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

 

Randolph’s Leap “Christmas, Burn it All” (Featuring the Olive Grove All-Stars) (2019)

Olive Grove Records
Buy: Bandcamp

Scottish! Horns! Politics! Beloved musicians! Randolph’s Leap and the Olive Grove All-Stars have checked off every single required box for me to love them. “Christmas, Burn it All” is a cathartic release of frustration with a big chorus. “It’s Christmas time and all your heroes are dead / So love yourself, your family and friends tonight instead / It’s Christmas time and all your dreams are gone / But Santa’s on his way to bring a new and hopeful dawn.” EPIC! You think this thing is going to be bleak, and only bleak when you hear that first line – but then bam! – there is Love. In two short lines, your perception of what this song is going to be is flipped. I haven’t even gotten to the part that truly hooked me. The verse with Daniel Johnston was just so damn touching, I continue to be destroyed by it. “It’s Christmas time and all your heroes are dead / The ghost of Daniel Johnston came and hovered by my bed / We talked about some random things then finally he said / Merry Christmas and True Love Will Find You In The End.” That verse made this song undeniable. AND THEN CAME THE ENDING. Horns ring out with “Burn it all, throw it all in the fire / It’s Christmas day / a new age is on the way!” To finish with an explosion is pretty much the best way to go.

Bottom Line: This song is the first EPIC Christmas song of 2019, and perhaps the last and greatest one of the decade.

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Jenny Owen Youngs “Maybe Next Year” (2019)

Fisher And Porcupine
Buy: Bandcamp

The other half of my favorite (title) song off of Chris Farren’s brilliant Like a Gift from God or Whatever,” Jenny Owen Youngs has a Christmas song of her own this year. “Maybe Next Year” is one of those Christmas songs drenched in emotion. There is no rocking around the Christmas tree, this song makes you FEEEEEEELLLL. The best way I can describe it is that I feel the same way listening to Elliott Smith. Some of those early songs are heartbreaking, but because you feel it so deeply, you feel more alive. So, live a little and check out this song.

Bottom Line: Sad songs are the best, and scientifically proven to make you feel better.

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Chase Kerby “Angels in the Snow” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (FREE!)

Hot tip. Just follow a bunch of folks from Oklahoma City, and you’ll find some great Christmas music. The latest, courtesy of Beau Jennings’ (who has his own great xmas record) twitter account, is Chase Kirby’s “Angels in the Snow.” There is so much going for this song: Chase’s voice has an authentic quality (which makes all the difference in folk music), and his songwriting is damn clever. “The little drummer boy is clocking out at six / he’s got to make it in time to pick up his kid / oh the wise men have been stuck in traffic for days / it would be nice if they saw a star on the way.” You are just going to have to listen to it, because I’m busy trying to finish my mix today. Hell, I’m 100% positive that this is going to end up on someone’s mix, because it is most certainly mix-worthy.

Bottom Line: Oklahoma City, with Beau Jennings, Chase Kirby and the Fowler/Blackwatch Christmas comp (FULL REVIEW COMING SOON) is the epicenter of excellent Christmas music. There is no rival this year.

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a Drift “Make Christmas Great Again” (2019)

Le Jean Luc Tobine’s Official Fan Club
Buy: Bandcamp

One of my absolute favorite finds ever was the Christmas EP put out by Jean Luc Tobine’s Official Fan Club, which is SOMEHOW still available. I mean come on. Any self-respecting alternative Christmas fan should own that thing. Well, they have also released two great Christmas singles by the Basse-Normandie band a Drift. The first one was lovingly reviewed on this very blog back in 2015, and the lastest…….. well here it is. I know, what a twist! “Make Christmas Great Again” is an obvious jab at our orange leader, just based on the title alone. However, just to be sure, the song begins with “Once in the biggest tower of the biggest town, / Lived the richest boy who never asked for what he had.” I do believe that fits the biography. However, there may be hope for this young boy. He proceeds to ask for Santa to make a wonderful Christmas for him, his family and friends. While a bit self-centered, not a terrible request from this young boy. However, as Christmas arrives and he is sitting there alone, his true nature is revealed and things take a turn toward the megalomaniacal.

Make Christmas Great Again
Make Christmas Great Again
I want a big big party
I wanna be adored
I want them to scream my name
and ask for more

Make Christmas Great Again
Make Christmas Great Again
Build a wall around the house
so they can’t get out,
and I can play with them
until new year strikes.

One could say that I love a good political Christmas song… and they would be right. A Drift’s deft ability to set the scene, then twist the knife stands in both contrast and compliment to the doo-wop indiepop groove. It is a big smile while flipping the bird, and sometimes those are the best.

Bottom Line: Political indiepop from our sharp-tongued brothers in arms.

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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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Brittain Ashford & Matt Bauer “Tinsel and Snow” (2018)

Commodore Trotter / Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly
Buy: Bandcamp

I am not the kind of blogger who seeks out a great voice. So many of my favorite singers couldn’t sing (How I miss David Berman), but even I can still fall for a voice. Ball of Wax Audio Quarterly is a fantastic blog and music-compiler based in Seattle, and their most recent release is Ball of Wax 58: The Ball of Wax Winter Spectacular, featuring this truly beautiful song by Brittain Ashford & Matt Bauer. Honestly, I’m having a tough time describing Brittain’s voice in a better manner than Ball of Wax did:

The teller of this tale is Broadway star and thematic alchemist* Brittain Ashford. With a voice that balances diaphragmatic force with childlike vulnerability, Ashford paints the sort of holiday portrait that those of us who suffer from melancholy particularly this time of year can appreciate and empathize with, and what’s more—what we need most during the dark season—she infuses every line with a tattered but palpable hope.

This song was almost too pretty for me… but those distinctive qualities of Brittain’s vocal delivery were undeniable. The music is also quite lovely, but after learning of composer Matt Bauer‘s folk and banjo background, I am SO intrigued to hear a version with banjo. Damn that could be cool.

Edit: Turns out this song was initially released in 2018 on an EP, Tinsel and Snow & Other Mid-Winter Missives. Go check it out!

Bottom Line: Like Messi’s “Charlamagne,” this song is defined by a beautiful and distinctive voice.

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Don’t Call Me Ishmael “Mary and Joseph” (2015)

Don't Call me Ishmael Dark Christmas E.P.

DROMA Records
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP) | Bandcamp (Compilation)

Stafford, England’s Don’t Call Me Ishmael are big fans of Christmas. I’m honestly amazed that I had not discovered them until this year, as they have multiple Christmas EPs, with releases every year since 2015. I’ve got a lot to choose from, but the song I’m going to highlight is the beautiful, and powerful, “Mary and Joseph,” off of 2015’s Dark Christmas EP. What immediately caught me was this sensation that I’m hearing an amazing Billy Bragg Christmas song. I’ve got this live Billy Bragg record that has been in my CD changer (yes, I have one) for YEARS… I stress, YEARS, because it always seems to pop on when my soul needs it. “Mary and Joseph” scratches that same itch. No accompaniment, just two voices reminding us to be grateful for what we have at Christmas. I’m most certainly looking forward to their upcoming Christmas release slated for Monday, December 9th. Follow them on Facebook, their label on Bandcamp, etc, to be the first to hear it! And dig into those older tracks too!

Bottom Line: Powerful simplicity in the vein of Billy Bragg… which is high praise.

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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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Messi “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. Messi 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. Messi’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 Messi, 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.

Bottom Line: Messi’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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