Friday, December 31, 2010

Christmasongs: Auld Lang Syne

What a minute, you say! Isn’t “Auld Lang Syne” a New Year’s song? Technically, yes but it’s no secret that New Year’s songs always get lumped in with Christmas songs. This one even shows up in Elf. But Scottish poet Robert Burns’ ode to fondly looking back perfectly fits the New Year’s ideals of remembering the past and hoping for the future. Every New Year’s Eve party, television countdown special, gigantic inanimate object drop, and movie scene that takes place on December 31st uses “Auld Lang Syne” to immediately transport us to that place. Don’t believe me? Cue up the New Year’s scene from When Harry Met Sally and tell me it doesn’t get you. It usually only takes the first note or two to be swept up in the grandiose moment of one year giving way to the next. There’s probably a version for every imaginable genre, but here’s my two refined and rowdy favorites:

“Auld Lang Syne” – Guy Lombardo: For the nostalgic, romantic, 1930’s Big Band sound, Guy Lombardo is golden. The first minute is perfectly instrumental and begs to be danced to. Once the voices come in, the vintage feel is solidified and makes you wish for a few more verses. This is the version for your “just the two of us” New Year’s Eve party or for the family gathering where your grandparents have a few more years to look back on than everyone else.

"Auld Lang Syne" - Guy Lombardo

“Auld Lang Syne” – MxPx: However, if you’re headed to a friends’ party and want to have a really good time, MxPx has you covered. Loud, raucous, and as celebratory as they come, this is my idea of ringing in the new year. A word of caution though, this version could cause something in the house to get smashed. So hide your breakables, kiss your sweetheart at midnight and sing a long!

"Auld Lang Syne" - MxPx

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmasongs: 'Twas The Night Before Christmas

“A Visit From St. Nicholas,” or “'Twas The Night Before Christmas” as it is more commonly referred to, is a poem from the 1820’s that is usually ascribed to author Clement C. Moore. Our modern image of Santa Claus, the one found on wrapping paper and Coke packaging everywhere, draws almost exclusively from this poem. It’s hard to hear these classic verses and not get even a little holiday spark in your spirit. Growing up, one of our Christmas Eve traditions was to read this after we read the story of Jesus’ birth from the Bible. Wrapped up in some brand new pajamas we had just opened and sipping some hot apple cider my dad had just made, we would sit back and try to somehow keep our cool on in anticipation of the night of excited sleeplessness that lay ahead. I've still got the book my dad read from and you can bet I'll be reading from it one day too. Maybe that’s why this poem always stirs up something in me no matter who’s reading it. Besides, name me another poem or song that has been able to wrangle the following cast of interpreters:

“The Night Before Christmas” – Bob Dylan: For the Season One “Christmas & New Year’s” episode of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour show, Bob warmly read the poem over a nice acoustic guitar backdrop. His unique delivery and creaky voice fit the reading perfectly and he balances the festive reverence of the well-worn lines with a sly smirk in his voice. I could listen to this version a thousand times over.

"The Night Before Christmas" - Bob Dylan

“The Night Before Christmas“– Louis Armstrong: Satchmo’s infectiously jolly rendition makes you feel like it’s being read by Santa Claus himself. His booming voice, boisterous chuckle and playful inflections create a distinct version all his own. He almost sounds like he’s hearing it for the first time while he’s reading it and there’s no question that he’s thoroughly enjoying himself. Just like with Bob’s version, I never get tired of hearing this one either.

"The Night Before Christmas" - Louis Armstrong

“'Twas The Night Before Christmas” – Henry Rollins: Leave it to punk’s renaissance man Henry Rollins to whip up the most off-kilter arrangement. He kept the original lyrics but fashioned a backing track of air raid sirens, helicopter blades, gunshots and a bomb drop. It’s not quite as “yuletide fuzzy” as the other two, but for a teenager in the 90’s looking for all things irregular, unconventional, sarcastic and ironic, this one fit the bill like few else. This one is a matter of quality over quantity for me because eventhough I don’t listen to it as much as the other two, it hits me just the same.

"'Twas The Night Before Christmas" - Henry Rollins

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmasongs: Merry Punksmas!

