Beau Jennings wowed us all a few years back with his stunning Christmas LP, The Christmas Light, and we can all be thankful (it is nearly Thanksgiving!) that he took another stab at a seasonal song – because we all know it is going to be great. “Midnight Service” is a slow burn, with a simple, shimmering guitar line that flutters from ear-to-ear, a delicate flurry of musical snow to encase Beau’s “internal Christmas journey.” The song beautifully captures the transition between a child’s Christmas and an adult’s, and an embrace of something new. This is best captured in his last beautiful lines:
“Now I don’t worry anymore / about the kind of Christmas I knew before I let it come and I let it go / like the northern wind or the falling snow.”
Bottom Line: This song is full of heart and beauty, and is a wonderful addition to Beau and Co.’s stellar seasonal catalog.
A perennial favorite, Kansas Bible Company is one of those bands I always look for around the holiday season. Whatever they touch is going to be a lot of fun, and I can’t believe I didn’t get to writing about this song last year. Wait… I can. The later you put out your Christmas song, the better chance it’ll get drowned out by all the other releases (or I’m completely exhausted). I’m doing my best to make up for missing it… as last year’s cover of “Feliz Navidad” was truly a joyful rendition that deserves to be boogied down to. KBC has a wonderful combination of brass and guitars, and their shared solos in the middle of this song is a perfect example of this musical conversation. Of note – they also properly released “Blue Christmas,” their collaboration with Okey Dokey, which had been previously released under the moniker of The Nashville Country Cowboys in 2016. So add that to your Spotify playlist too… you kids and your streaming….
Bottom Line: KBC can make the telephone book (remember those??) sound fun.
One of my underground Christmas music heroes is Kurt Reighley (AKA DJ El Toro), the fine purveyor of Festive! Fanzine, one of the OG publications in this whole scene. Last holiday season, Kurt discovered Chicago crooner (and self-described queer country singer-songwriter) Andrew Sa after Kelly Hogan (a friend of Festive! and an alt. country luminary in her own right) shared a video of Andrew covering one of my favorite Neko Case songs, “I Wish I Was the Moon.” Andrew’s cover is so haunting and soulful – I was floored. Kurt was writing about a holiday livestream Andrew hosted, which I am so very sad I missed, but it did send me over to his Bandcamp to find out more. There I found a delightful, three-song EP of classic Christmas covers. Yes, covers are never what I am truly seeking out, but I’ll always let some good ones fall in my lap, for sure. On the first two tracks, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town (The Argument)” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas (The Through),” simple piano accompaniment frames Andrew’s lovely vibrato – the economy of the arrangement is quite refreshing and beautiful. Heck, the Bessie Smith cover of “At the Christmas Ball (The Striptease)” has only a simple snapping finger to keep the time. Strip these songs down to the studs, add Andrew’s beautiful, emotional vibrato, and you hear them as wholly new songs. Truly, discovering this small collection of Christmas covers was most certainly an unexpected-yet-expected (parse that one out) delight.
Bottom Line: There is something there in this Andrew Sa’s voice that (for me) is just undeniable. I’ll like a second serving please, whenever you’re ready Andrew. 🙂
We all have been there. An artist you really like releases a Christmas record, and you get very excited. Overly excited, as it is not very often that someone you listen to on a regular basis ALSO releases a Christmas record. Immediately after, the dread sets in – it is quite an emotional rollercoaster, these record announcements. The expectation rarely matches the result, but you just cannot kick those glorious, glorious expectations. However, I’m not going to make you read any longer, worrying about whether my heart was broken or not, as it most certainly has grown two sizes larger after listening to this record. Hiss Golden Messenger (M.C. Taylor) has dipped his toes into seasonal sounds in the past, but O Come All Ye Faith is his first dedicated holiday release. The tracklist is certainly interesting enough to make me excited – three originals, three traditional songs, and three unexpected covers. M.C. recorded the album last fall and talks a bit about his motivation in the press release: “Big, brash holiday music—the type that we hear in big-box stores in the middle of December—has never resonated with me, and this past year it felt absolutely dissonant. I wanted to make a seasonal record that felt more in step with the way that I, and so many others, experience this time of year: quiet, contemplative, searching and bittersweet. The intention was to make a seasonal record with vibe.”
I am now awaiting my “Peak vinyl” version, which contains a 6-track dub reinterpretation of HGM titled The Sounding Joy: Hiss Golden Messenger Meets Revelators on South Robinson Street. However, I have jumped in and checked it out on Spotify, and you can probably already imagine my takeaways. First, you know I’m digging the originals. The lead track “Hung Fire” is lyrically haunting and beautiful, with life-affirming saxophones sprinkled throughout. “Grace” kicks in and you’ll be excused if you begin clapping your hands to the rhythm, as this is a spiritual, with a choir and everything. “By the Lights of St. Stephen” is a wonderful country trot, a story-song with a catchy chorus. All three are truly worthy of inclusion in any holiday mix, and the glutton inside me wants more, more, more. However, M.C. leaves us only with that snack. The rest of the meal might not have the spice of a brand-new holiday song, but don’t worry, his flavoring is truly inspired.
