Don’t Call Me Ishmael “Mary and Joseph” (2015)

Don't Call me Ishmael Dark Christmas E.P.

DROMA Records
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP) | Bandcamp (Compilation)

Stafford, England’s Don’t Call Me Ishmael are big fans of Christmas. I’m honestly amazed that I had not discovered them until this year, as they have multiple Christmas EPs, with releases every year since 2015. I’ve got a lot to choose from, but the song I’m going to highlight is the beautiful, and powerful, “Mary and Joseph,” off of 2015’s Dark Christmas EP. What immediately caught me was this sensation that I’m hearing an amazing Billy Bragg Christmas song. I’ve got this live Billy Bragg record that has been in my CD changer (yes, I have one) for YEARS… I stress, YEARS, because it always seems to pop on when my soul needs it. “Mary and Joseph” scratches that same itch. No accompaniment, just two voices reminding us to be grateful for what we have at Christmas. I’m most certainly looking forward to their upcoming Christmas release slated for Monday, December 9th. Follow them on Facebook, their label on Bandcamp, etc, to be the first to hear it! And dig into those older tracks too!

Bottom Line: Powerful simplicity in the vein of Billy Bragg… which is high praise.

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Magne Furuholmen – White Xmas Lies (2019)

Drabant Music
Buy: 7Digital (FLAC/MP3) | Drabant Music (CD/Vinyl) | Apple Music | Amazon MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.uk MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.de MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.fr MP3/CD/Vinyl

This record caught me completely off guard. The keyboardist and co-writer for most of the iconic hits from Norway’s pop-powerhouse a-ha, Magne Furuholmen has created one of the most interesting Christmas records I have heard in years. He walks this fine line between the avant-garde and accessible and manages to pull it off incredibly well. An album packed with largely all originals, Magne did not intend to create a normal holiday album; he wanted to make an album that was “an antidote to the ‘schmaltzy Christmas-music which is spewed out every year… a seemingly never-ending stream of cheesy versions of existing Christmas song.'” It was as if Magne was creating a Christmas music for me.

This album can be heartbreakingly beautiful. There are moments, such as in the leadoff track “There Goes Another Year,” where you can find these simple, evocative phrases that just hit you. “In the darkness of December / as the fire turned from spark to ember (<-Wow, what a line) / these are things I will remember / now xmas time is here / there goes another year.” And yet again, later in the song: “What we say but do not mean / every word and in-between / for every manhole in this town / there is someone falling down (<-Damn, loved that line!).” As you can see, Magne is going deep here, not necessarily celebrating the holiday in a fashion one might expect, as he talks about the album as being for those who might not have someone to keep them warm at Christmas.

I wanted to try and make an album which would be meaningful also to those who fall outside our commercial Christmas frenzy – an album which looks at the more melancholic, darker sides to Christmas: broken family ties, things we sweep under the rug, resentment hidden behind fake, jocular smiles – an album for holiday contemplation, not just sentimental decor.’

Magne does not rely on a spectacular voice (I have never been partial to amazing singers, but rather, amazing songwriters), he lets the synths and his lyrics do the heavy lifting. However, every so often his vocal melody just gets me. Like in the hungover “A Punch-up on Boxing Day,” Magne’s voice rises just after that first stanza, “you’re just wasting your time / yyeeaaahhhh,” and it brings this emotion to the song that I wasn’t anticipating. There are other moments where the music makes you sit up and go “shit, that is fantastic,” such as in the final verse of “Caprice Des Dieux,” which is one of the more slow and contemplative tracks on the record, as it explodes with musical color.

There are a few outliers on here as well, songs that does not appear to be connected to Christmas at all. The best example of would be “This is Now America,” a harsh portrait of America from an observer’s perspective – school shootings, border walls, drones and bad loans. “This is now America / oh how little have we learned / This is now America, is there no way to return?” So… not a Christmas song, and damn, quite disheartening to hear how we appear to others.

There are two covers on the record, AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” and The Kinks’ “Father Christmas.” The AC/DC cover appears to be part of the aforementioned outlier collection of songs, songs that aren’t normally connected to Christmas, but Magne is determined to bring them into conversation with the emotions of the season. The treatment itself is pretty damn interesting. Slowed down with synths providing a haunting melody, this is AC/DC much more along the lines of Mark Kozelek’s versions, should Mark have also utilized autotune. The Kinks’ cover is going to be released to the streaming community on a later date… so you’ll have to check back on that one.

