Ben Caplan “O Holy Night” (2020)

Rhyme and Reason Records
Buy:
Bandcamp

I think this may be the only time I’ve ever written, or will ever write, about “O Holy Night” on this blog. I don’t normally warm up to the classics, as the classics are classics for a reason… they are done, and done, and done… so to me, they are done. Ben Caplan, this Canadian, Jewish, folk musician has managed the near-impossible… because here we are. On his Bandcamp page, Ben writes about why he decided to record this song, and it is enlightening:

I didn’t grow up listening to much Christmas music. Being Jewish, Christmas wasn’t a big thing in my home [read: non-existent]. That said, we all know it’s pretty hard to ignore the Christmas season; just like everyone else, I am constantly bombarded with Christmas cheer outside of the home. I have to admit that I find a lot of that music a bit corny. Where is that minor fall? Where is the major lift? Where is the bafflement?

I’ve always loved the idea of recording my own take on this music. There are a lot of great Christmas songs out there, but I don’t love all the aesthetic choices. Where are all the violins and clarinets!? I have a deep felt belief that if you don’t like something, you should do something about it. It’s not enough to complain from the sidelines!

I had my first opportunity to dip my toe into the icy Christmas music waters in 2012 when I recorded Fairytale of New York with Norwegian artists Katzenjammer and Trondheimsolistene. On that project, I got to work with a huge string ensemble and a terrific arrangement. On my recording of O Holy Night, I wanted to use a similarly lush and over-the-top arrangement, but take it in my own darker direction. That said, I can’t take much credit. I owe a lot to my collaborators.

Ben then goes on to break down the full journey of this recording – from the intital concept, to the particulars of the recording. All said, he worked with sixteen other artists over four years from concept to final song. There is a dedication there that you can truly hear in the music – there is not a note off, and those notes are fascinating. Ben has imbued “O Holy Night” with power, perhaps unsettling at times, that you did not expect, and cannot deny. The song is stirring and emotional, and it leaves me amazed. I tip my cap to Ben Caplan, as well as the sixteen other musicians and artists involved in this triumph.

Bottom Line: Ben Caplan and Co. have taken white bread and created a bloody feast.

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Stephen Elliott “Cary Baru” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

I feel like most things I’m finding this year can be filed under pretty excellent folk music. This isn’t quite the reaction to four years of post-Brexit and Trump rule that I was expecting. Then again, perhaps it makes total sense – we are all trying to calm our nerves after years of uncertainty…

The latest beautiful folk find is Stephen Elliott‘s “Cary Baru,” a song truly untethered to time nor place. This is one of those songs that sound like it could have easily been recorded last week or 40 years ago. Those first few moments of guitar picking and your mind will ping Nick Drake. Then you quickly get hints of Beatles, and back around to some more Nick Drake percussive bits amongst the metallic finger sliding residue of an early Elliott Smith record. The rhythm and pace of the song is a brisk walk, perfectly complimenting the lyrical basis of the song, which Stephen was kind enough to further describe to me earlier today.

Cary Baru is a short meditation on perseverance, on persisting in anticipation of a moment’s clarity, and on moving between these states. I wanted to compose something that embodied that sense of movement.

While the scene is set during the Christmas season, I initially found the lyrics to be ambiguous in the way that so much poetry is, allowing me to walk down multiple avenues, imagining different main characters, and leaving me wondering where the true story lied. After Stephen’s explanation, the song feels far-less personal than I had imagined, and it blossoms into a more universal story that everyone can take a piece from. This is one of those songs that benefits from multiple listens, so grab a jacket and add it to your playlist – we’re heading out (masked, of course).

Bottom Line: Stephen is learning some shiny new gear while under these COVID restrictions, and it sure seems he is getting the hang of it well.

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Beausire “Christmas” (2020)

Beausire "Christmas" (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp (NYOP)

French folk band Beausire have managed to convince me (with their music, not their e-mails) to write about an almost two minute long instrumental track. Astounding! “Christmas” is off of their latest LP released in September, and it is just… damn nice. Were the song any longer than it is, and I might not be writing about it, but under two minutes and this enjoyable – that makes an argument for a place on a Christmas mix. So, check it out, and you might as well feel the same.

Bottom Line: I’m here for your mix-making inspiration, and Beausire inadvertently are as well. This may very well find a home with you all.

