A Surprising Christmas Music Mix
Wednesday 20 December @ 21:09:38
SIDE A (Steve McPherson)
“Fuselage (It’s Starting to Look Like Christmas Once Again)” by Centro-matic
You wouldn’t think Will Johnson’s Denton, Tex., band Centro-matic would be capable of cranking out a great Christmas song, based strictly on locale, but then again, you probably wouldn’t guess that the gray, autumnal movie “Rushmore” was filmed outside of Dallas, either. “Fuselage,” which originally appeared on the Idol Records compilation, Electric Ornaments, bears all of Centro-matic’s trademarks— propulsive drumming, racuously fuzzed-out start-stop guitars and gently rolling harmonies— but with a tongue-in-cheek holiday twist. “It’s starting to look like Christmas once again,” sings Johnson in the chorus, “it’s been some 20 years since the tree fire in the den.”
“The First Song” by Band of Horses
Before the vocals even hit, this song sounds like a towering, shimmering Christmas tree with big fat snowflakes that could knock you unconscious swirling around it. Singer Ben Bridwell’s icy words are largely lost to this maelstrom of giant sound, but here and there, words poke out: “As Christmastime goes / I’m coming over ... I’m wrapping up / the presents I bought ...” The lyrics, like most of Bridwell’s, don’t hang together as a real narrative, but the song is a solid evocation of the mixed air of regret and hope that comes with the end of the calendar year and the attendant festivities.
“Things Just Getting Good” by The Promise Ring
All right, you got me—Nowhere in this song does the word “Christmas” actually appear. But I challenge you to find another song that evokes the resigned emptiness of the tail-end of the year as well as this one. The Promise Ring followed up 1997’s Nothing Feels Good (available for your listening pleasure, oddly, in the jukebox at the Triple Rock) with the considerably calmer and assured Very Emergency two years later, with singer Davey von Bohlen exploring the mixed blessing of growing older in the bulk of the songs. “When what I came to do is done,” he sings here, “and we all feel a holiday cheer / then I hear my swan song singing / It is winter then it is a new year.” Von Bohlen was never a dour soul, though: Even at his darkest, he has a light touch with the pen. “We’re a working title for a really long book,” he laments, beautifully, and the closing couplets that describe each bandmember are sweet, in the indie rock-ingest way possible.
“Writing to Reach You” by Travis
I stumbled on this one by accident. While perusing my iTunes library, I idly queued this up, only to snap to attention at the top of the second verse: “It’s good to know that you are home for Christmas / It’s good to know that you are doing well.” Couple that with the positively chimey acoustic guitar strum that supports the tune and you’ve got the recipe for a wintry, melancholy and obliquely Christmas-y tune. As a melodic and sensitive British band with hints of grandeur, Travis often gets caught in the anti-Coldplay critical blast radius, but I beg you: Remember that the album this track comes from, The Man Who, came out a full year before Coldplay’s debut, and was the band’s second effort. They haven’t topped it since, but you might want to keep it in mind for the Coldplay fan who has everything this holiday season.
“12/23/95” by Jimmy Eat World
Arriving a little over three years after this track’s titular date, Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity was the album that should have made them huge. It encompassed a far grander sweep than the self-titled follow-up that scored them their first radio hit, moving from the widescreen ambitions of opener “Table for Glasses” through the epic and Postal Service-foreshadowing closer “Goodbye Sky Harbor.” Smack in the middle comes this deftly-sketched vignette. Singer/songwriter Jim Adkins lets our individual associations with the holiday season do the heavy lifting; He spends the first three-quarters of the song apologizing to an anonymous girlfriend before closing it with a simple, “Merry Christmas, baby / Merry Christmas.”
SIDE B (Max Sparber)
“Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” by Tom Waits
“Hey, Charlie, I’m pregnant,” Tom Waits barks incongruously at the start of this melancholy ballad from his 1978 album Blue Valentine. His song details a series of hard-luck tales, some of them lies, narrated in a stream-of-consciousness that forgets to mention Christmas at all (the only indication that this is a holiday melody comes in the title.) The song’s arrangement eschews the clichés of the season, preferring a plaintive, soulful pairing of acoustic and electric pianos. Waits’s titular prostitute writes a chatty letter from a little apartment above a dirty book store on 9th street, presumably downtown; she wanders from thought to thought, from a brief move to her hometown of Omaha to regretful memories of drug use. Waits would later return to the same city block in his song “9th & Hennepin,” from 1985’s Swordfishtrombones. “And all the rooms they smell like diesel,” the newer song informs us, “And you take on the dreams of the ones who have slept here.” We already know one of those dreams. In her holiday card, Waits’ hooker narrates an unexpected Christmas wish: She wants a used car lot. “I wouldn’t sell any of ‘em,” she explains. “I’d just drive a different car every day, dependin’ on how I feel.”
