Who is this mysterious Health & Wellbeing? I can’t find anything on them! Too bad, because I’m jamming to these Christmas Demos and they are quite good. Power/dream/brit pop original Christmas songs. I’m absolutely positive that they are going to be somebody’s favorite from this holiday season. There’s even a little nod to The Rolling Stones in “Take it Easy this Christmas,” and it totally works. These were all recorded in the past 3 weeks, and if these are the demos… look the fuck out for the full versions, because these sound great already.
Bottom Line: Well that was a short, rather shitty review for what are 4 pretty great songs? Well… yeah. But now you know about them at least, even if we know nothing about the band!
I bet you thought I’d keep posting French-language songs… so here’s the latest from Montréal, the English-language romantic with the French last name, Elliot Maginot. This singer-songwriter has been writing original Christmas songs for a few years now, each one with a different tone, but always with crisp pop production and big emotions. Elliot’s journey begins with 2018’s “Christmas Ain’t Enough,” with its familiar rhythms and retro feel, as well as some unexpected, beautiful lyrical moments. Take a listen below.
2019’s “I’ll Know My Savior (Christmas All Around),” takes the previous year’s retro pop production and turns the knob to the 1980s, with a shimmering, romantic 1980s pallet. I’m talking precise synths, a saxophone solo or two, big vocals, and even the 80s staple, chimes – the whole deal. It can feel a bit over-the-top, and it is wonderfully so.
Elliot’s 2020 release, “The Ballad of Mrs. Claus,” also has those 80s chimes and sax solos, yet somehow feels the most contemporary of his earlier tracks. The concept of the song – Mrs. Claus singing to Santa, worrying over him and this whole enterprise – is a concept that could easily have been made into a joke, but it is treated with such thoughtfulness that it is easy to forget that it is about Santa Claus.
After a year hiatus, Elliot returns once more with the beautiful “Christmas on My Mind.” This is his most lush production yet, as his voice turns into a choir singing out over a string section, and perhaps a soprano saxophone or two. However, it is the lyrics that steal the show. That first verse is a thing of beauty:
I never claimed to be a modern man/guess it just wasn’t in my bones I know I used to be so stubborn then/just wandering like a rolling stone Between my endless need for love/And everything I thought I knew I should have known it wouldn’t really feel like Christmas without you.
In each of these songs, Elliot proves to have a wonderful, direct pipeline into some deep, emotional worlds… he must have a wonderful therapist. Please give me the number.
Honestly, there was something about Elliot’s aesthetic that initially made me suspect him and the pop sensibilities he gravitates toward. This is very much not a pop Christmas blog. But there is always something a little askew with him… like in “I’ll Know my Savior,” when he goes pop, he leans in so hard that you start to imagine how big and fantastic it might sound on stage in your local venue. He drove right through my suspicions and busted out the other side. It has truly been a journey listening to these songs by Elliot Maginot.
Bottom Line: These songs feel devotional, without being specifically religious – very much the qualities I enjoy in a Sufjan Stevens Christmas song, just with vastly different production. Somewhat of a revelation, I’m 100% on board with Elliot’s unique, emotional Christmas catalog.
This time of year is when EVERYTHING is released. My Bandcamp wishlist swells with a seemingly infinite collection of things I need to go back and listen to. I start searching regional and genre tags for those gems that aren’t tagged properly… it is a whole lot of work. Perhaps my entries here suffer a bit, as I might not have the sheer volume of posts I could, nor do I give proper time to the records that I do write about. So… let me take a little bit of time (obviously not enough!) and tell you about this wonderful little EP by New York City’s Baby Club.
Baby Club is the bedroom recording project of Josephine Painter, at least that is what I have gleaned from her now-defunct website and Instagram accounts. That, or Josephine is also a painter, and those were just clever URL choices. Right off, the title Naivety Scene is extremely clever, and was enough to get me in the door. The production is quite simple, a slow affair of keyboards and vocals. The droning tones and Josephine’s beautiful voice can’t help me from imagining that I’m listening to a stripped-back Beach House Christmas EP. Everyone, please take that as the massive compliment that I intend it to be. The vibe of this record isn’t going to knock you on your ass (which ,of course, is a vibe I also enjoy), but I suspect there are going to be some folks out there (like me) where Naivety Scene gets under your skin…. and I predict it will be during the chorus of “So It Goes.” For folks looking for something more familiar, Baby Club’s version of “Silver and Gold” will scratch that itch while giving you a simple, beautiful organ and vocals version that could just sneak onto a late-night playlist. I see playing cards in front of a fire, drinking hard eggnog while it plays in the background. Maybe invite me over? I’ll be there in six hours!
