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Indie Music Reviews for the Attention Deficient: Special Holiday Column

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Most of you know the routine of this column by now. If you don't, treat yourself to the warp speed explanations of columns past. Time's a wastin' — let's get down to the business of music and the holiday season.

Christmas cheer? Humbug! Life does not take a holiday for most of the world from December 25 through January 1. War, heartache, poverty, work, grief, oppression march on unflinchingly. They deserve attention, even from us who struggle so much to lend it despite our best intentions.

I know someone who barely kept his life on Christmas Day when the navy ship on which he was serving was sunk, killing hundreds of comrades and from which he escaped with his body and only part of his mind. Others find the rampant and aggressive commercialization a co-optation of more human principles at the holiday’s heart. Still others are in the midst of heartache not of their own choosing. Nor might an indie reviewer forget, however so attention-challenged, that many people in the world have not the resources for its commercial version and/or have no tie to its religious foundation.

So this exceptional IMRFAD goes out to the attention-deficients who for various reasons find Christmas sad, superficial, lonely, or annoying — any and all of these things. Focus. Here are twenty songs for those in need of comfort but repulsed by naïve cheer. The list is hardly exhaustive, but you and I have trouble concentrating, so I’m being considerate. Good luck making it through the list, and if you do and need more, you can email me.

1. Oscar the Grouch: “I Hate Christmas.” You’re always in good company with this loveably mangy muppet. Raise a glass to the Grouch. He farts on Ikea obsessions and potpourri compulsiveness.

2. Steve Earle: “Christmas in Washington.” Like Cash, at unlikely times he turns an eye toward the underbelly of a situation, this time at Christmas. Earle hearkens back to a time when religion and collective celebration pointed to obligations to one’s fellow creatures, not just self-absorbed consumerism and selective moral criticism. His finale is a tour de force, as he summons the spiritual help of the freedom champions of Christmas Pasts to come back and inspire now: “Come back Woodie Guthrie … Come back Malcolm X/And Martin Luther King/We're marching into Selma/As the bells of freedom ring.”

3. John Doe (of X): “Someone Like You.” This also competes for number one on my sadcore list, depending on the day. Doe's voice yearns, his tears drip from the speakers, as the country guitar simulates the sniffling pedal steel. No one wants to admit it, but there are many out there who never ever recover from the grief of losing their greatest love: "Well it's cold at Dawn/You're so far gone/I still miss Someone like you." A lifetime of regret. May it not visit you, my friends.

4. Elliot Smith: “I Didn’t Understand.” Hard to choose from this tortured soul’s magnificent corpus. “Independence Day” is a close second, though one could find many more with very little effort. Smith is nearly incomparable in putting to music the pain of tortured minds who realize they’ve driven away those they love more than anything else and must face the dark possibility that such is their destiny.

5. The Kinks: “Father Christmas” (a single from 1977). Surprising entry by the Kinks, who point out that Christmas has a class underbelly in its Western commercialized version. A sample: “But give my daddy a job cause he needs one/He's got lots of mouths to feed/But if you've got one, Ill have a machine gun/So I can scare all the kids down the street/Father Christmas, give us some money/We got no time for your silly toys/We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over/Give all the toys to the little rich boys.”

6. Sufjan Stevens: “Sister Winter”: The horns, the sleigh bells, the vocals — "My heart is returned to Sister Winter… Oh my thoughts I returned to summer time… gave to a beloved who threw it all away.” He then apologizes to all his friends for returning “to Sister Winter.” He wishes them the best, a Happy Christmas, genuinely or ironically. This song perfectly captures the double-edged sword of the holidays; beneath the caroling horns and tinkerbell-ish sleigh and other bells is a drone, violins, a monotone sound constant with grief and inconsolable sorrow.

But a close Sufjan second would go to the acoustic version of “Chicago,” especially if you’re haunted by regret, mistakes. His voice gently pets you into a dog: “you came to take us /all things go, all things go /to recreate us /all things grow, all things grow /we had our mindset /(I made a lot of mistakes) /all things know, all things know /(I made a lot of mistakes) /you had to find it /(I made a lot of mistakes) /all things go, all things go /(I made a lot of mistakes).” Once again the ambiguity is hope-tinged. Mistakes made, things get recreated, things go, things grow, in which way is not clear.

7. Merle Haggard: “If We Make It Through December." He sings: "I wanted Christmas to be right for daddy's girl/ Now I don't mean to hate December/ It's meant to be the happy time of year/ And why my little girl don't understand/ Why daddy can't afford no Christmas here." If you think you don’t like “country” (as if this is mainstream Nashville Garth Brooks drivel), then grow up. There’s a reason why recovering punk-rockers have turned to classic American country (John Doe of X, Jon Langford of the Mekons,etc.).

