Unearthing forgotten Christmas classics is a holiday tradition that never grows old to me, especially when the new interpretation is this deft and the forgotten song this worth remembering.
Unearthing forgotten Christmas classics is a holiday tradition that never grows old to me, especially when the new interpretation is this deft and the forgotten song this worthy. “I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You” is an overlooked nugget from the overlooked ’60s singer/songwriter Margo Guryan, which surfaced on a fan club recording by St. Etienne in 1998 but has otherwise been waiting for a wider audience. In a just world, this is the version that does it, starting right now with this post. (Side note: the world may not be entirely just.)
What I particularly love here is how the British band Younghusband has managed to disclose the otherwise unapparent Ramones-y heart of Guryan’s rather more Bacharach-y original. The song’s chunky, fitful melody was never as light and breezy as the songwriter professed in her own version; the band here exploits its truer nature by giving it a bottom-heavy feel and converting a light-as-air riff filled with la-la-las into a decisive, lower-register instrumental melody. There is something inescapably Phil Spector-ish in the air here too, as the bashy, reverbed, elusively constructed background sound feels like a tasty homage to a master who himself of course is associated memorably with Christmas music.
Meanwhile—Margo Guryan? I had never heard of her before, and yet wow, there she is, a singer/songwriter who wrote and performed in that wispy, sunshine-y style perhaps more widely associated with the likes of Claudine Longet or even, from South America, Astrud Gilberto—a style that has had an unanticipated second life here in the 21st century. Guryan began her musical career in jazz in the late ’50s, and did not start paying attention to pop music until a friend of hers forced her to listen to “God Only Knows.” She eventually recorded one album, 1968’s Take a Picture, a light-sounding but deceptively complex collection of songs which was well-received critically but found no audience. (Guryan did not want to tour, so her record label didn’t promote the release.) She thereafter abandoned her recording career, and spent most of the ensuing decades as a music teacher. She is still alive, and is active on Twitter.
Younghusband, meanwhile, is a quartet from London that released its debut album, Dromes, in September, in the UK only. Their “I Don’t Intend to Spend Christmas Without You” cover was made available via their record label, Sonic Cathedral . Thanks to Lauren Laverne at BBC6 for the head’s up.
For the excessively curious, the original Margo Guryan version can be heard on Spotify, here (available only to Spotify subscribers):
An after-the-fact Christmas tune—a newly-minted instrumental with an old-school air, from Johnny Marr.
This one came in too late to post prior to year’s end, but it’s also too good to let slip by. Download, tuck it away, and be pleasantly surprised to find it when you go looking for under-played holiday songs next time Christmas rolls around.
A newly-minted instrumental with an old-school air, “Free Christmas” offers a stately, lower-register electric guitar melody over a lilting acoustic guitar setting. Without any words beyond Marr’s whispered introduction, and without either blatant lifts from well-known tunes or sonic cliches, the music, almost magically, feels like Christmas. You can just about hear the sleigh bells, even as there aren’t any in the mix. I think what does the Noël-ish trick here is how the melody culminates in that five-note, choir-tinged descent (first heard at 0:58). Coming down the scale like that evokes Christmas music in the gentlest way, even as the song otherwise seems to operate with its own vibe. While there’s nothing here to directly recall Vince Guaraldi’s famous “Charlie Brown Christmas” music, what “Free Christmas” has in common with Guaraldi’s marvelous compositions is a willingness to be its own aural world first and foremost. It’s less “I’m writing Christmas music” and more “I’m writing music and I’m inviting Christmas into it.”
In any case, I’d definitely invite this one into your 2012 Christmas mix. You’ve got plenty of advance notice. As for Marr, this free and legal MP3 appears to be a sign that his reunion with the Healers, a band he fronted in the early ’00s, will remain a going concern. He had reassembled the group, with personnel changes, this past fall, for two shows in the UK and one in NYC. (Smiths songs were played, it should be noted.) Here’s hoping for some more Marr this year, as he seems to have left the other bands he was part of and perhaps aims, at last, for a bit of front man glory.
Thanks to Largehearted Boy for the head’s up on this.
“Santa Needs a Holiday” – Strawberry Whiplash
Candy-coated holiday fare from the Glaswegian (that is to say, from Glasgow; but one must not miss the opportunity to use the word “Glaswegian”) duo Strawberry Lemonade, itself a syrupy-sweet side-project from Bubblegum Lemonade front man Laz McLuskey. (Call it twee if you must, but only if you must.)
Long-time Fingertips followers may remember that I don’t go crazy with the Christmas tunes in December–not because I have anything against Christmas tunes (not at all!; I love them only as much as a Christmas-music-deprived nice Jewish boy can) but because, truthfully, and alas, not much of what the genre offers year to year, new-musically-speaking, is very good. Trust me when I say I’m performing a public service by keeping most of what I hear out of your browser/inbox/hard drive/smart phone/whatever-the-hell-you-listen-to-music-in-or-on.
But this one is lovely in a jangly, lo-fi kind of way, full of melodic nostalgia and 21st-century indie-pop blurriness. Vocalist Sandra sings with a lightness befitting someone who operates resolutely without a last name, but listen closely and you’ll also hear a breathy roundness to her tone that brings (sigh) the late great Kirsty MacColl to mind. Perhaps best of all, the song traffics in its Christmasiness with graceful restraint. The one musical element that flavors the song seasonally is the descending guitar riff we hear at the end of the chorus, which smartly echoes the familiar descending bell motif delivered by any number of holiday standards.
“Santa Needs a Holiday” is found on the latest incarnation of annual holiday goodness put out by Santa Barbara-based Matinée Recordings. This year’s offering is an EP called Matinée Holiday Soiree, which also includes a song from Champagne Riot, a band featured here in 2008.
MP3 via Matinée.
And here’s another not-quite-typical holiday song. You won’t hear a lot of out-and-out electronica on Fingertips, not because I have anything against the sound per se, but because by and large I find the genre lacking in what I will, with apologies to S. Colbert, call “songiness.” We get a lot of beat and texture and neato sounds but often each track emerges like something sliced out of the electronica-o-matic machine, without an individually compelling sense of structure, arc, or storyline.
While “24.12.” has its quirks—there is no chorus, either musically or lyrically, and nothing really resembling a hook—I still feel that Austrian Bernhard Fleischmann has delivered a fully realized song here, and then some. Unusually for electronica, this one is rooted in the lyrics, so don’t miss them: it’s a holiday story song of an unusual nature. The male voice—not Fleischmann’s, but a guest vocalist who goes by the name Sweet William Van Ghost—sings only the song’s prelude, setting up the situation and the character who then steps forward to sing the rest of the song. I won’t give away the premise, but I will note that Marilies Jagsch, the woman who sings in the song’s second half, is not who she appears to be, character-wise. And it may well be that twist that gives this strange song its depth.
In the middle of the nuanced electronica ambiance, the one central, recurring motif you will hear is the most musically unsubtle thing imaginable: a descending C scale, played note by note on the guitar. And yet by kind of hiding in plain sight there, it lends the subtle air of holiday song to the tale, as that descending line, in other contexts, carries the distinct flavor of Yuletide about it. (It’s a tricky thing, using the unsubtle subtly.) “24.12.” is a song from Fleischmann’s latest album, Angst is Not a Weltanschauung!, released in November on the German Morr Musice label. Weltanschauung, by the way, is one of those wonderful, not entirely translatable German compound words; the overall title means something to the effect of “Fear is not a worldview.” Which is itself a great message for a not-quite-typical holiday greeting card, I’d say.
MP3 via Better Propaganda.