Cecilia Ebba & Emma Miller – Winter EP (2019)

Emma Miller and Cecilia Ebba - Winter EP

Self Released
Buy: 7Digital MP3 | Apple Music | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Spotify

If you did a quick survey of what I’ve been writing about lately, a lot of the music has been a bit critical, sad, profane and perhaps a bit silly at times. Yeah, I do like that stuff, no doubt about it. Just hook me up and feed it to my veins directly.

But… as I do… I am also a sucker for music that feels wonderfully genuine. 2019’s Winter EP is exactly this – beautiful and genuine. Cecilia Ebba and Emma Miller are two extremely talented writers and vocalists, and they sound so good together that you could easily be mistaken to believe that they do this all the time! But no, London-based Swede Cecilia Ebba and Scotland-based Emma Miller have only collaborated on this one-off Christmas EP! The songs are thoughtful, loving, nostalgic, and fucking beautiful. The leadoff track, “Snowy Roads,” is simple in premise, and brilliant in execution. The vocal lines make turns that you wouldn’t expect, but love, and then the chorus begins and in come these beautiful strings. While I was already taken with the vocals in “Snowy Roads,” we haven’t even seen what these two voices can do together until the second track, “Apple Tree.” This lullaby to an apple tree is a fantastic premise to create a beautiful visual of a calm, snowy winter night, made only more spectacular by their interwoven voices. “December” sounds like a sister to “Snowy Roads,” with its spare piano bed and scaled-back harmonies (in comparison to “Apple Tree”). This one might get you, with its lyrics of lost love, but the holidays are gonna do that to you anyways, and it might as well sound this good. The finale (to me) is actually the next-to-last track, “Winter.” I don’t think there is an instrument on this track, it is all their beautiful layered vocals. This song has some of their best lines as well: “The aches and pains of yesterday unravel in the warmth. / So lay me down in winter snow / and watch it all melt away.” That is some truly gorgeous stuff.

So yeah, they also have a very nice version of “Silent Night” as well. Technically that is the closer… but I’m here for the originals.

If there is justice in the world, this record will be released by a fantastic label on a beautiful 10″ record. I’ve added it to my vision board, now it is up to you, universe.

Bottom Line: Front to back, this record is undeniably good. To have an EP with four original songs that are this strong… this record deserves both your attention and your money because you are going to want to listen to this for years to come.

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I am adding Soundcloud embeds so that they can be indexed by sites like the Hype Machine, but you really need to look up the entire EP on your preferred streaming/buying service. Remember, buying means WAY more than streaming, so go buy.

Swampmeat Family Band “A Present For Me” (2019)

PNKSLM Recordings
Buy: Bandcamp

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.

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Richard Edwards and the Velvet Ocean “Happy Christmas (the whole world has changed)” (2020)

Profound Discomfort
Buy:
Bandcamp | 7Digital | Apple Music | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3 | Google Play

Richard Edwards, known in a previous life as the lead singer and songwriter for Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s, has been releasing some pretty beautiful records for the past few years (largely on Joyful Noise), and his latest, The Soft Ache and the Moon” is no exception. He has teased us with a Christmas-ish song in the past with a cover of Big Star’s “Jesus Christ” on the Joyful Noise Snowflathe series, but never quite so explicit as “Happy Christmas (the whole world has changed.” This song is raw emotion. The lyrics are vivid, brutal, and deeply personal. You can take it from me, or from Richard himself:

“Maybe my favorite song on the album and the most difficult to write in certain ways. It was a little too raw and painful for me, but Dave Palmer, the brilliant piano player got me to do it. And I’m glad he did, even if it hurts a little.”

Richard Edwards

This song is full of dream imagery, scenes filled with fog on the edges – suffering, atonement and just squeaking by. It is not your normal Christmas song, but this is not your normal Christmas site. Settle in.

Bottom Line: Some songs make you both wish the writer never had to write this song, while appreciating the beauty of what they created; This is one of those songs.

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UPCOMING: Murder by Death – Lonesome Holiday (2020)

Murder by Death - Lonesome Holiday

Tentshow Records
Buy:
Vinyl | Bandcamp

Louisville’s Murder by Death released a fantastic, 2-song Christmas single back in 2014 appropriately titled 2014 Christmas Cover Songs. In 2020, they’ve collected those two tracks and added a healthy 9 more release what promises to be a truly fantastic (though melancholy) Christmas record. I’m really looking forward to hearing more, as hopefully they will preview a few more tracks in the coming weeks. Either way, this is one to look out for.

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The Ornaments “Married and Joseph” (2019)

Folkmonger Records
Buy:
Bandcamp

You never quite know what to expect, yet fully know what to expect, when you are awaiting the new Ornaments Christmas single; The one thing you know is that you will never quite hear a Christmas song like this from anyone else. This seasonal project of Mike Behrends and Lance Owens is entering its sixth year, and after we all contemplated death in 2016, we find ourselves celebrating (new) life in 2019. “Married and Joseph” is a brilliant short story, borne out of Mike’s early upbringing in Minnesota attending a conservative Lutheran Church. The characters take part in the classic Christmas pageant, one where their performance is so successful that it leads to sex, a baby and blackmail. I don’t want to give away the whole story, listen for yourself! An added bonus for 2019, the Ornaments are offering up a wonderfully appropriate tote bag in “Lutheran prayer book green.” The bag is wonderfully emblazoned with “Christmas Music or Die Trying.” I can think of a number of folks who are going to NEED this (or be insanely bummed they missed out). Best of luck grabbing one of the 15 (14 now that I’ve gotten one), you weirdo Christmas music fanatics.