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Andrea von Kampen “A Midwest Christmas” (2020)

Self Released
Buy:
Bandcamp

I stalk some of my readers whose tastes often match mine (hi @tuttijackson), and this totally-hip reference archivist recently bought a Christmas single on Bandcamp… so I was obviously intrigued had to check it out. The song was fantastic. The midwest has been vying to unseat Sweden as my focal point of excellent underground Christmas tunes, and Lincoln, Nebraska’s Andrea von Kampen has helped to further build this case with “A Midwest Christmas.” The song is written from a refreshingly honest point-of-view, which Andrea breaks down on her Bandcamp page:

When I sat down to write my first ever original Christmas tune, I felt at a loss for what to even write about. This year has been tough and disappointing in so many ways for everyone. I wanted to lift the spirits of people but I didn’t feel like sleigh bells, ice skating, or any of the other quintessential Christmas topics were relatable right now. And then I started to think about what really makes me happy and feel at peace during the holidays. It hasn’t ever been shopping or the big light displays, but the simple moments that show human kindness. That’s what “A Midwest Christmas” is really all about. 

Andrea’s description got me thinking about the moments that I appreciate, and none of them revolve around Christmas parties or presents. Popping in to see friends, those shrimp that I never eat, and you all who read this blog and are in the same search for something that moves you at Christmas. Writing this song moved Andrea, and it most certainly comes through in the performance. Certainly a mix-worthy tune, especially with its brief 2:35 run time… brevity is always an asset.

Bottom Line: I feel like my blog is largely hyping up fantastic female singer-songwriters lately… and as long as great songs like this keep coming my way, so be it!

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Sharon Van Etten – Silent Night / Blue Christmas (2020)

Jagjaguwar
Buy:
Bandcamp | Amazon MP3 | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

I love, love, love Sharon Van Etten. Some records I would put up in my top 20 of all time… but I did not always feel that way. SVE had to grow on me… and these two songs, perhaps they need more time too. I’ve heard them before on other comps (these are nothing “new”), but this is the first time they’ve been neatly packaged together. Sharon is fighting an uphill battle with these song choices, as they are songs we’ve heard a million times. She does make some nice choices though, especially with organ and trans-inducing, metronomic baseline on “Silent Night.” The “Blue Christmas” B-side has some interesting vocal phrasing, which I can also appreciate. Overall, these two tracks are stronger than the usual suspects I run across, but I desperately want to know what SVE could create on her own.

Bottom Line: Solid versions of those songs you know, which only make you want a genuine, Sharon Van Etten original. That said… had they released this on vinyl, I would have bought it. They are good enough to own, but borderline mixworthy depending on your mix.

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UPCOMING: Lost Christmas: A Festive Memphis Industries Selection Box (2020)

Memphis Industries
Buy:
Bandcamp | Banquet Records | Norman Records | Piccadilly Records | Jumbo Records | Rough Trade UK

Last year I found myself stressing out, trying to get a shot at one of those Field Music Christmas 7-inches that were at the Independent Label Fair in London. Tweeting back and forth, seeing what connections I could muster… but alas… it was not to be. They hinted that it would have a proper release this year, so…. I waited, and Lost Christmas: A Festive Memphis Industries Selection Box will be waiting under the tree for me (once I buy it). I haven’t heard much off this record, with exception of the Francis Lung track which I reviewed last year. A track or two has been previously out there in some fashion (Field Music and Cornshed Sisters) from off the top of my head), but there do appear to be some new tracks here for sure. If you are really, really curious, you can go digging on each band’s twitter feed, and you are bound to bump in to some 15 second samples of these songs. That Rachael Dadd track sounds bbbeeeeauuuuttttiiiifffuuullll.

Lost Christmas: A Memphis Industries Festive Selection Box (Release Date: December 4)
1. Field Music – Home For Christmas
2. Haley – Like Ice and Cold
3. Warm Digits – Good Enough For You This Christmas
4. Rachael Dadd (with Rozi Plain and Kate Stables) – We Build Our Houses Well
5. Stats – Christmas Without You
6. The Phoenix Foundation – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
7. Francis Lung – To Make Angels In Snow
8. Jesca Hoop – White Winter Hymnal
9. The Go! Team – Look Outside (A New Year’s Coming)
10. The Cornshed Sisters – Have a Good Christmas Time

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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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