Magne Furuholmen – White Xmas Lies (2019)

Drabant Music
Buy: 7Digital (FLAC/MP3) | Drabant Music (CD/Vinyl) | Apple Music | Amazon MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.uk MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.de MP3/CD/Vinyl | Amazon.fr MP3/CD/Vinyl

This record caught me completely off guard. The keyboardist and co-writer for most of the iconic hits from Norway’s pop-powerhouse a-ha, Magne Furuholmen has created one of the most interesting Christmas records I have heard in years. He walks this fine line between the avant-garde and accessible and manages to pull it off incredibly well. An album packed with largely all originals, Magne did not intend to create a normal holiday album; he wanted to make an album that was “an antidote to the ‘schmaltzy Christmas-music which is spewed out every year… a seemingly never-ending stream of cheesy versions of existing Christmas song.'” It was as if Magne was creating a Christmas music for me.

This album can be heartbreakingly beautiful. There are moments, such as in the leadoff track “There Goes Another Year,” where you can find these simple, evocative phrases that just hit you. “In the darkness of December / as the fire turned from spark to ember (<-Wow, what a line) / these are things I will remember / now xmas time is here / there goes another year.” And yet again, later in the song: “What we say but do not mean / every word and in-between / for every manhole in this town / there is someone falling down (<-Damn, loved that line!).” As you can see, Magne is going deep here, not necessarily celebrating the holiday in a fashion one might expect, as he talks about the album as being for those who might not have someone to keep them warm at Christmas.

I wanted to try and make an album which would be meaningful also to those who fall outside our commercial Christmas frenzy – an album which looks at the more melancholic, darker sides to Christmas: broken family ties, things we sweep under the rug, resentment hidden behind fake, jocular smiles – an album for holiday contemplation, not just sentimental decor.’

Magne does not rely on a spectacular voice (I have never been partial to amazing singers, but rather, amazing songwriters), he lets the synths and his lyrics do the heavy lifting. However, every so often his vocal melody just gets me. Like in the hungover “A Punch-up on Boxing Day,” Magne’s voice rises just after that first stanza, “you’re just wasting your time / yyeeaaahhhh,” and it brings this emotion to the song that I wasn’t anticipating. There are other moments where the music makes you sit up and go “shit, that is fantastic,” such as in the final verse of “Caprice Des Dieux,” which is one of the more slow and contemplative tracks on the record, as it explodes with musical color.

There are a few outliers on here as well, songs that does not appear to be connected to Christmas at all. The best example of would be “This is Now America,” a harsh portrait of America from an observer’s perspective – school shootings, border walls, drones and bad loans. “This is now America / oh how little have we learned / This is now America, is there no way to return?” So… not a Christmas song, and damn, quite disheartening to hear how we appear to others.

There are two covers on the record, AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” and The Kinks’ “Father Christmas.” The AC/DC cover appears to be part of the aforementioned outlier collection of songs, songs that aren’t normally connected to Christmas, but Magne is determined to bring them into conversation with the emotions of the season. The treatment itself is pretty damn interesting. Slowed down with synths providing a haunting melody, this is AC/DC much more along the lines of Mark Kozelek’s versions, should Mark have also utilized autotune. The Kinks’ cover is going to be released to the streaming community on a later date… so you’ll have to check back on that one.

This record is a damn interesting listen, one that I’d encourage anyone to experience, and hopefully with multiple listens. I for one, most certainly found new moments that I appreciated the second and third time around. Of note, Magne is also a very accomplished visual artist, and there is a vinyl edition of 200 that he hand-painted. They look to be truly beautiful, and if I had an extra €150… I might grab one. (Wait… they are all gone now!)

Bottom Line: One of the most surprising and satisfying Christmas albums I have heard in a long time.

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Sunturns – Colibri Heart / I Do (2017)

Arch Records
Buy: 7Digital (FLAC/MP3) | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

The Sunturns are one of the preeminent Christmas indie-supergroups out there. Comprised of members of Monzano, Making Marks, Little Hands of Asphalt, Moddi, and Einar Stray Orchestra, they get together every year or so to record some beautiful, original Christmas music. This year, we are once again blessed with the new music, and I’ve been refreshing Facebook for what seems like days (even though I knew it was coming out today). “Colibri Heart” is a beautiful, banjo accented song about being in love at Christmas. “My heart is stashed under the tree there / hoping you won’t return it for now… tonight.” His heart beats like a colibri, like a hummingbird, keeping up the neighbors awake…. some beautiful imagery here. The B-side, sung by (if I am not mistaken), Little Hands of Asphalt’s Sjur Lyseid, is the kind of narrative song that I would expect from the writer of “Looks Like Styrofoam.” It is slow-burning and beautiful, melancholy and poetic, heartbreaking and hopeful all wrapped up in one, smart package. Yet another beautiful addition to the Sunturns ever-expanding Christmas catalogue.

Bottom Line: Two beautiful singles to slap you out of your jingle-belled Christmas music rut.

