ROUTES & BRANCHES
a home for the americana diaspora
December 3, 2017
Scott Foley, purveyor of dust
From artists and labels and promoters to just plain ol' listeners, I'm humbled and real grateful to all who responded to last week's favorites list. Comments came in all flavors, many reminding me of all the great stuff that wasn't included - believe me, I know about all that; I lost sleep over several things I had to leave off. It all added up to the busiest month on record here at the home office in Northern Colorado. I'll leave last week's Episode up to enjoy for the remainder of 2017, even as we turn our attention to the year to come. Because that's how we do.
In addition to our end-of-year lists, this time of year also opens the door to all sorts of holiday music. And there is typically so very much of the stuff, and so much that you don't really need to listen to. I see it as my role to serve as the snowblower to power through all the Sias and the Gwen Stefanis and all the rehashed Pentatonixes to unearth some of these buried treasures that might delight folks who enjoy what we do here at R&B. Even if you've soured on seasonal stuff, be patient and you just might see that there's just some pretty good music here.
Let's start with some SINGLES, perfect for folks for whom a little Christmas goes a long way. We'll certainly give extra bonus points for anyone who writes their own holiday songs, and Boo Ray has done just that, releasing "All Strung Out Like Christmas", a duet with Elizabeth Cook that Rolling Stone heralds as, "a tribute to the timeless tradition of getting drunk and getting it on". Ah, Christmas. Raul Malo and his Mavericks have wrapped up a pair of tunes for us, one original and their spirited take on Ronnie Spector's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)". The original, "Christmas Time is (Coming 'Round Again)" is a pleasantly manic romper held together by some fine piano and a stocking full of jingle bells. Malo delivers with a sly wink and the lyric, "Christmas time is coming 'round again / If you don't believe at least pretend". Once Vince Guaraldi set the indelible right hand piano line of "Linus & Lucy" in motion, a flurry of fascinating covers have followed (personal favorites include Bela Fleck, Los Straitjackets and Love Tractor). Add to this Christmas list a faithful albeit slightly futuristic new take by Steelism, managing nods to both Buddy Emmons and Robert Fripp. Finally, Nathaniel Rateliff & Night Sweats offer remarkably restrained versions of what are surely among my least favorite recurring Christmas songs, "Baby It's Cold Outside" and "Santa Baby". I know for a fact that there is an extra toasty room in hell reserved for people who sexualize Christmas with talk of chimneys, north poles and trimming the tree. That said, Rateliff does something almost revolutionary in reversing the voice in both of these chestnuts. While "Baby It's Cold" has increasingly earned the reputation as being real creepy, there's something charming in the uncredited woman telling Rateliff, "Your hair looks swell" or Rateliff complaining, "My mother will start to worry". And on "Santa Baby", "Slip a sable under the tree for me / I've been an awful good girl". To my knowledge, Michael Buble is the only male to attempt this song, but he proved cowardly in changing the lyrics to "Santa buddy". Rateliff's laid back crooning wouldn't sound all too bad on a full album of this stuff.
More impressive are the artists who come a'caroling with an EP or a full LP's worth of ORIGINAL holiday faire. Last year about this time, I was waxing all nostalgic under the influence of Matt Pond PA's exquisite Winter Lives full length. Instead of "Jingle Bells" and "Frosty", the New York trio celebrates the season with "Sunset at the Gas Pump" and "Whoa". By way of follow-up, this year Matt Pond brings us More Winter Lives, an EP featuring a couple remixes and a couple new things. Rather than Christmas, you might call it "seasonal" or "winter music", instrospective chamber folk perfect for a fireside listen or a leisurely drive through the snowy trees (they're out there somewhere). In a similar vein, Tony Dekker and Great Lake Swimmers offer They Don't Make Them Like That Anymore, an EP equally divided between originals and trads. There is such a welcome warmth to this stuff, from the lush strings and the vocals confiding sweet secrets.
I'll insert a paragraph break here, since the final original from the Minus 5 is another thing entirely. As Scott McCaughey and co. have proven over countless albums, EPs and singles, absolutely nothing is sacred (save maybe baseball). In light of McCaughey's recent stroke, it must be acknowledged what an eclectic treasure he is to our kind of music. Contrary to the hushed and reverent nature of the former collections, the originals on Dear December are perfect for moments of frivolity, misbehavior and ill advised indulgence. God bless 'em, there's nothing reverent about "New Christmas Hymn": I'm offering this Christmas hymn / Not for any ghost or Tiny Tim / For both the naughty and the nice / We're all skating on the same thin ice. Other highlights include the Spector-esque "Merry Christmas Mr. Gulp Gulp" and "Your Christmas Whiskey", a tipsy ode that was originally featured in Yep Roc's 2007 Oh Santa! sampler. Like just about everything else McCaughey touches, there's a distinct garage-y sensibility to all the proceedings, and it's all shot through with a glossy ribbon of timeless pop. Guest appearances by M Ward, Colin Meloy, Chuck Prophet, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and more make this the year's only holiday party you won't want to miss.