For me, Christmas and punk music are a combination straight from heaven. Mixing together two of my all-time favorite ingredients, punk rock Christmas songs get me in the spirit as much as A Christmas Story and a real tree do. Being that they hold such an important place, I’m pretty discerning of which ones I hold in high regard. There are some definite duds out there, but there are plenty of amped up chestnuts that float to the top of the holiday punch bowl. It’s always fun to hear an old classic sped up and shouted out, but I really like the originals the most. Here are a few of the keepers:

“Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)” – Ramones: You can’t talk about Christmas punk rock without starting here. Opening with Joey’s nasally snarl and immediately kicking into that iconic Ramones sound, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” is so awesome on so many levels. Johnny’s down-stroked guitar leads the holiday charge and Joey’s somewhat confident/somewhat pleading vocals ring out over Dee Dee’s bass and Marky’s drums. This song was released at the end of the 80’s and if VH1’s “Pop-Up Video” is to be believed, a young Liv Tyler appears in the music video for it.

"Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)" - Ramones

“Punk Rawk Christmas” - MxPx: Last year MxPx compiled all of their fan club Christmas singles and added a few new tracks to release the incredibly awesome Punk Rawk Christmas. The title track was a new recording and perfectly captures the desire to have a good Christmas in the midst of whatever issues, financial or otherwise, that may be going on. One of my favorite bands plus my favorite holiday equals an album that pumps even more yuletide awesomeness into the season.

"Punk Rawk Christmas" - MxPx

“It’s Always Christmas At My House” – Huntingtons: It’s no secret that the Huntingtons are deeply in love with, and are masters at paying homage to, the Ramones. They were even lucky enough to be Joey Ramone’s backing band for a couple of shows at CBGB’s before he passed away. They wrote “It’s Always Christmas At My House” for Tooth and Nail Records’ first Happy Christmas compilation and it’s definitely a crowd pleaser. The lyrics playfully reference National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and describe that crazy Christmas over-the-topness in all of us. Okay, most of us…some of us…just a few of us? Well, at least we have an anthem!

"It's Always Christmas At My House" - Huntingtons

“Christmas Eve (She Got Up And Left Me)” – Rancid: After wearing out my copy of …And Out Come The Wolves my sophomore year of high school, I’ve always had a soft spot for Rancid. Their unique mixture of punk, reggae and ska has always stood out to me and they always get me moving. The Christmas part of this song pretty much boils down to just being the date the girl left, but I still count it as a Christmas song.

"Christmas Eve (She Got Up And Left Me)" - Rancid

“This Time Of Year” – The Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Great punk rock usually carries a message right? With “This Time Of Year,” The Mighty Mighty Bosstones remind us that all the “stuff” associated with Christmas is nice, but the real meaningful things are spending time with friends and family and letting all the peace and goodwill towards men come out in your attitude. I love, love, love this song and the bouncy rhythm and lyrical focus always put a huge smile on my face.

"This Time Of Year" - The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

“Oi To The World” - No Doubt: I included The Vandals’ original version of “Oi To The World” in my personal favorites post and I really like No Doubt’s cover too. Gwen does a good job handling such a rowdy vocal and I love the dancehall “Frosty The Snowman” breakdown in the middle as well. Besides adding that and a few horns, they keep it pretty much the same. Why mess with a good thing right?

"Oi To The World" - No Doubt

“Santa Claus Is Thumbing To Town” – Relient K: I first heard this song on Tooth and Nail Records’ Happy Christmas Volume 3, but it can also be found on Relient K’s two Christmas releases, Deck The Halls, Bruise Your Hand and Let It Snow Baby…Let It Reindeer. I love the humor and chaos in the lyrics and the image of Santa trying to hitchhike after his sleigh breaks down is great. Funny, boisterous and still so festive, it should be on as many Christmas albums as it can.

"Santa Claus Is Thumbing To Town" - Relient K

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sandra McCracken, Derek Webb, Kate York, and Thad Cockrell @ The Bluebird Cafe (Concert Review)

Last night The Bluebird Cafe was transformed into a living room, a confessional, a church and a mission through story, song and action. Music City Unsigned presented an intimate concert in the round featuring Sandra McCracken, Derek Webb, Kate York and Thad Cockrell, with a portion of the ticket sales going to The Last Minute Toy Store. The Bluebird Cafe is known for being a quiet space where songwriters are really listened to and there seriously couldn’t be four artists more deserving of the consideration and attention. All four were intent on sharing more than just their songs with us, as they also shared stories, laughs and multiple mentions of the meaningful work of The Last Minute Toy Store. Derek Webb opened the evening with a greeting, some nice words about both organizations that were associated with the show and some introductions to his fellow artists. For the next couple of hours, Sandra, Derek, Kate and Thad bared their hearts through their honest songwriting, gorgeous singing and talented musicianship. Lyric after lyric and melody after melody floated throughout the room and inconspicuously set up residence in each heart and mind. This was not only my own experience, but a collective acceptance that was evidenced by the growing smiles and the leaning in closer of each patron with each passing round of songs. It never ceases to amaze me how much beauty and truth can be conveyed through a chunk of wood, steel strings and the spoken word. But in the right hands, these common ingredients take on extraordinary powers to touch, move, inspire and refresh our very souls. Last night was four voices, four guitars, countless goosebumps and infinite smiles.

