Fowler VW presents A Blackwatch Christmas Vol. IX: Christmas in Color (2019)

Fowler VW/Blackwatch Studios
Buy:
 Bandcamp (NYOP)

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.

a bunch of records and a record player
The profile pic from their Bandcamp page is basically the indie Christmas vinyl holy grail.

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.

LISTEN

 

Bossy Love “Christmas Rapping” (2014)

Bossy Love - Christmas Rapping

Something In Construction
Buy: Soundcloud (Free!)

Back in 2014, the Scottish duo Bossy Love premiered their reinterpretation of the Waitress’ “Christmas Wrapping” on the always-excellent The Line of Best Fit. I somehow missed it… and I thought I was on my game back in 2014! Though featured on their Under the Covers mixtape, the song (and the mixtape) has nearly disappeared in the intervening 5 years. Not on Spotify, not on Soundcloud (well, at least this one song is technically available, but hidden), not on Bandcamp, nor available for purchase on Amazon. This may very well be your last time to find this track. I managed to hunt it down from a direct link still available on their Facebook page, but who knows how long they will keep that alive. Back to the actual song! The track is far more dance-pop than the original, which is to be expected from a Bossy Love-treatment. Well executed, but not something I hadn’t heard before. What DOES make this track stand out is the updated lyrics – a character arc of a fuck-up who gets her shit together for Christmas. The story references blogs, iPhones, DUIs, and Youtube – a “Christmas Wrapping” for a 21st century.

Bottom Line: I’m digging this approach. I would love to see more modern reinterpretations of the classics, rather than just straightforward covers. Universe, make this happen!

Zach Malm – The Darkest Time of Year (2017)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

December can overwhelm a tired Christmas-music blogger. Often, the casualties of a lack of time and a wealth of music, are the large compilation and the full album. Singles are so much quicker to consume and write about. Seattle’s Zach Malm was a casualty of last year, as he put out a very interesting experimental, electronic pop record that I did not get to, and most certainly deserves our 2018 ears. There are some damn interesting songs on here, many of which are awash in a Novation Bass Station II synth. Zach’s cover of “Walking in the Air” has a fantastic buzzing bassline powered by that synth, as well as these great fluttering melodies interspersed throughout; It is truly beautiful. Zach’s wonderful original “Magical Night,” is much less electro, bringing in guitars while crafting a beautifully sweet song about a child’s anticipation of Christmas. It is simple, poignant and wholly mix-worthy. Zach’s other originals, “Christmastime is Always,” “The Darkest Time of the Year,” and “Half the Fruit” all reflect the album’s title in a way the sweet “Magical Night” did not. They are dark, but with these brilliant moments of light, such as this line in “Half the Fruit:”

If nothing else, we still have Christmas
If nothing else, we still have Jesus
And even though the meaning changes
If nothing else, we still have Christmas

Zach has created a true album – the “Kid Conversation” tracks are great on their own, but not really “songs” – but they work beautifully, stitching together this wonderful collection of largely original, both in content and approach, Christmas tunes. Zach has nailed it with this one, and you should check it out (as well as forgive me for not getting to this fantastic record last year).

Bottom Line: Zach Malm has created a wonderfully cohesive record – a true Christmas album – beautiful to listen to in its entirety.

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Dirty Nice “It’s All Gunna Go Wrong This Christmas” (2018)

Chiverin
Buy: iTunes | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

As I attempt to finish up my mix… I will be posting a track here and there, likely without as much exposition as I like to provide. Dirty Nice are an interesting electro-pop/R&B band from the UK. There is not much out there about the band – in fact, The Line of Best Fit called them “mysterious” earlier this year. I think that may have been before their names were known… which they are now (Charlie Pelling and Mark Thompson), but still precious little is out there. What town are they from? What bands might they have been in? But… you know what, who cares! They just put out a great Christmas tune about how Christmas never quite works out the way you think. Me? I’ll be working while my family is at the Christmas parade! We all have our holiday hopes, and they rarely quite line up… and now we have a song about it.

Bottom Line: Really love the concept and equally love the execution. Keep mixin’ and good luck. Send me tips.

LISTEN

Le Couleur “Le Dernier Noël” (2018)

Lisbon Lux Records
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

Le Couleur are an electro pop band from Montreal, and while I truly don’t speak a lick of French, I’m presenting considering it, among three other french-language tracks for my mix this year. “Le Dernier Noel,” if Google translate has not led me astray, is a song about a Christmas party with romantic intrigue, booze, and if I’m not mistaken, cocaine. You know, some real Bing Crosby shit. So, if you find yourself like me, in the (hopefully) last 2 days of wrapping up your Christmas mix and need something to liven things up, this might just do it.

Bottom Line: Le Couleur have a fantastic groove, one that makes you forget you have no real foreign-language skills.

