Jingle Balls. Mr. Plow, Llewellyn & Kristin, Jim Byrne, The Lost Brothers Christmas music

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

Mr. Plow. Not The Beginning, Not The End. PinkBox Records.

Third album in from the Midlands based murder balladeers, Mr. Plow finds them in fine form, gleefully documenting murder, mayhem and madness in their Gothic version of America, a land peopled by religious monster truck drivers, cocained cowpokes and grim amputees. They deliver this in a manner similar to The Handsome Family, sardonic wit, deadpan delivery and with a slightly spry step to the music. It’s no surprise that the band are popular at festivals as all the songs are gripping stories which the audience would savour. On record (and this is a vinyl release folks) the listener might miss the opportunity to join in on a mass tribute to the American art of death but there’s plenty here to enjoy.

Satan Wandered In opens the album with a Gospel flavour seeming to come from a possibly bleary-eyed Pastor regretting a night on the tiles and promising to get back on the straight and narrow. Dwight’s Roadside Grave, current favourite here, is a sweet sounding pedal steel embroidered country song could be a white trash movie script summary. The opening lines “I’ve never seen my Mother quite so happy/since Daddy smoked his crack pipe to the grave” set the scene for mean Uncle Dwight’s entrance. His comeuppance is tearfully and gleefully described. Excellent stuff. Bo Diddley Memorial Blues scoots along with boastful gloats worthy of the old gunslinger himself while snarling guitar cracks away. Jesus Loves Monster Trucks really doesn’t need any description, suffice to say that the spirit of Commander Cody is in the crankshaft here. There’s a sidestep into serious territory on Tango Para El Tigre Cautivo, a powerful dig at keeping animals in captivity which is leavened somewhat by the exotic delivery, a Tav Falco flavour twanged tango.

For the rest of the album it’s back to death and doom with Bag Of Bones a Kristofferson voiced suicide note with rippling guitars, Columbian Cowboy’s Roundup Time a clip clopped mash up of Gene Autry and Dennis Hopper both of whom would have had a silver spoon hung from their necks here. The album ends with the stripped back and folky Lonely Cold Waltz where Mr. Plow morphs into Johnny Cash in his latter days as he describes a wreck on the highway although we don’t know if anyone prayed.

So there it is. 40 minutes of killing fields, death and redemption. Lovely stuff indeed. Not The Beginning, Not The End is available on limited edition vinyl (with a CD thrown in) here or as a download.

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