After a long absence, Detroit’s The Strange Echo (fka Computer Perfection) have begun making fun noises again. Earlier in the year, they shared 2 tracks they recorded with Camelot Six, including a fantastic cover of the Talking Heads’ “This Must be the Place (Naive Melody).” I saw this come through my Soundcloud feed, got very excited, but then saw that they were originally recorded back in 2010. Crestfallen, I sunk back into the Soundcloud black hole… hoping for a light to flicker once more. Then, a few weeks back, some instrumental tracks began showing up on their profile (since deleted). From the title… it really suggested a holiday/Christmas song. Well.. what do you know. The indiepop goodness of “We Can Weather Winter” was released today, and I’m quite happy to have The Strange Echo grace my blog once more. The steady drum beat, the walking keyboard melody, and the slow swing of the bassline evoke the calming slow repetition of falling snow. What a lovely return – may we have many more visits from you.
Bottom Line: In a day of comebacks (Cherry Ghost), The Strange Echo has returned with a beautiful wintery gift.
Manchester’s Cherry Ghost is back with his first track in five years. Hell, Wikipedia has the entire entry in the past tense, so, apparently, this return is more unexpected than anticipated. Their return is a whopper though, with the cheekily-titled “Blue Christmas.” I know, you and I both thought… this must be another crap cover. NO! This is one of the more explicitly political songs of the season. Written only 24 hours before the announcement of the final results of the UK election, Cherry Ghost (Simon Aldred) lays down a song of sarcastic, fantastical hopes shouted into a bag and doused in jingle bells. Dig this first verse:
I hope that Santa Claus gets you a conscience this Christmas
I hope he leaves a beating heart underneath your tree
I hope you wake up to the taste of your hypocrisy
So when you proudly raise a toast to humanity
You realize you turned a blind eye to the cruelty
We all know that isn’t going to happen. But even as brutal as this song is, there is some hope at the end.
We’re only as strong as the weakest among us
We’ll be alright just as long as we have love
We have love
All proceeds go to Lifeshare, helping homeless and vulnerable people in Manchester and Salford. I’m sure Boris is quite concerned about those folks… (how do I properly express sarcasm in print…. hmmm…)
Bottom Line: A short, sharp, political gem indeed. I doubt it will shame anyone into changing their minds… but it is a cathartic listen nonetheless.
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.
This time of year is always insanely busy. My day job keeps me working late into the night, and then I need to find time to write on this blog, and until that magical moment when it is done, work on my mix. With that, I apologize for the lack of content. You all demand content, and I need to deliver-ish. Thankfully, sometimes you get an easy one, hand-delivered to you and absolutely wonderful. Our friends over at Popcasting and El Nébula Recordings have released a new seasonal single by Oihana & Tamu. You may remember Tamu from the fantastic 2017 release, Cantan a la Navidad, which is SOMEHOW still available on vinyl – GO GET IT! Tamu (Tamu Tamurai) and Oihana (Oihana Herrera) are prolific members of the indiepop/indie rock/psych scene in Pamplona, Spain, and if Christmas is what it takes to bring these two together, then Merry Christmas, everyone. It only took me about 15 seconds to realize that I was going to love this release, but get past those first 15 seconds and you’ll get into all the sonic decor. Each side is drenched in beautiful dreampop synths, with their voices blending beautifully on the A-side, “Figuritas de Star Wars,” which is about the anticipation of Christmas, and waking up to new Star Wars figures. (Let’s just say Santa bought a bunch of Lego Star Wars for my 6-year old… I’m feeling this one big time.) The B-side, “Por fin Navidad” (Finally Christmas) features Oihana on vocals, and is pulsing with beauty. The song is about her love coming home for Christmas, and her promising to not let go. This release is destined for many future mixes (hi Tutti Time!)… no doubt about it.
Bottom Line: Dreampop perfection delivered by Pamplona’s best.
Sometimes, a groove is all I need. Cambridge indiepop band Death to Slow Music dropped a 2-song single over the weekend, and I am finding myself really moving to the b-side, “Like Christmas.” It’s later-Pavement-era indie rock, which is a time that still holds a soft spot in my music criticism heart. There isn’t too much to the lyrics, but in all fairness, they hatched this whole “Christmas song” idea about two weeks ago. The groove works, so I’m digging it. I’ll take an original with great music over a boring cover any day.
Bottom Line: Sometimes I just need that SOUND, and Death to Slow Music deliver it.
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.
Did you know… that Christmas can also be someone’s birthday? True story. I know this guy, legend has it he was born then. I’m sure that science and well known pagan traditions will not prove that wrong. However, there is a little-known fact that other folks also have their birthday on the 25th… it’s true (hehe). Well, we finally have a song for them! NYC indiepop band (well, one guy who sings and plays everything!) The Color Bars‘ released this great indiepop/doo-wop, supremely-secular Christmas/birthday song back in 2017, and I don’t shy away from digging back a few years to bring out the good stuff. I was initially not too sure about going full doo-wop, but after a couple listens, me and the boys began performing it for dimes on the corner, and it just stuck. Those first few lyrics are pretty great:
I’m not one for Christmas wreaths, eggnog or Christian beliefs
But I still love Christmastime and there’s one primary reason
Merry Christmas it’s your birthday, baby it’s true
I’m not talking bout Jesus, I’m talking bout you
‘Cause Christmas is your birthday and it’s almost here
And I’m giving my heart to you for Christmas this year
Merry Christmas it’s your birthday
Written for a woman who bears the burden of a December 25th birthday, “Merry Christmas It’s Your Birthday” is a pretty fantastic birthday (or Christmas? or both? I’ve just gone cross-eyed) present indeed.
Bottom Line: This song is certainly an excellent new approach to celebrating on the 25th, for whichever reason you happen to do so.
My favorite track off of last year’s A Very Cherry Christmas 13 (still available!) has been re-released with a new “Bah Humbug” version! The Happy Somethings‘ ode to being miserable on Christmas an odd delight. I absolutely love the groove in this song. Putting together your mix? Need a dance break with bleak lyrics? Let me sell you this song!
Bottom Line: Indiepop misery at its finest! And it is free!
Just when you can’t go on… you find “Fuck It, It’s Christmas,” and you are revived. If you don’t feel that way after listening to this fantastic new song by San Francisco’s Faux Canada, then you are indeed a Grinch. I should know, I was one. I absolutely love their description, because it is so apt:
Here is our latest release; a Christmas song that gives you permission to eat the whole cake, confess your obsession with all things festive, to give in to the lovefest the holidays are meant to create.
I’m gonna stay up another hour. Because fuck it, I’m writing a Christmas music blog.
Bottom Line: I pledge my allegiance to Faux Canada. Let’s forget what hell this year has been and say “Fuck It, It’s Christmas.”
London’s Oscar Lang has been releasing music since before he was born. Being that prolific means that at some point… you take a stab a Christmas song. Thankfully, he was compelled to write an original, not cover Blue Christmas/Last Christmas/White Christmas or some other boring chesnut. “Christmas is Home” is a throwback, synthy, indiepop nugget with a catchy chorus that demands a Wham! worthy video, fully of soft focus and terrible clothes. This song was like a swig of hot chocolate – I’m totally on board.
Bottom Line: Oscar Lang writes and produces so much music, that I’m fully expecting this to be his first (meaning, gimme more!) excellent Christmas song.