This record is a damn interesting listen, one that I’d encourage anyone to experience, and hopefully with multiple listens. I for one, most certainly found new moments that I appreciated the second and third time around. Of note, Magne is also a very accomplished visual artist, and there is a vinyl edition of 200 that he hand-painted. They look to be truly beautiful, and if I had an extra €150… I might grab one. (Wait… they are all gone now!)

Bottom Line: One of the most surprising and satisfying Christmas albums I have heard in a long time.

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Moonfire Mountain – A Very Merry Christmas (2011)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (Free!)

There isn’t much info about Moonfire Mountain beyond their short bio, which lets us know that the band contains Harry (from Bear Driver!), Cassie, Jon and Rich. Thankfully, this crew got together and covered Yoko’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling” with dreampop brevity, which I always appreciate. They also tackle “Christmas” by Florence Dore (which they mislabel as a Posies cover). Their instrumentation is what makes this song; I think I hear a theremin! The EP’s finisher is a rocking version of Big Star’s “Jesus Christ.” I particularly like the harmonies on the chorus, and the rough edges of the guitar work. All in all, three super-solid covers for less-covered songs. I sure wish that more folks would give up on Last Christmas, Christmas Time is Here, etc, etc, and branch out. Universe… make it so.

Bottom Line: One of these three, great Christmas covers just might scratch that Christmas-mix itch for you.

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The Turtlenecks – The Turtlenecks Do Christmas (2018)

Sea Speak Recordings
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

TELL ME SOMETHING ABOUT THIS BAND! I mean come on! Searching, and searching, and searching. The label is nearly as mysterious as the band, but they at least have a Bandcamp! This little Christmas EP by the elusive The Turtlenecks is a damn pleasant trio of lo-fi indiepop holiday tunes. Catch me on the right day, and one of these simple, synthesizer-driven tunes might just sneak their way onto a mix of mine. From the chill repetition of “With Care,” to the pulsing “Snowblind,” or the boozy fun of “Christmas Bender,” pop on The Turtlenecks Do Christmas, chill out, and let these tunes soothe your DIY-jones.

Bottom Line: Three solid tracks by some band from somewhere, released on a label that might be from Louisville. Occam’s razor would suggest that it must, therefore, have been recorded by me, in my sleep, with no musical training. Enjoy!

I should have contacted them before writing this piece – but I’ll update it if they write me back 🙂

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UPCOMING: You Wish (A Merge Records Holiday Album) (2019)

Merge Records
Buy: Discogs | Bandcamp

You leave town for the weekend and everything blows up. This record is probably going to be all over Stereogum in a matter of minutes (as that is where all the bigger indie labels seem to go), but for now, let’s talk about this upcoming Merge Records holiday record! Merge is celebrating their 30th year, and with that they started a celebration subscription at the beginning of the year. I was one of the ones who decided to party along with them, and boy am I glad I did. Over the weekend I received this amazing, unannounced, Christmas record from one of my favorite labels, You Wish (A Merge Records Holiday Album). Pressed on peppermint vinyl and containing tracks by a couple folks who have already made a CU Xmas mix (Coco Hames, The Essex Green, Mac McCaughan and Telekinesis), as well as many that I hope might make it this year! These full-length releases always take longer to write about, and I get antsy, so let this post and the tracklist just be that little teaser for the upcoming review, hopefully coming sometime this week if I’m lucky.

Of note – there are a few copies on Discogs right now, and while it is subscription-only, Merge has been making their 30th anniversary records available in indie record stores on standard black vinyl. As for digital, it will probably come out on all the usual services, since their last release (Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible covered by A Giant Dog) is available digitally.

A1. Coco Hames – Keep Your Christmas
A2. The Essex Green – Green Christmas
A3. Mike Krol – Won’t Be Alone Tonight
A4. Mac McCaughan & Annie Hayden – Down We Go (Sledding Song)
A5. Fruit Bats – Baby In The Hay
A6. Apex Manor – White Christmas
A7. William Tyler – Jesus Christ
B1. Hiss Golden Messenger & Lucinda Williams – Christmastime In Prison
B2. Eric Bachmann – I Was Made For Losing You
B3. Telekinesis – Christmas Time Is Here (Uh Oh)
B4. Mikal Cronin – Christmastime Heist
B5. Will Butler – Love Asked Me To Stay
B6. Tracyanne & Danny – Santa, Don’t Say No
B7. Shout Out Louds – Blue Christmas

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UPCOMING: Josh Rouse – The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse (11/01/2019)

The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse

Yep Roc Records
Buy: YepRoc CD/Vinyl/Ornament | Bull MooseAmazon | Amazon.UK | Amazon.DE | Amazon.FR