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DCR Mixtape #3 – A Christmas Compilation (2017)

Dinosaur City Records Christmas Compilation

Dinosaur City Records
Buy: Bandcamp

Dinosaur City Records… what can I say? Why would you release such a great Christmas release only 3 days before Christmas? This record is PACKED with excellent indie pop (naturally), indie rock, electro-pop, as well as some that forcefully eschew categorization. This comp deserves more than 3 days of listening! I am finding myself fighting the urge to get too specific, to single out any tracks I particularly enjoy, and I want to simply highlight the general strength of the whole damn thing. There is likely a song on here for everyone… and I want you to buy the whole thing. Lets to encourage Dinosaur City Records to do this thing again, because this whole release has left me smiling.

Bottom Line: There are few Christmas compilations that make me feel so warm and fuzzy about them… this is one. I wish I had found it before they sold out of cassettes…

LISTEN

Lullabier featuring Faro “Natale A Ceneda (Just Like Christmas)” (2017)

Lullabier - 2512

Silber Records / VeniVersus
Buy: Bandcamp

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.

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UPCOMING: Fowler VW Presents A Blackwatch Christmas Volume 7 (2017)

Blackwatch Christmas VII

Fowler VW/Blackwatch Studios
Buy: Bandcamp

It is that time of year… and Fowler VW has been hinting about their upcoming Christmas record on Twitter, much to my delight. There are few Christmas releases that have such a high level of quality, and each year that they keep the tradition alive, is a year that the entire alternative Christmas music community can give thanks. Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Breakup are given the honor of being the first track out to the public, and it is fantastic. The electro-pop jam about being together at Christmas has the kind of slinky groove that just might take your office Christmas party off the rails. Eyes meeting over the punchbowl, we all knew Jim and Pam were meant to be together, they just needed “Be With You” to seal the deal. Want to know the rest of the tracklist? Go to NewsOK and give them the clicks!

The entire album will be available for stream/download on Black Friday, or better yet, #BlackwatchFriday, and for those lucky enough to live in the Norman, OK area, there is a big, free party on Dec. 8 at Stash, where the first 200 attendees get a free copy of it on VINYL. Yes, there are copies out there on vinyl… I am the proud owner of 2014’s “The Naughty List,” but these things are tough to come by. They have never sold them online – you gotta grab them from local Norman, OK venues like Fowler Volkswagen, Guestroom Records, The Social Club, STASH, and Tree & Leaf Clothing.

Finally, isn’t it great that these albums are free? And if the generosity of Fowler VW and Blackwatch Studios makes you so very happy… then, as you download this year’s new record, why not throw them a few bucks toward Norman Public Schools elementary music programs, because that is where 100% of donations go!

LISTEN

Kristin Kontrol “Last Christmas” (2013/2016)

Kristin Kontrol - Last Christmas

Self Released
Buy: Stream on Soundcloud | Download

I first came across this synth-heavy (not that the original wasn’t) version of “Last Christmas” via Kurt Feldman, the producer of this track and the driving force behind the equally synth-heavy Ice Choir. Of course, I grabbed it and filed it away. Jump-cut to this past week, as I began to get back in the swing of things, and I came across the Minneapolis-based blog WeHeartMusic (who also did the great graphic above), and their feature about this song (including a download!). Kristin Kontrol (AKA Dee Dee from the Dum Dum Girls) recorded this classic Wham! song back in 2013 as a sort of a b-side to the spectacular Dum Dum Girls’ “On Christmas.” At the time they weren’t allowed to release it, but after the death of George Michael, KK said:

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(Here is a twitter moment that I’ve created showing the progression of tweets – including the reference to “On Christmas” being proto-KK”)

Thus, we have this cool, very Kurt Feldman + Kristin Kontrol version of “Last Christmas.”The beats are slightly amped up throughout the song, and it gives a perfect pacing to a song that I sometimes find just a hair slow. My favorite part about this track comes in at around 3:20, when they bring in these subtle little bits of percussion; They sound like synth bongos or something of the sort. Spot on KK & KF.

Bottom Line: Truly a killer version of THE Christmas pop song of the 80s.

LISTEN

Gotta go to Soundcloud for this. They won’t let me embed it!

 

Soy Christmas “Tinsel” (2016)

Soy Christmas - Tinsel

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

It would make sense that a band named Soy Christmas would have a Christmas song on their first EP, and while the dreamy electro-pop tune “Tinsel” is by no means explicitly a Christmas song, it most certainly places itself during the season. “Up at the top / over the sot — right where you want / this time o’ mine / the causeway’s covered in ice — tinsel and lights ”

Lyrically, the song starts off innocently enough, but be aware, it gets significantly darker as it progresses. “keeping it cool / stepping in real close to you — it’s something to do / just kids on a bridge / someone hopped over the edge — you know the rest / i found a photograph of us in the back corner of my house / i thought that we could work this out — i thought we’d work this out”

This track can be found on this Boston band’s debut EP, Spent, and while this may be the only track that can stretch to your 2017 Christmas mix, the whole thing sounds pretty damn great. For those who wish to hear “Tinsel” from a glitchy, EDM perspective, they also have a remix version on their Bandcamp as well.

Bottom Line: “Tinsel” is an absolutely gorgeous electro-pop tune that, for a lack of a better description, shimmers.

LISTEN