Despite what the local weather may lead us to believe, it is mid-December and we are in the heart of the holiday season. Julian, Keith and Chuck from Sleepy Hollow offer a playlist of holiday and winter-related selections to soundtrack your morning spent with family, afternoons wrapping gifts, and even your evenings spent alone…words and links to some of their favorite tracks below – enjoy!
My Morning Jacket – My Morning Jacket Does Xmas Fiasco Style (Darla, 2000)
Only an artist as idiosyncratic as Jim James and his band My Morning Jacket would make the decision to put out a holiday-themed release after their very first album. But that which, in less steady hands, could easily have fallen into the “novelty” category, has become one of the most endearing collections of My Morning Jacket’s magnificent career. They pair a set of original songs (including “Xmas Curtain,” which would be featured on 2001’s At Dawn and become one of the band’s signature live songs) with covers of Elvis Presley’s country-rocker “Santa Claus is Back in Town” (the song that opens his 1957 Christmas album) and “New Morning,” originally recorded by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for the 1988 release, Tender Pray. But as good as the aforementioned tracks are, it is the tender “I Just Wanted to Say” and “Xmas Time is Here Again” that stand out, serving as warm, welcome, and entirely unique additions to the greater canon of holiday music. My Morning Jacket Does Xmas Fiasco Style, now fifteen years old, is a snapshot of the band at its most vulnerable–far away from their current (and still satisfying) incarnation as indie rock electro-experimentalists able to sell out large theaters and arenas. And as such, it is a document well-worth revisiting, made evident by its recent release on vinyl LP.
The Pilgrim Travelers – “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” (Specialty, 1952)
The Drifters’ – “White Christmas” (Atlantic, 1954)
This 1952 recording of the classic “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” may be looked at as a somewhat lesser-known companion to The Drifters’ 1954 recording of “White Christmas.” Though the Pilgrim Travelers veered more towards Gospel, both are examples of top-notch vocal groups re-interpreting the music of Bing Crosby in the increasingly popular doo-wop style. But while the public would eventually view The Drifters rendition of “White Christmas” (in this writer’s opinion, the greatest ever recorded) on an equal plane as Crosby’s original, the Travelers’ “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” has lived in relative obscurity, aided only slightly by its appearance over the years on various holiday compilations. Despite this, it is arguably the most fragile reading of the Kim Gannon/Walter Kent/Buck Ram composition ever recorded, with the pre-Lou Rawls Travelers’ harmonizing magnificently over a single, gentle electric guitar. And though it will never capture the imagination of the listening public the way Crosby’s original did, it will forever exist as a gem of the early-’50s vocal group style, and serve as an eloquent reminder of the importance of being around those you love during the holidays, even if that’s sometimes impossible.
Neko Case – “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” (New Coat of Paint: Songs of Tom Waits; Manifesto, 2000)
Tom Waits version:
Tom Waits’ original recording of “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” released on 1978’s Blue Valentine, is a stark, harsh tale of an unreliable narrator pleading with a former friend for money upon her impending release from jail. It’s a complicated composition, one in which we are forced to pay extra close attention, especially after we learn, upon hearing the final verse, that most of what has been said throughout the song’s first three minutes is untrue. Few songwriters have been able to comb the depths and intricacies of humanity as astutely as Waits, and though “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” is an important entry amongst his classic late-’70s output, Neko Case’s reading, featured on the 2000 compilation New Coat of Paint: Songs of Tom Waits, adds a layer of humanity to the song that Waits could never, as a performer, achieve. Whereas Waits could only ever function in this composition as a storyteller, Case has the ability to narrate the broken protagonist’s tale in the true first person. Her straight, haunted approach peaks on the fourth and sixth verses, when she sings “everyone I used to know / is either dead or in prison / came back to Minneapolis / this time I think I’m gonna stay // Hey Charley, for Christ sakes / if you want to know the truth of it / …I gotta borrow money / to pay this lawyer / and Charley, hey / I’ll be eligible for parole / come Valentine’s Day.” It’s a masterful character study that takes an entirely unique approach to the concept of the “holiday song,” and we are fortunate that a voice as essential as Case’s was willing to approach it.
Nina Simone -“Little Girl Blue” (Little Girl Blue, Bethlehem, 1958)
Joni Mitchell – “River” (Blue, Reprise, 1971)
This title track (and Rodgers/Hart composition from the 1935 musical, Jumbo) from Nina Simone’s 1958 debut inhabits the same space as Joni Mitchell’s 1971 classic, “River.” Both are heartbreaking compositions that use the holidays as a backdrop (Mitchell quotes the melody of “Jingle Bells,” while Simone references “Good King Wenceslas”), as opposed to the driving force behind the content. But whereas Joni Mitchell’s recording is a fairly transparent letter that tells of the regret of a failed relationship and giving up her child for adoption, “Little Girl Blue” is much more ambiguous. We are given the brief insight into the singer’s melancholy at the end, when Simone sings: “no use old girl / you might as well surrender / ’cause your hopes are getting slender and slender / why won’t somebody send a tender blue boy / to cheer up little girl blue,” giving the indication that an “aging” woman longs to find a husband to no avail (remember this song was written in 1935…). But, as with so many of her performances, this is far too simple a trope for Simone to fall into, and she sings “Little Girl Blue” with a depth and emotion that far eclipses its original intention. And even if we, as listeners, are not able to decipher the root of this emotion, we are able to feel whatever it may be through Simone’s immense vocal talent. Of course, Simone’s choice to use “Good King Wenceslas” is also left unexplained, but perhaps the mystery is part of what makes this holiday blues so intriguing.
Sufjan Stevens – Songs for Christmas, Vol. I-V (Asthmatic Kitty, 2006)
Sufjan Stevens’ Songs for Christmas, recorded across six years before its expansive release in 2006, contains all of the highs and lows of his much publicized “50 States Project” that yielded 2003’s Greetings from Michigan: The Great Lake State and 2005’s Illinoise. Like those projects, but perhaps even more so, Stevens’ vision is impossibly wide, blending gentle acoustics and whispered vocals with anthemic chorale-like compositions, and orchestral interludes, all in the name of “Indie Rock.” Most approaches to traditional material retain the charm of Stevens’ best original work, especially the Chet Atkins-like “Silent Night” toss-off, the second version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” with Stevens’ vocal harmonies accompanied only by a somber piano, and especially “The Little Drummer Boy,” which arguably stands om equal plane with any version previously recorded. And fortunately, Stevens adds a number of welcome originals, the best of which, “That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!” and “Sister Winter” still retain his deep warmth, despite their dark subject matter. Even if you don’t find everything on Songs of Christmas’ five discs rewarding, there is plenty here to make it one of the best holiday releases of the past ten years.
Robyn Hitchcock – “Winter Love” (I Often Dream of Trains; Midnight Music, 1984)
The dark and chilly psyche of Mr. Hitchcock is presented amid the landscape in all it’s barren chill. A macabre partner for a solstice evening from his opus work ‘I Only Dream Of Trains’.
Nico – “Winter Song” (Chelsea Girl; Verve, 1967)
A track from Nico’s solo debut ‘Chelsea Girl’ written by John Cale features dramatic strings under light, colorful flute flourishes. The music swirls amid a dark tale of a sordid past and troubled soul.
Sara Bareilles & Ingrid Michaelson – “Winter Song” (The Hotel Cafe Presents Winter Songs; Epic, 2008)
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