The first cover on the record is Spiritualized’s “Shine a Light,” is beautifully arranged and a welcome new track to be claimed by the holiday music canon. Woody Guthrie’s “Hanukkah Dance” is full of foot-stomping, hand-clapping, and fiddle solos – perfectly executed and joyous. If you haven’t already noticed the theme of light being at the fore of this record yet, then the cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “As Long As I Can See the Light” will… “shine a light” (callback!) on that for you. The waves of warmth exuding from this song would be one of those goosebump-inducing moments, should we ever be able to experience it live.
Here at Christmas Underground, I admit I shy away from traditional covers. We’ve all heard them, and rarely are they dressed up in interesting clothes. M.C., however, does not disappoint. Oddly, it is the title track, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” that stays closest to the melody and phrasing we might expect, while “Joy to the World” and most especially (and astoundingly) “Silent Night” sound incredibly new and fresh. M.C. makes these small choices, highlighting one word or another or ending phrases in unexpected places so frequently, that you leave feeling invigorated. Despite the gentle, beautiful production, your brain is buzzing and delights in the unexpected. Truly lovely stuff.
I feel like M.C. is one of us.
Bottom Line: Put this on and let it play. This record is one of the best, most listenable Christmas records I’ve heard in a good while.
Gainesville’s Rusty Spork has created this DIY folk Christmas EP that, in its simplicity and its subtle phrasing choices has made some very trite songs (Jingle Bells, Silver Bells, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas) sound fresh and easy. The recordings are intimate, letting you hear the setup and the fuck-up, and it helps to draw you in, to maybe pull up a chair. A cover of the Jason Mraz & Justin Bieber mashup, “Mistletoe (I’m Yours),” is far less cloying than the saccharine sweet originals, rounding out a record that might not knock your socks off, but might certainly cause you to put on your most comfortable pair.
Bottom Line: There aren’t many ornaments on this tree, but it makes the room feel pretty damn cozy.
Ever since I first discovered Kid Canaveral about five years ago, Lost Map has been a label that I continue to obsess over. I covet their Visitations series, as well as nearly every release they put out – they just have excellent taste in music (and their graphic design is phenomenal too – RESPECT!) and I wish I had all the money in the world to buy everything and then pay the shipping to the States. International shipping is just a killer, and keeps on record blocking me… I shake my fist at you shipping costs! Thankfully their postcards do not cost as much to ship, as I have partaken in a limited-edition Pictish Trail Christmas postcard in the past. That is a deep cut that I relished putting on last year’s Christmas mix. This year was even better, with a full Christmas compilation postcard from our Scottish friends! So, you buy the postcard (or simply, the digital download) and you get nine tracks from Lost Map bands. First off, you may notice the similarity between three tracks, all with the same title, “I Remember Xmas.” This song may even SOUND familiar to longtime readers of the blog, as I covered it back during the song’s first incarnation, as performed by Marble Gods. Marble Gods soon became Happy Spendy, and Happy Spendy’s woodwind wing, Happy Clarinetty, grabbed the song as well. Thus the compilation features THREE versions of the same great song! I’m totally OK with this, as obviously, I’m a fan of the song. The Happy Clarinetty is, as you might imagine, the most sonically distinct of the three, and a welcome addition.
A.R. Pinewood features quite heavily on this release with three songs on the record… and while I would like to give you some background on him as well, I’m just going to defer to the press release:
A.R. Pinewood is the heartbroken cyber-cowboy you’ve been dreaming of. Fully loaded with a baseline encyclopaedia of American musical influences from Abner Jay to Woody Guthrie and Buckweat Zydeco, built with a harmonica for an oesophagus, a pitch-perfect auto-tuned voice, double-denim as standard and a strangely human heart, this machine writes classics, every time.
This cyber-cowboy indeed does write classics, every time, as my favorite track off an already fantastic record is the beautiful “Tis the Season.” The pitch modification on A.R.’s tracks is initially sonically curious, but I quickly settled in to the lyrics: “Tis the season for lovesick fools.” That is one incredible line. A.R.’s cover of “Silent Night” is solid, with his vocal tweaks being the most interesting aspect of the performance until his lonely guitar is joined by a heavenly host of additional voices and instrumental colors. The song most certainly gets better as it progresses, just as a song should – especially one you already know so well. A.R.’s final contribution is the groovy “This Year,” with its’ big, singalong chorus, it is most certainly a crowd-pleaser. Three great tracks, but what more can you expect – he was programmed to do this!
Friends of the Guinness jump in the mix with two tracks, and you might be asking – who the heck are these people? I googled ’em and came up with NOTHING. Well, they are a new supergroup! Martha Ffion and Eimear from Happy Spendy, accompanied by Romeo Taylor, Craig and Beth from Savage Mansion and Ryan from Catholic Action have joined forces for this Google-challenged band, and these two tracks are their first releases. This band really knows their way around a chorus, which is that most addictive of musical drugs. “Ciara” is a snowy tale of lost love with a catchy chorus that almost tricks you into thinking you’re singing a happy song. “Town for Tomorrow” begins with this classic sound, but the keyboard melody snaps the song out of the past. I found the song is best experienced loud, so when those big chords of the chorus hit, they overwhelm. What a fantastic introduction to this new band, and I can’t wait to see what they do next.
