Christmas is just a few short weeks away and while I enjoy many classic Christmas songs (and Jewish people are known to provide some great Christmas albums and songs – Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Bob Dylan), I sometimes get a little weary of the standards.
A few years ago, one of the greatest Christmas songs I ever heard was posted to YouTube by the Florin Street Band called “My Favorite Time of Year.” This was brilliant. This just had all the magic and melody that is the essence of this holiday and you didn’t have to be of any particular religious persuasion to appreciate its Charles Dickens’ flavor. So, since then I have always considered some “new” Christmas songs that may surface and two have found their way to me this year. Katie Garibaldi’s “Home Sweet Christmas” (review to follow) and from Sweden a compilation of 18 diversified tracks by various roots-Americana artists compiled by Swedish industry veteran Peter Holmstedt.
The opening track on this 18-song Swedish Christmas compilation by international artists “Won’t Be Home for Christmas,” is by Elliott Murphy (“Five Days of Christmas”). It’s a twisted, humorous Christmas song recorded in Florida about a bipolar cousin who comes to visit for the holidays and happens to be off his medication. Uh-oh. Creepy, but it’s the kind of Christmas tale I like to hear. Something Tom Waits would do.
Annie Gallup’s Christmas in New York is going to be familiar to anyone from the Big Apple who at times can experience private miracles. “Christmas On the Train,” -- about strangers on a train in 2004 that were motivated to sing Christmas songs together on the train en route to wherever each was headed. The bass was provided by Peter Gallway. The music is spare, but this adds to the comforting atmosphere of the tale. Up next: Kenny White starts “Christmas Day,” and it touches upon Christmas loneliness. A song that takes place in Canada. "It’s not time for you to go yet…no room for you to stay…” pretty strong stuff. Kenny’s holiday submission is spare as well with acoustic guitar, a little accordion, a mandolin – nothing overdone, nothing over-produced. The emphasis is on mood and feeling. Kenny has achieved this. Singer Marc Cohn (“Walking in Memphis,” “Silver Thunderbird”) backs Kenny and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell played the mandolin.
The collection includes a variety of styles by the artists -- with songs about memories, heartbreak, finding joy in strange places, emotional moments, hymn-like songs, some traditional in nature, some typical middle of the road and retro stylings. There are dips into seasonal loneliness, lounge singer moods, a little rock inflection, homelessness, and happy endings. Overall, simplicity seems to rule. There are no thrashing drums, maniacal guitar solos, or overripe singers. The songwriters contributing could come from Dublin or Austin, Texas – from South Australia or Nashville, TN and their musings are clever, to say the least. Their interpretations – quite original.
Jude Johnstone’s powerful vocal tone is poignant, yet sad in “I Guess It’s Gonna Be That Way.” It’s a good Christmas song but it’s a sad one. Jude paces the words wonderfully and fuses them with emotional vocals. Many people feel this way during the holidays so this song will have its audience that will relate to it. It has the same attraction as The Pogues with Kirsty McColl’s classic Christmas song “A Lullaby of New York.”
More in a traditional manner: Nashville’s Keith Miles’ “Sweet Christmas Dreams,” with all the typical, beautiful holiday instruments. Miles’ has a dynamic Christmas voice. It’s somewhat gruff but loveable voice like Australia’s Garry Shearston (“I Get a Kick Out of You”). Keith’s song seems written in the tradition of 40’s & 50’s songwriters – which of course, respectfully excellent.
Deep piano intro comes with the emotional Janni Littlepage’s “Now That Winter’s Come.” The instrumentation is economical but the sound provided by violins, deep bass and piano are dramatic without being pretentious. Janni’s voice is angelic with strength – a Stevie Nicks type vocal without sounding too nasal. Sometimes being spare is beautiful and this song is a beautiful little narrative.
Australian Kaurna Cronin wrote and performed this hymn-like tune “Pavlova (Too)” – a meringue-like dessert cake named for the famous Russian ballerina. This song has an acoustic guitar, percussion, and harmonica. Cronin covers it all between resolutions and disillusions. Backup singers are just below the surface but their presence is felt and they add beautiful color to this song as does the chime of bells toward the finale.
Paul Kamm’s voice is the perfect segue from Kaurna. “Where Are You Going Tonight?” is a beautiful ballad of the loneliness that accompanies some into the seasons and holidays. Not everyone feels joyous and melancholy reflections are often what comes in the evenings. Family members that have been lost, friends who have passed. The female backup (Eleanore MacDonald & Shelby Snow) adds much poignancy to the song.
Track nine: Rambling Nicholas Heron – provides an Irish vibrato in “Wee Lanterns of Snow.” More spare instrumentation with a focus on the performance and the recollection of the singer. This is a little different from your standard Christmas song because of Heron’s unique vibrato singing. What is enchanting -- the beautiful melody and musicianship. Heron performed the entire song including the acoustic guitar and this is a satisfying listen. The most expressive song on this collection thus far is by My Darling Clementine – “Miracle Mabel.” Recorded in the UK -- the vocals and acoustic guitars are angelic and surreal. “This is not a song for Christmas, there is no manger or a stable, but there is a bright star, and a miracle Mable..” My interpretation is that the couple singing has finally been blessed with the birth of their child and perhaps it wasn’t easy for them. But Mabel is their blessed Christmas gift this year.
