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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Susto “R.I.P. Santa” (2017)

Susto - Casual Christmas

Missing Piece Records
Buy: 7″ Vinyl | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

I know I’m partial to synthesizers, depressing tunes and the Swedish, but I came across a great, domestic, alt.country song about the season that pairs well with a glass of spiked eggnog, and I thought I’d gather around the digital fire and tell you about it. Charleston, SC’s Susto’s alt.country, drinking song about the death of Santa Claus is yet another excellent approach to what can be a very predictable genre. I’m just loving some of these lyrics: “That jolly old mister was a north pole drifter. / I ran into him once or twice. / He’d say “Hey ain’t the weather / nice this time of year, / as long as you don’t slip on the ice…” / I met him at a diner, / he said he was a miner. / I could tell by the twinkle in his eye, / he was telling me a righteous lie. / That man was a saint.” The imagery at the diner is pretty damn fantastic; there is a spark of story in that small moment that I want to hear more about. The track itself has a great alt.country vibe, lots of nice piano lines and Justin Osborne’s vocals convey the story beautifully. Of note – this track is also available on a limited (to 300) vinyl picture disc, available on their website. The record includes “Feliz Navidad,” which is also featured on Amazon’s new Indie for the Holidays playlist, an acoustic version of the same track, also featured on an Amazon playlist (Acoustic Christmas). The final track is not a Christmas song, but yet another Amazon playlist entry, “Serial Monogamist,” which features on the Love Me Not playlist.

Bottom Line: I must admit – the title had me skeptical. However, with some great lyrical imagery, this drinking song about the death of Santa is quite engaging and enjoyable. Digging it for sure.

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Pauline Andrès “Christmas from Paris, TN” (2017)

Pauline Andrès "Christmas in Paris, TN"

Self Released
Buy: Stream | Bandcamp

Originally “born in France a coal miner’s daughter,” then a Berlin-based country artist, Pauline Andrès has found a new home in Nashville to record her latest album, due in 2018. In the meantime, she has recorded this excellent new Christmas tune, “Christmas in Paris, TN.” The song begins as a intriguing title, and quickly expands into a melancholy, country-rock standout of this Christmas season. One would think that a track about Christmas in Paris would be a song of beauty, lights and romance – but add that Tennessee onto the end and you’ve got a wholly different scene. This song is about being extremely lonely on Christmas, where every reminder of Christmas makes it worse. So, she writes her family a postcard, “Alone for Christmas, Alone in Paris.” It takes a round or two of that line before she adds “Tennessee,” and that delay is so clever and effective – just wonderfully crafted. Her voice shares qualities with Lucinda Williams, and as with Lucinda, the rough edges compliment the lyrics beautifully. The production is wonderful, and the addition of country organ is the icing on the cake. I’m sure this song will find a place on someone’s mix out there, no doubt.

Bottom Line: Pauline has a very dark approach toward Christmas songs (check out her 2015, A Happy Christmas Song EP), and with “Christmas in Paris, TN,” she’s delivered her strongest song yet. Beautifully crafted, on all fronts.

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Boo Ray and Elizabeth Cook “All Strung Out Like Christmas Lights” (2017)

Boo Ray and Elizabeth Cook

BRRB Music
Buy: 12″ Vinyl | 7Digital MP3 | iTunes | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

I think it is about time to mix it up from the contemplative indiepop tunes – we need a palate cleanser in anticipation of the feast to come. So, I present this boozy country Christmas single from Boo Ray and Elizabeth Cook, “All Strung Out Like Christmas Lights.” Plenty of pedal steel, bottles of wine, and some seriously fun back and forth between Boo and Elizabeth. I love a good drinking Christmas song, and this one’s outlaw country vibe is just what the doctor ordered today. Pick it up on vinyl too! Cheers!

Bottom Line: Boo and Elizabeth have laid down one of the most enjoyable country Christmas tunes of…. well, the last few years no doubt. I can’t stand pop country, and they obviously can’t either.

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UPCOMING: “Indie for the Holidays, An Amazon Original Playlist,” “Acoustic Christmas,” and “Christmas Soul” (2017)

Amazon
Buy: Coming soon

Well, it looks like Amazon is continuing their tradition of providing high-profile indie Christmas tunes to the masses via their popular Indie for the Holidays and Acoustic Christmas playlists. Likely, the new tracks will just be tacked on to the already existing playlist, so they shouldn’t be too hard to find. EDIT – Those playlists will be updated on December 1. In addition to these two returning playlists, be on the lookout for Christmas Soul, being released on Nov. 24 via Amazon Music Unlimited and Prime Music.

