Fowler VW presents A Blackwatch Christmas Vol. IX: Christmas in Color (2019)

Fowler VW/Blackwatch Studios
Buy:
 Bandcamp (NYOP)

What more can you say? Nobody does it like this Fowler VW/Blackwatch Studios crew. For nine years now, they have released the most consistently-wonderful Christmas compilation out there. The quality of their releases makes you marvel at how it is humanly possible to achieve. Well… this year… I asked.

a bunch of records and a record player
The profile pic from their Bandcamp page is basically the indie Christmas vinyl holy grail.

The project began with Fowler Volkswagon owner Jonathan Fowler and his friend/marketing partner Mary Ann Osko. They were kicking around ideas for how to tie the recently-opened Fowler VW  to the arts community in Norman, Oklahoma. A number of ideas were floated until a Christmas record was settled upon, as Jonathan and Mary Ann were into Christmas music, and Jonathan’s wife was a Christmas vinyl collector. It was in this convergence of interests that the first and only yearly, underground Christmas compilation that is pressed on vinyl was born. They initially began working with Chris Harris at Echo Sound, releasing the first compilation, Checking it Twice – The 2010 Nice People Holiday Companion (Seen in the photo on the right! That record is fantastic!). The project moved over to Blackwatch in 2011, as Fowler imagined moving the record around to various studios in the area, but the 2011 edition (and first dual-branded edition), Fowler Volkswagon presents A Blackwatch Christmas, was such a success that it just kinda stuck.


Of note, that first compilation in 2010 features Norman, Oklahoma’s Samantha Crain, who also contributed the spellbinding cover of John Denver’s “Christmas for Cowboys” on this year’s album.

I was definitely curious about the process of putting this thing together. How do they get these bands to contribute? How can they be sure that the songs they get will be any good? Blackwatch producer/engineer/musician Jarod Evans was very helpful in explaining the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of the whole project. Fowler and Blackwatch will often start mapping out the record in February, sometimes with a concept in mind (A Blackwatch Christmas Vol III (Holly​-​Tonk & Jingle Beats)), but more often than not, the theme comes together as the tracks and artwork are being finalized. While the compilation has broadened its pool of bands to include many wonderful, in and out-of-state bands, their heart remains in Norman. “The local music community in Norman is filled with lots and lots of old, close friends,” Evans says. “There’s always a deep Rolodex of friends of the studio to call upon.” The approach to what song they’ll record, or how they’ll go about it, is quite fluid. “Sometimes we ask artists to write a song in advance, then bring it in to record,” says Evans. “Other times, we invite artists to just come in with an open mind so we can write and develop something together.” Jarod and his Blackwatch partner, musician/producer/engineer Chad Copelin, will also take the opportunity to write a song, then call someone in to sing or help write lyrics over the track; It turns out there are many ways to skin a cat or write a Christmas song. The loose, varied approach perfectly highlights the important main thread running through this whole endeavor, the taste level that Blackwatch brings to the table. Christmas compilations are notoriously spotty in quality, and there has not been a dud in this bunch. From the planning and production, to the vinyl pressing and the release party, the sheer amount of work and dedication the Folwer and Blackwatch team have to put this record out every year is just astounding. These records are a beautiful distillation of their love of art, music, Christmas, and Norman, Oklahoma. It is truly inspiring.

The 2019 edition, Christmas in Color, is yet another triumph. I am not one to go track-by-track, and I’m not going to start now… too much to live up to with too little time! However, I’m going to pull out a few of my favorites – and please know… the entire record is great, and taste is subjective! You will probably love a song I didn’t write about. So here it goes!

Right out of the gate, Oklahoma City’s LCG & the X unleash the best version of “Last Christmas” that I have heard this year. There are only a few versions of this Wham! classic that I consider listenable, let alone truly love… and they managed to do it with their DETAILS. Created in concert with producer Jarod Evans, the song’s beat becomes funky, with added electro-pop flourishes and what sounds like bongos(?) bouncing around in the background. I am on board for this madness.

After grooving to that amazing “Last Christmas” cover, did I think I would fall in love with a melancholy slow jam? No. However, San Francisco’s Mini Trees, you got me immediately me with those saxophones. The fluttering brass lines have this quality that raises the hair on the back of your neck – a perfect mixture of beauty, unexpectedness, and comfort. There are some great lines in here too, my favorite being, “I know at times it feels foolish / but we all need something to believe.” Capturing a large idea simply is one of the toughest things to do, and Mini Dresses nails it.

Husbands (Yes, THAT Husbands!) are making their Fowler/Blackwatch debut (maybe? They might be in one of the “fake” bands… dunno!) with a truly 100%-pure Husbands’ track, “Santa is a Lie.” Their sonic landscape and wry sense of humor have always made them truly distinctive in the alt-Christmas universe, and this dream-pop dirge is a perfect example of what they do best.

The second appearance of the John Denver “Christmas for Cowboys” is a completely different affair from the synth-driven The Good Tidings version. Samantha Crain‘s version conveys an otherworldly, emotional quality. From the white noise ambiance of an old recording to Samantha’s phrasing of the familiar lyrics, she transforms this song to another time. You’re immersed in how much they love their place on the range; It no longer feels like a song, but a life. Samantha is channeling something here.

There is so much more on this record, from the sexy fun of Colourmusic’s “Christmas Dreams,” to the wordplay of Jake Tittle‘s “Captain Morgan” and the timelessness of Twigg’s “Meltin with You,” this is the best Fowler VW & Blackwatch compilation yet. There is not one skippable track on here… and that is nearly unheard of in the world of Christmas compilations.