Well here we go! This one will make all the media rounds no doubt, as Josh Rouse has a large back catalog and fans that span 20+ years. I remember getting that Dressed up Like Nebraska cassette promo single was back when I was but a boy. That first record was great. Josh’s second, Home, is a modern classic record (for me). 1972 was a risk that paid off beautifully. Find a copy of Bedroom Classics Vol. 1 and you will be treated to “Michigan,” which is an incredible, incredible song. I don’t want to go into this with the level of expectation that I might… as I haven’t been quite on the Josh Rouse train for a number of records. But here I am… likely to buy the double-vinyl edition. The first pressing of the CD/Vinyl comes with an extra disc featuring 3 bonus tracks, and 3 demo versions of songs found on the record. So… if you are considering this record, the first pressing is by far the way to go.

The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse LP
The Holiday Sounds of Josh Rouse LP

Bottom Line: Click and buy. It’ll be better than most Christmas records, and could possibly be great.

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Christmas in July – Christmas is a Feeling (2012)

Christmas in July - Christmas is a Feeling

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

As the sole proprietor of this humble little Christmas blog, most of my music research goes toward finding those delicious, spicey new tunes. I do, however, get as much (if not more) satisfaction from digging up gems from the past… and this nice little EP by Christmas in July is just that. Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek are the duo who slapped a holiday name on and released “Christmas is a Feeling” back in 2012. The duo would later release 2 EPs, A-Sides and B-Sides, two years later. This seems like a long tease to finally get to the fact that both Adrianne and Buck would eventually expand their musical universe, adding two more bandmates and starting one of the most interesting, prolific and distinctive bands of the past few years, Big Thief. Having recently released the much-lauded U.F.O.F. back in May, they just announced a follow-up, Two Hands, which had been recorded only days after finishing U.F.O.F.. Since 2016, Big Thief will have released 4 albums, with another acclaimed solo Adrianne Lenker album, abysskiss, released in 2018. They appear to be in the middle of one hell of a creative streak.

All that said… this IS a Christmas music blog, and there are five solid tracks on Christmas is a Feeling, two of which deserve more attention. The lone original on the EP, the folksy “Miss Mistletoe,” appears to be a wholly Buck Meek tune (at least, he appears to perform it alone). My favorite bit comes about halfway through:  “So pour the cider and stoke the coals / finish up the pie / what comes tomorrow, goodness knows / but tonight I’m by your side.” The airy production, with the guitar fluttering between both channels, flickers with the warmth of a fire; This song is a mix-worthy beauty. The other highlight is “Walking in the Air,” a cover of the modern-British classic from “The Snowman,” which blends the voices of Buck and Adrianne with the subtle beauty that you expect from this ethereal song. Simply stated, this is a gorgeous version of a wonderful song. There are three more covers of Christmas classics on here, and they are all quite good on the strength of their great voices, production, and taste level. However, they do not reinvent the classics, which can be great but isn’t as noteworthy. In summation, this release is one that can be listened to from front-to-back, which is no easy feat for a Christmas record. 

Bottom Line: How a Christmas release by members of such a notable (and fantastic) band has slipped under the radar for so long is beyond me. This EP is fantastic, and will no doubt help feed your hungry mixtapes this holiday season. If I were 4AD, I’d be slapping this thing on vinyl and releasing it. Please send me a copy if you do.

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The Aux – Christmas Isn’t the Root of My Problems (2018)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

Sometimes I do feel like I’m writing about the same bands, year after year. Well, that is a great problem to have, as so many of the bands I dig keep on putting out great Christmas music! I haven’t hit Mike Nevin’s The Aux releases every single year, but I am on a pretty good, every-two-year schedule. The latest EP, Christmas Isn’t the Root of My Problems, is Mike’s most personal release. After years of hilarious, dark and often bitter Christmas songs, he has found himself in a spot of sincerity. Mike presents these songs as such:

“this year was both the least creative and most solitary year of my life so far. so this is what has come out of it. i hope you enjoy these genuine christmas songs that i mean from the bottom of my heart. sorry that they’re not as funny as they used to be!”

He is indeed right – these songs are not as funny as they used to be. But that humor has been replaced by a true candor, best felt in his autotuned confessional, “A Real Santa,” where Mike owns up for being a bad friend at times. The ending is genuinely touching:

“cuz santa just wants to feel like he exists
and i know that i could be more like him if i gave a shit
if i’ve treated you like santa
i promise i’ll start acting less like the grinch
and fulfill your christmas wish
i will be a real santa that exists”

Mike goes pretty deep on these songs, and while the subject matter highlights his perceived faults and battles with loneliness and depression, it is refreshing to hear someone so connected to his feelings. These are deeply personal Christmas songs, thrown into a sea of seasonal cheer. You hear these things and the sugary-sweet artifice of the season begins to make your teeth hurt. Sometimes a little pain feels good.