While the rhythm of a show in the round makes perfect logical sense, the overall feel of the show can be as sprawling and diverse as each artist wants it to be as each one becomes a train conductor on their turn. They are able to try out brand new stuff, build off the previous song, travel in a completely opposite direction or call any audible they want. The audience is a willing passenger and last night each song choice paid off in spades and the results were mesmerizing and memorable. At the risk of trying to describe a wave by its individual water drops, here’s a rundown of each artist’s pick:

Derek Webb started things off with “The End/The Very End” from The Ringing Bell. The acoustic version brilliantly showcased his analogous lyrics and Beatlesque chord structures. “You are the anti-curse, death going in reverse” is the kind of lyric that a place like The Bluebird Cafe was built for. Throughout the night he also played a pulsing “A New Law,” his folk/doo-wop ode to Fred Phelps, “Freddie Please,” a stripped down “I Love/Hate You,” one of my personal favorites “Lover” and a great version of “Love Is Not Against The Law” that sounded excellent in it’s acoustic form.

Kate York was up next and out of the four, I was the least familiar with her work. I knew her name from a cover of her song “Eternal Gifts” by Leigh Nash, but other than that I had only seen her name in various places. Man, am I glad our paths finally crossed. What a spirit and what a voice! Kate’s soft-spoken spunk was a nice contrast to her pure, uncluttered playing. While I don’t know all of her song titles, some of her standouts were the achingly beautiful “Go” and “Rains Here Too,” a song called “Harley Sunday” that included a nice whistling solo, a hymn about forgiveness from her highly anticipated (by this guy at least) “in progress” hymns record and to seal the endearment for me, a humbly appropriate “Eternal Gifts.” Her first song was great too but I unfortunately didn’t catch the name of it. Kate could also be heard singing along on most of Thad’s songs as well. I love melancholy folk songs and she can sing them as good as anyone. I was so glad to finally catch her live and to be introduced to her music.

Thad Cockrell held the third slot and his high, plaintive voice had everyone holding their breath to keep from missing a note. I’ve seen Thad live a handful of times now and he has absolutely floored me each time. Thad started out with a great version of “Rosalyn” and had us all in the palm of his hand from there on out. I can’t really begin to describe the feeling in the room for his next song. It was a new song with the refrain of “Hallelujah, the King’s on the throne” and words like beautiful, sacred and reverent don’t come close to capturing it. If God ever wrote a song to Himself, it’d be this one for sure. Kate York echoed many of our sentiments as she jokingly thanked Thad for the first tear of the night. Thad also played excellent versions of “Never Told You,” “Safety,” “Beauty Has A Name” and closed with a stirring “Great Rejoicing” that turned into all out singalong with every voice in the place joining in. Thad has one of the greatest, most inviting voices I’ve ever heard and his ability to write honest, thoughtful lyrics is both inspiring and maddening.

Sandra McCracken closed each round out and with every song she showed she was up for the task. Derek joined in nicely on vocals and occasional guitar, adding a warm element to hear authentically peaceful songs. Her first two songs, “Can’t Help Myself” and “New Wonders,” were hymns from her latest album, In Feast Or Fallow. After those, Sandra and Derek did nice low-key version of “Chattanooga,” one of my favorites off of Gravity Love and “Lock and Key” from Red Balloon. Before playing her Advent hymn, “This Is The Christ,” Sandra took a moment to joke of her “co-write” with Martin Luther and plug the Music City Unsigned Family Christmas album. She closed the last round, and the night, with a wonderfully reverent “Silent Night.” All four singers and eventually everyone in The Bluebird Cafe, including the bartender, joined in to cap the night as a poignantly unified chorus.

More than music, more than a cool night out, more than tossing a few bucks to those in need, the concert turned into something greater than the sum of it’s parts, which isn’t easy to do considering the level of talent and heart conveyed in all of the folks involved. Great talent and impressive songwriting are easy to spot, but character, heart and spirit aren’t usually as forthcoming. Thank you to Sandra, Derek, Kate, Thad, and everyone at The Bluebird Cafe, The Last Chance Toy Store and Music City Unsigned for an encouraging display of goodwill and an unforgettable night of music.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Jill Phillips and Andy Gullahorn - Christmas (Album Review)

Although Jill Phillips and Andy Gullahorn have been making great music together on each other’s albums for years, the Christmas season has apparently inspired them to finally release an album that is attributed to them both. Their aptly-titled Christmas is a wonderfully relaxing 12 song audible deep breath that is welcomed, appreciated and enjoyed in the crazy hustle of Christmas. The foundation of the album is found in their laid back arrangements of seasonal hymns, with a few standards and originals peppered throughout as well. Acoustic guitars, subdued piano lines and graceful string accompaniments provide a warm musical texture for these songs to take root in. Both of their voices have a calming ease to them and their reverent deliveries make each song a friendly invitation to sit back and drink in the important moments of the season. Each song provides an opportunity to refocus, reflect and reminisce.

