Well it’s December so it’s safe to mention the C word. For the next four weeks it’s jingle all the way downhill as we get bombarded with “cute” adverts from mega million stores itching to squeeze more money from our pockets and have to endure endless loops of schmaltzy Xmas muzak in shops which are far too full of other people. Bah Humbug indeed. On the music side there’s a well-drilled and finely honed canon, chestnuts roasting and all that, fodder for the folk, the stuff of Christmas specials, funny pullovers and fake snow with some Slade thrown in for the “youngsters” which you can buy on any number of CDs with titles such as Now This Is Christmas Vol. 2014.
As always there’s another side to the coin and while for a time this Christmas underbelly was composed primarily of comic or smutty ditties, over the past few years there’s been a veritable outburst of reasonably fine Christmas songs. Along with this a wealth of blogs spring up around this time pointing folks in the direction of the darker side of the season with Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite being Big Rock Candy Mountain who delve deep and bring up some astonishing items. Anyway, all of this is just a way of introducing some Christmas music that’s been sent in for review, so eggnog in hand (what on earth is eggnog?) here we go.
Mr. Plow weighs in with the grim noire of The Greatest Christmas Ever Seen that features some festive tropes, mentions of snow and percussion that is faintly reminiscent of sleigh bells, that identify its Christmas status but there’s no Ho Ho Ho here as he tells a tale of domestic violence, a woman battered as “the tills rang out their joyless greed.” Gabi Monk of The Good Intentions harmonises on vocals as the deadpan lyrics describe a Christmas of ambulances and hospital. It’s not going to be number one in the festive chart but all of the proceeds from sales are going to Refuge, a charity that supports victims of domestic violence. Available as a download there’s also a very fine and limited vinyl edition (with cool snow coloured vinyl) available from Pink Box Records that has an excellent wearied rendition of Away In A Manger on the flip side.
David Llewellyn & Ida Kristin offer up their reading of Christina Rossetti’s In The Bleak Midwinter, the song that has snuck Bert Jansch into many a home via numerous commercial Christmas compilations. Llewellyn & Kristin stay true to the familiar arrangement with its wintry air and old-fashioned Dickensian Christmas feel while they both sing well. The pair have their debut album, Songs Around The Kitchen Table out soon but in the meantime you can buy In The Bleak Midwinter here.
Glasgow songwriter, Jim Byrne download only For We Are Born To Doubt is a cracker (sorry) of a song as Byrne hymns the Cartesian way of life with some festive trappings such as a music box melody and heavenly choruses (provided by folk singers, the Linties). Towards the end Stuart Miller of The Linties speaks the chorus with a wonderfully couthy Scots tongue, reminiscent of Ivor Cutler that caps the song with a flourish. Expect to hear the likes of Iain Anderson and Tom Morton playing this in the next few weeks. For We Are Born To Doubt will be available from December 10th here
Finally (and capping a trip around the British Isles with England, Scotland, Wales and now Ireland all represented here) The Lost Brothers have Little Angel, another download only single which captures perfectly their wonderful Everly like harmonies on a song that is the most “Christmassy” one on offer here. It floats along like that flying snowman and evokes that simple sense of wonder and goodwill that films such as It’s A Wonderful Life manage. With brass flourishes building up towards the end it’s a song that will warm the cockles of your heart if you’re not a real curmudgeon. Little Angel is free to download but The Losties are asking folk if they can to donate to UNICEF via a link on the download
Maybe it’s just a geographical coincidence or laziness on our part but when we listened to M. Lockwood Porter’s album 27 we were reminded almost immediately of Porter’s fellow Oklahoman, John Fullbright. Fullbright has blossomed into one of the best songwriters about these days with his arrangements and delivery recalling masters such as Randy Newman and Jimmy Webb while his songs hit the same nerve as the likes of Townes Van Zandt do. Porter lurks around the same territory with his songs tightly arranged, sprinkled with a touch of Americana (with pedal steel ornamenting several of the songs) but at his best he also recalls premier league songwriters with his song Secrets a meltingly wonderful confection that conjures up Brian Wilson’s vulnerability and wraps it in a Big Star production.
Big Star are revisited on the ode to Alex Chilton’s compadre, Chris Bell. Tributes to other writers, particularly dead ones can come across as mawkish or at worst, a tick box exercise but Porter manages to marry an excellent Neil Young type shuffle to an affectionate and worthy tribute to Bell that swells with emotion. It’s of note that the album title, 27, is Lockwood’s current age and also the age at which Bell and several other rockers died leading to the notion of the infamous 27 club.
Lockwood describes the album as “half break up, half quarter life crisis.” He looks back to his early years on the clamorous and percussive Mountains, describing his conversion to rock’n’roll almost as a religious experience. Different Kind Of Lonely harvests the sound of The Band on an organ kicked roustabout that sways and swaggers with a drunken joyousness while I Know You’re Gonna Leave Me celebrates rock music with a tremendous dynamic, part piano confessional, part soaring guitar, it recalls Wilco on their Being There album, superior pop rock which builds to an exciting climax. In addition there’s the mayhem of the Jim Steinman rockandrollrama of Restless that leaves the listener breathless and the more intimate There To Here that allows Lockwood to bare his soul for an instant. All in all a tremendous album.
Been a while since I heard from Ten Gallon Bratz, a band I reviewed for Americana UK back in 2006 but you can’t keep a good man (or band) down and Tales From The Long Shadows is a world away from their first tentative steps. Hailing from Greenock the Bratz are of a certain vintage that probably allows them to look back with some fondness to what passed for country rock back in the days before alt country kicked in. Their sound certainly reflects the likes of Poco, Guy Clark and the Eagles while there’s a Celtic tinge to some of their songs with Same Old Song seeming to come from time spent listening to The Waterboys.
A five piece band with three guitarists on board, they open the album with the guitar heavy stomp of Nothing Left To Say as the acoustics flail away and the electric guitar riffs in a Big Country style. It’s a big bold statement but in terms of the album somewhat misleading as what follows is more nuanced and dare I say, more interesting. Personally I’d prefer it at the end but there’s no doubt that it’s destined to be a crowd pleaser. The guitar crunching side of the band is revisited on the burnished bruise that is Fish Out Of Water, a shimmering groove that doffs its hat to Chris Issak and Jace Everett with its air of menace. For the remainder however the band allow their harmonies, allied to some fine picking, to showcase their talent and it’s here that that we find the heart of the band, one they offer live as testified some weeks ago when we saw them open for The Howling Brothers. While there’s a Ronnie Lane feel to the shuffling strut of Too Far Gone the band are at their best when they hunker down in their vision of American roots music. The addition of pedal steel by Iain Sloan (Wynntown Marshals) and fiddle (Alison McNeill, Reely Jiggered) fleshes out the sound on a slew of songs that drink deep from the Americana well. New King In Town has some very sweet and sorrowful Dobro and pedal steel flourishes as a relationship breaks down while All Fall Down swells musically despite the downbeat story. Brand New Old Fashioned Blues is a terrific tear stained lament with weeping pedal steel while Who’s Left To Save The Working Man delves into Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen territory in their stripped down Woody Guthrie guises. Here the Bratz strive to celebrate and commiserate with the downtrodden and they succeed as they really nail it here.