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UPCOMING: Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club, 2017 Edition

Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club

Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club
Buy: Bigcartel Shop

It may have been 85 degrees out (30 celsius for my international friends), but snow is in the air… as this past week or so has brought the announcement of the always-wonderful Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club lineup! For the uninitiated, the SCSC is a label that exclusively releases limited-edition Christmas 7″ vinyl singles, with the A-side being an original, and the B-side being a cover. Such a fantastic premise, and one that is realized beautifully by the hard work of our fellow underground-Christmas devotee, Robert.

This year’s crop is a doozy – starting with perhaps the biggest name to grace the SCSC, Bis! Bis have been releasing quality indiepop since 1994 (with a hiatus or two), and astonishingly enough… I think this may be their first Christmas release! How they missed releasing a Christmas single when they are both 1) an indiepop band and 2) Scottish, beats me. I just wrote about 2 Scottish indiepop bands last week!

Next up are the French garage-rock band The Limiñanas. Previously featured on Christmas Underground for their cover of “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home),” this year they are teaming up with Pascal Comelade for the deliciously-titled “Curse of Santa Claus,” as well as what I’m imagining will be an interesting take on “Silent Night.” Should be interesting!

Finally, St. Petersburg, Florida’s Seafang will lend their shoegaze/dreampop sounds to their original “Happy When it Snows,” as well as the Primatives’ “You Trashed My Christmas.” The Primitives cover could be great fit for Seafang – I’m curious how they’ll make it their own.

All-in-all, it promises to be another very strong year for the wonderful Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club. I hope you check it out, order early and often, and help keep this tradition going!!

Bottom Line: Being that I haven’t heard a thing yet, I can’t really say – but I most certainly can say that I’M EXCITED.

 

 

Okay Kaya “Holiday Song” (2016)

Okay Kaya "Holiday Song"

Self Released
Buy: Stream

NJ->Norway->NYC singer/songwriter Okay Kaya (aka Kaya Wilkins) released this little gem on YouTube last season, and it was deservedly touted by my Christmas-music-blogger-in-arms Christmas-A-GoGo. Her voice is beautiful, yet with a mournful quality, and the message, while not your typical cheery Christmas romp, is most certainly relatable. My favorite line is, “I want to talk, I want to talk, I don’t want to talk, I want to talk loud and confidently.” There is something refreshing to the honesty found in the struggle embedded in the lyrics. I don’t think I’m far off-base to say that a quick glance at the central premise of this song might lead a listener to quickly dismiss it (as I think it would be terrible as either the pop-punk or twee song I imagined in my head), the line “All I want for Christmas is therapy,” threatens to be both trite and precious in equal parts, but Okay Kaya does a wonderful job to fully develop this song into a beautiful and complicated view of the other side of Christmas.

Bottom Line: Okay Kaya built upon a concept that I was almost reflexively suspicious of, and made me a believer.

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Christmas for Cowboys (2016)

Christmas for Cowboys

Checkpoint Charlie Audio Productions (CCAP)
Buy: Stream | Amazon.de MP3

How about some country music from Norway? Because that makes total sense right? Everything makes sense right now! Well, actually Norway, Sweden and the like have long had a healthy Americana/Country scene. The folks over at Checkpoint Charlie Audio Productions (CCAP) gathered four Norwegian country bands (The Brigade, Helldorado, Flying Shoes and the Tramps), and each band chose two songs by prominent country and americana bands and songwriters. Songs featured on this release were originally recorded by the Handsome Family, Willie Nelson, John Denver, Jackson Browne, John Prine, The Band, Buck Owens, Chris Hillman and Glen Campbell. Those are some big names indeed, though my favorite is perhaps the smallest name (Handsome Family). That said, I am having a tough time singling out specific tracks to feature, because truly, the quality level is high enough on each of these tracks. The entire release is certainly worth your time. For extra credit, check out The Brigade’s Beyond Christmas Day EP from 2014.

Bottom Line: These Norwegians really love this country music, and it comes through.

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Dylan Mondegreen “The Ghost of Christmas Past” (2016)

Dylan Mondegreen - Ghost of Christmas Past

Shelflife Records
Buy: Bandcamp | 7Digital | Amazon.uk MP3 | Amazon.de MP3 | Amazon.fr MP3

If you know me at all, or read this blog, you know I have a particular affinity for Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, etc. To top it off, I also have a particular love for indiepop, as well as the Shelflife label. Thus, when I saw that Norwegian singer-songwriter Dylan Mondegreen had a Christmas-ish song, “The Ghost of Christmas Past,” on his new album, Every Little Step, I jumped in and gave it an immediate listen. While these are not going be big name checks that everyone will be familiar with (unless you read this blog), I found this particular track to share equal parts Pelle Carlberg and Jens Lekman. Dylan has a quality to his voice that matches quite well with Pelle, and the flute flourishes felt like the Bacharach-influenced tracks of Night Falls on Kortedala-era Jens Lekman. The songwriting is also very clever; It’s a song about visiting yourself as the ghost of Christmas past, and realizing that you’d do it over again. Certainly worth a listen!

