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April 2009 Archives

Snowbound, Warren Appleby (Madkar)

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appleby.jpgWarren's a rock 'n roll veteran going back to his early '80s stint in the heavy metal band Blacktask. He started a solo career back in 2002 and has cut several albums since then, including a few of Christmas songs along the way that formed the basis for this newly recorded 2008 CD of instrumentals, with Warren playing all the parts and recording in his home studio. The title song, "Christmas Ships," "Late December" and "Winter Valley" are his own originals, though "Ships" does harken back to "I Saw Three Ships." The remainder of the nine tunes are classic carols like "Deck the Halls," "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "Silent Night," "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "O'Christmas Tree 2.0." Overall, the sound is less metal and more like Trans-Siberian Orchestra or Mannheim Steamroller, with plenty of bombastic instrumental touches in that style of playing. It's well made for a home-based production, though I have to say the original tunes don't really suggest Christmas to a listener for the most part, except where familiar carols are quoted. Nevertheless, fans of this style of music ought to check Warren out.
cherry1.jpgCherryade is a small independent label in Great Britain, and they've found it worthwhile over the past several years to issue a holiday compilation featuring their roster of artists and some who aren't on their label. The acts heard here run an alt-rock gamut that takes in low-budget folk, pop and retro-60s sounds. And despite only being available via their overseas website, they're actually budget-priced. This first one is from 2005, and not all the tunes on here are Christmas-oriented. Of the ones that are, "Sleigh Ride" by Wanderlust is a nice bit of thrashing on the popular carol, "Have Yourself a Psychedelic Christmas" by Misty's Big Adventure features a Fred Schneider-type vocal singing updated lyrics to the familiar carol (or is that retro lyrics?). The Container Drivers offer "In the Bleak Mid Afternoon," no relation to the antique carol but an original that goes through a couple of movements before the lyrics kick in. David Craigie channels Sufjan Stevens on a shambling "Christmas in a Can," Chihiro offers a folky "The Plans That We Made," and Steveless/Syd Howells goes kind of Wild Man Fisher on "This Is What Dying Is Like (Christmas in Swansea)" and "Seasonal Schizophrenia."

cherry2.jpgFollowing on from the first disc, this second collection from 2006 features Cherryade artists and their confederates, this time going Christmas across the board. The Pocket Gods kick things off with "Jombal Bells," a play on their own song "Jombal Party," slapping together any number of holiday readymades into a fun disc opener. The Beatnik Filmstars give us "Ho Ho Ho (A Bloody Merry Corporate Xmas)," a primitive-sounding broadside against commercialism, and Candy Panic Attack's "On the Dole at Christmas" is an equally grungy pop take from a slacker's point of view, and The Girl From Headquarters offers up a sinister-sounding "Unwanted Presents." Paul Hawkins' mediocre voice fails to detract from the reggae-fied "Getting a Divorce For Christmas," a bit of tongue-in-cheek melodrama that is fun but goes on a bit too long. True Adventures' girl-boy pop shuffle "What the Hell" is nicely disarming, with just the slightest taste of Violent Femmes to it. "The Last Noel" by Life With Bears is an electro-pop talk-sing reminiscent of a low-budget Pet Shop Boys. Captain Polaroid offers a rare "Until Boxing Day" take on the 26th, invoking a bit of Velvet Underground along the way. Two bands break the all-original-songs barrier on this collection: Zoltan Kodaly School For Girls does an instrumental of Jona Lewie's "Stop the Cavalry" and Dawn of the Replicants nicely grunges up Sir Paul's "Wonderful Christmastime." There's also a CD Extra component with "A Ghostly Tale" on mp3, but it didn't seem to do much else on my Mac. There are a fair number of more experimental sounding items on this disc, but there's enough good stuff to justify the low price of this disc.