Having such a heart for hymns, Christmas speaks deeply to me with its folksy interpretations of some of my favorite Christmas and Advent hymns. The album opens with a great version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” enhanced by a string section and some unique percussive elements. Jill takes the lead on this one and also on “You Came Down,” “Some Children See Him” and the beautifully peaceful “The First Noel.” My favorite of the hymns led by Andy would probably be a tie between the pulsing “Once In Royal David’s City” and the coffeehouse cool of “In The Bleak Midwinter.” Andy also sings lead on “O Holy Night” and “Nations That Long In Darkness Walked.” For a few Christmas classics, Jill and Andy do an amazingly cool folky-jazz “Christmastime Is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas and a hilarious rewrite of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that any married couple will appreciate and find themselves in. I have to admit when I saw this song on the tracklisting, I was a little skeptical. This is one of those Christmas songs that is overdone and has been attempted by some very strange couplings. But Andy’s unmatched sense of humor and Jill’s candy-coated stonewalling give this song a fresh and funny new life. The song that will grip you the most will probably be “I Will Find A Way.” Somehow both ambiguous and poignant, the weight of this song is only matched by the stirring hope presented in its conclusion. This song demands repeated listens to peel back the layers, but it will drop anchor in your heart on the first spin. Christmas will be the perfect addition to your holiday and will provide a much needed pause to be able to soak in all this season has to offer.

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" - Jill Phillips and Andy Gullahorn (Christmas)

Christmas can be purchased through Jill's site HERE and through Andy's site HERE. Decisions, decisions.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Christmasongs: A Totally Rad 80's Christmas

Can we all agree that there seemed to be something extra special about the Christmases of the 1980’s? Whether it was due to my age (born in 1980), the special marketing relationship between TV and toys, the rise of video game systems, the plethora of McDonald’s holiday commercials or the awesome toys that were created under the Cold War climate (G.I. Joe, Rambo, Hulk Hogan vs. Nikolai Volkoff action figures), it seemed to always be a ‘roided out version of Christmas, at least for us kids. Luckily there was also some great music to go along with all of the Cabbage Patch Kid stampedes and claymation California Raisins. A bunch of 80’s Christmas songs have appeared in my previous “Christmasongs” posts and they are more to come after this, but here's a nice chunk of goods ones to mention. Let’s jump in the DeLorean and take a trip shall we…

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” – Band Aid: You can’t talk about Christmas music from the 80’s without starting here. In 1984, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure gathered together a huge collection of some the biggest musical acts of the time to record a single that would raise money for the Ethiopian Famine. Leading the way for other charitable efforts like Live Aid and the “We Are The World” single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” serves as an important milestone in the ongoing relationship between music and relief efforts. Watching the video for this one is like a “Where’s Waldo” of the musical landscape of the 80’s.

"Do They Know It's Christmas?" - Band Aid

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – U2: It’s hard to believe that only one of the A Very Special Christmas compilations were released in the 80’s, but it was at least a really good one. Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Run DMC, Madonna and Bon Jovi all appeared on it and U2 performed one of the best loved covers of Darlene Love’s classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It was recorded during a soundcheck on one of the stops on The Joshua Tree tour, so it has that iconic mid-80’s U2 sound. This one shows up every year on radio playlists and retail store overhead speaker, but for very good reason.

"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" - U2

“Thanks For Christmas” – XTC: Under the moniker “The Three Wise Men,” XTC released “Thanks For Christmas” as a non-album holiday single in 1983. XTC has always been one of the better bands to emerge from the New Wave/Alternative genre and it speaks a lot about them that they can even pump out an original Christmas tune as well. This one feels super upbeat and festive and I really love the overall musical tone of the song. As a side note, the appearance of this song (along with “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses) in the first season Christmas episode of Gilmore Girls helped Amanda get me hooked on the show. I’m totally down with any show the exhibits such incredible musical taste. I’ve said too much…

"Thanks For Christmas" - The Three Wise Men (XTC)

“All I Want For Christmas” – Timbuk 3: Timbuk 3 is a unique band that is mostly categorized as a one-hit wonder for their irony laced “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” single. However, my favorite song of theirs is “All I Want For Christmas” from 1987. Written as somewhat of a protest song against the vast array of “war toys” that were available to kids, the chorus of “All I want for Christmas is world peace” sums up the song pretty well. The verses name drop a lot of toys like Transformers, G.I. Joes, Rambo and Thundercats and there’s also a reference to Stars Wars 1, 2, and 3 and VCRs. Add in a drum machine and a “We Three Kings” harmonica solo and you’ve got one decidedly 80’s socio-political Cold War Christmas song.