I sit here a broken man. After weather reports promised 5-8 inches of snow, I gaze out upon our lawn and its slushy, icy mess, and a single tear ran down my cheek… only to freeze before it falls. Then, a DM comes in, announcing a new track by some of my favorite indiepop Christmas folks, and things begin to turn around. Following the triumph that was last year’s Christmas single, Oihana and Tamu return with “Una noche más ,” yet another shimmering Christmas present. The pulsing beat propels their dreamy vocals, as more synths swirl in to season this lullaby for the year that has passed. I was graciously provided an English translation of the lyrics, and they are simply gorgeous.
One more night the year’s over And we, together, say goodbye One more night you’ll come with me Looking -both of us- for a little love
And the light will guide us to the manger, again And the snow will cover the road as we walk One more night One more night we’re peaceful I see you shine in the dark And the light will guide us to the manger, again And the snow will cover the road as we walk One more night.
Should you find yourself wanting even more Oihana and Tamu, and you will, there is much more to enjoy. Oihana leads the band Melenas, whose last fantastic LP, Días Raros (which I am listening to and fucking loving as I type this), came out in May on Chicago’s Trouble in Mind. You can look for Tamu’s band Exnovios, to have a new record in 2021, but in the meantime, you can rock out to their 2020 EP, Exnovious (Apache), which is also available as a 7″. So much good music to spend your Christmas money on…
Bottom Line: There are few bands I can rely on to send me absolutely anything, and I can be rest assured I will love it. Oihana & Tamu have officially joined this club, as they continue their streak of incredible indiepop/garage/dream pop Christmas tunes.
What more can you say? Nobody does it like this Fowler VW/Blackwatch Studios crew. For nine years now, they have released the most consistently-wonderful Christmas compilation out there. The quality of their releases makes you marvel at how it is humanly possible to achieve. Well… this year… I asked.
The project began with Fowler Volkswagon owner Jonathan Fowler and his friend/marketing partner Mary Ann Osko. They were kicking around ideas for how to tie the recently-opened Fowler VW to the arts community in Norman, Oklahoma. A number of ideas were floated until a Christmas record was settled upon, as Jonathan and Mary Ann were into Christmas music, and Jonathan’s wife was a Christmas vinyl collector. It was in this convergence of interests that the first and only yearly, underground Christmas compilation that is pressed on vinyl was born. They initially began working with Chris Harris at Echo Sound, releasing the first compilation, Checking it Twice – The 2010 Nice People Holiday Companion (Seen in the photo on the right! That record is fantastic!). The project moved over to Blackwatch in 2011, as Fowler imagined moving the record around to various studios in the area, but the 2011 edition (and first dual-branded edition), Fowler Volkswagon presents A Blackwatch Christmas, was such a success that it just kinda stuck.
Of note, that first compilation in 2010 features Norman, Oklahoma’s Samantha Crain, who also contributed the spellbinding cover of John Denver’s “Christmas for Cowboys” on this year’s album.
I was definitely curious about the process of putting this thing together. How do they get these bands to contribute? How can they be sure that the songs they get will be any good? Blackwatch producer/engineer/musician Jarod Evans was very helpful in explaining the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of the whole project. Fowler and Blackwatch will often start mapping out the record in February, sometimes with a concept in mind (A Blackwatch Christmas Vol III (Holly-Tonk & Jingle Beats)), but more often than not, the theme comes together as the tracks and artwork are being finalized. While the compilation has broadened its pool of bands to include many wonderful, in and out-of-state bands, their heart remains in Norman. “The local music community in Norman is filled with lots and lots of old, close friends,” Evans says. “There’s always a deep Rolodex of friends of the studio to call upon.” The approach to what song they’ll record, or how they’ll go about it, is quite fluid. “Sometimes we ask artists to write a song in advance, then bring it in to record,” says Evans. “Other times, we invite artists to just come in with an open mind so we can write and develop something together.” Jarod and his Blackwatch partner, musician/producer/engineer Chad Copelin, will also take the opportunity to write a song, then call someone in to sing or help write lyrics over the track; It turns out there are many ways to skin a cat or write a Christmas song. The loose, varied approach perfectly highlights the important main thread running through this whole endeavor, the taste level that Blackwatch brings to the table. Christmas compilations are notoriously spotty in quality, and there has not been a dud in this bunch. From the planning and production, to the vinyl pressing and the release party, the sheer amount of work and dedication the Folwer and Blackwatch team have to put this record out every year is just astounding. These records are a beautiful distillation of their love of art, music, Christmas, and Norman, Oklahoma. It is truly inspiring.