cherry3.jpgAnd following further on with Cherryade, this is their 2007 compilation of mostly original tunes. Fewer songs this time, but bargain prices still apply. "Long Lonely Christmas Without Jimmy Greenhoff" by Billy Ruffian is a holiday tribute to the noted footie player, "I'm Going to Build My Snowman Better than Yours," a grungy pop confection by The Lovely Eggs, is self-explanatory, and The Bobby McGee's play off Wham's Christmas classic with the ukelele-flute ballad "Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart and the Very Next Day You Sold It On eBay." The Pocket Gods return with "Wnking For Christmas," in which they deliberately drop the "a" after the W. The Madrigals chant "The Only Night of the Year" over a spare banjo backing, and Ghouqueu describe "Santa's Hands" over an electo-pop backing track. MJ Hibbett and the Validators rock out, with violin on "The Advent Calendar of Fact," The Gresham Flyers set their "Diamond White Christmas" to a martial beat with toy piano and melodica, and Hug Party's "Christmas is Coming" is a rap over celeste and electronic drums. Balor Knights apply drums over the antique carol "Gaudete" and Miss the Occupier wrap things up with the not-very-Christmasy "Vandalise," the hard-rocking intro taking us into a more alt-punk middle. All told, more along the same lines as its predecessors, but each gives fans of independent alt-rock a way to meet some bands they might not encounter if they don't live in England.
rosiet.jpgThe Seattle singer-songwriter and standup comic (under the name Sheila Saputo) turns her talents to the holiday on this 2008 album, a mix of covers and original songs. She's an alt-folk-pop singer, so this is mostly a kind of mellow vibe, as you might guess from "O Come O Come Emanuel," "Christmastime Is Here," and Joni Mitchell's "River." More upbeat tunes include "Let It Snow" and the original "Why Can't It Be Christmas All Year," the latter the breakout cut from this disc if iTunes is to be believed. She also brings the ballad touch to "Christmas Don't Be Late," better known as "The Chipmunk Song." There's also a comedy sketch featuring her Sheila persona, "Sheila's Christmas Miracle."
metlwish.jpgNot much chance you'll confuse any of this 2008 album's songs with outtakes from the Hotel Cafe CD with a title like that. What we have here is a literal parade of hard rock veterans jamming out 11 takes on familiar holiday tunes. On hand for the festivities are such folks as Alice Cooper, Billy Gibbons, Toni Iommi, Ronnie James Dio, Lemmy Kilmister, Steve Morse, Simon Phillips, Billy Sheehan and Dave Grohl, along with a bunch of other folks. No two songs have the same lineup, so you'll want the CD booklet handy while you're listening to this. "Silver Bells" gets a double-time treatment, "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" sounds Sabbath-esque, no surprise since Iommi and Dio are on it, "Silent Night" reminds me of the way Spinal Tap might do it, and we have to give the gang props for the heavy metal cover of "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer." All told, no surprises, but a worthy addition to the canon of hard rock/hair band/metal Xmas music.
NKOTB.jpgYeah, yeah, I know, one of the original "boy bands," though they had the good fortune to fall into the hands of New Edition producer Maurice Starr, who produced and wrote or co-wrote all the original songs on this 1989 album. (Ironically, he wasn't around for New Edition's Christmas album.) As a result, this has the sound of an 80s R'nB record, which means good grooves and cheap synthesizers. The album is bracketed with the sappy and non-holiday "This One's For the Children," but the second cut, "Last Night I Saw Santa Claus," gets things into a more uptempo groove, as does the rap "Funky Funky Xmas." The rest of the tunes are pretty downtempo, from straight ballads to slow jams. Covers of "White Christmas" and "Little Drummer Boy" round things out. Given the strong musical bed, it's sometimes disappointing when the Kids' white-bread voices come in. Still, this album isn't nearly as embarrassing as it could be. No doubt this was reissued for 2008 in the wake of the NKOTB reunion.
