Another Grey Christmas 2 (2008)

Another Grey Christmas 2 cover

Willamette Week
Buy: CD OOP | Stream

The second in a series by Willamette Week’s Local Cut section – this is the first one that I’ve actually held in my hands. Only available in Portland and (briefly) online, the Another Grey Christmas series compiles local Portland bands doing both originals and covers… as so many other cities do. What Portland has in their favor though… is that its Portland. They’ve got a bunch of great bands just chilling out, waiting to record something amazing.

There are some solid tunes on this disc, with the perfectly passible indie folk rendition of “Winter Wonderland” by A Weather, a stripped down “Silver Bells” by Run on Sentence with Mike Midlo, and a delicate “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” by Laura Gibson. There are some good originals here too – Future Historians‘ “Family Tree” is a darker take on the holiday season, and the lyrics have a wonderful sense of reality to them – something you don’t normally get from a Christmas song.

The best song on the disc is Dolorean’s cover of the Dolly Parton classic, “Hard Candy Christmas.” Slow, sparse and haunting at times – this is not your mother’s “Hard Candy Christmas.” And best of all… they posted it on their website for download.

Definitely check out the rest of the series… but be forewarned, they do not let you BUY anything but vol. 4 & 5. I had to call a boutique in Portland to get ahold of #2… actually purchased their in-store play copy. And I’ve never seen one go up on eBay either.

BOTTOM LINE: Some solid classics are covered, with one strong original. 3.6/5

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Free Music – A Carpark Record (2011)

Free Music - A Carpark Record (cover)

Carpark Records
Buy: LP

Class Actress. Dan Deacon. Cloud Nothings. Three Christmas songs on a free record (from select indie stores last year) that had me on the edge of my seat.

Too bad I don’t like any of them. The Cloud Nothings track is purely instrumental… not something I normally look for with a Christmas tune, though if it were compelling enough, not something I’d rule out. The Dan Deacon tune samples animal noises… which makes it (in my estimation) unlistenable. The Class Actress cover of “Silent Night” is acceptable… but I just don’t like that song on a mix. If it ever makes the cut, it will be because someone did something truly unique with the song that makes me enjoy it.

The non-holiday songs are generally great. Shortest review ever.

Bottom Line: If you create a Christmas mix based strictly on the hipness of the band and not the song, this LP is for you. The following number score is holiday-song specific and does not reflect the generally excellent non-holiday tunes. 1.3/5

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Do You Think it Will Snow Tonight? (2010)

Do You Think it Will Snow Tonight cover

Cloudberry Records
Buy: Good Luck!

Not technically a Christmas release, the 3″ CDR Do You Think it Will Snow Tonight falls in the winter/snow category that I open up my mix to. The vibe is much more varied than the previous Cloudberry release, adding a bit more of an indie rock tone at times. The first track, “Catch Your Cold,” is the best example of this. Evans the Death have created a rocking song with a great feel, and some very silly lyrics – “I’m afraid of getting a job / I’m afraid of Snoopy Doggy Dog…,” but it works.

Seapony‘s “Dreaming” is a lovely piece of 80’s inspired chillwave that will find favor with kids who listen to Wild Nothing. It later appeared on their 2011 record, Go With Me, and is certainly good enough to be mix-worthy BUT – is not winter-related enough for me (or at all!).

The Sweater Girls follow with “Sweater Weather,” which has a much more indie-pop feel than its predecessors. It could use a bit more a hook, with the lead singer’s spoken vocals over a buzzy guitar that is going in circles that would benefit from some variation of tone. Still, not a bad song – it gets bonus points for being the second song whose subject matter qualifies for Christmas mixes.

Floridian indie-poppers Cassolette weigh in with “Not Just Anyone,” the longest song on the record… a little over 3 minutes (a definite plus for this record if I may say so), but it is not a winter song! The only nod to the season is the lyric “You turn my winter into spring.” Too bad – it is a wonderful piece of indie-pop!

Finally, the Christmas-y named The Garlands finish out the album with a song that could be off a Sarah record of old, “Throw Away This Day.” My personal taste leads me to say this is the least strong song on the record, though if you love the indie pop sound of the 1980 & 90s, you’ll absolutely love it. Though, this is not a winter song either! (They did release a rather good Christmas tune two years prior that you should check out.)

Bottom Line: Not enough winter-themed songs hurts its rating, but some strong stuff. 3.3/5

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Last Train to Christmas (2008)

Last Train to Christmas cover

Cloudberry Records
Buy: Discogs Good Luck!

This little 3″ CDR packs a big indie-pop punch. Four tracks of solid songs that would please any fan of the genre, and perhaps even those who don’t normally warm towards the twee. Featuring four originals that don’t fall into any heavy religion at all… pretty much what I wish every Christmas CD I picked up was like.