The 2019 edition, Christmas in Color, is yet another triumph. I am not one to go track-by-track, and I’m not going to start now… too much to live up to with too little time! However, I’m going to pull out a few of my favorites – and please know… the entire record is great, and taste is subjective! You will probably love a song I didn’t write about. So here it goes!
Right out of the gate, Oklahoma City’s LCG & the X unleash the best version of “Last Christmas” that I have heard this year. There are only a few versions of this Wham! classic that I consider listenable, let alone truly love… and they managed to do it with their DETAILS. Created in concert with producer Jarod Evans, the song’s beat becomes funky, with added electro-pop flourishes and what sounds like bongos(?) bouncing around in the background. I am on board for this madness.
After grooving to that amazing “Last Christmas” cover, did I think I would fall in love with a melancholy slow jam? No. However, San Francisco’s Mini Trees, you got me immediately me with those saxophones. The fluttering brass lines have this quality that raises the hair on the back of your neck – a perfect mixture of beauty, unexpectedness, and comfort. There are some great lines in here too, my favorite being, “I know at times it feels foolish / but we all need something to believe.” Capturing a large idea simply is one of the toughest things to do, and Mini Dresses nails it.
Husbands (Yes, THAT Husbands!) are making their Fowler/Blackwatch debut (maybe? They might be in one of the “fake” bands… dunno!) with a truly 100%-pure Husbands’ track, “Santa is a Lie.” Their sonic landscape and wry sense of humor have always made them truly distinctive in the alt-Christmas universe, and this dream-pop dirge is a perfect example of what they do best.
The second appearance of the John Denver “Christmas for Cowboys” is a completely different affair from the synth-driven The Good Tidings version. Samantha Crain‘s version conveys an otherworldly, emotional quality. From the white noise ambiance of an old recording to Samantha’s phrasing of the familiar lyrics, she transforms this song to another time. You’re immersed in how much they love their place on the range; It no longer feels like a song, but a life. Samantha is channeling something here.
There is so much more on this record, from the sexy fun of Colourmusic’s “Christmas Dreams,” to the wordplay of Jake Tittle‘s “Captain Morgan” and the timelessness of Twigg’s “Meltin with You,” this is the best Fowler VW & Blackwatch compilation yet. There is not one skippable track on here… and that is nearly unheard of in the world of Christmas compilations.
Bottom Line: The view from way up on top of the mountain must be pretty great for Fowler VW and Blackwatch, because they’ve been building a beautiful place up there at the top of the indie Christmas world.
This time of year is always insanely busy. My day job keeps me working late into the night, and then I need to find time to write on this blog, and until that magical moment when it is done, work on my mix. With that, I apologize for the lack of content. You all demand content, and I need to deliver-ish. Thankfully, sometimes you get an easy one, hand-delivered to you and absolutely wonderful. Our friends over at Popcasting and El Nébula Recordings have released a new seasonal single by Oihana & Tamu. You may remember Tamu from the fantastic 2017 release, Cantan a la Navidad, which is SOMEHOW still available on vinyl – GO GET IT! Tamu (Tamu Tamurai) and Oihana (Oihana Herrera) are prolific members of the indiepop/indie rock/psych scene in Pamplona, Spain, and if Christmas is what it takes to bring these two together, then Merry Christmas, everyone. It only took me about 15 seconds to realize that I was going to love this release, but get past those first 15 seconds and you’ll get into all the sonic decor. Each side is drenched in beautiful dreampop synths, with their voices blending beautifully on the A-side, “Figuritas de Star Wars,” which is about the anticipation of Christmas, and waking up to new Star Wars figures. (Let’s just say Santa bought a bunch of Lego Star Wars for my 6-year old… I’m feeling this one big time.) The B-side, “Por fin Navidad” (Finally Christmas) features Oihana on vocals, and is pulsing with beauty. The song is about her love coming home for Christmas, and her promising to not let go. This release is destined for many future mixes (hi Tutti Time!)… no doubt about it.