"All I Want For Christmas" - Timbuk 3

“Merry Christmas Santa Claus (You’re A Lovely Guy)” – Max Headroom: 80’s icon and “New Coke” spokesman Max Headroom’s voice causes an instant flashback for folks like me. His humor, sarcasm, electronic voice and stuttering delivery brought an erratic vibe to everything he was involved in. Hearing him sing this song takes me right back to a childhood Christmas playing Super Mario Brothers in my Karate Kid-esque pajamas that oddly enough had a Ghostbusters logo on them.

"Merry Christmas Santa Claus (You're A Lovely Guy) - Max Headroom

“Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You” – Billy Squier: Man, this pop-rock holiday gem from 1981 is so over the top cheesy that I can’t decide if it’s genius or just ironic. Either way it’s a guaranteed spirit lifter and it’s pretty much impossible not to sing along with a goofy grin on your face. I’ve got such a special spot for this one and I have no idea why. If you really want the full affect of this song though, you’ve got to watch the studio video from MTV’s first Christmas on the air. All 5 original VJs can be seen and the clothing and haircuts are priceless!

"Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You" - Billy Squier

Bonus: UK post-punk band The Futureheads seem to agree with me that there was something special going on with the Christmases during the Reagan Administration. They’ve just released “Christmas Was Better In The 80’s” as a holiday single and I love it! While there aren’t any lyrical references to anything specific to the 80’s, I absolutely agree with the sentiment and the music is awesome. They came up with some pretty killer artwork too!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Andrew Peterson "Behold The Lamb Of God" @ The Ryman (Concert Review)