The Swedish band Twig starts it off with “Antoinette’s Christmas Wedding,” which will give you all the crooning, brass, and calypso that you never knew you wanted in a Christmas song. A small story of a song, it sets the wedding (and surrounding) scene quite well. I am quite partial to Christmas originals, and this one is a very interesting one… It has yet to make a Christmas mix for me yet, it just hasn’t fit yet. It may never fit… but that doesn’t make it a lesser song.

The first of two NYC bands, Strega follows with “When the Stars are Shining Bright at Christmas Time,” and their very familiar, sleigh bell-heavy, female fronted approach does not stand out quite as much as the dulcet tones of Twig. However, they have written a tight little song that is immensely listenable.

The Soft City lead off “Side B” with “Snow Keeps Falling,” with a much more 60’s inspired treatment that I could imagine being off an early Essex Green record for some reason. Great motion to this song…

The final song is by the Danes Champagne Riot, who can be found singing Christmas tunes (Xmas Safari) on the most recent Matinee Records holiday offering. “December Slopes” is a fine first effort with a great groove; they reach a level that not many bands hit after many Christmas attempts.

Bottom Line: Every song is truly good, though no song is mind-blowing incredible. 4.8/5

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Avalanche Records’ Alternative Christmas (2009)

Avalanche Records (Edinburgh)
Buy: Good luck!

One of the biggest challenges with reviewing Christmas records, is that so many are released to benefit charities. I certainly don’t want to crap all over a record that benefits sick kids, and thankfully, I don’t have to.

Avalanche Records in Edinburgh, Scotland released a very DIY Christmas record back in 2009. Simply titled Alternative Christmas, this compilation features mainly Scottish artists each submitting an original song, with only a few exceptions. So, for those out there who love originals (like me), this is a good start.

I originally purchased this to have an audio master for There Will Be Fireworks‘ “In Excelsis Deo,” which is a dramatic, and fantastic song; a perfect ending to my 2010 Christmas Mix. This used to be the only place you could buy this track, and of course it has since been released elsewhere. Fellow dramatic Scots Frightened Rabbit also lend their (by now) classic track, “Its Christmas So We’ll Stop.” I think this may be the only official CD release of the track, beyond a promo that they sent to radio stations back in 2008.

A large chunk of this record is terribly sad. The Savings and Loan contribute a serviceable cover of the Palace Brothers’ lament “Christmastime in the Mountains,” but it does not improve upon the original – which is a must if you are going to perform it in a similar style. Withered Hand gives us an emotional “Its a Wonderful Lie,” and while it certainly has its moments, it is just too dreary for me. Really, this one could be you favorite tune on the record if you really love a Christmas dirge. Another rather brutal, but well-done song is the Phil Ochs tune, “No Christmas in Kentucky”, retitled “Christmas in Kirkcaldy,” and performed by Meursault. Scots singing about the Southeast United States… and the poverty that is Appalachia. I have heard it all.

Two final tracks that are certainly worth a listen are Emily Scott‘s “Holy,” and X-Lion Tamer‘s stab at Beck’s “Little Drum Machine Boy.” Both are done well, and “Holy” is an extremely pretty, sparse folk song with excellent vocal layers.

Bottom Line: Can be quite sad, but has a higher percentage of good songs than most comps out there. 3.8/5

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12 Days of Christmas (2009)

12 Days of Christmas cover

Bubblewrap Collective
Buy: CD | Bandcamp

The concept is intriguing. 12 bands were selected and given 31 days to write and record a song, each based on a particular day in the “12 Days of Christmas.” It was intriguing enough to compel me to preorder it many moons ago. As with nearly every single Christmas compilation, there is a WIDE variety of quality on this record. The tracks that rise above the rest are all female-fronted indie bands – one might think that I have a type. The first notable track is “Five Golden Rings from the Hi Five Kings” by The Rocky Nest. They have a great musical aesthetic – everything works well together. The second track I would like to highlight is “Silver Swans in NYC” by Allo, Darlin’ (Look them up – they put out a fantastic record this year). This was the one I was anticipating… and perhaps it was that anticipation that raised the expectations a bit too high. Its a lovely little song… but for some reason I wish it was a more fleshed-out production. There are a few other tracks on there that are ok, but largely, I was not a huge fan.

Bottom Line: So much potential, but not enough quality payoff. 2/5

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Fantasia De Navidad (2002)

Fantasia de Navidad cover

Siesta
Buy: Discogs (CD) | Amazon.uk (CD)

If you want an entire record of very, very, very pretty indie pop, then Fantasia de Navidad is for you. I find very little fault with the efforts of these Siesta recording artists – they have pleasant music, and interesting lyrics. There is also a calypso? thread that runs through the record, popping up into the forefront at times. There It is perhaps a little too pure indie pop for what I am looking for on my own personal mix (or to subject to party guests). I am just not that skinny and beautiful, while somehow melancholy and well dressed, to pull it off.

Of particular note, Admiral Achilles’ “East of the Country” (at certain times) sounds like it could very well be Elvis Costello in disguise, perhaps going indie pop in between his Burt Bacharach and country music phases. Their second track on the album, “Christmas,” sounds like Mark Kozelek… specifically with his vocal phrasing, as well as the general tone. I can’t pin that band down…

This one is tough to come by… to read more about it, check out Siesta’s discography.

