Dark X-mas -- December 2006
This month: a couple of x-mas tunes to help get into the seasonal mood and a preponderance of wintry songs that blow cold and send shivers. From a track off Sufjan Stevens' new x-mas album to a Vince Guaraldi/Peanuts classic -- with a whole lot of indie pop in-between -- this month's Mix Tape tries to capture the sound of the season, falling rain and blowing wind with a few muted sleigh bells far off in the distance.
This month's Mix Tape written by Mark Taylor, Senior Interactive Producer, KQED Arts & Culture.
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"Our father yells throwing the gifts in the wood stove... In time the snow arrives... In time the Lord arrives..." OK, Stevens is a Christian rocker, but not in the preachy/traditional sense. He makes many references to spirituality in his songs and even recorded a whole album of music about religion Seven Swans -- the last track on that record "The Transfiguration" is gorgeous and uplifting and expresses everything that spirituality should. This month Stevens put out an album of indie rock x-mas tunes and it's certainly easier listening to him this season than it is to hear the "classics" rolled out for the gazillionth time. Was it my imagination or did the capitalists start piping x-mas over their muzak speakers early this year? In any case, "That Was the Worst Christmas Ever!" -- with its description of a really bad dysfunctional family holiday -- really hits the spot.
This song has a brittle chill to it -- a hard, crackling synthesizer ices around the edges while vocalist Trisha Keenan blankets the tune, her warm, wistful voice sing-songing a poem about separation or lost love. "Oh my heart waits in winter now." Keenan's voice falls like the hush of new snow while the music captures the swirl of a changing landscape, the musical equivalent of snowflakes piling into drifts.
We got this in the mail a couple of weeks ago and really like the stripped-down folky sound to the Blind Willies, which is Annie Staninec on violin and Alexei Wajchman on guitar and Dylan-inflected vocals. "Marie" reminds me of "Hobo," a very old Tim Buckley tune that I have on vinyl on a Linda Rondstadt/Stone Poneys compilation. "Hobo" has a cold and blustery sound to it, like a Northeastern winter by the ocean. "Hobo" and "Marie" share a similar, repeated descending melody, but "Marie" sounds more like the blown-out desert, a cold wind howling as the sun descends on a scrubby landscape of rock and cactus. The song's tragic teen storyline reminds me of Ben Ehrenreich's Writers' Block reading from his book The Suitors. Check it out.
Is it strange that "Postcards from Italy" makes me think of Scritti Politti? Though I never liked that band, the singer had a sweet voice, a bit of a romantic delivery to his croon, and both bands certainly share that "Euro" feel. (I am always tempted to say "trash" whenever I say "Euro" -- so Ugly American of me.) Anyhow, where was I? Oh yes, I just like the oomp pah pah-ness of this song, even though it's not a Bavarian Polka in the slightest, it has that "Old World" European feel to it. The orchestration brings to mind ancient architecture and a clear, crisp day with a chill in the air.
A winter theme wouldn't be complete without a nod to birds in flight as this is the time when those creatures head to warmer climes. I spend a lot of time in the foothills and travel often through the California delta where I witness flocks coming to rest in or rising from those fertile fields. What I like best about this song (recommended by Craig Rosa of KQED's new science show, Quest) is how the music captures the swirl of a flock as it takes to the air, a chaos of birds spiraling into the sky each miraculously finding its place in the formation.
A nod to the classic Shoegazer band of the late eighties, this song somehow manages to sound both warm and cool at the same time. A rapid fire drum pattern and then the yearn of a distorted guitar. The tentative quality of MBV's backing vocals take the song from sexy to wistful.
I have a pretty large painting in my living room of a creature being pursued by wolves through a bleak winter landscape, grey clouds whirl in the sky, dirty compact snow covers the ground, specks of blood dot the creature's footprints and a dark green forest recedes far off in the distance. I think of this painting as a Rorshach test because some people love it and others find it disturbing. I am often asked why I have such a dark picture so prominently displayed. To which I reply, "I think it's a happy painting. Doesn't it look like the wolves are smiling?"
"Wolf Like Me" takes that same approach, it's a love song from the werewolf's point of view. "There's a curse comes with a kiss. The bite that binds, the gift that gives...we're howling forever!" I also love the way the music projects the feel of a swiftly moving landscape, what the ground would look like from the wolf's perspective as he bounds through roots, leaves and patches of black ice following the scent of something tasty in the distance.
Summerleaf also came to us in the mail a couple of weeks ago. Jonathan Segel is best known for playing violins, keyboards, etc with Camper Van Beethoven. After being on tour for a couple of years with that band, Segel landed in Sweden and decided to record some "electronic" music based on recorded acoustic sounds, much the way Matthew Herbert does (see Christina Nunez's review of Herbert's last record, Scale), although Segal gets a totally different feel out of similar electronic experimentation. "Completely Baffled" is an elegant combination of sounds -- steady pulsing electronic beat and swirly, melodic violin. There's a vague Middle Eastern twinge to this tune, which a friend referred to as "Phillip Glass joins the Taliban," which was funny until we remembered that the Taliban don't like music. Heh.
"Red Wrapping Paper" is a one-off x-mas single released by The Creatures around 2000 or so. It contains the same "breath in front of the face" feel as another chilly Siouxsie and the Banshees classic "Red Over White," the b-side of the "Israel" single, which describes a bloody murder "out in the snow, muffled..." Nobody does sinewy, sexy and sinister like Siouxsie. This tune contrasts tinny x-mas bells with a complex and insistent beat to build an icy castle of suspense. It's "a blush full flushed and flaming -- a gift wrapped in glittering fire."
"Don't Take My Sunshine Away" sounds like something off one of the later Beatles albums, it's symphonic and experimental with a simple, insistent beat, sweet vocals and a bit of romance. I threw this into the mix as a potential anthem for all the folks out there who suffer from SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a winter depression that is brought on by the change in light or the lack of sun. A former cellmate -- I mean cubicle-mate and I used to share a slight touch of SAD, the cure for which was going for strong drinks after work (our cases were relatively mild).
Once again, a bit X-mas-centric in this multi-holiday season, but I had to throw in this bonus tune because I always dust it off this time of year. I remember being in feet pajamas and watching A Charlie Brown Christmas, cartoon snow banks floating by on the TV screen and the Peanuts throwing back their pink heads, becoming all mouth and cartoon uvula as they broke into song. Is it just me or is there something really melancholy about The Peanuts' TV specials? Perhaps it is the great jazz of Vince Guaraldi, which captures the sense of the year coming to an end and that feeling of anticipation one gets around the holidays, which will be dashed in a short time and then it's on to the next holiday, the next calendar -- another year.
Also on KQED.org this week ...
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Enter the New "ImageMakers" Screening Room
Enjoy films from present and past seasons of KQED's short independent film series, divided into Animation, Comedy, Drama, and Suspense.