For the last decade of Decembers, singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson has zigzagged the country with a rotating cast of musical friends to present his “Behold The Lamb Of God” Christmas concerts. Described as “the true tall tale of the coming of Christ,” this unified collection of songs details the events leading up to, surrounding and following the birth of Jesus. In what has become a tradition of his in the last 6 years, Andrew plays one of the tour stops at The Ryman with an extended cast of special guests. While it is definitely a guaranteed night of incredible musicianship, great storytelling and more than a few laughs, the biggest impact of the show is the deeply refreshing feeling that washes over you as the night unfolds. It takes a rare and special gift to be able to tell a story that will make your audience so keenly aware of both their inescapable need and their absolute hope. To say that the show is more than just inspiring songwriting and virtuoso playing is an understatement, but it’s very true. “Behold The Lamb Of God” is an invitation, a journey and a celebration that effortlessly builds into a soul-stirring crescendo. If the pressures and busyness of the Christmas season have you feeling like you’re holding your breath under water, “Behold The Lamb Of God” feels like that first deep inhale after cracking the surface.
The first half of the concert is done “in the round” with Andrew and an assortment of his friends trading off on songs and stories. For the first round, he started with “Dancing In The Minefields” from his most recent album, Counting Stars. He was joined on the full band version by Andy Gullahorn (acoustic), Ben Shive (piano), Cason Cooley (bass), Paul Eckberg (drums), Todd Bragg (percussion), Gabe Scott (acoustic) and Andrew Osenga (electric). Next up was piano player/songwriter/producer extraordinaire Ben Shive playing a new song of his that I think was called “EGBDF.” While I’m not sure of the name, I am sure that I love any song that references Super Mario Brothers 3 and Sgt. Pepper’s. Andrew Osenga played “Memory” from his Choosing Sides album and the solo electric guitar ode to his grandparents was beautiful and moving. Label mate Jason Gray was next to wow the audience with a brand new song about how the literal name of God may actually just be the sound of our breath. Super-talented husband and wife duo Jill Phillips and Andy Gullahorn backed each other up next with Jill singing and playing piano on “Good Things” from her album of the same name and Andy hilariously explaining why he felt compelled to change the lyrics to their version of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” from their recently released Christmas album. Randall Goodgame was joined by a bluegrass band for “Happy Birthday Jesus” and then they stayed out and played an impressively rowdy Irish jig. For the second round, Ben Shive played “The Last Time For Everything,” an encouraging song written for a friend struggling with cancer. Andrew Osenga was joined by Cason Cooley for “I’ll Be Home Soon,” absolutely thrilling us fans of their previous band, The Normals. Jason Gray returned with “I Am New” from Everything Sad is Coming Untrue. Jill Phillips and Andy Gullahorn did two more songs from their new Christmas album, “You Came Down” and the stunning “I Will Find A Way” accompanied by a cello. Everyone joined in with Andrew to close the “in the round” portion with a driving rendition of “The Reckoning.”
After intermission, Andrew lead the audience in a resonating “It Is Well With My Soul” to signal everyone that the main portion was about to start. In addition to all of the musicians I previously mentioned, Andrew was also joined by a six piece string section to play his Behold The Lamb Of God album from beginning to end. A conventional song by song retelling of this section can’t come close to conveying the rhythm, swell and force of the evening, but I’ll do my best to describe it. “Gather ‘Round, Ye Children, Come” serves as a perfect introduction to the concert and sets the stage for the story that is to come. The actual storytelling portion starts in “Passover Us,” a song that relates the Isrealites’ captivity and freedom from Pharaoh and introduces the elements of sin, sacrifice and mercy. The grandly sweeping “So Long, Moses” tells of the many kings and prophets and their prophecies of a Messiah. While Andrew is mostly described as folk singer, the orchestral feel and oddly metered timing of this song show the wide range of his creative talents. “Deliver Us” captures the pleading and questioning that took place during the 400 year period of God’s silence. Over the years there have been many guest vocalists for this song and this year Jason Gray awesomely handled it. Andrew Peterson and Andrew Osenga’s combined vocal for God’s response on the final line of the song has a beautifully haunting effect. His instrumental “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” impressively blends mandolin, hammered dulcimer and violin with the acoustic guitars for a nice reflective moment. As the story creeps into the New Testament section of the Bible, “Matthew’s Begats” humorously goes through the genealogy of Jesus. Andrew flubbed the words a little on the last verse of this one, but if you’ve ever heard the song, you’ll understand that it was bound to happen eventually. “It Came To Pass” reflects on Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem and “Labor Of Love” details the actual settings around Jesus’ birth in an honest and authentic way. Jill Phillips handles the vocal on this one and it’s hands down my favorite song from Behold The Lamb Of God. Allowing a moment to meditate, “The Holly And The Ivy” is another gorgeous full band instrumental that showcases the metric ton of collective creativity of everyone involved. “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night” is a hymn from the 1700’s whose lyrics tell of the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth. The hallelujah’s in the chorus of this one provide a nice burst before the subdued reverence of “Behold The Lamb Of God.” The combined vocals and harmonies on this song really drive home the collective thought that we’re all in need and we’re all given the same rescue. “The Theme Of My Song” closes everything out by revisiting all of the songs and amazingly weaving together portions of each one for a swirling build up that hits it’s apex in a rousing round of choruses. After a thunderous applause, Andrew lead everyone in a capella versions of “O Come, All Ye Faithful” and “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow (The Doxology)” as the artists discreetly left the stage. I’ll never forget the sound of our collective voices filling The Ryman like that. With Behold The Lamb Of God, Andrew reminds us all that the Christmas story doesn’t just start with Jesus being born. Everything that lead up to it and our involvement in it, or rather His involvement in us, should be the true source of any and all celebrating that goes on this time of year. Thank you to Andrew and his incredible cast of cohorts for a night of reflection, recharging and renewal soundtracked by some of the most creative and uplifting music these ears, and more importantly this heart, have ever heard.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dave Barnes - Very Merry Christmas (Album Review)

It’s safe to say that no one can question the unrestrained Christmas spirit of soulful singer/songwriter Dave Barnes. He has made five hilarious “Dave Barnes Christmas Extravagan Za” videos, he performed a holiday stand-up comedy show last December in Nashville and this year he has released a full length Christmas album, Very Merry Christmas. Balancing familiar classics with meaningful originals, Dave has crafted a holiday album of mellow, bluesy acoustic numbers that effortlessly shifts between reflective and romantic. The comfortable musical vibe is carried by Dave’s expressive voice and his folky/jazzy guitar playing. His lyrics have a real warmth to them and they are drenched in relationships, whether it be with family, God or that special someone. In fact, there’s such a “musical mistletoe” feeling to most of the songs that the album could’ve been called Very Merry (Baby’s First) Christmas or at least come with a miniature stocking option in the pre-order packages.

