Erik Koskinen "On Christmas Day"

Erik Koskinen “On Christmas Day” (2016)

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

Christmas for Cowboys (2016)

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)

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

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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Joseph Bradshaw & Kyle Cox - Merry Christmas from Coast to Coast (2015)

Joseph Bradshaw & Kyle Cox – Merry Christmas from Coast to Coast (2015)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

Nashville’s Kyle Cox has a long history of Christmas tunes, just check out his Bandcamp page! This year, rather than a one-off single, Kyle got together with a fellow musician from Los Angeles, Joseph Bradshaw, and the two put their heads and songs together to create a 4-track Christmas EP,  appropriately titled Merry Christmas from Coast to Coast. Consisting of 2 covers, and 2 originals, I am going to focus on the originals… because they are wonderful.

Joseph Bradshaw’s “Christmas is Always” is an absolutely gorgeous old-time, uptempo country waltz. Joseph’s voice reminds me of Dave Wilson from Chatham County Line, which I would consider a high compliment. The lyrics are truly beautiful: “Christmas is always / it’s ever with you. / When your heart’s full and glad / then you’ll know that it’s true. / So always remember, / whatever you do, / that Christmas is always / it’s ever with you.” In my last post I decried the need some have for pro-Christmas songs… but I’ll tell ya, there has to be a balance, and this song’s pro-Christmas beauty will help sustain a season of dirges.

Kyle Cox’s “Don’t Make My Christmas Blue” begins, and immediately I began thinking – is this an Avett Brothers tune?? I mean that in the best of ways – I know there are some serious Avett detractors out there, but I pretty much adore everything from Emotionalism and earlier. Its simple arrangement, heartfelt vocals, and lovely production blend together beautifully. “I know this time of year can bring you down; / Everyone but you is floating on a cloud. / But it’s hard to feel it, / this Christmas spirit, / when every day you only say how much you really hate it. / I won’t say happy holidays to you / and you don’t have to act like you want me to / No, I won’t say happy holidays to you / if you don’t try to make my Christmas blue.” The Avetts should cover it… and make Kyle a boatload of money!

Bottom Line: The always-wonderful Mad Mackerel first hipped me to this release, and I’m quite glad they did. All four tracks are done quite well, most especially the pair of originals, which are some of the country/folk standouts of the season. Name your own price and send them a few bucks, why don’t you?

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Applennium “Just This Christmas” (2013) / “Is It Christmas” (2014)

Self Released
Buy: Stream/Free

Buffalo’s Applennium have now released wonderful Christmas songs for two years in a row, and we can only hope there’s another coming in 2015. I’m getting antsy to write about the tracks… so here we go.

2013’s release, “Just this Christmas,” begins as the kind of song that my wife would roll her eyes at, as I have an affinity for a Christmas dirge, and she does not. “Santa, don’t bring me some silly toys / unless I can stomp on them. / No child could imagine the emptiness / of lack optimism.” Dark! But really beautiful. The music is a blend of indie rock, folk and alt country, pretty much hitting three favorites in 3:30. The song is not all dark clouds, though: “This holiday just made me believe / that there’s still hope in me.” Melancholy with a glimmer of hope? I’m hooked. (And its a free download on Soundcloud!)

2014’s effort, “Is It Christmas,” is nearly the polar opposite to “Just this Christmas.” “Tonight, begin to trust / begin to take less than you must / let go of sorrow / let in the good.” The music is soaring, echoing through the night and shimmering out of the speakers. As the track builds, the mandolin flutters into the background and the layered vocals float over the music, and you think, “Low would kill to have written this song.” Such wonderful production to a tremendous song. Loving it.

Bottom Line: These songs have grown on me over the past weeks or so, which is the mark of a winner. Everything about these songs, from the writing, to the music, to the production – truly exceptional. Check out their non-seasonal songs too – you won’t be disappointed. 5/5 (You readers seem to like the rating system.)

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The Legends of Country - Its' a Long Way Back from a Dream

Legends of Country – It’s A Long Way Back From A Dream (2014)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

This little gem has popped up last year on Stubby’s, and I really wish I had noticed the subject matter of the release earlier than I did (I’m on their e-mail list!!). The Legends of Country are the indie-pop/country hybrid brainchild of Jof Owen from The Boy Least Likely To. Jof’s voice can make any country song sound indie-pop, so no amount of twang can take the indie-pop heart out of these tunes. Both tracks feature seasonal fare: the title track “It’s a Long Way Back from a Dream” is a twangy tale that spins the story of Richie Burnett, world champion darts player, as he heads to defend his title on New Years Eve. The imagery is sad & beautiful, and when the trumpet enters the mix, the instrumentation engulfs you. It’s pretty spectacular.