(A quick afterthought – this CD comes in a regular version, as well as an ultra-limited, wooden CD case version with the cover impressed upon it. Crazy.)

Bottom Line: Do you LOVE indie pop? If you do, add 2 points on to my score. 2.8/5

Merry Christmas from Bella Union (2006)

Merry Christmas from Bella Union cover

Bella Union
Buy: Discogs

Back in 2006, I blogged about this great little 3″ CD I was picking up… and boy was I excited. I had a right to be. This tiny, 3″ CD packs quite a punch. Three tracks, all worthwile, highlighted by the absolutely splendid tune by My Latest Novel, “Outside it’s Christmas.” My Christmas mix had a bit of a Scottish flair that year – I believe it had Frightened Rabbit on it as well. Robert Gomez & Eric Pulido (both of Midlake) were at the height of their powers, and present an extremely enjoyable version of “Feliz Navidad,” one of two versions of the songs that I particularly enjoy. Devics haunting rendition of “Silent Night,” is interesting enough to not be a bore, though I probably would never include it on my mix… just because I don’t think the song fits what I’m going for.

This disc is nearly impossible to hunt down… don’t pay an arm & a leg, but give it a shot.

Bottom Line: Hunt down that My Latest Novel track, and you’ve got a surefire winner. 4.3/5

EDITDid My Latest Novel find my post and decide to upload it to their Soundcloud account? I doubt it… but it is rather fortuitous that it was posted there yesterday… and that does look my scan of the cover art! Be sure to listen to the song all the way through – the latter half is fantastic!

If I Make it Through Christmas (2001)

If I Make it Through Christmas

Perfect Pop Records / Two Zero Records / Thatsperfectwonderball Records
Buy: Download | CD

Released in Norway back in 2001, this EP is a solid little piece of indie Christmas. Two tracks are of particular note (and they can be previewed at the Norwegian website where you can download it), the John Prine classic “Christmas in Prison,” performed by Cinnamoon, and Peru You’s “Real Maria.”

The Oslo-based Cinnamoon cover  “Christmas in Prison” with a great, full-band, folk treatment, that has just enough banjo to make you really take note of (and enjoy) – and before it was fashionable. I think they made some wonderful decisions with the arrangement – nothing seems out of place, and while they didn’t reinvent the song, they certainly improved upon it.

Also a Norwegian band, Peru You’s “Real Maria” sounds like something that Vampire Weekend could really tear up on a Christmas single. The vaguely Caribbean feel of the instrumentation, the interesting phrasing and the lyrical bobs and weaves really make this a great track. You need to hunt this down.

I can’t bring myself to write about every single song, so I shall end it there, with the two best. Additionally, I am certainly fascinated by the fact that I can find out very, very little about these two bands… who have no doubt broken up in the over ten years that its been since this release. I thought I could find every answer on the internet… or at least a long-abandoned myspace page…

Bottom Line: Those 2 tracks make the record. 3.5/5

A Very Magistery Christmas (2005)

A Very Magistery Christmas cover

Le Grande Magistery
Buy: iTunesicon7Digital MP3

A Very Magistery Christmas is one of the stronger indie rock/pop compilations I’ve come across. Originally an iTunes exclusive, this album has made its way into Amazon, Rhapsody, and eMusic.

Leading off the record is Pas/Cal,  who are known (at least by me) as having some of the BEST christmas tunes around, and their cover of “Last Christmas” lives up to their stellar reputation. This is one of the best versions you can find – and there are a LOT of covers out there. You can also grab this track on their 12″ split with Asobi Seksu. Their stab at “Jingle Bell Rock” isn’t quite as fantastic – but for a song that I don’t particularly like, they cover it well. It is quite unfortunate that when thinking about Pas/Cal, you must think of them in the past-tense… such a loss of lovers of indie pop christmas tunes.

The Stars also make two appearance on this compilation – and for this, be very thankful. First off, I’m a fan. Secondly, they hit a sweet spot that I enjoy – political Christmas songs. “Christmas Song” reflects on our perpetual wars in the Middle East, while reminding us that the Christmas season and Ramadan overlap. “A New Year (Live)” ends the record with a wonderfully stripped-down performance, dramatic as ever, and subtle with its hook. Two tracks worth a listen for sure.

Other standouts would be the electro-pop Baxendale tune, “Flash Gordon,” Mascott & Dave Derby‘s sad folk number “This Christmastime,” and Finian McKean‘s bluesy “Lost & Found.”

I’m not in love with the rest of the record, but nothing on it truly makes me cringe. You might be able to save a few bucks singling out the tracks you want, but overall, a worthwhile compilation that I am happy to own and support.

Bottom Line: Some stellar tunes in here make it rise above the pack. Loses a fraction of a point for not having an avenue to get a CD or FLAC. 4/5

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