Traveller “Christmas Eve at Kroger” (2018)

Traveller - Western Movies

Refuge Foundation for the Arts
Buy: Vinyl & CD | iTunes | Google Play MP3 | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Traveller, the Americana supergroup comprised of Robert Ellis, Cory Chisel and Jonny Fritz, may have taken three years to follow up the release of their first track, “Western Movies,” but I would contend… this is most certainly worth the wait. Robert Ellis has released four solo records, including his latest self-titled album, Robert Ellis, in 2016. Cory Chisel has toured for years with Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons, releasing seven records since 2004. Jonny Fritz (AKA Jonny Corndawg) first came to my attention with a gift from a friend, a glow-in-the-dark LP copy of the endlessly entertaining Dad Country. So when you put all three of these already-accomplished alt.country/country/Americana artists together for a proper full-length (also called Western Movies), you are likely going to get something pretty special. And to my surprise, there is the added bonus of an absolutely stellar Christmas song on there – “Christmas Eve at Kroger.” I’ve been listening to this track for a few months now, and the first time my wife heard it – she began to tear up. I certainly wasn’t surprised; This song has a bunch of these little, deceptively-powerful moments. The lyrics are so simple and real, that they feel as though they could have come right out of your own mind. I was hooked upon hearing them name-check Cracklin’ Oat Bran and “watching Die Hard with my mom.” While I would not have watched Die Hard, I most certainly ate that cereal and snuggled with my mom as a kid on many, many occasions. Cracklin’ Oat Bran was that little indulgence that my mom would give herself back when my family was young, and I remember those days like it was yesterday. I may be a bit of a humbug at times, and I know I find interest in the bitterness of the holiday, but I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t also secretly (and sometimes openly) love Christmas – and you can tell these guys do too.

Bottom Line: The heart found in the lyrics compliment the warmth of the recording, as all three singer-songwriters trade off verses in this beautifully delicious song.

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UPCOMING: Say Sue Me – Christmas, It’s Not a Biggie (2018)

Say Sue Me - Christmas, It's Not a Biggie

Damnably
Buy: Vinyl + Digital at Bandcamp

I am terribly torn as to when I should write about this record, and have been putting it off for well over a week now. I have been wrestling with buying a copy, but just cannot bring myself to pay for the shipping. I’m feeling quite poor at the moment, and just can’t do it. I wish I knew of a place in the US that might be carrying this! I will sure update my post if I find one, that is for sure. All I am left with is hope; Hope that I might get a copy for Christmas – and that Santa grabs one before it inevitably sells out – BECAUSE IT WILL. Simply said… if Say Sue Me’s back catalogue is any indication of how good Christmas, It’s Not a Biggie might be – it is going to be stellar. EDIT: I ordered a copy! Bless you Jim!

For the uninitiated, Say Sue Me are an indiepop band from South Korea, and have released a string of fantastic EPs and full-lengths starting in 2014 on a South Korean label, Vitamin Entertainment, and more recently on Damnably out of London. Their most recent (and absolutely excellent) LP, Where We Were Together, is already on its fourth pressing… this band has some heat… and this Christmas EP is limited to 500. IT WILL NOT LAST LONG. Our only glimpse into what the record will sound like is with the title track, “Christmas, It’s Not a Biggie,” having appeared back in 2015 on the South Korean comp, 허수아비들의 성탄절 Heosuabi Christmas. That is one of those releases that I’ve had as a draft post for way too long… so long I forgot I had it as a draft post! Entire comps can bog me down when I normally have just 30 min here and there to try to knock out a post, and I have the thoroughly-encyclopedic Stubby as a role model, which gets me thinking I need to provide much more thoughtful, and complete information on every band. (I am full of tangents today.) Back to the song: The indie/surf pop is jangly and refreshing – a sorbet between courses of sorts – yet the lyrics are melancholy and detached. I totally dig it… but the thing is… I suspect that it is not going to be the best track on the record. Again – just based on how great their last record was, I think this EP is going to be a total highlight of the season.

Bottom Line: BLARG! I want to hear this thing. Perhaps I will do a proper (well, as proper as I do) review when I do.

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Shame “Feliz Navidad” (2018)

Shame - Feliz Navidad

Dead Oceans
Buy: Bandcamp

I did not wake up this morning hoping to hear autotune in a cover of this classic José Feliciano song, but dammit, I should have. London’s Shame have managed to inject this sometimes dusty old song with new spirit, bringing some of the background melodies into the fore and inexplicably incorporating autotune with excellent results. This is Dead Oceans’ second holiday release this season (and it is only OCTOBER!), following Khruangbin’s “Christmas Time is Here,” announced earlier this week. Simply said, keep it coming Dead Oceans!

Bottom Line: Shame shine up an old song to sound all sparkly and new.

