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.
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.