Last, but certainly not least, London’s Fell has created this incredible dayglow indiepop Christmas song that is bound to move your ass. This song shimmers, but the music doesn’t overwhelm the lyrics, which include some incredible lines like “You know you’ve only come to get drunk on a memory.” Incredible from top to bottom, start to finish, Fell’s “Fear of Christmas” is indiepop perfection.
Lost Map has nailed it. Pick up 2 postcards and send them to a friend, and even better… subscribe to the Postmap Club!
Bottom Line: Rarely do I tackle an entire compilation, but this one was too good to pass up.
Ah yes… one of those songs that I just couldn’t get off my ass to write about. One of the best songs of the year, perhaps? Don’t know what my deal was! “A Present for Me” by Swampmeat Family Band brings beautiful slide guitar with perfect brass accents, which make me want to listen to this song over and over again. The song is short, sweet and lovely… just like this review.
Bottom Line: A wonderful nugget of a song. FYI, I often call my son a nugget. I fucking love nuggets.
Hot tip. Just follow a bunch of folks from Oklahoma City, and you’ll find some great Christmas music. The latest, courtesy of Beau Jennings’ (who has his own great xmas record) Twitter account, is Chase Kerby‘s “Angels in the Snow.” There is so much going for this song: Chase’s voice has an authentic quality (which makes all the difference in folk music), and his songwriting is damn clever. “The little drummer boy is clocking out at six / he’s got to make it in time to pick up his kid / oh the wise men have been stuck in traffic for days / it would be nice if they saw a star on the way.” You are just going to have to listen to it, because I’m busy trying to finish my mix today. Hell, I’m 100% positive that this is going to end up on someone’s mix, because it is most certainly mix-worthy.
Bottom Line: Oklahoma City, with Beau Jennings, Chase Kerby, and the Fowler/Blackwatch Christmas comp (FULL REVIEW COMING SOON) is the epicenter of excellent Christmas music. There is no rival this year.
There is no perfect release schedule when it comes to Christmas music. SO MUCH comes out in such a SMALL AMOUNT OF TIME, that no artist can be sure that their song will have the time to break through the flurry of competing songs. Last year’s fantastic track by Johnathan Rice and Courtney Marie Andrews is a prime example of this problem. Here we have two notable artists collaborating on a fantastic song, and I didn’t hear a peep about it until stumbling upon it a few months ago. The song tells the story of immigrants trying to make a better life, but instead, get caught up in Trump’s child jails. You know, the kind of track to put next to “Santa Baby” on your mix.
Johnathan gave some context to the writing of this song on his Facebook page last December. You would think that after a year passed, things would be looking better… but alas, this story could have been written yesterday:
This song is a story I wrote with Jason Boesel and Courtney Marie Andrews. It’s about a child and his mother trying to make it to the other side of the border. Reasons beyond their control intervene, and they don’t make it. This song is my way of calling attention to the current humanitarian crisis taking place at our border with Mexico. Like many of you, I was devastated by the images in the press of mothers being gassed, of little children in cages sleeping on foil blankets. Believe me – as bad as those images are – the worst is yet to come if we do not act immediately.
A few months ago I traveled down to the U.S.-Mexico border with a group of like-minded people to learn more about the situation, and hear about how to help. I started writing this song on the bus ride home. It was recorded in LA a few weeks ago.
Johnathan finished his post with a pitch to donate to Al Otro Lado, whose border rights program “hosts know-your-rights training and legal orientation workshops in migrant shelters in Tijuana, Mexico, and provides direct legal representation to detained asylum seekers in Southern California.” So, if you are so inclined, you can donate here.
Bottom Line: The story is moving and Johnathan and Courtney’s voices blend beautifully. Should you want to add a little bit of humanity to a normally sugary-sweet holiday mix, look no further than this song.
John Ralston, the frontman of Invisible Music, has previously been featured on this blog with his brilliant Jesus Christ/A Marigny Christmas 7″, as well as on my 2017 Christmas mix, Snow Man. Today, we round out his seasonal selections with the emotional “When the Lights,” from their 2012 self-titled album. This is an alt.country ballad about how the holidays can amplify how much you miss someone; a sentiment that, for most people, is quite relatable. The lyrics are quite beautiful:
When the lights start spinning / hold on tight, it’s just the beginning
I’ve been there before / my face on the floor / passed over and frozen in time / I loved you much more before you started to read me my rights
Christmas lights all shining / down on us with their good tidings / there’s a chill in the air / I forgot my coat there / on the hotel room chair by the door / I’m just not that sure that it’s possible to miss you much more
The song is simple, poignant, and relatable – super solid stuff. For you vinyl folks (like me!), you may be interested to know that you can pick up the entire record (limited to 300) for only $12. Even a miser a like Scrooge can’t complain about that price. (Hoping they might make it available as a single-track download, for now, it is part of the whole album. The record sounds great though!)
Bottom Line: John’s got a touch for these emotional Christmas songs. If you’re reading my blog, you likely appreciate that. Hope you enjoy.