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

 

Young War “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Free!

Manchester’s Young War is three-for-three so far, yet to miss. Tweeting out this morning with the kind of cover that I can seriously get behind, one that sounds nearly nothing like the original. In fact, it sounds so much like a Young War song, that I swear the intros to 2014’s brilliant “I Won’t Come Back for Christmas (I’m Serious),” (GO BUY THAT SONG NOW) and this Ramones cover are damn-near cousins. I’ve heard slowed down versions of this song, ones that attempt to chill-out one of Christmas’ rock classics, and they sometimes go way too dark. Not only has Young War not gone dark, but dammit if this isn’t the sweetest version of this song I’ve heard – from production to delivery, this song feels turned on its head, which is exactly where a Christmas cover should be.

Bottom Line: Make Christmas your own, like Young War does with this fantastic version of The Ramones “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight).”

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PREMIERE: The Grapes & Friends “Christmas in My Neighborhood” (2019)

Self Released
Buy: Stream on Spotify

There are three Christmas events that are on the top of my bucket list: Lost Map Records’ Christmas Baubles, the party that Fowler VW throws every year celebrating their latest amazing Christmas compilation, and of course, The Grapes & Friends’ Annual Christmas Extravaganza! This Austin, Texas tradition is going into an 11th year this year – and if the party is anything like the energy that the Grapes & Friends infuse into their songs every year… it just must be the biggest party of the year.

Now, for the uninitiated, Grapes & Friends come together like Voltron every year, joining together members of DangeresqueThe Gorgeous Hands and Genuine Leather; they are an Austin version of our friends the Sunturns and Christmas Aguilera, a specifically Christmas supergroup. “Christmas in My Neighborhood” is the 6th original Christmas song from the Grapes & Friends. Staying true to their mantra of “making Christmas sexy,” the band finds themselves immersed in the genres of 90s boy band R&B and yacht rock-style production. The song is rich with layered harmonies, bells, synths, and more. There’s even a special treat at the end!

The lyrics are all about finding a sense of community and love in a place where you thought you were alone.

From Chris Galis, one of the lyricists: “One of the first times of the year you notice that its really Christmas season is when the lights go up on your street. That’s when you feel it. That’s what we wanted this song to vibe with.”

The Grapes & Friends will be hosting their 11th Annual Christmas Extravaganza in Austin, TX at the Hole in the Wall on Saturday, December 7th. Should you be in walking, driving, train, plane or teleportation distance, the details are below:

Tickets: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/11th-annual-grapes-and-friends-tickets-81387160187
RSVP on FB: https://www.facebook.com/events/440203936621398/

Bottom Line: The Grapes & Friends can always be relied on to spice up your Christmas, and this one is going to certainly entice your taste buds.

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Grapes & Friends “Mrs. Claus” (2018)

Self Released
Buy: Free on Soundcloud!

Now… how many times do I need to introduce these guys? I mean come on… they are awesome!! Grapes & Friends are an Austin, TX indie rock band created by smashing together members of DangeresqueThe Gorgeous Hands and Genuine Leather; they are an Austin version of our friends the Sunturns and Christmas Aguilera, a specifically indie-rock-Christmas supergroup. If you live in the Austin, Texas area (or have the means to trave) – NEXT SATURDAY (Dec. 15) is their annual Xmas Extravaganza, and they just released their annual seasonal jam! “Mrs. Claus” is ridiculously fun. That 70s R&B groove about grooving on a lady, but she won’t have anything to do with a “Christmas band”… and then that chorus hits! THAT CHORUS! You can’t help but get moving in your seat… but if you insist on sitting still – it’s your loss. This band sounds like SO. MUCH. FUN. I can only imagine what this party is like!!

Bottom Line: Grapes & Friends are the ultimate Christmas party band, and this might be a highlight of the night!

LISTEN

Anni Rossi – YULETIDE X ROSSI (2017)

Anni Rossi - Yuletide X Rossi

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp (NYOP)

New York-based multi-instrumentalist Anni Rossi returned to recording in March 2017, after a 6 year recording hiatus, with a new single and the following mixtape, HER. The mixtape was expansive, spanning 18 tracks and signaling that she was back to stay. Come December, Anni Rossi has now released a second mixtape, the wonderfully eclectic YULETIDE X ROSSI. The album contains some sparse covers (“The Christmas Song”, “Mele Kalikimaka”), some fascinating interpretations (“Silent Night”), and wonderful originals (“Even on Christmas Day”). The only track that I believe may have been previously released is Rossi’s fantastic cover of “Last Christmas,” which she released a version of on Soundcloud back in 2014. Believe me, the slow jam treatment of “Last Christmas” is absolutely worth your time and attention; Rossi’s version is unique and refreshing. Simply said, there are some wonderful songs on here, and even where a track might not be your cup of tea, Rossi still keeps it interesting. Hat tip to fellow underground Christmas aficionado No Love for Ned for the heads up!

Bottom Line: Anni Rossi’s return yields wonderful results, with an eclectic Christmas record that happily keeps you guessing.