nattyxms.jpgAnother recent CD release for a reggae Christmas album from the 70s that I originally owned on vinyl and bought in a Toronto bodega. Only five cuts, but three are epic length workouts. Jacob and Ray give us old school reggae versions of familiar carols like "Wish You a Merry Christmas," which somehow becomes "Irie Christmas," "On the Twelve Day of Ismas," "All I Want For Ismas," which is as much an ode to herb as to the holiday, plus "Deck the Halls" and "Silver Bells/Natty No Santa Claus." A bit monochromatic sounding to some ears no doubt, but this 1978 album still makes a nice holiday change of pace.
knickers.jpgThis is a 1966 B-side to the single "Gotta Stop This Dreaming," and it's been made available in the modern day by the fine folks at Sundazed. The band is best remembered for its one top 10 hit, "Lies," a great 60s rocker on its own but which was propelled by a performance strongly reminiscent of the Beatles -- indeed, a lot of kids thought it was the Fab Four. This tune borrows a few readymades from Merseyside as well as the Beach Boys, but the resemblance in this case isn't quite the "live or Memorex" conundrum that "Lies" was. Still, a decent tune for the time.
darkest.jpgLast year this Cincinnati band released its second Christmas album, Snow Angels, which we reviewed favorably. Curiosity piqued, and also because we're completists here to the extent possible, we went into the Wayback Machine (OK, it was actually iTunes) to scope out their first effort from 1996. You can hear the continuity between the two discs in terms of the folk-pop-jazz style of the music. The title is pretty much on the nose, as this is quiet and intense, again much like Low, as we said in the Snow Angels piece. Unlike the later album, there's a larger number of familiar carols in the playlist, including two versions of "Silent Night," one a midtempo poppy version, the other slower and done as a "duet" with dual voices, both of which are the same singer. The band did pen a few tunes for this effort. "Thank You My Angel" doesn't have much of a holiday theme, nor does "Amelia's Last," though thematically they serve the album title. "Mary's Waltz" uses Christmas more as a motif for the story of a blind girl who escapes her bedroom to dance. There's also a fair number of instrumentals here, including "The First Noel," "Greensleeves," "O Little Town of Bethlehem," and the originals "Coal Train," "Up North Here Where the Stars..." and "A Little Lower Than the Angels."
paulstrm.jpgThis duo brings us a simple, stripped-down ode to the commercialization of the season, particularly the part where stores have up mistletoe for Veterans Day. Unfortunately, the singer snaps and takes out his wrath on Santa Claus, and, well, everybody learns a lesson. Nice job.
FrGuido.jpgYeah, bet you haven't thought about this guy since his "Saturday Night Live" days. Well, he's still out there, and he came back recently with this, which is more of a monologue over a musical bed of people singing the title to the tune of "100 Bottles of Beer On the Wall." It's about 14 minutes long, in keeping with his expressed wish to create "the worst Christmas song ever." The fact that he talks over the whole thing shows he at least has a bit of remorse at the notion once it gets under way. It's worth hearing, though, as he talks about how he came to write his other Christmas songs, "I Won't Be Twisting This Christmas" and "Santa's Lament." Visitors to his website had the opportunity to buy a CD with all three songs on it, but it's apparently sold out. This song can still be downloaded, however. Sarducci claims he's planning another Christmas song, "Frosty the Snow," about Frosty before he was made into a snowman. We'll keep an eye out for it.
You probably don't need a sophisticated cryptex to figure this one out -- a surf-rock Christmas song that puts Santa on the board. The back story is that the jolly old elf is too stressed out by Christmas and goes off the grid and onto the beach. Nicely done. You'll have to go to MySpace to hear it, but the band hopes to get distribution for it soon. Update: You can check the song out at Further update: There's a video now, too:

