Many of us are cancelling Thanksgiving plans and looking ahead to an equally weird Christmas, and with the holiday season comes the inevitable buying spree. It was recently reported that Jeff Bezos saw his wealth rise by an estimated $48 billion from March to June alone. In the spirit of rejecting this gross inequity, I urge you to support local businesses.
Any of the albums featured in this column would make excellent gifts for the music lovers in your life. Even more enticing, December 4 is the last “Bandcamp Friday,” in which the revenue share is waived so that every cent goes to the artist. Whether it’s music related or not, consider kicking in a few shekels to your local creators or give a donation if you can swing it.
A few campaigns to consider:
- The Narrows Center Fundraiser (also worth checking out is their series of livestreams)
- Rhode Island Artist Relief Fund
- Save The Parlour GoFundMe
- Newport Festivals Musician Relief Fund
Dan Blakeslee and the Calabash Club — Christmasland Jubilee
Local songwriter and crooner Dan Blakeslee has built an impressive resume by pounding the pavement throughout New England and putting out a string of acclaimed albums. He’s well known for his ghoulish alter ego Doctor Gasp, but this time takes a turn round the ol’ Christmas tree with his first holiday record, Christmasland Jubilee.
It’s astounding to think that so many Christmas albums are released year after year given that the canon and themes don’t really don’t change much. Instead of a straight rehashing, Blakeslee manages to bring his own folksy flair to the catalog.
Blakeslee brings a brooding, rolling tumbleweeds vibe to “We Three Kings” and puts his own spin on the melody. He tries out boogie woogie on “The Reindeer Boogie,” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is set atop a gorgeous NOLA-style ragtime, replete with clarinet and muted trumpet.
Blakeslee describes the album as “a 10-year dream album come to life.” I have the pleasure of knowing Dan in real life, and there is no denying that the guy really loves Christmas music.
The musical ornamentation (no pun intended) creates a captivating soundscape throughout the record, with deft backing vocals, accordion, piano and percussion. There’s a lot going on at times, but it’s managed with minimal turbulence. A high point is “Silver Bells,” featuring a beautiful combo of Hammond organ, mandolin and vibraphone.
The Calabash Club is pianist/accordionist Mike Effenberger, bassist Nick Phaneuf and drummer Jim Rudolf, but there’s a pretty extensive cast of characters who do a great job.
In addition to the classics, Christmasland Jubilee has a solid crop of originals. “Glowin’, Blowin’, Jumpin’, Swayin’, Wishin’, Swingin’, Dancin’, Rockin’, Fishin’, Laughin’ Christmas Tree” brings a jazz flavor and proves that the holidays are no time for brevity.
“The Somerville Lights” is a straight-ahead folk tune about the light displays in Blakeslee’s former city, and a bonus song, “Let’s Start Again,” has a more off-the-cuff feel and really shows off his songwriting chops.
Maybe the fact that Dan and others can keep coming out with engaging takes on the same material is a comment on the supreme adaptability of music itself. Sure, it’s all been done, but now it’s been done by Dan Blakeslee.
Holiday Albums That Don’t Suck
My relationship with holiday music mainly involves grumbling when the dentist’s office starts playing it in early November, but after Dan’s album I decided to see what else is out there. Here are a few of my most cherished holiday records, most of which I pulled from other online “best of” collections yesterday.
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings — It’s a Holiday Soul Party
The late Sharon Jones put out this soulful selection fearing the glorious horn section of the The Dap Kings in 2009. The slow burn of “Silent Night” and “Please Come Home For Christmas” really let Jones’s vocals shine, and upbeat fare like “8 Days (Of Hannukah)” and “Funky Little Drummer” boy will bring down the house at your Zoom holiday party.
Jethro Tull — The Jethro Tull Christmas Album
What says Christmas more than some woodland woodwinds or super show-offy arrangements of the classics? In what was to be their last studio album, Tull puts their own proggy spin on the holidays with tunes like “Birthday Card at Christmas” and “Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow,” as well as rerecordings of fan favorites like “Weathercock” and the instrumental “Bourée”
Aimee Mann — One More Drifter in the Snow
Christmas doesn’t have to be all good times and cheer; Aimee Mann depresses along with the best of them with “Whatever Happened to Christmas” and “Christmastime,” about things falling apart around the holiday. “Calling on Mary” is a brilliant song no matter the time of year.
David Sedaris — Holidays on Ice
While not technically music, I always enjoy hearing the audiobook being played on NPR and getting a look at Sedaris’ time as a department store elf.
Willie Nelson — Pretty Paper
By ‘79, Nelson had released 24 albums and was just beginning his well-publicized troubles with the IRS. The title track is a rerecording of Nelson’s song, which was a hit for Roy Orbison. The bright spot for me, though, is the nifty organ and keyboards on tunes like “Rudolph” and “Here Comes Santa Claus” by Booker T. Jones, who also produced the record.
The Vandals — Oi to the World!
The Vandals specialize in juvenile themes mixed with lightning fast skate punk, evidenced here with tunes like “A Gun For Christmas” and “Christmastime for My Penis.” Interestingly, the 1996 album received renewed interest after No Doubt covered the title track a few years later.
Jelly Side Down — Had to Be There
The golden era of pop-punk may have come and gone, but Johnston newcomers Jelly Side Down do a good job capturing the spirit. And with stellar recent releases from bands like The Callouts and U.G.L.Y, maybe there’s something in the water.
There’s definitely some examples of Jelly Side Down nailing the format, with general themes of unease and the angst of the young along with some effective hooks and crunchy guitars. “$18,000 and a Chance at the Title” has the shredding and lead harmonies of Sum 41, and “Midnight” packs a killer hook.
“I Hope You See This” has some heavy breakdowns and dark edges that remind me of Evanescence. “Specter” features an impenetrable fortress of beefy guitars, and they also cover “Valerie,” made famous by Amy Winehouse, which they manage to rev up a bit.