A Switched On Christmas Spectacular

I love Christmas. What’s not to love (even though the fact that half the world celebrates it in the summer kinda freaks me out)? It’s the month leading up to it that I’m not so keen on. Sure, December has its good points, like Starbucks red holiday cups and the incomparable scent of winter (again, with the exception of that freakshow Southern Hemisphere). But, let’s face it, December comes with a lot of crap, too, like traffic, huge crowds, and the incomparable cold of winter (except for you know who). By far, however, the worst facet of the Christmas season is the music. Don’t get me wrong, I love Christmas music. What I absolutely hate is the effect it has on musicians, namely the “I’m bored, let’s make a Christmas album” attitude. Cases in point: Newsong’s “The Christmas Shoes” and Bob Dylan’s new Christmas album.

No, it’s been a decade since I’ve come across a Christmas album that delivers consistently from start to finish (it was BEC Records’ Happy Christmas volume 1, feat. a young Switchfoot, Starflyer 59, and Five Iron Frenzy, among others). This year, thankfully, has been different. There are a number of promising collections circulating right now. Here are two of them.

The Cardiff-based Bubblewrap Collective has put out a collection that is in some shops this week and ought to be for sale at Rough Trade in London sometime next week. The concept is quite clever, I must say. Twelve artists were given 31 days to write and record a song based on one of the twelve days of Christmas. The result is a varied landscape of often lo-fi, stripped-down indie goodness where ukuleles and glockenspiels (and everything else, really) flourish with an impressive line-up including: The School, Little My, Allo Darlin’, and The Bobby McGees.

Our old friends and Indie Handbook favourites, The School (who are included on a couple of other Christmas comps this season which, if we can get our hands on copies, we will also review for you) have the twelfth day (for those who, like me, don’t have the attention span to make it through the entire song, that’s drummers drumming). And they execute their share of the festivities brilliantly with the handclappy C86 ditty “Drummer Boy”. Brontosaurus Chorus, on “Calling Birds” (that’s the fourth day), manage to pull off what may be the single greatest line in the history of Christmas music: “Christmas is a time for excessive drinking”.

On the lighter side are “Five Golden Rings from the Hi 5 Kings” by The Rocky Nest (including a heartbreaking muted trumpet refrain between otherworldly vocal performances) and Allo Darlin’ with the ukulele-laden “Silver Swans in NYC”. Then there’s the relentlessly charming “Lords Keep Leaping” by Silence at Sea, complete with injected sound effects. I’m going to have to stop myself there, because I’ve got another album to talk about. You’ll just have to check out the other seven days on your own.

Venus Hum’s Switched on Christmas EP (get it here for free) is something completely different from the 12 Days compilation. Rather than a set of entirely new songs, Venus Hum have embraced the spirit of reinterpretation championed by artists like Wendy (née Walter) Carlos on such albums as Switched on Bach and Switched on Brandenburgs. (Once upon a time, the traditionalist in me cringed at the thought of such an atrocity. The post-structuralist in me has since destroyed that aesthetic neophyte.)

Certain tracks on this EP, like “Suzy Snowflake” and “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” translate naturally into such an electrified idiom. Even before listening, the concept is a welcome change. Ballads like “Silver Bells” also sync easily with the band’s dreamy electropop aesthetic, as a sort of hybrid of their first two albums (though it’s more Big Beautiful Sky than The Colors In the Wheel). On the opener, “Let It Snow”, Annette Strean’s vocals have been assimilated into the network and “switched on” along with a seemingly endless array of computers, synths, and processors to dazzling and (aurally) sparkling effect.

Going in, however, I had my doubts about how even one of my all-time favorite bands would adapt two of my favorite seasonal numbers. There is, of course, the classic “The Christmas Song”, penned by Mel Tormé, immortalized by Nat “King” Cole, here given a tastefully switched on treatment, with a bit of ambient crackling tacked on in the opening for good measure. In the cases of electro-programming wizards Kip Kubin and Tony Miracle, it is their sensitivity and, more importantly, ability to hold back that render “The Christmas Song” not only passable, but one of two “must hear” tracks on the EP. The other being “Silent Night”.

Now, about that “Silent Night”. It’s come a long way since Christmas Eve of 1818 and the debut performance (for voice and guitar) at Nikolaus-Kirche in Oberndorf, Austria. But it’s still one of those songs I prefer un-fooled-around with. Sometimes (ok, oftentimes) it’s easy to question if all of the “progress” we as human beings have made in the last 191 years, has really left us any better off or if we’ve regressed, and those really were the “good old days”. Maybe we really have sucked the world dry of all the beautiful things. Venus Hum’s take on this, perhaps quintessential, musical rendering of the birth of Christ is humbly trippy and sufficiently glitchy (just like we are), but the sound of Annette’s voice floating just over top of it leaves me with the sense (and hope) that there just may be some goodness left in the world.

