, it did leave me slightly underwhelmed. I appreciate Mark for taking a stab at the Christmas genre that he has flirted with for years, but the Christmas genre is one I am way too familiar with to find full satisfaction with a release with not one original song on it.

Bottom Line: Having a dinner party or scoring an indie Christmas film, add a full point to this score. Otherwise, a missed opportunity by one of our greatest living songwriters to have penned an original song. 3.7/5

LISTEN

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (Listen via Stereogum)
Christmas Time Is Here (Listen via Stereogum)

UPCOMING: Mark Kozelek – Sings Christmas Carols (2014)

Mark Kozelek Sings Christmas Carols Cover

So, its not out yet, and you can only hear two tracks (see below), but it was made official overnight (in that you can now preorder it)… that yes, indeed, Mark Kozelek’s first stab at a true Christmas record will be coming out November 4th. The preorder is live. It is real and it is limited. Those unfamiliar with Mark, or more likely, those with that little bit of familiarity with Mark, may say – hey – he has 2 other Christmas albums! No, no… they are just deceptive titles for live shows with minimal Christmas representation. So, be sure to purchase this new album, not White Christmas Live or Little Drummer Boy Live if you want the full thing.

All that said – I’m looking forward to this. This is certainly an album that will be heavily reviewed by major publications, and could very well be the indie-christmas-du-jour release (unless Sufjan releases another). However, I don’t have my hopes too high up – as the only tracks I’ve heard aren’t quite my bag, but that’s just my personal prejudices toward really religious tunes during Christmas (I understand the irony). I do very much love Mark, Sun Kil Moon and Red House Painters though…

The CD version has begun showing up at other retailers (Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Amazon UK), but if you purchase direct from Caldo Verde, you get a bonus CD, Mark Kozelek: The Kids – Live in London. In addition, there is also a vinyl pressing that has popped up. The numbers are in, and its official – red, green, black and white editions will all be limited to 500 copies each. The red is available exclusively from Caldo Verde (and its live now… likely for 24 hours or so), while the green, white and black are already available for preorder on Bull Moose’s website, as well as on Amazon (Edit: I don’t think any Amazon copies actually shipped – they kind of suck for limited stuff).

Sings Christmas Carols:

  1. Christmas Time Is Here (Listen via Stereogum)
  2. Do You Hear What I Hear
  3. 2,000 Miles
  4. O Come All Ye Faithful (Listen below or listen at this link)
  5. O Christmas Tree
  6. Away In A Manger
  7. Silent Night
  8. Hark The Herald Angels Sing
  9. What Child Is This
  10. I Believe In Father Christmas
  11. God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (Listen via Stereogum)
  12. O Little Town Of Bethlehem
  13. The First Noel
  14. The Christmas Song

Proper review to follow, of course.

LISTEN:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vXOhzykofK4]

Dr. Dog – Oh My Christmas Tree EP (2013)

Dr. Dog Oh My Christmas Tree - EP

ANTI
Buy: 7Digital MP3 | iTunes | Amazon.uk MP3

This release is nearly flawless. I loved every single song on this 4-song EP, and find myself justifying that any track could be on 2014’s Christmas mix. Dr. Dog has created a wonderful collection of original Christmas tunes that is unrivaled in both scope (4 great songs!) and originality. If I were to make ANY criticism, it would be to take out the verse sung by a child in “Rejoice,” otherwise a spectacular song. Even with that blemish, “Rejoice” still makes me swoon.

Bottom Line: One of indie rock’s modern Christmas classics. Why not release it somewhere where I can purchase a FLAC?? 5/5

[youtube http://youtu.be/dDC8PXIV9Kw]

Duover – Christmas Vol. 1​.​5 (2013)

Duover - Christmas 1.5

Self-Released
Buy: Bandcamp

I awoke to a pleasant surprise in my mailbox, a new Christmas record from DUOVER! They had mentioned that there was something in the works… but time was fleeting, and I wasn’t quite sure it was going to be this year. This band is one of those underrated Christmas songsmiths who (while they don’t make a record every year) fill their records with originals, ALWAYS a plus in my book. Their voices work so well together, especially when dealing in nostalgia, as in “The Ghost of Christmas Past.” There are some other standout tracks, such as the uptempo “Wintertime Blues,” and the “subdued “It’s Your Turn,” certainly worth your time and money. I do hope that we get to see the other .5 next year!

