Cherry Ghost “Blue Christmas” (2019)

Heavenly Recordings
Buy: Bandcamp

THIS IS NOT WHAT YOU THINK IT IS.

Manchester’s Cherry Ghost is back with his first track in five years. Hell, Wikipedia has the entire entry in the past tense, so, apparently, this return is more unexpected than anticipated. Their return is a whopper though, with the cheekily-titled “Blue Christmas.” I know, you and I both thought… this must be another crap cover. NO! This is one of the more explicitly political songs of the season. Written only 24 hours before the announcement of the final results of the UK election, Cherry Ghost (Simon Aldred) lays down a song of sarcastic, fantastical hopes shouted into a bag and doused in jingle bells. Dig this first verse:

I hope that Santa Claus gets you a conscience this Christmas
I hope he leaves a beating heart underneath your tree
I hope you wake up to the taste of your hypocrisy
So when you proudly raise a toast to humanity
You realize you turned a blind eye to the cruelty

We all know that isn’t going to happen. But even as brutal as this song is, there is some hope at the end.

We’re only as strong as the weakest among us
We’ll be alright just as long as we have love
We have love

All proceeds go to Lifeshare, helping homeless and vulnerable people in Manchester and Salford. I’m sure Boris is quite concerned about those folks… (how do I properly express sarcasm in print…. hmmm…)

Bottom Line: A short, sharp, political gem indeed. I doubt it will shame anyone into changing their minds… but it is a cathartic listen nonetheless.

LISTEN

Oscar Lang “Christmas is Home” (2019)

Dirty Hit
Buy: 7Digital (MP3/FLAC) | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Spotify

London’s Oscar Lang has been releasing music since before he was born. Being that prolific means that at some point… you take a stab a Christmas song. Thankfully, he was compelled to write an original, not cover Blue Christmas/Last Christmas/White Christmas or some other boring chesnut. “Christmas is Home” is a throwback, synthy, indiepop nugget with a catchy chorus that demands a Wham! worthy video, fully of soft focus and terrible clothes. This song was like a swig of hot chocolate – I’m totally on board.

Bottom Line: Oscar Lang writes and produces so much music, that I’m fully expecting this to be his first (meaning, gimme more!) excellent Christmas song.

LISTEN

Magne Furuholmen – White Xmas Lies (2019)

Drabant Music
Buy: 7Digital (FLAC/MP3) | Drabant Music (CD/Vinyl) | Apple Music | Amazon MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.uk MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.de MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.fr MP3/CD/Vinyl

This record caught me completely off guard. The keyboardist and co-writer for most of the iconic hits from Norway’s pop-powerhouse a-ha, Magne Furuholmen has created one of the most interesting Christmas records I have heard in years. He walks this fine line between the avant-garde and accessible and manages to pull it off incredibly well. An album packed with largely all originals, Magne did not intend to create a normal holiday album; he wanted to make an album that was “an antidote to the ‘schmaltzy Christmas-music which is spewed out every year… a seemingly never-ending stream of cheesy versions of existing Christmas song.'” It was as if Magne was creating a Christmas music for me.

This album can be heartbreakingly beautiful. There are moments, such as in the leadoff track “There Goes Another Year,” where you can find these simple, evocative phrases that just hit you. “In the darkness of December / as the fire turned from spark to ember (<-Wow, what a line) / these are things I will remember / now xmas time is here / there goes another year.” And yet again, later in the song: “What we say but do not mean / every word and in-between / for every manhole in this town / there is someone falling down (<-Damn, loved that line!).” As you can see, Magne is going deep here, not necessarily celebrating the holiday in a fashion one might expect, as he talks about the album as being for those who might not have someone to keep them warm at Christmas.

I wanted to try and make an album which would be meaningful also to those who fall outside our commercial Christmas frenzy – an album which looks at the more melancholic, darker sides to Christmas: broken family ties, things we sweep under the rug, resentment hidden behind fake, jocular smiles – an album for holiday contemplation, not just sentimental decor.’

Magne does not rely on a spectacular voice (I have never been partial to amazing singers, but rather, amazing songwriters), he lets the synths and his lyrics do the heavy lifting. However, every so often his vocal melody just gets me. Like in the hungover “A Punch-up on Boxing Day,” Magne’s voice rises just after that first stanza, “you’re just wasting your time / yyeeaaahhhh,” and it brings this emotion to the song that I wasn’t anticipating. There are other moments where the music makes you sit up and go “shit, that is fantastic,” such as in the final verse of “Caprice Des Dieux,” which is one of the more slow and contemplative tracks on the record, as it explodes with musical color.

There are a few outliers on here as well, songs that does not appear to be connected to Christmas at all. The best example of would be “This is Now America,” a harsh portrait of America from an observer’s perspective – school shootings, border walls, drones and bad loans. “This is now America / oh how little have we learned / This is now America, is there no way to return?” So… not a Christmas song, and damn, quite disheartening to hear how we appear to others.

There are two covers on the record, AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” and The Kinks’ “Father Christmas.” The AC/DC cover appears to be part of the aforementioned outlier collection of songs, songs that aren’t normally connected to Christmas, but Magne is determined to bring them into conversation with the emotions of the season. The treatment itself is pretty damn interesting. Slowed down with synths providing a haunting melody, this is AC/DC much more along the lines of Mark Kozelek’s versions, should Mark have also utilized autotune. The Kinks’ cover is going to be released to the streaming community on a later date… so you’ll have to check back on that one.

This record is a damn interesting listen, one that I’d encourage anyone to experience, and hopefully with multiple listens. I for one, most certainly found new moments that I appreciated the second and third time around. Of note, Magne is also a very accomplished visual artist, and there is a vinyl edition of 200 that he hand-painted. They look to be truly beautiful, and if I had an extra €150… I might grab one. (Wait… they are all gone now!)

Bottom Line: One of the most surprising and satisfying Christmas albums I have heard in a long time.

LISTEN

Francis Lung “To Make Angels In Snow” (2019)

Memphis Industries
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

Francis Lung is an alternative pop artist from Manchester, England, whose debut album, A Dream is U (still available on limited pink vinyl, amongst other formats), came out earlier this year on the always-excellent label Memphis Industries. Francis snuck a fantastic 3-song Christmas release by me last year (which I HAD planned to post a review of soon) titled A Francis Lung Xmas EP, but he was not so lucky this year! I’ve got you, Francis Lung! “To Make Angels in Snow” is a beautiful, perfectly timed (3:02- I love a short Christmas song), an alternative pop song that harkens back to the best of indie-Christmas legends Pas/Cal. The instrumentation is glorious – clarinet, tenor sax, flute, bass clarinet and a baritone sax line that brings up all my RIYL-Ezra Furman feelings of love. A breath of fresh air indeed.

Bottom Line: This song does not leave any room for boredom – the vocal harmonies and instrumentation paint every corner of the canvas. Francis Lung has outdone himself this year. Can’t wait for next year’s (hint, hint, Francis Lung).

LISTEN