THROUGH THE LENS: Have Yourself a Rootsy Little Christmas
Phoebe Bridgers - 2018 - Photo by Kirk Stauffer
Thanksgiving was just last week, but if we ever needed some Christmas cheer, it’s this year. So, this week Through the Lens is featuring Christmas albums, EPs, and singles that may not otherwise get the attention they deserve. (Never fear: No Depression‘s annual “Holiday Music That Doesn’t Suck” roundup is coming soon!)
It’s a rather diverse group: Cajun, Zydeco, Cuban, jazz, classic country, gypsy rock, mountain music, surf, and Americana. Together they would make a nice mixtape. Remember, this Friday (Dec. 4) is Bandcamp Friday, where the platform waives its normal fee and all proceeds go to the artists. I’ve provided Bandcamp links to the releases below that are available there.
There’s a lot to cover, so the following takes are necessarily brief.
Various Artists – Joyeux Noël, Bon Chrismeusse (Dec. 4)
This all-star cast of Louisiana artists, including Kelli Jones-Savoy of Feufollet and members of The Revelers, Sweet Crude, and The Daiquiri Queens, reinterprets Christmas classics through a Cajun and Creole lens, translating the songs into Louisiana French and Louisiana Creole, such as “J’ai vu Mam après becquer Papa Noël” (“I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”) and “Papa Nwèl ap vini o vilaj” (“Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”). Zydeco lovers will find the twin fiddles, accordion, and rubboard they love on some tracks, and bluesy horns fill Courtney Granger’s “Joyeux Noel, catin” (“Merry Christmas, Baby”). It’s a delightful Bandcamp exclusive.
Sweet Lizzy Project – And So This Is Christmas (out now)
This plucky Cuban quintet’s EP features two originals and covers by John Lennon (“Happy Xmas (War Is Over”)) and The Pretenders (“2000 Miles”) to honor a holiday that wasn’t as significant in their homeland but has new meaning for them at home in Nashville. The EP is a journey from the Cuban band’s personal experience to the beginning of new traditions. Its joy and humor help sweep away the sorrow many are feeling right now. Tower Records debuted two tracks here. Since March 15 of this year, the band has performed over 95(!) Sweet Quarantine Sessions from home multiple times a week, viewable on YouTube. You should also check out their other release this year, Technicolor.
Chaise Lounge – Out Under the Sky (out now on Bandcamp)
Following their first Christmas album, which I enthusiastically reviewed two years ago, this hep sextet returns with one that is just as effervescent as that one while also picking up the beat. The opening track, the original “Who Doesn’t Like Christmas,” embraces the holiday with open arms. Two more originals — “A Not So Silent Night,” about the rambunctiousness of children on Christmas Eve, followed by one for the adults, the swinging “Trimmin’ the Tree” — are my highlights. They also include a song not usually associated with the holidays, Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man.” With Charlie Barnett’s fuzzy guitar driving Marilyn Older’s vocal, they reveal that at the heart of Christmas lies the soul of humankind.
Heather Maloney – Christmas Anyway (out now on Bandcamp)
For her fifth release, Maloney brings her gorgeous, visceral voice to two originals and four covers, including “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and Dar Williams fan favorite “The Christians and The Pagans.” As Maloney said in a note, “This is a bittersweet holiday album through and through. I love happy holiday music just as much as somber holiday music, but this year I wanted to hear holiday songs that contain and even celebrate both emotions.” You can listen to the title track here, but my favorite track is “The Secret of Christmas.” It offers the insight that’s it’s not what you do on Christmas, but rather it’s “the Christmas things you do all year.”
Barnaby Bright – Bleak Midwinter (out now on Bandcamp)
Several weeks before this album dropped, this Kansas City duo released “The Hurting Times” (premiered by American Songwriter, and included on the album), which sounds like it could have been featured in this year’s most acclaimed TV show, I May Destroy You, where Michaela Coel’s wounded character travels a road of uncertainties: It’s her journey of examination, of self and the larger world outside, that ultimately reveals a healing power. The same can be said of not just of this song but of the entire album, which is as widely encompassing as it is redemptive. My favorite covers are jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here” and bluesman Charles Brown’s “Please Come Home for Christmas,” featuring Harlem-based singer/guitarist Caleb Hawley.
Buck Owens & The Buckaroos – A Merry “Hee Haw” Christmas (out now)
In the 1960s Buck Owens and his Buckaroos were the biggest thing in country music. They took their signature Bakersfield sound around the world, recording live albums both in Japan and New York at Carnegie Hall. They also did two Christmas albums, Christmas With Buck Owens and His Buckaroos (1965) and Christmas Shopping (1968). The two albums are now available for the first time on this remastered CD, with two 1972 public service announcements for Toys For Tots as bonus tracks. Don’t let the “Hee Haw” in the title throw you, these are classic country holiday tunes without the cornpone.
Nick Lowe & Los Straightjackets – “Winter Wonderland”/“Let It Snow” (Dec. 4)
Lowe’s return to stocking rocking follows his 2013 release Quality Street: A Seasonal Selection for All the Family, one of this decade’s most acclaimed holiday albums. The tunes here are fan favorites from his and Los Straightjackets’ Quality Holiday Revue live shows. They’ll be released as Bandcamp exclusives on Dec. 4, streaming services on Dec. 7.
Sierra Ferrell – “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”/ “Jingle Bell Rock” (out now on Bandcamp)
Following her two new originals last month, Ferrell offers up these two holiday classics. While her versions evoke the originals, Ferrell’s gypsy soul has a very special way of making them uniquely her own.
Phoebe Bridgers – If We Make It Through December (out now on Bandcamp)
While Stacy Chandler featured this EP’s title track in her Bonus Tracks column last week, the other three covers are just as lovely. My highlight is Bridgers’ update of Simon & Garfunkel’s chilling “Silent Night/7 O’Clock News” where the sacred is slowly drowned out by the profane.
Larry Sigmon & Martha Spencer – Unique Sound of the Mountains at Christmas Time (Dec. 4 on Bandcamp)
Bridging two generations of mountain musicians, this album, recorded in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, puts a smile on your face and gets your toes tapping. These 17 songs are gifts of joy that brighten up any hearth and home, especially as the spunky “Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer” is included.
Now, the photo gallery/slideshow.