Bottom Line: The view from way up on top of the mountain must be pretty great for Fowler VW and Blackwatch, because they’ve been building a beautiful place up there at the top of the indie Christmas world.

LISTEN

 

Brittain Ashford & Matt Bauer “Tinsel and Snow” (2018)

Commodore Trotter / Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly
Buy: Bandcamp

I am not the kind of blogger who seeks out a great voice. So many of my favorite singers couldn’t sing (How I miss David Berman), but even I can still fall for a voice. Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly is a fantastic blog and music-compiler based in Seattle, and their most recent release is Ball of Wax 58: The Ball of Wax Winter Spectacular, featuring this truly beautiful song by Brittain Ashford & Matt Bauer. Honestly, I’m having a tough time describing Brittain’s voice in a better manner than Ball of Wax did:

The teller of this tale is Broadway star and thematic alchemist* Brittain Ashford. With a voice that balances diaphragmatic force with childlike vulnerability, Ashford paints the sort of holiday portrait that those of us who suffer from melancholy particularly this time of year can appreciate and empathize with, and what’s more—what we need most during the dark season—she infuses every line with a tattered but palpable hope.

This song was almost too pretty for me… but those distinctive qualities of Brittain’s vocal delivery were undeniable. The music is also quite lovely, but after learning of composer Matt Bauer‘s folk and banjo background, I am SO intrigued to hear a version with banjo. Damn that could be cool.

Edit: Turns out this song was initially released in 2018 on an EP, Tinsel and Snow & Other Mid-Winter Missives. Go check it out!

Bottom Line: Like Messi’s “Charlamagne,” this song is defined by a beautiful and distinctive voice.

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A Very Cherry Christmas 14 (2019)

Cherryade Records
Buy: Bandcamp

So, do you fancy yourself a collector of underground Christmas records? If you are like me, and began this extremely hip search back when Yahoo still ruled the internet and Facebook was but a baby website only opened to ivy leaguers… well then you’ve been a fan of this CD-only (physical media!) collection of the scrappiest, kookiest, raunchiest, and indiepoppiest Christmas songs available. The latest edition of A Very Cherry Christmas has great tracks by some folks I’ve previously showered with adoration (Frank Sexuality and the Negative Emotions, A Mild Peril), as well as some great songs from bands I’m just getting accustomed with (Jacqui and Geoff, Ballard). There is something for everyone – from the hilarious “What If Santa Claus Is Just 20 Ferrets In A Red Suit” to an exuberant satirization of consumerism with “Consume! Consume! Consume!” So take out your credit card (or your Paypal password), and celebrate the patron saint of buying shit… and fucking buy it! (Grab the few copies of older releases that are still available too!)

Bottom Line: A tradition for all the misfits, one to be celebrated and feared! ONLY 200 COPIES! You are warned.

 

 

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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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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Joyful Noise Recordings’ Holiday Party Vol. 2 (2018)

Joyful Noise Recordings
Buy: 7″ Lathes | Bandcamp

Joyful Noise has done it again! Those delicious little lathe-cuts are back for a second season – only 100 of each song. You buy a snowflake, you get all the tunes! Or, you can pay $10 and just get the songs. Some highlights from this year are the Netherlands-based Eerie Wanda‘s cover of Yoko Ono’s “Listen, The Snow is Falling” and the Low Anthem‘s original “Fairy on Top of The Christmas Tree.” The crazy part about this whole project is that these songs are all tracked in one hour! They roll them in, figure out their parts (the bands also bleed over into each other’s tracks), and lay it down. In addition, 100% of the net proceeds will be donated to Second Helpings, a non-profit that rescues perishable food, to feed people in need, all while providing culinary job training for disadvantaged adults. Now that sounds like a plan!

Bottom Line: These snowflakes are for a good cause, and with a lineup like Kishi Bashi, Danielson, No Joy amongst many other notable purveyors of indie rock, it is certainly worth checking out.

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The Catenary Wires “Christmas Tree (Burn Burn Burn)” (2018)

WIAIWYA
Buy: Bandcamp

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!

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Here it is! The world premiere of the video for the Catenary Wires’ “Christmas Tree (Burn Burn Burn)”

Gypsy Charms “It‘s Mother Fuckin‘ Christmas” (2013)

nollaig

Brown Bear Records
Buy: Free!

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.

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DCR Mixtape #3 – A Christmas Compilation (2017)

Dinosaur City Records Christmas Compilation

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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Joyful Noise Recordings’ Holiday Party Vol. 1 (2017)

Joyful Noise Holiday Party, Vol. 1

Joyful Noise Recordings
Buy: 7″ Lathe Cut Vinyl Snowflathes with Digital Download | Bandcamp

Joyful Noise Recordings has a wonderful concept for their new release, Holiday Party Vol. 1. Each track is pressed on a single, lathe cut 7″ (a Snowflathe!), limited to 100 snowflathes each, and costs $20 for one. Wait a second – that is crazy expensive! I am going to have to spend $180 on the entire album! Yes, but no. Buy one 7″ for $20, and you get a MP3/WAV download of the entire record. THAT, and all proceeds go to The Fund for Global Human Rights. So, this is starting to sound cooler, eh? Want it to get even cooler? YES? Well, these tracks were recorded live at the Joyful Noise holiday party!! They all sound beautiful, full studio-recording quality, with highlights by Richard Edwards covering Big Star’s “Jesus Christ,” and Psychic Temple’s Curtis Mayfield cover, “We Got to Have Peace.” This whole thing is pretty damn strong (and sometimes weird, but still well done), and very much worth your time and money, especially if you are a Christmas vinyl collector – Pick your poison!

Bottom Line: Great concept, wonderful cause and solid tunes.

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