Bottom Line: Another excellent addition to their already strong Christmas catalog. Extra points for original tunes. 4.4/5

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Annie Hall / Gonzo48K – Goldenbread (2007)

Goldenbread cover

Pipolla Music
Buy: CD (Italy)

High hopes are never a good place to start. Though I know you should never judge a book by its cover, a swedish indie pop band named Annie Hall checks three of my boxes: Swedish, indiepop and a Woody Allen reference. How could it go wrong? Well, first off, this thing was a huge pain to get ahold of. You can’t order from the label (they do not ship to the US), and thus I had to get it from France, and pay more in shipping than the CD cost. Not looking good already, because if you know this blog, cost to obtain certainly plays into the overall rating.

Annie Hall begins the disc with “Morning News,” a fine-enough little song that I can’t for the life of me figure out how its seasonal. Their second song, “Walk Around,” does begin with “It’s Christmas time / Here’s an old song / for a new year.” They also mention snowballs… but really, its a bit of a downer right out of the gate with the dour music. Not something I really want to listen to again. Bummer.

Gonzo48K is the Japanese wildcard of this release – I really had no expectations, as I don’t listen to much Japanese indiepop. “Snowman’s Tears” has the kind of music that I wish Annie Hall had – upbeat, poppy, certainly in a Swede-pop vein. The lyrics, well… “So darling / You make me colder / you make me older / you close my folder?” Not exactly what I’m looking for, but really, english is their second language and they write better songs in English than I do in Japanese. “Turn off the Radio” is a much better attempt. It may even be on a shortlist for future mixes… I dig the backing beat, and the lyrics are much better: “Walk through the street light / in the Christmas time / Back to the starlight / Where the children write / Turn off the Radio / Turn off the Radio.” Still not quite telling a story, but certainly evocative when complimented by the contemplative backing track. I can’t find it posted anywhere, but you can preview 30 seconds of it on Last.fm.

Bottom Line: Good luck trying to buy it, especially in the US. Certainly not worth the price it cost to import, with only one possible song. Loses points for all the wrong reasons. 1.2/5

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Bears – Snowman 7″ (2009)

Bears - Snowman 7"

Self-Released
Buy: Bandcamp | iTunes

The Bears released this lovely little 7″ record back in 2009, and I am flabbergasted that they are still available. Limited to 250 copies, the Bears are offering up this EP (6-songs!) for a mere $2! The songs are classic indiepop – beautiful music, melancholy lyrics. I recently revisited their Twitter account, and they made mention of their love of the Acid House Kings. This love, which I share, can be heard throughout this record. Standouts (for me) are “Easy Days” and the slow grower “Holidays.” Also not to be ignored, the extremely cheery “Merry Christmas Have a Happy New Year,” where the Bears delightfully sing “To all the people we hate / have a terrible year.” Hussah!

Bottom Line: Truly worth the $2, and then some. 4.5/5

LISTEN

Parenthetical Girls – Good Christian Men Rejoice, It’s Parenthetical Girls (2012)

Parenthetical Girls - Good Christian Men Rejoice, It's Parenthetical Girls

Slender Means Society
Buy: Bandcamp

Parenthetical Girls never disappoint when it comes to Christmas tunes; They are ALWAYS interesting.  2012’s edition, Good Christian Men Rejoice, It’s Parenthetical Girls, does not have any of the sure-fire xmas singles that some of their early releases had, but the entire release is uniquely fantastic. This release is a fully-formed group of songs meant to be listened to as a set. After some basic research, I am led to believe that all these songs may very well be originals, but I just await that clarification from my better educated readers. For example, there are a bunch of “Christmas Mourning” tunes out there, but the Parenthetical Girls’ version rings original to me. My favorite track would have to be the gorgeous “The Salvation Army Bell.” Parenthetical Girls can be wonderfully abrasive, but this track is like a warm hug… at least, as warm as the Parenthetical Girls can be. The lyrics set such a vivid scene and very much suggest the short story that comes in the final 12-minute track, with lines like: “A cold day, the end of December / those bright bells chimed. / In a twin bed, we swore to each other / you’d show me yours, if I showed you mine.” Parenthetical Girls, please continue this tradition. You are in the top tier of Christmas songsmiths, and each release is a welcome addition to the underground Christmas canon.