Some highlights to look forward to…

Indie for the Holidays has so far announced contributions by Kevin Morby, Lemon Twigs, Best Coast, JEFF the Brotherhood, Albert Hammond Jr. and Jessica Lea Mayfield.

Acoustic Christmas teased out a song on Brooklyn Vegan today, “I’ll be Home for Christmas,” a cover by Courtney Marie Andrews, as well as listing off a few more contributors: Josh Ritter, Nicki Bluhm, Sera Cahoone and Lori McKenna.

There is much more info out there about Christmas Soul, as a few tracks have been released (linked below), as well as a large roster of participating artists: Tamir, Dawn Richard, JC Brooks, Joey Dosik, Buscabulla, Spacebomb House Band feat. Andy Jenkins, Blu and Exile, Ural Thomas & the Pain, Demo Taped, The Texas Gentlemen, Jacquie, Jungle Fire, Diane Coffee (!), Major, Robert Finley, Nicole Atkins, Marc Broussard, Ruth B, Davie, Open Mike EagleGemma (feat. Adrian Younge), Taliwhoah, Liz Brasher, The Soul Rebels and Don Bryant.

EDIT: There is also the All is Bright playlist, which is getting an update again this year too. Why anyone is recording “Baby It’s Cold Outside” anymore is beyond me, but Willie’s doing it.

BOTTOM LINE: I’ve got my eyes on a few of those names, but still too early to get this grumpy gus too too excited 🙂 Amazon keeps their stuff so close to the vest (and aren’t my favorite people – I’ve got a history…. ever notice that I push Bandcamp and 7Digital whenever I can?)

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John Ralston – Jesus Christ / A Marigny Christmas (2010)

John Ralston - Jesus Christ

24 Hour Service Station
Buy: Vinyl | 7Digital MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Wow. Stumbled upon this amazing release from way back in 2010… and I honestly have no clue how it eluded me for so long. John Ralston, a member of the indefinitely on-hiatus Legends of the Rodeo, has been releasing solo work since the band took a break back in 2004 . I’ve been dipping into his other releases, such as this 2017 LP, IV, and they are all pretty fantastic. But let’s get on track… we’re talking about Christmas tunes. The A-side, “Jesus Christ” is not really a Christmas song… and while it does have what sounds like faint sleigh bells in the background at times, the lyrical context is just not there to consider it a Christmas song. However, it is still a great psych-folk song worth your time to listen to, and I do like the lyric, “I’m always know / I’m coming home / but I never know / for how long.” The B-side, “A Marigny Christmas,” is really where we really need to focus, because this song is fantastic. This alt.country story of lost love is the kind of song that gives me chills. Its understated delivery of aching emotion is so spot on. From the wonderful use of country organ to the Beach Boys-inspired leadout… this song deserves attention. Please listen.

Bottom Line: Why don’t you send $7 John’s way, buy the vinyl and receive not only one of 150 red or 150 white copies… but also digital downloads with a demo version of “A Marigny Christmas.” If that bonus is not a reason to go directly to the source… I don’t know what is.

EDIT: Please note that I have updated the “buy vinyl” links to John’s Bandcamp page, as he has kindly provided a new link. If you ordered through the earlier link, I recently heard from the folks at the label and it does appear that they can fill the orders (and they emailed me mp3s!). There was just a delay, as they are setting up a new online shop.

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UPCOMING: The Minus 5 – Dear December (2017)

Yep Roc
Buy: Record Store Day (LP) | Amazon.fr (LP)?

The Minus 5 is essentially Scott McCaughey and his band of merry, quite famous and somewhat famous friends rocking out and taking names. I presently have his Down with Wilco on my shelf, which, you can imagine, features members of Wilco. My friend Ned just hipped me to the fact that Scott also likes to hang with friends… and record CHRISTMAS SONGS. Dear December features M. Ward, Ben Gibbard (Death Cab for Cutie/Postal Service), Peter Buck (R.E.M. – duh), Mike Mills (ditto), Colin Meloy (Decemberists), Chuck Prophet, Tammy Ealom (Dressy Bessy), The Posies, Kelly Hogan (The Flat Five/Neko Case), Nora O’Connor (The Flat Five/solo badass) and more. That’s a rather impressive lineup, as most of the Minus 5 albums are… which obviously raises my expectations. The first single, “When Christmas Hurts You This Way,” does not disappoint. It is a downer with a Wilco AM vibe: “When the last one your remember / is the last one you deserve / you look back at all the mistakes you make / that somehow made much worse.” DARK! Love it! This is not a safe leadoff single, and that is what make this a great leadoff single. Hell, I love Nick Lowe, but I’d much rather listen to this than “Christmas in the Airport” – it is just so much darker and interesting to me! (No offense Yep Roc, you continually release Chatham County Line records, so you’ve got my love.) McCaughey can write a great song, and he obviously is respected enough by some stellar artists to lend their name to the project; Thus, if the rest of the songs are as good as this… well hot damn.