COMPILATION, a collection guaranteed to hit the target at least now and then. I'll include an honorable mention here for Red House Records' Christmas on the Lam and Other Songs from the Season, which actually saw light last winter. This one features contributions from label friends like Charlie Parr, Wailin' Jennys and the Pines, who provide a cottony taste of Gordon Lightfoot's splendid "Song For a Winter's Night". The friendly folk at Amazon continue to add worthy new stuff to their Christmas playlists, aptly named Christmas Soul, Indie for the Holidays and Acoustic Christmas. The generous soul selections include stuff ranging from Robert Finley and JC Brooks to soul-ish stocking stuffers from Texas Gentlemen and Nicole Atkins (providing the only soulful rendition of "O Holy Night" you're ever going to hear). New additions to the indie list include Best Coast, Kevin Morby and Jessica Lea Mayfield's funereal reading of Loretta Lynn's "To Heck With Old Santa Claus". Amazon introduces their Acoustic playlist advising listeners to "stay chill no matter where you're celebrating". Will do, Amazon. 2017 contributions to this list include Lori McKenna, Courtney Marie Andrews, and White Buffalo, whose melodic "Christmas Eve" might be my favorite original holiday song of the year.
Nevertheless, I will reserve this final spot for our trusty friends at Bloodshot Records, whose 13 Days of Xmas answers the abiding question, "What would it sound like if Bloodshot released a Christmas record?" Well, it sounds like long established label artists like Jon Langford, Devil in a Woodpile and Murder by Death hitting the nog and pressing RECORD. Guitarist James Elkington does Christmas Brit-folk style, prompting NPR to remind us that "Christmas carols needn't always be cheery and bright". That'd make a suitable tagline for 13 Days, with Kelly Hogan's Blue Note-ready "Blue Snowfall" and the Yawpers' perfectly bleak "Christmas in Oblivion". But wait! Ha Ha Tonka counter the trend with a lovely "The List", and All Our Exes Live in Texas apply their beautiful voices to Paul Kelly's Australian-themed "How to Make Gravy". But yeah, Zach Schmidt can't help but drown in his drink, "I'm Drunk Again This Christmas". And while it's not necessarily the stuff to play during Grandma and Grandpa's visit, I've found Bloodshot's collection just the thing to keep my tired soul company during the long drives home from work in the early dark.
More ho ho ho in the works before we turn off the Christmas machine. We're also speeding towards our promised December 31 favorite songs program.
- Left Arm Tan, "Best I Never Had" single (LAT, 17)
- Jeffrey Martin, "Surprise, AZ" One Go Around (Fluff & Gravy, 17)
- Ronnie Fauss, "Twenty-Two Years" Last of the True (Normaltown, 17)
- Parker McCollum, "Misunderstood" Probably Wrong (McCollum, 17)
- Lee Ann Womack, "Sunday" Lonely the Lonesome & the Gone (ATO, 17)
- Rod Picott, "All the Broken Parts" Hang Your Hopes on a Crooked Nail (Welding Rod, 14)
^ Yawpers, "Christmas in Oblivion" 13 Days of Xmas (Bloodshot, 17) D
- Mark Porkchop Holder, "Big Boat" Death & the Blues (Alive Naturalsound, 17)
- Chris Stapleton, "Midnight Train to Memphis" From A Room: Vol. 2 (Mercury, 17)
- Ruby Boots, "Don't Talk About It" Don't Talk About It (Bloodshot, 18)
- Drew Kennedy, "Jackson" At Home in the Big Lonesome (Atlas Aurora, 17)
- Scott Miller, "Epic Love" Ladies Auxiliary (FAY, 17)
- First Aid Kit, "Fireworks" Ruins (Columbia, 18)
- Jeffrey Foucault, "Battle Hymn (of the College Dropout Farmhand)" Miles From the Lightning (Rock River, 01)
- Cody Jinks, "Last Call For the Blues" Less Wise (Modified 2017) (Jinks, 17)
- Kristina Murray, "How Tall the Glass" single (Murray, 17) D
- Jason & the Scorchers, "Harvest Moon" Midnight Roads & Stages Seen (Mammoth, 98)
- Wilco, "When You Find Trouble" AM (Special Edition) (Sire, 17)
- Diamond Rugs, "Christmas in a Chinese Restaurant" Diamond Rugs (Partisan, 12)
^ Minus 5, "See You in December" Dear December (Yep Roc, 17) D
- Jim James, "World is Falling Down" Tribute to 2 (ATO, 17)
- Calexico, "Voices in the Fields" Thread That Keeps Us (Anti, 18)
- Angel Olsen, "Tougher Than the Rest" Phases (Jagjaguwar, 17) D
- Robert Ellis & Courtney Hartman, "Gentle on My Mind" Dear John (Refuge Fndtn for the Arts, 17) D
- Light Wires, "Belly of the Beast" Light Wires (Sofaburn, 17)
- Kim Richey, "Get Together (w/Mando Saenz)" single (Yep Roc, 17) D
- Blaze Foley, "Clay Pigeons" Live at the Austin Outhouse (Lost Art, 99)
- Will Hoge, "Thoughts & Prayers" single (Edlo, 17) D
- Mary Gauthier, "War After the War" Rifles & Rosary Beads (In the Black, 18)
^ Nicole Atkins, "O Holy Night" Christmas Soul (Amazon, 17) D