Bottom Line: Dreampop perfection delivered by Pamplona’s best.
There isn’t much info about Moonfire Mountain beyond their short bio, which lets us know that the band contains Harry (from Bear Driver!), Cassie, Jon and Rich. Thankfully, this crew got together and covered Yoko’s “Listen, the Snow is Falling” with dreampop brevity, which I always appreciate. They also tackle “Christmas” by Florence Dore (which they mislabel as a Posies cover). Their instrumentation is what makes this song; I think I hear a theremin! The EP’s finisher is a rocking version of Big Star’s “Jesus Christ.” I particularly like the harmonies on the chorus, and the rough edges of the guitar work. All in all, three super-solid covers for less-covered songs. I sure wish that more folks would give up on Last Christmas, Christmas Time is Here, etc, etc, and branch out. Universe… make it so.
Bottom Line: One of these three, great Christmas covers just might scratch that Christmas-mix itch for you.
(The rest of this review is an aside. Up there… that is my one-word review. Pennsylvania’s The Stargazer Lilies have taken the dreamy Galaxie 500 cover and thrown on a glamour shot-shimmery sheen to this John & Yoko classic. This also provides all you mixmasters with a shoegaze version that comes in under 5 minutes! Perhaps you had forgotten that the wonderful Galaxie 500 version clocks in around 8 minutes…a bit long for me. Also of note, The Stargazer Lilies also have a new record coming out Nov. 1, Occabot, produced by Tobacco of Black Moth Super Rainbow!)
Bottom Line: This song’s soothing glow eased my wordy proclivities… (sort of).
Taken by Trees‘ Victoria Bergsman penned one of the best almost-Christmas songs I’ve ever heard; the Concretes’ “Lady December” remains one of my absolute favorite seasonal (almost-Christmas) songs of all-time. So I was delighted to see she dropped yet another almost-Christmas song today with “Holiday.” The song is less about this seasonal holiday, and more about being able to take your friends and family, shut off the outside world and take a personal holiday from reality. A very nice sentiment, indeed, which only becomes more vital when she describes the reason why she wrote this song (from The Line of Best Fit):
“I felt that I had been quiet for far too long and wanted to say something -that you can flee away for a moment with your loved ones and shut your eyes so you don’t have to see that freak who is leading the US, where I am living currently,” Bergsman adds.
“Just give yourself some rest from all the crazy news that has been spitting you in the face for that last year. Take a moment and be kind to yourself and the people you love, focus on what is beautiful and important in life.”
A-f*ing-men Victoria. This song not only has the kind of sentiment that I appreciate, it also highlights the dreamy indiepop that I’ve come to love from Victoria. As she readies her new record for 2018, pop on “Holiday” and take solace in the quiet comfort of those you love… if for just one moment… as the dumpster fire waits for you on the other side.
Bottom Line: Victoria has taken a moment to remind us that we all deserve a break, cloaked in a dream-pop prayer.
Did you wake up, as I did, wanting a super chill version of Low’s “Just Like Christmas,” sung in Italian? You did? Well, that works out well for all of us, as Vittorio Veneto’s Lullabier has realized our dream with the leadoff track on his wonderful new EP, 2512. The novelty of hearing this classic song in Italian is not the only draw to the song – the laid-back indiepop orchestration is absolutely beautiful. However, it is the small, but significant, addition of the cabasa (at least that’s what I think they are using – the hand percussion), that evokes a crackling fire and draws out a warmth in this song that I don’t think I have heard before. The other tracks are also excellent – I enjoy the layered spoken word of “Natale A Serravalle (Silent Night),” and the English-language “White Dizziness” is understated and gorgeous. Lullabier has made some wonderful choices, and is very much on my radar now, and I hope yours as well.
Bottom Line: Italy is on the board with this stellar cover by Lullabier, whose warm, beautiful orchestration and production has extracted new qualities from an already beloved song.