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Steady Hands “Christmas at the ‘Vous” (2018)

Lame-O Records
Buy: Vinyl | Bandcamp

Perhaps Sean Huber is better known as the drummer to the punk/emo/indie rock (who really knows these days) band Modern Baseball, but as MB is on indefinite hiatus, we should all now consider him primarily the frontman and songwriter of the Philadelphia indie rock band Steady Hands. After a string of EPs and a compilation release of those EPs, Steady Hands’ have just released (Oct 19) their first true full-length LP, Truth in Comedy, which Christmas Underground is happy to find has a Christmas(ish) song as its closer. The grunge-influenced “Christmas at the ‘Vous” is one of those songs that happens at Christmas, but isn’t necessarily about the holiday – which is just the kind of stuff I like here. I’ll let Sean explain from the track-by-track that he did with Punk Rock Theory:

For a few years, when my older family members were still around and living near Philly, I used to spend Christmas day visiting them, then my family would drop me off at my apartment and I’d go out in the city. It was always quiet and relaxing and felt like you got away from reality for one night. I’ve spent a bunch of nights like this with one of my friends after getting off the road – and catching up at home. The verses are all about moments from touring, and at the chorus I’m back home, living a normal life. A bar in Philly was nice enough to charge us by the lot rather than per drink after a particularly indulgent night and we ended up saving some money that way.

I like the approach, I dig the music, and I think you might to.

Bottom Line: Super-solid indie rock from one of the country’s best incubators of fantastic rock bands, Philadelphia.

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UPCOMING: Aidan Moffat & RM Hubbert – Ghost Stories for Christmas (2018)

Rock Action
Buy: Preorder | Preorder + Tickets to the release show if you live in/near Glasgow

Aidan Moffat (ex-Arab Strap) and RM Hubbert (ex-El Hombre Trajeado), both known for their prolific solo careers as well as their past bands, have hooked up of late, releasing the excellent Here Lies the Body back in May. Certainly Aidan is no stranger to Christmas songs, with Arab Strap releasing a few throughout their run, as well as having his own solo Christmas EP back in 2011. Thus, the two began with an idea for one Christmas song, meant to be a one-off seasonal treat. It soon developed into an EP, and eventually ballooned into a full album. The description sounds fascinating:

“These are the ghosts of love, haunting happy homes and fairy-lit bars; these are the ghosts of memory, of haunted mirrors, pagan festivities, and unforgettable friends. As with this year’s critically acclaimed debut album, Here Lies The Body, Moffat’s quiet, pensive storytelling finds a perfect partner in Hubbert’s intimately intricate, flamenco-flavoured guitar. Across eight new original compositions and two deftly executed covers, here they offer an alternative view on the Season To Be Jolly.”

This is certainly one to be checked out! Available for preorder now and will be released on Dec. 7, which is unfortunately a bit late for my mix. However, if you live in the Glasgow area, you can order from Monorail Music and grab a ticket to their special Christmas release party on Dec. 6!

Unfortunately, they have not released a true Christmas song to preview, only a cover of Yazoo’s “Only You,” which was a Christmas #1 in the UK. The original intended one-off, “A Ghost Story for Christmas,” is the forthcoming single and will likely be released in short order. BTW, I don’t consider Christmas #1’s to be appropriate holiday listening… their version here is very nice, but it should have been a digital extra or something 🙂

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figure “Christmas Eve of 1992” (2018)

Figure "Parakalien"

Sauna Cool Records
Buy: Bandcamp

Should you break down the content of this entire blog, you would probably find that I’ve written 50% of my posts about indie pop. Well, make it 51%, as this new track from Japan’s figure is a beautiful, early Wild Nothing-esque indie pop groove that deserves your attention. Figure is the indie pop project of Yoshinobu Hasebe, and “Christmas Eve of 1992” is off his first release in four years, Parakalein. The song starts off with that wistful, indie pop lofi production (which I love), but what really hooked me is when the song swells with emotion as drums and bass kick in. The production does bury the lyrics enough to honestly have no real clue what Yoshinobu is singing about (presumably Christmas Eve of 1992) here… but the vibe itself is enough for me to love this song.

Bottom Line: Japan has always been fertile ground for indie pop fandom, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to hear fantastic Japanese indie pop bands releasing underground Christmas indie pop gems. I suspect figure is only the tip of the iceberg for 2018.

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Dollar Signs – Another Sad Holiday (2017)

Dollar Signs - Another Sad Holiday

No Time Records
Buy: Cassette (3 left as of posting) | Digital

Charlotte, NC’s Dollar Signs have taken a detour from their usual punk rock aesthetic, and channeled the Mountain Goats for the profane and fantastic Christmas EP, “Another Sad Holiday.” Each of the two originals (“Caroler” and “Selfish Christmas”) are chock full of bitterness, but in a bizarre twist, also express a tangible warmth that is undeniable. The third track is a cover of the Tom Waits’ classic “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” which is a song I do very much enjoy. Dollar Signs’ version feels as though it is sung with a smile, which gives it a wholly different feeling than any version I’ve ever heard. Can’t say I prefer this angle, but it is certainly a unique and interesting take. This EP will most certainly find some fans out there. Bonus – If you are quick, you can still grab one of the 30 cassette copies they pressed!