Sleep in Heavenly peace”? Yes, thank you. I believe I shall.

It’s a landslide nation

Among certain circles who think along these lines, Jena Malone is the perfect woman. And while I confess I have never seen any of her movies, I have seen her on Craig Ferguson and I was beginning to see their side of things. Then I found out that she is a musician. Then I heard her music. Then I saw the face of God and I died.

OK, OK, so Jena’s music (along with Lem Jay Ignacio, of course) did not exactly result in an encounter with the divine (or the Divine, for that matter) and the last check of my vitals confirmed that I am, in fact, very much alive. I can’t even promise you that there are actual circles that consider Jena to be perfect (they tend to be more elliptical). But I can assure you that, of all the movie-star-turned-singer-side-projects, this is the most ambitious and least pretentious. It is also one of the best (on par, I think, with Go-Getter co-star Zooey Deschanel’s work with M Ward if completely different).

In the past, her music has been performed with Jena Malone and Her Bloodstains, but now she works with Lem Jay Ignacio (“Lem Jay Ignacio: playing water love, wurly and hand claps. Jena Malone: playing with fire always”) as The Shoe. From what I understand, “the shoe” itself essentially amounts to a steamer trunk full of keyboards, processors, mixers, pedals, a guitar, and various other buttony things I wouldn’t know the first thing about using, ready to be plopped down on a street corner at a moment’s notice for an impromptu concert, which, I think, is sort of the point.

If you’re not lucky enough to find yourself on one of these street corners or dive bars, then I suggest you head over to MySpace and listen to the Shoe and the Bloodstains while you’re at it. I love the rant at the end of “Landslide Nation” and Raccoon, but there is a special place in my heart for “freestylechuckp’s radio show”, not only because of the David Byrne and Suicide Girl references, the use of the word “fictionary”, or the fact that it may actually be freestyle number 46,700, but also because she coins what could very well become our motto: “I’d know what is indie if it hit me”. Suddenly, I feel vindicated.

This is one band I would love to have on our Christmas album. I think they would do something truly incredible.

And, if you want even more electrified-pseudo-anti-folksy-bang for your buck, head over to therewasanoldwomanrecords.com and explore. There are even more tracks available there. They’ve got a YouTube channel, too. This video is my favorite, even if it isn’t exactly from the album.

[Apparently, I am not allowed to embed the video, so you will have to click here, or here, or here.]

Another record you can’t buy here, or “Why I am the indiest of them all”

New album from Nina Persson’s other band A Camp today. I haven’t listened to it yet, but I’m still excited.

In light of the admittedly surprising success of Dutch Week, we will probably have to sponsor a Welsh Week sometime soon. I swear, this has nothing to do with the fact that I have a weakness for Welsh accents or that if I were ever fortunate enough to meet a woman who spoke with one that she could have me do her bidding with the mere utterance of a few words. Nor has it to do with the fact that Hay-on-Wye is reputed to have more bookshops per capita than any other municipality in the world (be still my heart!) or that Doctor Who and Torchwood are filmed in Cardiff (David Tennant!!!). It’s just that they make so much good music. (Ok, so maybe it is a little bit about the accents.) But can you blame me? Based on that description, it sounds like Heaven on Earth.

For now, we’ll stick with one band (the Handbook’s second Welsh act to date), Cardiff’s 60s pop throwbacks, The School. Put simply, the band are, at any given moment, reminiscent of everything you love about music. “Let It Slip”, with its handclaps and shoop-pop background vocals has the distinct ring of the early 60s girl groups (The Angels, Shelley Fabares). “And Suddenly”, a cover of a Left Banke song, is layered with Beach Boys-like harmonies. “I Want You Back” is the School at their Belle & Sebastianiest, reminiscent of the indie idols’ Dear Catastrophe Waitress era brand of tweeness with a hint of Camera Obscura. And “Kiss You In the Snow” would make a perfect centerpiece for an Indie Handbook Christmas compilation (if we were ever allowed to make one). I love love love this song. All of this is executed with a dash of Northern Soul and maybe even a hint of Glaswegian C86.

The albums. There is a 7-inch on bubble gum pink vinyl and another four track EP. “All I Wanna Do” was also included on the Rough Trade Counter Culture 08 compilation released back in February. So, there you go, three more reasons to resent the hip hop dominated American music scene and the skinny jeans indie hipster counterculture.

Visit them at theschoolband.blogspot.com and on Twitter and, of course, on MySpace. Seriously guys, you need to listen to this one, or we will never be friends.

P.S. How amazing would it be if we were allowed to make a Christmas compilation?! I am totally serious about this. Write your MP! Pester your congressman! Beg your favorite band (the nice ones, anyway)!