The next track is a peculiar, unconventional original and is actually quite good. It sounds like Willie Nelson in intonation and phrasing but it's Austin’s own Bob Cheevers – and he was quite engaging with “The Spirit of Christmas.” All of this is in the tradition of Nelson but not in an imitation -- more of a respectful interpretation. I like it. The music chugs along in a dark manner but Cheevers embellishes it with much holiday charm despite that. The song actually has many lines that are optimistic but may not be obvious on first listen. I’m impressed. Nice touch.
The Swedish band Mudfish checks in with “Winter’s Come to Life,” – a song that took some time to come to life in the writing stages but gratefully did -- it’s one of the strongest melodies and performances on the collection. “She writes in the fog on the glass…” good imagery. I like the slow expressive vocals of the lead vocalist Joakim Lovgren who also plays harmonica with the subdued by reflective tight horns (The Boda Brass Band). It does possess a nice earthy Christmas feel and that’s not always easy to convey in a modern song. This could be an Americana Christmas classic. Sounds like a fun song to sing with a group of people at a holiday-spirited saloon – anywhere in the world. “Under the streetlight, snow covers every…thing…” Nice.
A retro rocker from the 50’s early 60’s has a lead guitar chime that starts Fayssoux’s “Christmas Ain’t Christmas,” – with everyone in this band really pulling out all the stops to sound like a bopping small club/garage band with balls. This has a nice feel and it goes down as easy as a stein of the best German or Australian beer… Trivia alert: the musicians used on this recording were the original Joe Bennett & the Sparkletones – who had a hit in 1957 with “Black Slacks.”
Continuing with the retro-sound but more with a ballad-influence is Colorado’s Barry Ollman who has a welcoming warm vocal on his beautifully written “Winter’s Light.” The song is about Ollman’s recollections of Christmas in Wisconsin. Sweden’s Mikael Persson provides the man alone in his garage at Christmas with his gin and tonic -- “This December Night,” with a steady progressive-rock type approach with crystallized guitars and a deep bass that glides nicely and evenly. Mikael’s voice reminds me a little of Germany's Lothar Meid’s deep growl from Amon Duul (“I Can’t Wait - Parts 1 & 2 – Mirror” & “You’re Not Alone”). I like voices like this because not many people possess this. It has a warmth and melodic power that fuses beautifully with the acoustic instruments surrounding with the tease of electric guitars, ghostly flutes, and snap of a snare drum -- invigorating.
The Refugees’ (Cydney Bullens, Deborah Holland & Wendy Waldman) open with their energetic tune --“This Christmas” that's a rousing fun song like many of this trio’s repertoire. I saw them live more than once and they are a delight. Bullens’ is a former backup musicianship with Elton John and many of Bullens’ solo albums are extraordinary with many guest appearances by well-known Americana musicians. Holland has equally good LPs and she worked with Stanley Clarke & Stewart Copeland (The Police) in Animal Logic. Veteran singer-songwriter Wendy Waldman has been consistently excellent through the years and had some great solo albums. My favorite song by her was (“Living Is Good”). A mixture of vocals and clever lyrics with a variety of instruments set to a light rock beat renders this song one of the favorites for the season. The lead guitar is hot and it’s an instantly memorable melody.
A little more saloon oriented and middle of the road – like the crooners of the 50’s -- Jack Tempchin offers his written in Dublin song: “Christmas All Year Round.” The song has a spirited arrangement and maybe for today, a little too sentimental and a little sappy but these are the types of songs – especially with the warm trumpet notes (David Fleming) and tingling bells, that really offer much more than that. It has a seasonal, comforting nostalgic temper to it. And that ain’t a bad thing to have.
With a haunting Beach Boys-inspired backup vocal Sweden’s own Citizen K sings the title track “I Won’t Be Home This Christmas.” It’s a sad song but it has that early 60’s drive and has a little humorous sarcastic angle to it. There are many people who feel this way about Christmas – the commerciality, the fakeness, the hypocrites. The blend of the male vocalist (Klas Qvist) with the backup singers is so cleverly arranged and performed the song could instantly hook the average listener. The punk-tinged screams toward the end of the rocking lead guitars are enthusiastic…considering this is a Christmas song. What do I like about this song? It’s absolutely different from the standard seasonal song. It’s a happy melody and an immaculately crafted ode to not caring about the holiday and the person who is the victim of the lyric. She must have been a bad egg. Great finale to the song too…bravo.
By the way a bonus? Let the last track playout to over 7:00 and someone will come back to sing a beautiful song – a little more spiritual but with the banging powerful piano notes it’s a song that should not be wasted. A pleasant hidden surprise. Plenty of time to run out and get this and just savor the many varieties of Christmas in song under your real Christmas tree. Santa offers a message at the 12:00 mark…. the album just keeps on spilling surprises.
The one hour and fourteen-minute album was conceived, produced by Peter Holmstedt in Sweden. Co-produced by Joakim Lovgren, Klas Qvist, and Ake Stromberg. Each song on the collection has its own producer(s) and those credits are contained in the CD’s insert.
Band Website: http://www.hemifran.com/index.html
Music Samples from Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/album/69aRL9TG3WO1t5sdeAKgo5
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this review/commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of No Depression. All photography is owned by the respective photographers and is their copyrighted image; credited where photographer’s name was known & being used here solely as a reference and will be removed on request. YouTube images are standard YouTube license.
John Apice / No Depression / December 2017