“‘Zat You, Santa Claus” by Louis Armstrong
Featuring a menacing melody, including sound effects once found on novelty Halloween recordings (howling winds, sudden slide whistles), Louis Armstrong’s horn-drenched Christmas melody is more than a little nervous. Someone is outside Satchmo’s door, but he’s not entirely certain it is Kris Kringle. In his signature growl, Armstrong articulates a surprising terror: “We don’t believe in no goblins today; But I can’t explain why I’m shakin’ this way.”
“Jingle Bells” by Blowfly
Any song, taken at random, from the body of work songwriter Clarence Reid recorded under the pseudonym Blowfly, is likely to be the most appalling thing you’ve ever heard. Reid, who enjoyed a successful career in the 60s and 70s writing songs for KC and the Sunshine Band and Sam & Dave, for no clear reason dressed himself in a preposterous superhero outfit in 1971 and began recording obscene versions of popular songs. Most of his song titles are unprintable—milder titles include “Porno Freak” and “Who Did I Eat Last Night?” Reid’s take on Christmas is typically obscene—a series of explicit and graphic scenes, beginning with a series of Christmas night trysts involving Santa, Rudolph and, inexplicably, Richard Nixon. All of this is half-sung, half-spoken (Reid’s conversation performance style is credited with having invented rap with 1965’s “Dirty Rap”) over a typically ’70s slow jam of electric piano and blaring horns, this despite having been released in 1999.
“Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” by Tiny Tim
Tiny Tim’s rendition of this Christmas chestnut is precisely what you expect it will be—a weirdly anachronistic arrangement featuring ukulele, barrelhouse piano, solo flute and a primitive, overly amplified bass portion, coupled with Tiny Tim’s high, quavering falsetto. But just when you think the singer is treading woefully familiar territory, in comes a choir of out of tune children, as though Tiny Tim, feeling that the song needed additional texture, had wandered into a nearby grade school music class with a tape recorder. If you’re not fond of Tiny Tim, the production will be typically grating. However, if the most aggravating aspect of the Yule season is the oversweet sentimentality that endlessly leaks out of popular culture, Tiny Tim is a marvelous antidote. The singer was capable of accidentally being genuinely sweet, but, no matter how he tried, the inherent shrillness of his singing voice and the oddness of his arrangements makes it impossible for him to pull off the soulless, carefully plotted, diabetes-inducing pathos so often marketed during this season. Tiny Tim takes Rudolph—one of the season’s most noxiously corny creations, and remakes him as something entirely unexpected: In Tiny Tim’s hands, Rudolph becomes a weirdo.
“Even Squeaky Fromme Loves Christmas” by The Reverend Glen Armstrong
In 2003, a fellow named Otis Fodder engaged in an unusual online undertaking that he dubbed The 365 Days Project. For one year, every single day, he and a group of hand-selected hobbyists would post one MP3. The selection was deliberately unusual, including out of print children’s records, old radio commercials, novelty singles by surprising celebrities, children recording half-remembered songs into home tape recorders. There was no clearly articulated curatorial mission, but everyone submitting MP3s was working on essentially the same wavelength, locating the sorts of recordings that Re/Search publishing had dubbed “Incredibly Weird Music” a few years earlier in a book of the same title. December brought a wealth of Christmas music, all deliciously odd, but the standout was a stripped-down guitar, vocal, trap set, and chimes recording by a fellow out of Detroit who went by the name The Reverend Glen Armstrong that contains this jaw-dropping opening line: “When Jesus died for man’s sins, he even died for Manson’s—but please don’t think I’m trying to turn your feelings toward this murderer.” The song then turns its attention to Squeaky Fromme, the Manson family member who attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford in 1975. Armstrong’s droll, laconic singing voice tells a surprisingly sympathetic story of an imprisoned, hell-bound Fromme squeaking out “Jingle Bells” in her cell. “Though there’s not much left of her mind, her memories are festive,” Armstrong sings, and his words might be autobiographical—rumor has it that his religious recordings are the product of a seven-year breakdown.
Interested? Well, we can't make all these songs available for free here on the Pulse website, but if you direct your iTunes-equipped computer here, you can buy this mix from iTunes store. Well, everything except the Rev. Glen Armstrong song; iTunes didn't have it. Oh, and be forewarned that the Blowfly track is every bit as explicit as we've made it out to be. You've been warned.