vulcans.jpgWe get a lot of songs that recreate favorite 60s genres from surf to Merseybeat, but this is probably the first time I've been directed to MySpace to listen to a song that was cut in the early 1960s. It's your basic British Invasion love song with a Christmas twist, very Gerry and the Pacemakers/Herman's Hermits in style. It's apparently not available for sale, but the band's MySpace page promises a new version by the original lead singer is in the works. Update: Martin Johns said the song did make it to CD on a 1995 import compilation, Ready Steady Go & Win, now out of print. "If you can find a copy that would cost you from $80-$600," he adds.
alphauk.jpgFrom the 2007 album Animation Cell, this mandolin-led slow rocker follows a soldier left behind at the front after his platoon retreats, writing what he thinks might be his final words as he awaits the enemy. I'm guessing this British band from York has heard "Stop the Cavalry" by Jona Lewie, as this is a more downtempo look at the same territory.

Christmas, Howard Hewett (Groove)

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hewett.jpgHewett, the longtime soul and gospel singer who started out in Shalamar with Jody Watley, brings his talents to the holiday for 2008. The roster of songs is mainly classic carols like "O Come All Ye Faithful," "The Christmas Song," "Silent Night," "What Child Is This," and yes he does Donny Hathaway's "This Christmas." That's one of the few uptempo songs here, other than "Christmas on Sunset (Interlude)"; most are done in ballad style, with a couple of slow jams takes on "Sleigh Ride" and "Baby It's Cold Outside," with a singer named Jasselle as his duet partner. And "Christmas Time Is Here" has a bit more of a jazz flavor. Plenty of big names came out for these sessions, with Stevie Wonder lending harmonica, the Earth Wind and Fire rhythm section providing backing, and jazz legend George Duke playing and co-producing. All told, it's what you might expect from a mature soul artist.
campese.jpgCampese is an electric lead guitar shredder and this, his sixth solo album, is his holiday move for 2008. He has done time with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, where his talents were no doubt appreciated, but this album has only a little of that sort of big progressive sound; this is more of a hard rock/metal outing, mostly instrumental with Mike pushing the envelope on the melodies in that style. The 12 tunes are mostly classics, with two originals, "Christmas in Maui" and the title song, the latter the only vocal on the disc. "The Christmas Song," called "Chestnuts" on here, and "Silent Night" are led by acoustic rather than electric guitars, and "Carol of the Bells" is as close as he gets to TSO here. This will go over great with hard rock guitar fanatics.

clintcok.jpgA new single by this Louisiana punk-folk songwriter, whose previous work includes "Meth Lab Blues" and the recent EP Midcrisislife, this suicidal wish sounds just the tiniest bit insincere. I'd bet that's intentional. It's a cool little talk-sing with harmonica and jingle bells, available from his website via Snocap starting Oct. 31, and possibly iTunes after that.
lilsteve.jpgThe E Streeter's crusade to highlight garage rock has found its way to Christmas with this 20-song collection for 2008. Much of this is familiar to Mistletunes denizens, but I thought I'd call your attention to it anyway because a fair amount of it isn't. Alongside Bob Seger, the Ramones, Keith Richards, Roy Wood, Brian Setzer, the Kinks, Clarence Carter, Rufus Thomas and Darlene Love we get the frantic "It's Christmas Time Ebenezer" by The Len Price 3, Tina Sugandh with a Spectorish "White Christmas," The Chevelles' surf instrumental of "O Come All Ye Faithful Surfer Girls," the Boss Martians with "3 Ghosts (A Modern X-mas Carol)," the Electric Prunes with "Jingle Bells" that was recorded in the modern day, not in their heyday, and a Rolling Stones homage in "Hey Santa Claus" by The Chesterfield Kings. Mustn't forget Soupy Sales' "Santa Claus Is Surfin' To Town" and Joe Pesci's "If It Doesn't Snow On Christmas," a pair of novelties to start conversations. A nice collection, especially for those who don't have the majority of these songs.
glamxmas.jpgA compilation from 2004 of glam rockers doing Christmas tunes. I'm not familiar with any of these acts, but if you like this genre (first there was glam, then there were "hair bands," now apparently it's glam again) this is a good collection. American Heartbreak offers an original to kick things off, "The Greatest Christmas Song Ever Written," a nicely cynical rocker with the refrain "I'm gonna be by myself for Christmas again," and they return to close the album with a cover, "Nuttin' For Christmas." Lillian Axe does a heavier reading of the Heart/Lovemongers song "Here Is Christmas," Kristy Majors takes on the Spector album's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" in more of a grindy-fuzzy-shuffle, and Chris Heaven and Michael Gapys put a little more metal into Bon Jovi's "I Wish Everyday Could Be Like Christmas." Other originals include Loud 'N' Nasty's piano-led "Christmas Time," Decadenza's "Dead by X-Mas," and "Rock 'n Roll Sleigh Ride" by the Rockin' Scoundrels, throwing us just a taste of Mott the Hoople. The Fizzy Bangers play to the taste tippers with their version of "Hooray For Santa Claus," calling it "a traditional Buddhist-Hindu Christmas song" in the liner notes before admitting it's from the movie "Santa Claus Conquers the Martians." I'm not aware there was ever a Vol. 2, but I'll check around.
fania.jpgFrom 2007, this is a two-disc bargain compilation of Christmas songs recorded by Latin and Spanish artists going back several decades. Salsa, Afro-Cuban, Latin jazz and soul, you name it, it's here. Yes, it's not quite rock, but it's great stuff to listen to. Whether this fits your conception of Christmas probably depends on whether you understand Spanish -- otherwise you might flip out your holiday guests with a full evening of south of the border dance music. Those of you who follow this music might recognize such performers as Willie Colon and Hector Lavoe -- in fact, those two combine for several tunes here -- plus Johnny Ventura, Cheo Feliciano, Ramito, Sonora Poncena, Ismael Rivera, Santitos Colon, and more.
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