8. The Smiths: “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” It’s tough to choose one Smiths pearl out of their considerable showcases of sad jewels — they have a monopoly on them in underground niche markets of the last twenty years. But this one is inevitably sad-tinged and yet bold, romantic, hopeful: “And if a double-decker bus, crashes into us, to die by your side, well the pleasure, the privilege is mine.” Morissey, a strange hybrid descendant of Wilde, Goethe, and Poe.

9. The Cure: “Pictures of You.” Sadness, regret, hope aren’t just evoked by music. The visual evidence is a haunted house, a torture chamber, or an oasis on the horizon.

10. Johnny Cash: “Hurt.” The Man in Black — ‘nuff said about qualifications. He wears it for the poor, broken-hearted, etc. and if you’re still reading this that includes you. In the last few years before he died, he did some of the most eerie, astonishing, monumental covers in the history of modern popular music. This is my favorite, a cover of Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt.” Throw all sharp objects out the window before listening to this.

11. Serge Gainsbourg: “Les Feuilles Mortes” (The Autumn Leaves). This classic (originally in France, 1942, lyrics by the poet Jacques Prevert) has been covered many, many times. If you've never heard it, time to grow up musically. After all, you've grown up unwillingly thanks to heartache, misery, doubt, bad luck, and angst. This dirge is suitably in French, but if you have an "English-only" policy, try Edith Piaf's version (she's the greatest French chanteuse of all time but sings this in English and French) or jazzed-up ones like Chet Baker's or Miles Davis'.

12. Jerry Jeff Walker: “Mr. Bojangles.” This gem has been covered many many times, by the Byrds, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Harry Nilsson, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Arlo Guthrie, Nina Simone, John Denver, David Bromberg, Neil Diamond, Sammy Davis, Jr, Tom T. Hall, John Holt, Robbie Williams and David Campbell among others, and for good reason. Another beautifully sad tale of a hapless man who finds some spring in his step (indeed, he’s a dancing man by métier).

13.Buffalo Tom: “Torchsinger” (Big Red Letter Day). BT’s songs are often poppy, which will veil their angst for some listeners. Excellent songwriting that somehow makes pain toe-tappable.

14. M. Ward: several possibilities, but let’s go with “Vincent O'Brien," in which Ward moves effortlessly from a warble to a Tom Waits: "He only sings when he's sad/ and he's sad all the time/ so he sings the whole night through/ and he sings in the daytime too."

15. Patsy Cline: “Walkin’ After Midnight.” One of the most distinctive American female vocalists of any genre, and the yardstick of female singers of her generation and after. This is possibly her most famous number, and it is more than fitting for alternative holidays: “I stop to see a weepin' willow/ cryin' on his pillow/ maybe he's cryin' for me, / and as the skies turn gloomy/ night winds whisper to me/ I'm lonesome as I can be/ I go/out walkin' after midnight/ out in the moonlight/ just hopin' you may be somewhere a walkin'/ after midnight searchin' for me.”

16.Cat Power: “Hate.” The Greatest is a feast of self-doubt, -hate, -regret. The Romantic poets don’t have much on these bare arrangements, Chan’s raspy voice a songbird with sinusitis. Only for those not on suicide watch: “they can give me pills/or let me drink my fill/the heart wants to explode/far away where nobody knows/do you believe she said that?/do you believe she said that?/I said I hate myself and I want to die.”

17.Jose Gonzales: “Remain.” Anything off the spectacularly melancholic Veneer will give you your fix, again and again, on a loop that will eventually rock you to sleep, when you feel there’s no way to sleep ever again. “Remain” is ambiguous, hope-tinged. The rain washes away everything, even bloodstains from hearts, and the lovers remain standing — but reconciled? Separate?

18. Richard Buckner: “Blue and Wonder.” His first album established him as a prince of indie singer-songwriter darkness (true he has several competitors). His first album, the gloomy masterpiece Bloomed, is one long, perversely sweet funeral procession. Expectations are a gun without a safety trigger. Keep them low: be happy.

19. Lucinda Williams: “ Metal Firecracker” (Car Wheels on a Gravel Road). Again, an artist with multiple offerings for a list about comfort through angst-ridden solidarity. This is one of my favorites, but check out Lucinda’s eponymous album, which features the perfect rhetorical question: “Am I Too Blue (for you)?”

20. Joel R. Phelps and the Downer Trio: “Calling for You.” Former Silkworm rocker has produced some of the saddest and most beautiful singer-songwriter efforts of the last ten years. This one is my favorite, an Iris Dement cover, and it is hard to beat Iris if that tells you anything about the power of this song and Phelps’ rendition. It also is hopeful about reconciliation after hurt has brought love to a dangerous precipice.

I said I would stop there, but Hank Williams Sr. shouldn't be neglected. I just couldn't narrow it to one. Honorable mention also goes to Nick Drake, Joy Division, George Jones, and the Old 97's, especially "Lonely Holiday" and "Valentine." I wish you a happy new year in 2007, friends.

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About Jayson Harsin