Dear December will be a Record Store Day release on vinyl, with an advent calendar-inspired gatefold sleeve on colored vinyl, limited to 1500 copies. It will also be released on December 1 on CD, as well as on your favorite digital retailers (7Digital??? Bandcamp??? They have FLACs!!!)

Bottom Line: Looks damn promising. Yep Roc – hook me up! I want it early! (In a curious twist of fate, most of the stuff I get sent is not Christmas-related at all… not gonna happen.)

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Erik Koskinen “On Christmas Day” (2016)

Erik Koskinen "On Christmas Day"

Real Phonic Records
Buy: 7Digital | iTunes | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

Minnesota’s Erik Koskinen will be on tour supporting Low, and damn… that is a good pairing. Start the night off with some fantastic alt.country as you enjoy a few beers, then setting in the the majesty of a Low set. It is quite appropriate that Erik bust out a Christmas song when accompanying the godfathers of indie Christmas, and equally appropriate of him to make this song downright fantastic. “On Christmas Day” begins with a simple guitar, Erik’s voice, and a whisper of a drum. “It seemed like old times again, / like when the snow fell heavy and the maple burned. / Everyone was happy / and everyone was gay. / They came to me / on Christmas day.” Then the music turns up a notch, with new colors fluttering in like flames from a fire. “You came like an ocean / you came like a wave / you came like a dream / on Christmas day.” There are some truly beautiful turns of phrase here. The atmosphere is warm, the lyrics are beautiful, but it’s those touches he adds to the music that really make “On Christmas Day” something special. Do yourself a favor and listen early and often.

Bottom Line: A folk/country/alt.country highlight of the season, no doubt about it.

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Christmas for Cowboys (2016)

Christmas for Cowboys

Checkpoint Charlie Audio Productions (CCAP)
Buy: Stream | Amazon.de MP3

How about some country music from Norway? Because that makes total sense right? Everything makes sense right now! Well, actually Norway, Sweden and the like have long had a healthy Americana/Country scene. The folks over at Checkpoint Charlie Audio Productions (CCAP) gathered four Norwegian country bands (The Brigade, Helldorado, Flying Shoes and the Tramps), and each band chose two songs by prominent country and americana bands and songwriters. Songs featured on this release were originally recorded by the Handsome Family, Willie Nelson, John Denver, Jackson Browne, John Prine, The Band, Buck Owens, Chris Hillman and Glen Campbell. Those are some big names indeed, though my favorite is perhaps the smallest name (Handsome Family). That said, I am having a tough time singling out specific tracks to feature, because truly, the quality level is high enough on each of these tracks. The entire release is certainly worth your time. For extra credit, check out The Brigade’s Beyond Christmas Day EP from 2014.

Bottom Line: These Norwegians really love this country music, and it comes through.

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Venus and the Moon “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (2016)

Venus and the Moon - Happy Xmas (War is Over)

Self Released
Buy: Stream

I have to say… this isn’t easy. On so many levels, I don’t feel like entertaining anything that gives me pleasure. Nothing is funny. Laughter can feel like a betrayal. Smiling can feel futile. I mean… shit is dark. So… here’s a dark song. I know I said I didn’t know when I’d be able to post again, but this required very little effort and paid off quite spectacularly.

Venus and the Moon‘s special brand of “galactic country” has taken, what I often think of as an extremely boring and over-played song, and made it not only listenable, but beautiful. The slide guitar is so perfect that it makes me a little angry. I know, stupid reaction right? This is driven from a place where I just discovered this extremely easy and obvious answer that had eluded me for so long, and I feel really stupid that it took me so long – You know, that feeling. Don’t let me stop with the slide guitar, the vocals are also impeccable. The honest quality of the delivery takes a song that (for me) has lost all meaning, and you believe them. A wonderful early Christmas present for us all, at a time when we need it most.

Bottom Line: LA’s Venus and the Moon have helped me find meaning in “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” which is no easy task. Perhaps even more challenging, they prompted me to write when writing is the last thing I want to do.

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