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!
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.
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
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.
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.
What a happy accident. I stumbled upon this little Home for Xmas E.P., and found it to be an absolute delight. Four songs (five if you consider a version without the swears a truly additional song), each with its own charm. The leadoff, titular track, “Home 4 Xmas” by The Winona Project, has this oddly captivating, descending melody that ties the song together beautifully. Klaus!’s cover of “Good King Wenceslas” is a very solid version, with these great spoken-word pieces sprinkled in. You might think that this would be too cheesy, and while I do not deny a dash of cheese, it most certainly works. Speaking of spoken-word, Lumpkin Judkins & The Nom De Plumes’ “An Xmoose Tale,” is most definitely spoken-word, and who would have guessed… IT IS FANTASTIC. The music underneath the story sets the mood perfectly, and the text has these moments of humor that even after multiple listens, would still make me smile. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a spoken-word “Christmas song” like this before, but I know for certain haven’t heard one that I liked this much… that is for damn sure. Finally, The Charles Bronson Quintet’s “Merry Lil’ Christmas” is at its core, a very pleasant instrumental cover of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” but they overlay some captured audio that makes this delicate Christmas classic just that little bit… profane; A pleasant dash of “fuck you” sprinkles on top of your Christmas cookie. What a delicious, unexpected treat from Lagniappe Kernow Records. *Chef’s kiss*
Bottom Line: I rather think that folks will find their own favorite from this handful of tunes, as each has a unique charm that could appeal to you, my weirdo Christmas music friends.
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.”
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.
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.
These curious December 24th releases… I don’t get em. All the Christmas blogs are nearly tucked in for the holiday, snug in our beds awaiting a brief day or so rest before tackling the New Years’ songs. So when a band or singer I really like sneaks one under the door, it drives me a little mad. I want to yell about the music I like, and there isn’t time to yell! So here I am hollering, deep into 2020 and nearly upon this treacherous holiday season (it’ll be here tomorrow, and that’ll oddly feel like a fucking year and half), and I’m only now getting a chance to tell you about this stellar followup to wejzak’s 2016 Christmas EP. Will Ejzak (wejzak) has created a fantastic new collection of Christmas songs (appropriately titled Four Christmas Songs), which crackle with life, beauty and the occasional “don’t give a fuck.” Everything is there that I loved on Merry Christmas!, the sparse instrumentation and the layered vocals, but there is a (dare I say) a sexiness to “Wrap Your Presents” that I wasn’t quite anticipating. There are funny moments, sweet lines, and moving imagery throughout this brief, but beautiful, EP, and I’ll leave it to you to seek out your own favorite moments.
Bottom Line: An extremely solid Christmas EP, and worthy successor to wejzak’s brilliant 2016 Christmas EP.
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.
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.