It’s not just XKCD that has noticed a lack of popular Christmas songs written and/or recorded after 1980. Shane Vidaurri of The Ashes noticed this as well, and pitched the idea of a Christmas compilation album to his record label, Mint 400 Records. Label owner Neil Sabatino (Fairmont) agreed, and now we have A Very Merry Christmas Compilation to bring cheer in.
The comp is excellent because everyone here turns in a stellar effort. None of the seven bands phone in it or get schmaltzy. These are honest-to-goodness Christmas tunes, worthy of being replayed on radio until no one remembers who the artist is anymore and no one cares. This would especially work because the comp doesn’t stick to one genre, but ranges from The Duke of Norfolk’s folky “Lovely Winter” to Fairmont’s jangly “This Song is Your Christmas Gift” to the ‘50s style rock ‘n ‘roll of The Ones and Nines’ “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus.”
The lattermost is a perfect opening track to the compilation, as it sets a jubilant tone for the album. It’s like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and I love it. Adam N. Copeland apes the Killers’ tradition of putting out a soaring, modern pop tune for the holiday, with a tune that reaches to the same vocal heights as Brandon Flowers’.
There’s some melancholy as well: The Ashes’ “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” can’t even staunch the somber elements of the tune with an almost island-flavored take on the tune. “Sorry I’m Broke” and “This Song Is Your Christmas Gift” are both about the stress of being poor at Christmas.
No compilation would be complete without a hymn or two: The Duke of Norfolk’s “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” brings banjo and beatboxing together for an overall reverent take on the classic. I know, that sounds weird; you’ll just have to check it out.
A Very Merry Christmas Compilation takes Christmas music seriously, and the results are some incredible originals and traditionals. Since it’s varied in genre, you can put it on the stereo and let the wildly varied emotions of the season wash over you. If you sprinkled the tunes into your current list of standards, they wouldn’t stand out at all; they’re that good.
Full disclosure: I worked on The Duke of Norfolk’s tracks as a set of critical ears.
I will always remember that September 11th happened on a Tuesday because of an odd, unfortunate coincidence: Ben Folds’ poignant depiction of ’90s life Rockin’ the Suburbs was released on the same day that the ’90s truly ended. (For example, the Y2K scare seems quaint compared to the actual disasters we’ve had to put up with in the post-9/11 years.) Kicking off Folds’ masterpiece is “Annie Waits,” which is effectively about the fear of “if we’re both still lonely when we’re old.” This sort of thinking was relatively paranoiac in the successful ’90s, Radiohead excepted, and yet it’s the first thing that Folds says about his vision of suburban life: It’s lonely and scary.
Flash forward 11 years and The Ashes deliver “Talk Like They Talk on TV,” which is also about the suburbs and “if we’re both still single when we’re getting close to 40.” But instead of earnest paranoia, this one’s coated in irony and sarcasm. Just as Suburbs was a referendum on an earnest decade closing, The Ashes Sing! is a jab at an ironic era ending.
The irony that is being parodied and skewered (or, if this reviewer is getting it completely wrong, simply presented) does not extend only to the lyrics. The music itself is an exaggeration of the folk tendencies of indie in the 2000s, as Shane Vidaurri and co. mine truly old-time sounds like ragtime, hoedown country, rockabilly and country/gospel. “Her Blue Eyes” includes washboard, stand-up bass, fiddle and barbershop harmonies; “Leaving Port” goes way back and includes what sounds like a harpsichord as a featured instrument. “Shane’s Blues” does its very best to appropriate the rhythms and melodies of New Orleans Jazz. Some will find the high vocals to be a confusing addition to the sound, but it just serves to point out the quirkiness of a folk uptick in the 21st century.
This is an eclectic stew, to be sure, but it’s a fun one: it’s impossible to tell what will be around the corner. With 15 songs spread over 47 minutes, there are plenty of twists and turns to love. If you’re into folk or sounds like it, The Ashes Sing! should be on your list.
Intimate, back porch folk tunes make up The Ashes‘ Photoplay Music, the success of whichrelies heavily on the goodwill engendered by the hushed vocals of lead singer and mastermind Shane Vidaurri. If you’re down for a gentler, folkier take on Daniel Johnston, you’ll love the mood created by Vidaurri and co. The length may get you (16 songs over 46 minutes), but you’ll be enthralled for at least the first third. If you’re not into childlike vocals, then you’ll want to pass on this one.
Depression State Troopers, who are labelmates with The Ashes on Mint 400 Records, recorded a similar album in The Reason for the Fall. The back-porch intimacy is there, but these tunes have a bit more meat on their bones. Tunes like “I Love You Like the Night Loves the Moon” are fully fleshed out (in this particular case, with violin, piano, drums, bass and background vox), sticking in memory easily. “Best Time to Die” creates a haunting atmosphere with rumbling toms and grumbling low background vocals, while “In Time (Everything Will Be Alright)” features an accordion and a timeless feel. Recommended for those who thought Bon Iver was a bit too whiny.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.