Whether it’s in Dave’s sly winking vocal delivery or the smooth musical moods he creates, the “cozy up” vibe can be clearly felt throughout Very Merry Christmas. “Christmas Tonight,” sung with Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, is a playful back and forth duet in the vein of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” that shows compliments and persistence can win out over holiday obligations. “Meet Me At The Mistletoe” conveys that feeling of being in room full of people and wanting to steal away for a special moment with your sweetheart. “Holiday Made For Two” has a guitar riff and a wooing lyric that both sound like they could’ve been on a Marvin Gaye outtake. Dave’s cover of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is redone with a deliberately looser beat and sung with a confidence that makes the song have more of an endearing plea to it. Even when taking on standards like “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “The Christmas Song,” Dave uses a relaxed, R&B approach that makes the songs feel a little more amorous than they usually do. In my opinion though, when you’re snuggling up to your own Mrs. Claus, the more songs the merrier. Dave also touches on some other important connections to be made around the holidays, including getting together with family (“Very Merry Christmas”), thinking back and looking forward (“Family Tree”), being mindful of other people’s needs (“I Pray On Christmas”) and he even writes a modern take on the story of Jesus’ birth (“Mary and Joseph”). As clich├ęd as it sounds, Very Merry Christmas does an incredible job of speaking to both your heart and your head. When the album ends, you’ll most likely find yourself in an oddly appreciative mood that will have nothing to do with presents or possessions, but everything to do with friends, family and faith. You’ll be thankful for love in all its various forms, thankful for Christmas and all that it entails and thankful that with all the “come hither” sentiment on Very Merry Christmas, there’ll be no need to spike the eggnog.

"Christmas Tonight" (with Hilary Scott) - Dave Barnes (Very Merry Christmas)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Christmasongs: Snow Day!

Nashville was turned into an absolute winter wonderland yesterday as we were blessed with a good 4-5 inches of snow. It was the good kind too! Instead of the usual wet/rainy mix or the insignificant dusting, we got hours and hours of the pure, powdery precipitation and it covered everything. It was beautiful to watch and it made everything look straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. I completely understand how nonsensical it is for crystallized ice particles to be so mesmerizing, but it’s hard to deny the magic of a snow day. Especially one before Christmas. While eating lunch after church, Amanda convinced me not to go into work. So we went home and lit a fire, opened the windows and snuggled on the couch to watch the Rankin/Bass Rudolph special. Needless to say, it was one of those perfect days that gets mentally filed away to be revisited throughout the years.

“Let It Snow” – A Fine Frenzy: So many people have covered this song that it’s hard to really pick a definitive version. Lena Horne and Dean Martin are probably my personal picks for the classic angle and Rosie Thomas and A Fine Frenzy are probably my favorites for a modern take on it. I really dig the relaxed, already at home under a blanket feel of A Fine Frenzy’s version. The story goes that this song was ironically written as a mental escape during a super hot summer day in California.

"Let It Snow" - A Fine Frenzy

“Winter Weather” – Squirrel Nut Zippers: Squirrel Nut Zippers were one of the bands who spearheaded the brief swing band craze in the 90’s, but they are really much too talented to be pigeonholed as just that. They released Christmas Caravan in 1998 and their cover of “Winter Weather” is one of my favorite tracks from the album. It was originally written by Ted Shapiro in the 1940’s and The Squirrel Nut Zippers uphold the sound and spirit of the Tin Pan Alley standard really well. Sweet and nostalgic, this song is perfect for a snow day.

"Winter Weather" - Squirrel Nut Zippers

“Winter Wonderland” – Reverend Horton Heat: This instrumental rockabilly version of “Winter Wonderland” is off of one of my favorite Christmas albums, Reverend Horton Heat’s We Three Kings. A simple drum kit, stand up bass, boogie piano and The Reverend’s fiery guitar skills make this song fun, festive and tailor made for Christmas parties. If this song doesn’t get your toes tapping and take you to new levels of holiday cheer, I’m not sure what else could.

"Winter Wonderland" - Reverend Horton Heat

“White Christmas” – The Drifters: I’m pretty sure this is the first time I’ve been around a real good snow before Christmas, so naturally this song is just a little bit cooler to me now. I’m picking this version because we’re planning on seeing Home Alone tonight at our movie theater and it’s hard to hear this song without thinking of the movie. Plus, you gotta love the spastic "Jingle Bells" thing they do at the end.