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Wyvern Lingo “Snow II” (2017), “Snow” (2014)

Wyvern Lingo - Snow II

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

Well hot damn. This was too good to keep me from writing. Bray, Ireland’s Wyvern Lingo, a trio of singer/instrumentalists has just dropped an indie R&B jam “Snow II,” that is totally worth your attention. Their voices are beautiful, as are the minimal electronic beats and flourishes of color that support them. However, if that groove is not your bag, how about an acoustic version, with no percussion, mainly guitars and keyboards to provide the bassline? (Stubby found this one back in the day, of course) Then their 2014 version, “Snow” is your jam. Either way you slice it, this is a pretty beautiful song, and I think you might dig it too.

Bottom Line: Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. Both taste great!

LISTEN

Lonelyspeck “Happy New Year” (2017)

Lonelyspeck "Happy New Year"

TEEF
Buy: Bandcamp | Vinyl (Edition of 50!)

Adelaide, Australia’s Lonelyspeck has released one of the most beautiful New Years’ tunes I’ve heard in years. A highlight on an already stellar new EP, Lave, “Happy New Year” is a shimmering song of seismic beauty. This song resides on the other side of the new year, as there are no parties or celebrations, but a reflection on the core of his being.  There are a lot of volcanic references, and that is with purpose; Sione Teumohenga (Lonelyspeck) was inspired by volcanoes when developing the Lave EP, and the metaphor works beautifully.

unfold me
there are still things that i am trying to rinse
poke a leak
to let them flow out and in
put a river in me
i feel okay but tired a lot
it’s too quiet with the window shut
i opened it to hear the air caught in the leaves
and then in my breathing
scoop out the core
and lather it onto the mantle
no one has lived here before
i gather it was inhospitable
i feel okay but tired a lot
it’s too quiet with the window shut
i was walking through the park and i thought
i don’t hate myself
i don’t berate myself like i used to

The lyrics are poignant and moving, but the song is truly made in the music that carries it. I can’t imagine changing a thing about it. It begins sparse, and slowly builds… till “scoop out the core,” where the vocal layers appear alongside the bassline… and you may get goosebumps. This song is just beautiful.

Bottom Line: Daaaaaaammmmmmn this is spectacular. Discoveries like this are the reason for doing this gig.

LISTEN

Premiere: Young War “Winter in the City” (2015)

Young War - Winter in the City

Self Released
Buy: Bandcamp

HOW ABOUT THIS?!? Our first premiere, and a whopper at that! Manchester R&B duo Young War‘s “I Won’t Come Back For Christmas” was a highlight of the 2014 Christmas season, and Christmas Underground is proud to present their beautiful new track, “Winter in the City.” The duo of Thom Stone and Simon Facey have found their own rich vein of Christmas longing, and continue to mine it expertly. “Winter in the City” leans more toward Young War’s R&B roots than last year’s track, and the sparse beats, ringing guitar lines and beautiful melody perfectly compliment the conflicted narrator’s sense of yearning and loss: “I’m losing my mind and I tried to warn you. / Now you’re spending Christmas in California. / I can’t be sad, I don’t have the right, / but when it started to snow, I think I started to cry.” Young War create an atmosphere which envelops the listener to walk the city streets alone, snow dancing in the moonlight, missing the one you love. Just plain beautiful.

Bottom Line: Young War + Christmas = Perfection. This is modern R&B Christmas at its finest. This song deserves a wide audience, so join me and spread its reach far and wide. 5/5

LISTEN

Young War “I Won’t Come Back For Christmas (I’m Serious)” (2014)

Young War "I Won't Come Back For Christmas (I'm Serious)"

Self Released
Buy: Stream

Young War‘s “I Won’t Come Back For Christmas (I’m Serious)” is a great blend of indie rock and R&B. I love the whole concept of the song – he is not coming back for Christmas just so you know he’s serious. Its beautifully done, and very much worth your time. But don’t take my word for it. Take Lie in the Sound or Christmas A-Go-Go’s advice, and give it a listen (and/or download it via some nefarious Firefox plugin… or something). They gave it so much love last year, so much that I didn’t really find myself needing to help too much. I saw this on numerous mixes last year – it was certainly deemed a highlight of the season. That said, the song is good enough that I knew I’d be compelled to write about it at some point. Hey Young War – I hope this comes back around next year via Bandcamp.

Bottom Line: Wonderfully produced, great lyrics, great vocals and (was) free. 4.8/5

LISTEN

Young War has been kind enough to give me permission to upload and stream their wonderful Christmas song. It had previously been a free download via their Soundcloud page, but they took it down from their own feed.

Lapland “Maybe on Christmas” (2014)

Lapland

Self Released
Buy: Stream

Lapland, the moniker of Brooklyn singer/songwriter Josh Mease, just released a nice indiepop “original song hastily recorded” today, and I rather dig it. Synths flutter as a flickering flame as Mease sings about staying safe & sound by the fire on Christmas – in a tone that I’d equate to a Mark Mothersbaugh-scored scene in Life Aquatic. So, turn off your “Switched on Santa” and give this modern-synth Christmas a spin.

Bottom Line: Certainly growing on me – would love to have an actual download of it somewhere. 3.9/5

LISTEN