Bottom Line: Solid indiepop that will please indiepop fans.

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UPCOMING: Sunturns – Christmas I & II (2015)

Sunturns - Christmas I & II

Fika Recordings
Buy LP: Bandcamp | Norman Records | Amazon UK | Amazon DE | Jigsaw Records (US)
Buy Digital: 
Bandcamp | Amazon UK MP3 | Amazon DE MP3

The Swedish indie-supergroup Sunturns put out a fantastic Christmas record a few years ago, simply titled Christmas and released on CD (and digital) to the delight of the masses (of underground Christmas fans). Comprised of members of Making Marks, Moddi (had previously made a mix of mine), The Little Hands Of Asphalt (ditto), Psyence Fiction, Monzano and Einar Stray Orchestra, these are some Norwegian pop heavyweights. The album was packed with great songs, including my personal favorite, “Looks Like Styrofoam.” Now… would this be considered a cover if it was recorded earlier by Little Hands of Asphalt, if the person singing it was indeed… also Sjur Lyseid, aka Little Hands of Asphalt? Chicken? Egg? I’ve gone crosseyed.

Enough! Let’s talk about this NEW record! Christmas II is upon us! Being released by Fika Recordings, those Christmas-loving folks in the UK. They normally spend their time releasing records by CU favorites the Wave Pictures & their associates (god I love the Wave Pictures), but somehow they found some time in their day to release this lovely Norwegian pop Christmas record!  10 new songs and a Ramones cover!

Now, I know you are asking, “I have all this money hanging around in my pocket and I want to throw it at something… what should I do?” Here’s the scoop. There are 300 copies of this baby on red and white vinyl, presently available from Fika Recordings (Bandcamp), Norman Records, Amazon UK, Amazon DE and in the US… Jigsaw Records (Coming Dec. 4!). It not only includes this new record, Christmas II, but also the classic Christmas! For folks that are financially-challenged, such as myself, you may want to opt for the cheaper, download-only version. You can find these at all the links above, but I strongly encourage the Bandcamp option, as the artist gets paid more and you get a FLAC.

You know what… I haven’t even talked about the songs yet! Sunturns has released 2 tracks ahead of the proper album release on December 4. I honestly have already spent enough energy talking about the record, that I haven’t much more left for these fabulous songs. “Would You” reminds me of the best parts of The Stars… the layered vocals, the rising music, the drama. Beautiful. “The Axis Tilt” is a wonderful piece of songwriting, and that voice has to be Sjur Lyseid, right? He’s got a way with a turn of phrase, and boy can he work in some basic physics into a song!

Bottom Line: Buy it early and often. But perhaps not for $43 from Fika shipped to the US… shop around. If you’re looking for a value, Norman Records is your best bet at the moment. 🙂 5/5

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Short Skirts “Christmas Depends on You” (2013)

Short Skirts - Christmas Depends on You

Self Released
Buy: Free!

I love the rabbit hole that is Soundcloud. If I find a song I like, I’ll explore all the playlists that its been added to, in the hopes that the listener has equally good taste as that particular selection. At some point, this journey led me to Short Skirts, a fantastic garage rock band from Norway. “Christmas Depends on You” brings in Ida Horpestad from Blomst on vocals, and her touch really brings this garage/surf Christmas song to the next level. The lyrics are fantastic – I really don’t want to ruin them for you before you listen. To top off an already great song… they are offering it as a free (WAV) download on Soundcloud.

Bottom Line: This song is good enough to be covered for years to come. 5/5

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If I Make it Through Christmas (2001)

If I Make it Through Christmas

Perfect Pop Records / Two Zero Records / Thatsperfectwonderball Records
Buy: Download | CD

Released in Norway back in 2001, this EP is a solid little piece of indie Christmas. Two tracks are of particular note (and they can be previewed at the Norwegian website where you can download it), the John Prine classic “Christmas in Prison,” performed by Cinnamoon, and Peru You’s “Real Maria.”

The Oslo-based Cinnamoon cover  “Christmas in Prison” with a great, full-band, folk treatment, that has just enough banjo to make you really take note of (and enjoy) – and before it was fashionable. I think they made some wonderful decisions with the arrangement – nothing seems out of place, and while they didn’t reinvent the song, they certainly improved upon it.

Also a Norwegian band, Peru You’s “Real Maria” sounds like something that Vampire Weekend could really tear up on a Christmas single. The vaguely Caribbean feel of the instrumentation, the interesting phrasing and the lyrical bobs and weaves really make this a great track. You need to hunt this down.

I can’t bring myself to write about every single song, so I shall end it there, with the two best. Additionally, I am certainly fascinated by the fact that I can find out very, very little about these two bands… who have no doubt broken up in the over ten years that its been since this release. I thought I could find every answer on the internet… or at least a long-abandoned myspace page…

Bottom Line: Those 2 tracks make the record. 3.5/5