Bottom Line: This year’s brutal honesty (and hope) is quite refreshing, while still remaining true to The Aux’s trademark bitter charm.

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Dearnley “Christmas in a Strip Club” (2018)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

David W. Dearnley has managed to take a provocative title, which many a song relies on exclusively, and surprises the hell out of me. The song does not just being and end with that title – it is the little details that make this song so damn special. However, this song  would not be possible with David’s voice, which has a quality that can’t be denied. It is one of those voices that sounds lived in, one with a patina that grows more beautiful under bar lights. Stubby wrote about this record earlier in December, and he rightly loved this track as well. He loved the twist as much as I… that the protagonist is recapturing childhood memories at the strip club, the one “where the Stuckey’s used to be.” You’ll have to listen to the whole thing to get it, and even when you know the reveal is coming, it is still so very worth it. “Christmas in a Strip Club” is a dirty, sad, thoughtful, beautiful song that is worth your money… so bring a stack of singles.

Bottom Line: This song reminds me of a Raymond Carver short story – dark, personal, and fascinating. Highly recommended.

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Fowler VW presents A Blackwatch Christmas Vol. VIII: The Sounds of the Season (2018) + WIN SOME VINYL!

Fowler VW/Blackwatch Studios
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

This season has been… long. I’ve been working until 9:30 a bunch, and still have things like laundry, dishes and the various domestic duties that we do as we strive not to look like a hoarder. I’m beginning to see the sun, or normalcy at the very least. And as those clouds part, I begin to catch up… and I have the pleasure of basking in the ALWAYS excellent Fowler VW and Blackwatch Studios release! The Sounds of the Season is their best one yet – and that is a high bar to clear. And you know what, there isn’t a version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” anywhere to be found! These are originals! Now, lets talk favorites… WAIT A SECOND – I LIKE THIS WHOLE THING! From the 70s groove of Sports, to Home Alone-inspired indiepop of Chair Model and the relaxed indie rock of Spaceface featuring LABRYS – this record will take your party to wonderful places. There are a whole handful of tracks on here that I have on my shortlist for next year… this record is fantastic.

BUT WAIT – THERE IS MORE! I live in Virginia, but continually find myself jealous of everything going on in Norman, Oklahoma. Fowler VW and its ownership are incredibly involved in making their town a better place, often taking part in efforts to help fund the public schools, as well as being great patrons of the arts in their community. This holiday season, I’ve been watching them promote Wrap Up Homelessness. This program sells locally designed wrapping paper, and is coordinated by the Curbside Chronicle, which is a street paper that “provides employment and empowerment to men and women transitioning out of homelessness.” Last year they helped get 41 people off the street and back into housing, which is pretty damn incredible. You know what else is incredible? There is some wrapping paper designed by Wayne Coyne from the Flaming Lips! So, you know that paper is crazy awesome! I would like to take this moment and encourage you to order some paper, or simply donate some money to this fantastic cause. Fowler VW does so much for their local community, but they also do so, so much for our alternative Christmas music community as well. As an added bonus, if you order some wrapping paper or donate to Curbside Chronicle, then tweet me, FB me, or e-mail proof that you did (screenshot will do!), you will be entered to win a copy of THE SOUNDS OF THE SEASON on VINYL! I’ve got a couple copies sitting here for you… so lets all show some Christmas spirit, help those in need and give thanks to those who bring us this great music year after year.

THE FINE PRINT: I got these LPs a little later than I had hoped, as the mail lost the first shipment, so they are likely not going to get to you by Christmas. BUT YOU CAN JAME TO THIS 1) Whenever OR 2) NEXT CHRISTMAS! This contest will run from Dec. 17-21, and you can email me at christmasunderground(at)gmail.com, tweet at me @xmasunderground, or comment on the Facebook post for this entry. Please use the hashtage #fowlervwisawesome whenever entering, either in your tweet/FB post or email subject line. I will choose a few folks at random, and ship you some records. UNFORTUNATELY, this offer is NOT open to our international friends. It costs about $24 to ship ONE LP outside the country. I’m terribly sorry… I just can’t afford to do it.

Bottom Line: I love a record you can enjoy all the way through. Fowler VW and Blackwatch Studio continue this glorious tradition, and somehow keep getting better!

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