While the A-side takes us on a New Years journey, the B-side brings us back home to Christmas. “From St. George to Snowflake” is another beautiful story-song that tells of a Christmas Eve car ride. The lyrics present a modest and beautiful tale of love and Christmas. Its not hard to place yourself directly inside the verses, and the warmth it exudes is palpable. Finally, there is a wonderful guitar line that shimmers throughout this song… and it gave me goosebumps. Lovely.

Bottom Line: The indie-Christmas pedigree could not be ignored, and astoundingly, the Legends of Country have exceeded my already high expectations with these two incredible tales. 5/5

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Noise to the World 2

Noise to the World 2: Converse Rubber Tracks Holiday Music (2014)

Converse Rubber Tracks
Buy: Free!

Converse is at it again! Noise to the World 2 dropped, and while the Soundcloud play count suggests otherwise, they snuck by me once more! Well, for 2 days or so at least. This one is looking HOT! Four of the six tracks have dropped, with two more coming tomorrow (DUM DUM GIRLS with an ORIGINAL SONG!).

For starters. The GRMLN track, “Before December (You’re Alive)” has a great vibe that any self-respecting indie rock fan will enjoy (hi, I’m one of those folks). I love the programmed beats with the acoustic guitar. GRMLN’s got a new record out, as well as some great covers on their Youtube channel – check them out.

Deer Tick have written yet another Christmas tune, “White Havoc,” though the melody is crazy familiar. Fuzzy guitars, dark lyrics and instruments that sound as though they are battling for space – love it. When are they just going to bite the bullet and write an fuzz rock Christmas classic record?

I’ve got to say – These Rubber Tracks releases seem to seek out and find great rap Christmas tracks. The Michael Christmas track, “Pleasant Winter,” has a great backing track. I love the mix of nostalgia and getting some – there’s something real there. IamSu! Feat. HBK CJ & 1-O.A.K. bring us “Next Season,” while not terrible, is unfortunately not my vibe. The production, with the autotune and the tin-ny programmed beats are certainly a rap convention… but not one I tend to be attracted to.

The final two tracks are just about as different as you could get. Torreblanca & Iraida Noriega’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is the only non-original song on the release… and while its quite nice, the only part that I really got into was towards the very end. The vocals & the music swell in an unexpected way, which was quite nice. The Dum Dum Girls‘ electro-pop “On Christmas” strikes me as a natural progression from the sound of their last album, Too True. Synths dotted that album, lying just under the Jesus & Mary Chain guitars… they just went full-electro on this.

Bottom Line: An even stronger showing than laster year’s generally excellent Noise to the World. 4.6/5

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The Linedance Fever - Last Christmas

Linedance Fever “Last Christmas” (2011)

Self-Released
Buy: Bandcamp

Like my fellow friend-in-Christmas Stubby, I too believe that the Swedish country-punk band, The Linedance Fever, have recorded one of the most wonderful and original versions of the oft-covered Wham! classic, “Last Christmas.” I have included a few covers of this song on my mixes in the past, each one quite distinct from the other… and this version joins the Erlend Oye version as the best that you can find. (They also have another Christmas tune, 365 Days of Christmas, and I may review that at some point… and I do hope they make some more.)

Bottom Line: A gem. If you have any taste, you’ll think so too. 🙂 5/5

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Very Sorry Christmas Front Cover

The New Mendicants – A Very Sorry Christmas 7″ (2013)

XPT Records
Buy: Limited 7″ | iTunes | 7Digital MP3

Joe Pernice (Pernice Brothers/Scud Mountain Boys), Norman Blake (Teenage Fanclub) and Mike Belitsky (The Sadies) have created an alt.country/power pop supergroup called The New Mendicants, and are looking to release their first full-length LP on January 28. This would be news in itself, but the fact that they also released a limited, white vinyl 7″ entitled A Very Sorry Christmas Eve is the reason why I write this post! Joe has a history of some Christmas-related songs in the past (see SMB’s “A Ride” and another that I can’t put my finger on), but nothing so explicitly so. Thank goodness it finally happened! “A Very Sorry Christmas” is a fantastic song, the perfect bummer for the humbug in your family (which would be me!). But as with any Joe Pernice project, its a bummer that sounds beautiful while sucking out your soul. As for the B-side, “A Very Sorry New Years,” is the exact same song, just adjusted for New Years Eve. Oddly hilarious to have done so.

Bottom Line: If shipping from Canada wasn’t SO EXPENSIVE, I would rate this higher. I honestly don’t know when I’ll be able to afford it. Why I am telling you about it before I have the chance to own it… I have no idea. Perhaps the world will have some cosmic justice and I’ll get a copy. 4/5

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