Bottom Line: “Another Sad Holiday,” Dollar Signs’ loving, smirking approach to Christmas was a refreshing palate cleanser for this world-weary Christmas blogger.

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Quilt “Blue Christmas” (2014)

Self Released
Buy: Stream

“Blue Christmas” has never been a favorite of mine, so the source material is already (and unfortunately) placing this track on a slightly lower branch on my Christmas tree. However, there are some qualities to Quilt’s take on this ol’ chestnut that I’d like to chat about. Their casual country-psych rock approach does not reinvent the song, but the small touches they add, such as the woodsy, chirping noises, contrasted by the a buzzing synth melody that appears late in the track, keep things interesting. Brevity is also their friend, keeping the track just barely over two minutes – especially important with such a (IMHO) boring and overplayed song. Simply stated, this is a perfectly fine version of “Blue Christmas,” one that might fit the bill for those folks out there who don’t have such issues with the original.

Bottom Line: Quilt’s subtle choices are solid – imagine what they could do with a better song!

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Roders “Julen 92” (2014/2017)

roders - Julen 92

Self Released
Buy: Stream

Readers into Swedish indiepop are likely familiar with the underground indiepop legend Nixon. However, those only familiar with Pitchfork-famous indiepop likely don’t, but you may know Sally Shapiro’s “Anorak Christmas,” the main single off their excellent Disco Romance. Well… that is a Nixon cover. Nixon has been around since the 90s, when Roger Gunnarsson set up his home recording studio, and is largely considered Roger’s first major musical project. However… one band predates Nixon, Roders, though it does not get mentioned in Roger’s Swedish-language Wikipedia entry. Roger and his cousin Anders Nilsson started Roders back in 1982 when they were eight, and it also appears to be the only Roger Gunnarsson project that is presently active (despite any Nixon releases you might see coming out of the Nixon Archives). Roger recently (well, this has been a draft for a while, so not quite so recently) released this lovely, Swedish-language indiepop tune on his Nixon Archives Soundcloud feed, and while the production is more traditional pop than the lo-fi indiepop I expect from a Nixon track, the qualities of the vocals maintain the indiepop roots. Snippets of the video that inspired the song combine with a wistful melody, as this song beautifully invokes the Christmas of these two eighteen-year-olds, celebrating a Christmas on the border of childhood and adulthood. This is just the tip of the Nixon/Roders/Garlands/etc Christmas iceburg… so feel free to dig into the feed, or just wait for me to stumble through my reviews.

Bottom Line: Roger Gunnarsson has a long history if quality indiepop Christmas tunes, and the sweet “Julen 92” is a welcome addition.

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Advance Base “Christmas In Nightmare City” (2018)

Advance Base - Animal Companionship

Run For Cover
Buy: Bandcamp | Run for Cover Records (all the vinyl options available)

Owen Ashworth has a long, long history of indie Christmas music. From his early years as Casiotone for the Painfully Alone to his most recent project, Advance Base, he has consistently released solid tunes, all of which (I believe) can be found on his CFTPA/AB Christmas Mixtape (as one long track though). Some of those songs are covers, most are originals, but all of those songs are explicitly about Christmas. Which leads me to this latest track, “Christmas in Nightmare City.” This song is not about Christmas… but it does have Christmas in the title, and is used as a simile in the lyrics. Thus, I could have easily passed, if not for the more adventurous rule-benders that I feel are definitely out there. Owen explains the inspiration for the song in a recent Talkhouse interview, where the song debuted:

“I remember one night in early December, making my way through Gary, Indiana with Pet Semetary on my Subaru’s stereo, passing under the blinking street lights of an abandoned downtown, and then getting lost in the industrial zone. I got pretty creeped out, so I turned off the stereo and just listened to the eerie hum of trains, factories, and refineries rolling past. I was struck by the grace of the industrial work lights, twinkling through the mist. They reminded me of Christmas, and I found it all strangely comforting. That was the feeling I tried to get at when I wrote “Christmas In Nightmare City.”

So, inspired in December, with Christmas on his mind – I say it qualifies. The simple piano melody that drives the song elicits a soft, but constant rain, setting a dreary mood that I’m sure we’ve all experienced during a lull in the holiday season. Owen’s seemingly stream-of-consciousness, narrative style is reminiscent of Mark Kozelek’s latest phase (Advance Base was on Mark’s a label for a while too), but IMHO, Owen’s brand of realism is far more concise and interesting; Owen knows the value of editing. The brevity of the song leaves you intrigued yet fulfilled; This is the sweet spot that all songwriters should aim for, especially with Christmas songs which are often consumed out-of-context to the larger concept of an album. Dreary, yet satisfying, I’m happy to see Owen/Advance Base continue to expand his excellent holiday catalogue.

Bottom Line: An overcast pleasure from one of indie Christmas’ most reliable songwriters.

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