Bottom Line: This release stands beautifully as a fully realized piece of art. Would be a perfect 5/5 if I could have just squeezed on single off it, which I am well aware, is antithetical to why I loved this record. 4.6/5

LISTEN:

Duover – Christmas Volume 1 (2010)

Christmas Vol. 1 cover

Self-Released
Buy: Bandcamp

Portland’s Duover recorded one of the best original Christmas tunes (Grandma’s House) I’ve heard in years. For that fact alone, you should buy this record. And when I say buy this record, I mean it. Send them some money. Presently, Christmas Volume 1 is name-your-price, but come on… throw AT LEAST a buck or two their way.

Originals!!! ORIGINALS!! Yes, you heard it right… there are a whole bunch of originals on this one. 8/9 tracks if I count correctly… beginning with the absolutely stellar “Grandma’s House,” which really highlight Duover’s ear for a hook and subtle groove. This is followed by my second favorite track, “Trivial Pursuit,” which brings their harmonies to the front, while spinning a tale with some wonderfully clever wordplay (Nerds, this one’s for you).

“Home for the Holidays” slows things down a bit, and while still a solid song (I normally love a good Christmas dirge), Duover really excel when employing a faster tempo. Though… I must say, this may be the first song that name-checks “The Bud Bowl.” Certainly, bonus points for that one.

“Under Mistletoe” looks to either be their single, or simply the song that a friend wanted to make a video of. The music really creates a level of drama that I would not expect from a Christmas song. Though this drama is tongue-in-cheek… which makes the rapping much more palatable. Its a lot of fun.

“Coyote Christmas” is a great example of the power of simplicity. The lyrics are short and oft repeated; the vocals are subdued, as is the music. These elements combine into a beautifully constructed song that has no fat left to trim.

“Fruitcake” and “Old Soles” are the two slowest songs on the record, and as I mentioned earlier, Duover are at their best when they up the pace a bit. That said, they are still strong songs. There is not a single song on this album that I dislike, which is saying quite a lot for a Christmas record. The two instrumental tracks, “Ice Cycle” and the lone cover “Auld Lang Syne” are also quite nice and enjoyable. Though I have to wonder… had they not hooked me with that first track, would my lenses still be so rose colored? Yeah, probably.

Bottom Line: A wonderful collection of originals – quite a feat in the Christmas music genre. I look forward to Volume 2 (which they have *somewhat* confirmed in a response on Facebook). 4.7/5

LISTEN:

Under Mistletoe by Duover from Noel Taylor on Vimeo.

Parenthetical Girls – Save Christmas (2011)

Parenthetical Girls Save Christmas cover

Slender Means Society
Buy: Bandcamp

So, we are in an off year here in Christmasland. Why an off year you ask? Because the Parenthetical Girls only release a Christmas single/EP every other year, and they blessed us with this 3-track gem last year. So, alas, we will all have to make do with listing to the wealth that is their back catalog (which I shall review on another date). EDIT: They have thrown me for a loop… and are releasing a new EP this year!

Save Christmas is their second Christmas release in a row that is stellar from top to bottom – 3 tracks of gold. I could have put any of these tracks on my personal mix and been completely happy. The leadoff track, “Christmas Past,” sets the tone for the rest of the release with dark lyrics, surrounded by a shimmering bass line and jingle bells. This ending relationship is a tragic and beautiful song, one that finds my soft spot for sad Christmas tunes and pokes it repeatedly.

“Post-Christmas Time”… from what I understand, being that there are no lyrics, and it can be, at times, a little tough to discern, is about a post-apocalyptic time that no longer celebrates Christmas. Lines like: “Run for your life, its post-christmas time,” have led me to that assumption. Its interesting listening, even outside of the season. And the music is fantastic.

It ends with an absolutely lovely “There’s Always Tomorrow,” from the holiday classic Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Both sad and hopeful at the same time, this version conveys the requisite emotion that the song demands… if you ever wanted a sweet Christmas song out of the Parenthetical Girls, this might just be your dance partner.

Bottom Line: Three great songs, a name-your-own price (pay them!), what have you got to lose?! 4.8/5

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