This Christmas, Vol. 2: Alternative Holiday Coverfolk
from Leaf Pile, The Many, Tenterhook, Tides of Winter and more!


Folk isn’t always pretty, and neither is Christmas. But there is something both noble and needful in songs that serve to channel the complex emotions that the season brings – and thankfully, the holiday world is full of them, with new albums and singles released every day, a veritable advent calendar of the amateur and the avant-garde, the lo-fi and the low-folk among us.

Where last week’s set of new holiday coverfolk primarily served to soothe the senses, then, today’s new holiday covers come from the fringes of the folkworld, where broken voices and discordant arrangements typify the form – bringing not comfort and joy, but challenging environments and moods somehow soothing in their sheer empathic rawness, proving that sometimes it takes a good deconstruction to help us appreciate the beauty of the season.

  • The Dawn And Dew: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (trad.)
  • S.L.F.M.: I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm (pop. Ella Fitzgerald)
  • Loralee Jessen Nicolay: Bring A Torch, Jeanette Isabella (trad.)

    A smartly representative descent into the industry’s underbelly, Homemade Holidays comes to us via Swoody Records, a label that specializes in the homemade and generally bizarre. Many of the artists featured here cross genre boundaries, and a number of tracks are not covers but brazenly odd original tunes, but our selected set – featuring simple clipped strum patterns, tootling recorder, and primitive vocals from Utah duo The Dawn and Dew, a squeaky, frenetic slack-string from Maine-based uke player S.L.F.M., and a tape hiss transformation from Loralee Jessen Nicolay – makes for a delightfully broken, eminently urgent freakfolk holiday sampler.

  • Leaf Pile: Deck The Halls (trad.)
  • Leaf Pile: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas (orig. Judy Garland)
  • Leaf Pile: Feliz Navidad (orig. Jose Feliciano)

    Raw and lo-fi, conceptual album A Leaf Pile Christmas was recorded live in a small cabin in upstate New York over woodstove and wine, and it shows. But there’s something highly endearing and playful about the resulting tunes, with their transformed melodies and arrangements, melodica and harmonica, whistling and bells and electric guitar, and a cacophony of whispery, almost tuneless voices raised in companionable fa la las and feliz navidads. Especially for fans of anti-folk, and not for the faint at heart.

  • Tides Of Winter: Silver Bells (orig. Bing Crosby)
  • Tides Of Winter: Angels We Have Heard On High (trad.)

    On the surface, Faran, this year’s holiday EP from Minneapolis alt-folk four-piece Tides of Winter, is quite listenable, even as it sucks you in. But stuttery, shivery percussion, transformed minor key settings, and haunting instrumental bridges and transitions lend a hollow, grungy sheen to Silver Bells and The First Noel, bringing rare depth and novelty to familiar carols, while the footstomping riot of EP opener Hark, and the slippery slap bass, whistling chorus, and stunning harmonies that transform Angels We Have Heard On High make for a funky, chunky ride through the roots of the new indie folk tradition. Check out their 2013 Christmas EP Bairn, too, which is more fragile, but no less precious, for a comprehensive new outlook on Christmas.

  • Your Yellow Dress: Rise Up Shepherd and Follow (trad.)

    Snow Songs: A Sounds and Tones Holiday Compilation is a mixed-artist compilation from Massachusetts-based grassroots record house Sounds and Tones Records; the label goes far beyond folk, and only one track is available to stream so far, making it a bit early to celebrate the entirety of this release. But it certainly fits our bill: this emofolk take on old standard Rise Up Shepard from California DIY alt-folk band Your Yellow Dress – a band who has released a huge and wonderful set of folky Christmas albums over the past few years – is decidedly indie, all bells and banjo alongside drums and bass and horn, with strained vocal lead, monophonic chorus, and a slow, syrupy pace that doesn’t so much travel as it does wallow in the season until it drowns in a cacophony of repeated phrases. Bonus points: the album, which can be downloaded for as little as a buck, is a charity release, with all profits going to Erika’s Lighthouse, a non-profit that supports youth with depression and mental illness.

  • Tenterhook: Oh Holy Night (trad.)

    A strained and aching cover of the traditional hymn recorded live and hot off the presses from indiefolk studio-and-more The Crypt Sessions, which will put forth its own indie-and-folk Christmas sampler in partnership with UK festival coordinator and promotional house Daisy Digital this Friday; last year’s release from the partnership was darling, with beautiful tracks from the likes of Billie Marten, Rachel Sermanni, and Marika Hackman, and high praise from the hippest blogs, so you’ll excuse us if our excitement is already peaked.

  • Eli Ettien: Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree (orig. Brenda Lee)

    Loose, bluesy acoustic rock with a hint of twang and an undercurrent of moaning, echoing reverb from hobo traveler Eli Ettien of Montreal creates a unique effect on this holiday single, not unlike a mid-nineties unplugged session from an eighties band with an experimental jazz master at the soundboard having far too much fun multi-tracking in the studio.

  • Noah 23: Christmas In Prison (orig. John Prine)

    A single string drone and male voices an octave apart heavily filtered through auto-tune make for a tense, edgy John Prine cover, like a prisoner on speed with nowhere to go. The track is oddly soothing, once you get used to the synthetic-ness of it all, but don’t try Illuminati Christmas in its entirety unless you’re a true fan of amateur glitch-hop.

  • The Many: Hark The Herald Angels (trad.)
  • The Many: It Came Upon A Midnight Clear (trad.)

    Layered vocals on It Came Upon and a fuzzy drone of synthesized bells on Hark The Herald Angels belie simple arrangements of praise with a sweetness of their own. From Advent & Christmas 2015, already chosen as one of the 6 best Christmas albums of 2015 by “Under the Radar,” a weekly syndicated radio program highlighting the top undiscovered Christian artists. The collection is a bit overproduced but nonetheless praiseful and praiseworthy, especially in originals such as Longest Night and on a number of well-organized, harmonious classic hymns, thanks to The Many, the genre-crossing house band for The Plural Guild, a Chicago-based collective of “musicians, writers and other artists creating new music and liturgy for people of faith and doubt who are trying to do justice, love mercy, walk humbly and follow the Jesus who so loves the world.”

  • Boom Forest: In The Bleak Midwinter (trad.)
  • Boom Forest: What Child Is This (trad.)
  • Boom Forest: River (orig. Joni Mitchell)

    Newfound, not new, but Boom Forest’s 2013 album A Very Cookie Christmas Vol. 2 makes for a nice follow-up to our earlier feature, more discordant than anything, mostly recorded in single takes, from memory. Found sound and airy atmospheres sink and soar on tracks like In The Bleak Midwinter, while quirky vocal twitters pulse through What Child Is This; elsewhere, Joni Mitchell’s frozen River cracks with cold, while glitchy, frenetic drum machines shift Winter Wonderland into an anxious world. Check out the first volume from 2012 on Bandcamp, and hope for a third this year.

  • Emily Jane: Winter Song (orig. Sara Barielles)

    Last, but not least, a hearty, torn vocal coupled with primitive guitar makes for a heaviness on what was once a frozen fragility from another better-late-than-never discovery, this one a 2014 YouTube release. Emily Jane is one of those rare finds: other than an amazing 2014 Bonnie Raitt cover on YouTube, and a Facebook page with a smattering of notices of UK gig-driven posts, there’s not much out there about her. But oh, that voice will haunt us this season: if this tantalizing glimpse is an indicator of her future success, we’re happy to push the envelope.

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