Bottom Line: The Ornaments are truly on their own Christmas music island, every year throwing a party and treating us to a fascinating new entree to devour. Delicious!

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Beau Jennings – The Christmas Light (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

Norman, Oklahoma has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to underground Christmas music. Of course, the Fowler Volkswagen/Blackwatch Studios compilations are based in Norman, and so are a bunch of fantastic musicians. One such musician is singer/songwriter Beau Jennings. Having earlier contributed the dark, yet excellent “Christmas Bus” to 2013’s Fowler VW/Blackwatch compilation (Volume 3), Beau returns with a full Christmas record, The Christmas Light. The album is a collection of originals, with a few excellent covers sprinkled in. There is some real beauty in this sparsely-orchestrated affair, most notably in some of the lyrics in the title track, “The Christmas Light.”

“Woke up that morning to ta wonderland
The TV said that school was closed
Mom made hot chocolate in the microwave
We put on our winter clothes
The snow just fell as the day went on
We smelled the neighbor’s fireplace
Inola Oklahoma 1985
Oh if Christmas had a face.”

The imagery is simple, but damn if you can’t feel it. The warmth and love that emanates from that track is undeniable and can be found in the tone and pacing of the instrumentals as well. Beau’s motivation for creating this beautiful record is one of love, but also of loss.

In many ways, I made this record for my mother. She died earlier this year and it’s the first Christmas my family will spend without her. Because I recorded it late October and into November of this year, I suppose it was a way to keep her spirit present as the holidays approached. But it also turned into a larger reflection of how memories of holidays past can sometimes define or refine a holiday’s meaning in the present. I’ve always felt ‘the Christmas spirit’ most acutely when it’s late at night and I’m the only one awake, and so I wanted to capture that feeling as best I could.

Similar to Lachlan Denton’s “This Christmas,” Beau is using his music to keep his mother’s memory alive, and dammit if I’m not getting a little emotional thinking about it. You can’t quite imagine how it is going to feel… or how you are going to move on. Beau shares his journey with us, and it is beautiful.

Bottom Line: Warm, simple and full of love. That sounds like a great Christmas to me.

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Dariynn Silver “Rest Ye Merry” (2018)

Dariynn Silver "Rest Ye Merry"

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

I don’t normally write about straight-up Christmas carols. This is generally a pretty secular Christmas music blog… and if you want Christmas carols, there are a million other places to listen to them. That said, every so often, a treatment just hits me. British Columbia’s Dariynn Silver released a version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” last year that deserves some notice. The vocal melodies are great – her pacing and the words she highlights are truly unique. However, it may be piano in the bridge that just got me. It was just beautiful, and frankly, I thought you might think so as well.

Bottom Line: Who would have thought it? A honest-to-goodness Christmas carol on Christmas Underground. I am full of surprises today.

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Wood Hitch “Auld Lang Syne (Don’t Waste My Time)” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

As we gear up for the Christmas season, I thought… what would be better than a New Year’s song? Hehe. My Christmas mix is a much more of a seasonal mix – I work in December, snow, New Year’s… I cast a wide net. A folk-pop duo from Los Angeles, Wood Hitch have blessed us with the first solid New Year’s song of the season, “Auld Lang Syne (Don’t Waste My Time).” The song is full of booze and regret, as every good NYE should be. They harmonize well together, with the rough edges of Brady Harris’ voice supporting the beautiful pipes of Rose Shawhan. I mean, try not to sit up straight that first moment that Rose’s vocals enter the song; she really has something. And with that, press play and drink up!

Bottom Line: Wood Hitch are serving the first, great pregame cocktail to our New Year’s party.

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Meskerem Mees “Charlemagne” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Soundcloud (FREE!)

Continuing from earlier in the month… when we all enjoyed an extremely short song about the end of Halloween… I bring you a beautiful and somewhat disturbing song that takes place around Christmas. Meskerem Meesi is a singer/songwriter from Gent, Belgium, with a beautiful, beautiful folk voice. I say folk voice, because she does not sing songs that stretch her capabilities, as you might find in pop music, but it does contain that one quality that is most necessary: personality. Meskerem’s voice has a warmth that soothes, even when she’s singing about eyes and dead flies. “Charlemagne” is a fun little folk tale about (IMO) an ex who is going to extreme lengths to get attention. Why did I add that IMO? Because I asked Meskerem, and she says that the song just wrote itself and was very open to my interpretation. So, don’t assume my opinion is the “right” one – take your own stab at finding meaning in this song. Thus is the subjective beauty of art.

(Post has been edited to reflect the name that Meskerem Mees now performs under. I’d imagine “Messi” was hard to get search results on!)

Bottom Line: Meskerem’s voice draws me in on this one. The song’s imagery is quite odd for something that might end up on a Christmas mix, but isn’t that kind of awesome? Can’t you just picture your friends pausing for a second, wondering if what they heard was correct, then just losing themselves in the chorus anyway? Yeah… I sure can.

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Johnathan Rice and Courtney Marie Andrews “We Won’t Be Lonely This Christmas” (2018)

Johnathan Rice and Courtney Marie Andrews - We Won't Be Lonely This Christmas

Mano Walker Recordings
Buy: Apple Music | Google Play | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

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.

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