For my contribution the Reader's daily 12 O'Clock Track last week, I posted a biting version of "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" by the great Bahamian guitarist Joseph Spence, noting that I don't possess the same knee-jerk, absolutist aversion to holiday music as many of my colleagues. In fact, I sometimes really enjoy it, a clear vestige of warm childhood memories. On Saturday my wife had the car radio tuned into WBEZ and we listened to the annual Sound Opinions show with guest Andy Cirzan, the Jam Productions vet whose appetite for holiday music is hard to match. He focused his selections this year exclusively on soul music, playing not only well-known classics like "This Christmas" by Donny Hathaway and "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" by James Brown, but lesser-known gems like "Snow Flake" by J.J. Barnes and "Winter Man" by Clarence Reid (aka Blowfly).
If you missed this week's show you can check it out on the Sound Opinions website, where you can also download Cirzan's entire Santa Soul mix, the 2012 installment of his annual holiday compilation he gives out to friends and associates (the link is good through the end of the year). Cirzan and fellow Jam employee and Christmas-music maven John Soss will also appear on Tuesday's Electric Company program, hosted by Jon Langford and Nicholas Tremulis, on WXRT between 10 PM and midnight.
Each year I keep a low-key lookout for new releases and as usual I've found a few this year that are worth noting. I think my favorite new offering is Death Might be Your Santa Claus, a limited-edition compilation of early blues and gospel released by Sony Music's reissue arm, Legacy Recordings, for Record Store Day's Black Friday release slate. Unfortunately, it already seems out of print, but googling the title reveals that some online outlets are still hawking it at reasonable prices. Unsurprisingly, most of the tunes reflect on the dark emotions dredged up the holidays—loneliness, regret, and deprivation—with artists like Tampa Red, Victoria Spivey, Bo Carter, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Bessie Smith, with several fist-clenched sermons by J.M. Gates.
The fantastic fingerstyle guitarist Tim Sparks avoided the expected sort of American Primitive adaptation of familiar holiday tunes and hymns when he tackled Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker Suite two decades ago—it's a piece of music so ingrained into December memories he's not doing himself any favors by taking it on. But the Minneapolis picker has always been hard to pin down, veering from klezmer to Brazilian music to postbop, so pinning any expectations on him is a waste of time. As heard on a ToneWood Music reissue of that recording, his debut from 1993, Sparks plays Tchaikovsky's compositions straight, meticulously balancing the dance forms within and the piquant, indelible melodies, masterfully reducing an orchestral work for just six strings without losing the richness nor much of the contrapuntal splendor. If you never want to hear the Nutcracker again, Sparks probably won't change your mind, but he definitely brings something fresh to the table. The second half of the CD is "Tim's Balkan Dreams Suite," a gorgeous six-part interpretation of traditional melodies from Greece, Romania, and Albania, with an original closing section called "The Blues on Bartok Street." At the very least, this back part of the CD could make for splendid year-round listening. Below you can check out his version of "March of the Toy Soldiers."
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There are some year-round possibilities for Tinsel and Lights (Merge), a new holiday album by Tracey Thorn (Everything but the Girl, Marine Girls), because aside from "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," sung amid swelling string orchestrations, the tunes here are rarely, if ever, connected to the holidays, whether it's "In the Cold, Cold Night" by the White Stripes, "River" by Joni Mitchell, or Randy Newman's "Snow," an obscurity sung by Harry Nilsson. As Thorn said about the repertoire, "They're not all strictly Christmas songs, but if they mentioned winter or snow or even just being cold, that was good enough for me." Like most holiday albums that aim for something more than quick cash-in renditions of the standard repertoire, Tinsel and Lights is fairly somber, yet both of Thorn's original tunes here contain subtle hints of optimism, or at least warmth. The title track is a nostalgic recollection of a Christmas spent in New York during more innocent, simpler times with a bittersweet directness that hits hard. She covers Dolly Parton's "Hard Candy Christmas," Low's "Taking Down the Tree," with guest vocalist Green Gartside (Scritti Politti), and Ron Sexsmith's "Maybe This Christmas." Thorne's lovely voice and the spare, elegant arrangements are undeniably adult (adult contemporary, you might even say), but they also impart a sense of timeless. Below you can check out the title track.
Finally, Bonnie "Prince" Billy has made a sorta holiday single for Drag City with Dawn McCarthy (Faun Fables), covering an Everly Brothers ballad called "Christmas Eve Can Kill You," from the overlooked 1971 album Stories We Could Tell—an excruciating tale of loneliness told from the perspective of a hitchhiker trying to get home on Christmas Eve, with every car and truck passing him by: "Christmas Eve can kill you when you're trying to hitch a ride to anywhere." There's not a whiff of the holidays on the B side, a cover of the Rufus Thomas standard "Walking the Dog," which the Everlys covered on their 1965 album Beat & Soul. The single is a teaser for a full collaborative album BPB and McCarthy have coming out in February called What the Brothers Sang, which features 13 other, lesser-known tunes covered by the Everly Brothers. Below you can watch the video for "Christmas Eve Can Kill You."