"White Christmas" - The Drifters

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Arthur - Watch The Years Crawl By (Album Review)

I was ridiculously excited when I first heard the news this summer that Arthur was finally going to put out another album. Their first EP, Loneliness Is Bliss, was released way back in 1999, so I awaited their new full length, Watch The Years Crawl By, with baited breath. You’ll forgive Arthur frontman Mike Herrera for the 11 years between releases. You see, he’s been a little busy with steadily making killer punk rock albums and touring the world with MxPx, he has a new alt-country/punk/rockabilly band Tumbledown and he also started up Monkey Trench Studios and Legionnaire Army clothing as well. The wait was well worth it though because Watch The Years Crawl By is a nice slice of melodic alt-rock that sounds great, is produced well and is substantially different from what’s going on in MxPx and Tumbledown. Mike sings lead and plays guitar in Arthur and he’s joined by fellow MxPx bandmates Tom Wisniewski on guitar and Yuri Riley on drums, as well as Neil Hundt on bass. All four guys combine to create a powerful, yet saccharine sweet, rock record that deals with falling in love, maintaining relationships and acknowledging the incredible sway girls have over smitten guys.

While there are enough connections to draw in fans of Mike’s other bands, Arthur is a definitely a distinct and individual band standing on their own sonic legs. Watch The Years Crawl By opens with “Cold Outside,” an upbeat singalong number dialed in just a few clicks shy of pop-punk. The song is super catchy and you’ll find yourself matching the “Called every number I had programmed on my phone” chorus before the song’s even through. Other tracks like “America,” “Thought A Lot” and “Be Still My Heart” follow the same intentional groove that’s balanced somewhere between reckless and reserved and all of them showcases a hooky chorus as well. This comfortableness with deliberate tempos and poppier melodies show a different side of Mike’s creativity and allows the unique tone of his voice to really have some open places to shine. In fact, the range of music and mood on Watch The Years Crawl By creates an interesting and diverse listening experience. Songs like “Tuck You In” and “Out Of The Blue” have a vintage R&B-based rock vibe and sound like they could’ve been played at the “Enchantment Under The Sea” dance from Back To The Future. “Tie Me To You” scores major points with me by feeling like a cool, early R.E.M. outtake. The minor key waltz of “Fortissimo” has a really nice atmosphere and the guys build the song to an impressive crescendo. Even when they pull out an acoustic for “To Have And To Hold,” they maintain the pulsing flow of the album without missing a step. Watch The Years Crawl By is probably one of the most divergent projects Mike has been a part of, but it’s overall character and rhythm feel cohesive and familiar. This album is truly remarkable and the results have rewarded the wait. I sincerely hope there will be more Arthur albums in the future, even if we have to wait another 11 years.

"Tie Me To You" - Arthur (Watch The Years Crawl By)

For our second holiday giveaway, we’ve got a free cd of Watch The Years Crawl By from Arthur. Just like with our other giveaway, I’m going to ask a simple trivia question and all you have to do is email your answer, along with your name and address, to I’ll pick a random winner from the correct answers. The giveaway is limited to the United States and the deadline is Saturday, December 18th.

Arthur Trivia: What is the significance of the name Arthur?

I know it’s a softball but it’s Christmas and I’m feeling generous. Believe me, this cd is so good you’d be crazy not to enter! It’s worth every penny so getting it for free seems almost criminal. Get those answers in and your stocking may end up a little fuller this Christmas.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Sarathan Records Bundle Giveaway!

The season of giving is upon us and we’re running not one, but two, count ‘em two, free giveaways for Christmas. The first one is courtesy of Seattle’s killer indie rock label on the rise, Sarathan Records. Started by Jonathan Kochmer (Two Loons For Tea) about five years ago, Sarathan already boasts a great, diverse roster of talented and unique bands and artists. They’ve got eclectic rockers like Thunder Buffalo and Feral Children (both of which I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing), acoustic singer/songwriters like Peter Bradley Adams, Lisbeth Scott and Abra Moore (you may remember her song “Four Leaf Clover” from the 90’s), soulful, bluesy guys like Christopher Blue and Shane Bartell, Sarathan flagship band Two Loons For Tea and many more. To get a good overview of the label, they’ve got two free samplers on Amazon that you can download HERE and HERE.

For our giveaway, Sarathan Records has provided a really cool bundle that includes a couple cds, stickers and pins from some of their awesome artists. I’m going to ask a simple trivia question and all you have to do is email your answer, along with your name and address, to I’ll pick a random winner from the correct answers. The giveaway is limited to the United States and the deadline is Saturday, December 18th.

Sarathan Records Trivia: What is the name of the hummingbird in the Sarathan Records logo?

You may have to spend a little time on their website but it shouldn’t be too hard to find. Just start up the Sarathan Radio broadcast while you’re looking and enjoy some good tunes while you explore. It’s that easy!