Just past the wreaths and windows a bout of unseasonable Solstice warmth melts the New England snow from once-glistening treetops, opening the outdoors to a final foray into woods and shopping malls as we prepare the home and heart for Christmas Day itself. Inside, the tree is up, the halls decked with boughs and mistletoe; at night, when the kids are finally in bed, we nestle snug on the couch and lift our glasses of wine and nog to toast the lights that twinkle in the darkness.
As ever, nostalgia carries us into the last gasps of the season like an old friend, accompanying us on our rounds as we wind down our shopping to shed the stresses of the year and season. The kids clamor for their favorite songs, and the heart sings for the songs of our own childhoods. But by now, many of us have exhausted the familiar carols that play ad infinitum in our ears as we bustle to find our center, our moments of peace.
For your gift-wrapping pleasure, then, our final holiday feature of the year: a stocking stuffed full of young artists on the rise, plying the intensity of the season with carols designed to catch the ear and prompt further exploration. Listen as these new and newfound Noisetrade samplers, Bandcamp and Soundcloud streams, and YouTube visions give new voice to the beloved songs of Christmas.
Newfound favorites The Western Den are a young ambient folk duo prone to narrative lyricism, hauntingly beautiful arrangements, and gentle, etherial harmonies; the pulsing carols on their tiny 3-track Midwinter EP are an apt introduction to their work, with organic instrumental undertones from brass and strings that mix with their sweet voices, piano, and guitar to frame a myriad moments that soothe, silence, and soar. But we are equally floored by their ongoing celebration of nature and community, as evidenced by the year-round celebration of their peers in the Boston folk scene, and the plethora of photos taken among the leaves of every season, that fill their Facebook page. In the case of the Midwinter EP, these trends manifest in context as much as they do in craft: a pay-as-you-wish download, hand-sewn fabric sleeves for hardcopy, and the donation of all EP proceeds to UNICEF to aid children in the Philippines affected by the recent typhoon, surround their aural honesty with cherishing light, making the collection a perfect introduction to their breadth and beauty.
There’s irony aplenty in this true-blue Americana version of White Christmas from bluegrass quartet Wood & Wire, performed outdoors in their shirtsleeves just last week at the Zilker Holiday Tree for local radio station KUTX’s Austin Music Map project, which aims to build an “interactive portrait” of the vibrant music scene in a city where the snow never falls. The hum of the crowd that surrounds them as they play the grounds lends a vibrancy to their touching rendition of the Christmas classic even as beards, bass, banjo and mandolin ground the song in its southern setting.
NYC-based Nina Yasmineh trends towards lush indiepop, lovingly delivered and layered with longing; though the bold, pulsing piano that populates her 2013 debut EP Seven Years kept her from finding footing in the folkworld, it’s a joy nonetheless, aptly celebrated by a number of blogs upon its release this Summer. Happily, however, this year’s Christmas cover is eminently folk, with echoey vocals over a frozen landscape of sparse, slow-plucked guitar that totally transforms Mariah Carey’s bombastic dance-around into something wistful, gentle, and still.
Celebrated YouTube starlet Daniela Andrade was the only artist to appear twice in the Top 40 radiopop coverset we compiled earlier this year; we’ll not dwell too much on her now, as we’re expecting to revisit her work in the next few weeks as part of our upcoming Best Of 2013 features. But her newly-released “homemade” Christmas EP – available in download form, or streamable as a video series – showcases just why we’re so delighted to have found her, with intimate performance, whispery-sweet vocals, and the sexiest Santa Baby you’ll ever hear, a perfect teaser for the good things to come.
Not all of our old, familiar carols are played sweet and light, of course – and not all should be, either. Those looking for a holiday more fully grounded in grungy, gritty roots-rock will be well-served by the syrupy, sultry ballad Canadian band Del Bel makes of John Prine classic Christmas In Prison, which turns the tune into a Day of the Dead lament with heavy, heady electric bass and guitars, wailing whiskey vocals, and a fallen angel choir of saxophones and horns. Press materials here are right on target, quoting bassist and composer Tyler Belluz as saying that he “found a depressing Christmas tune and made it more depressing.”
In addition to writing chamber, orchestral and choral music for concert and film, Connecticut composer and singer-songwriter Jonny Rodgers performs and records his own songs with a combination of electronic loops, guitar, and tuned wineglasses. The combination of glasses and strings works especially well on Every Mother’s Child: 3 Songs For Christmas, making for relatively traditional interpretations of three hymns that glisten and shimmer like tinsel in the air. In keeping with the project’s title, half of the profits will go to Project Night Night, which donates tote bags filled with a blanket, a book and a stuffed animal to homeless children living in shelters; “making sure that every mother’s child has sweet dreams, even if they’re living in trying circumstances.”
Last but never least, Tuscaloosa, Alabama singer-songwriter Joshua Hilliker and vocalist Heather Hester recorded and released their Merry Christmas EP last year, but our discovery in the midst of this year’s annual Noisetrade exploration brings comfort and joy aplenty, even if there’s little to learn about the artist’s history or craft here (Hilliker’s webpage redirects back to Noisetrade itself). Still, strong arrangement and sweet performance tell a tale of their own: Joshua and Heather’s Away in a Manger is sublime; this take on African-American spiritual Everywhere I Go (more often listed as Somebody Talking ‘Bout Jesus) simply blows me away.
For comparison’s sake, two other EPs – also released last year, but newly-found – provide a breadth of comparison. Adam Townsend’s Give & Get EP, recorded with his wife to raise money and awareness for homeless kids and teens via GA-based charity StandUp For Kids, offers weary, homegrown sentiment for the holiday homestead. Meanwhile, Floridian singer-sonqwriter Josh Gilligan’s Christmas EP, which benefits Blood:Water Mission’s fight against the HIV/AIDS and water crises in Africa, trends more folkpop, but his new brush-and-horn arrangement of Away In A Manger, with its echoes of Calexico and other indie Americana bands, fits the contemporary folkscene sweetly. All three EPs are available for free, but as always, donate if you can, the better to support artists (and, in Gilligan and Townsend’s cases, their chosen beneficiaries) well worth celebrating.
- Joshua and Heather: Everywhere I Go
- Joshua and Heather: Away In A Manger
(from Merry Christmas EP, 2012)
- Adam Townsend: I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day
- Adam Townsend: Come Thou Fount Of Every Blessing
(from The Give & Get Christmas EP, 2012)
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all our readers – may your days be merry and bright! We’ll be back in the next few days with the first volume of our annual two-part review of the best coverfolk albums and singles of 2013!