It was a cold Christmas night when Inuit songwriter Willie Thrasher first found his musical path. He’d just finished a set with his band the Cordells, drumming at a Christmas dance, performing its normal setlist of Beatles songs and other rock & roll standards, when an old man approached their table after the show.

Thrasher doesn’t remember his name, but he remembers what he said, how he gently prodded him and his young Aboriginal bandmates. “He said, ‘Why don’t you write about your Inuit culture, about your traditional ways? About how you used to live a long time ago, how you used to live off the land?’” Thrasher says. At the time, he didn’t feel a connection to his roots, which had been taken from him as a five-year-old, when he was enrolled in a missionary school in Aklavik, in the Northwest Territories in 1953. At the school, his culture was erased from his mind. He was forbidden from speaking his native language or dance his people’s dances, and as he grew into maturity, his connection to his youth in the bush, whaling, and hunting, drifted from his mind. “I didn’t even know about my culture,” Thrasher said “The missionaries did a good job on me, taking all my culture away.”

That night, the old man told his youthful charges about their people. “So he told us, how we used to build our igloos, hunt caribou, polar bear, seals, Arctic char. The only thing we had to keep us warm was seal oil, and to light our lamps. That’s how my mom and dad’s parents used to live.” The man’s message started Thrasher down a path of reconnection. He began reading about his heritage, “watching videos” about his people’s traditions, speaking with elders. Slowly, he began to piece together history, and his studies informed his songs. The Cordells soon broke up. He decided to quit lugging his drums around and focus on guitar. He asked his bandmates to teach him, but they dismissed his requests. “They said ‘No, you’re going to take the girls away from me.’ [Laughs] They wouldn’t teach me so I learned on my own.”

He moved to Ottawa in 1970, and began writing the songs which would make up his debut album, Spirit Child. Blending traditional melodies with folk rock, it was released by the Canadian Broadcast Company in 1981 and propelled Thrasher’s career playing universities and festivals. He cites his inspirations in those days, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Rolling Stones, the Moody Blues, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Gordon Lightfoot, some of whom he shared stages with. But the promotion of Spirit Child was short lived, fizzling out after a year and a half. “Spirit Child came out and went really well for awhile then it died out,” Thrasher says.


Here it is. Our obligatory year-end review. The following is an unranked list of albums that caught, and kept, our attention in 2015. Have at it.  – AD


Deerhunter – Fading Frontier: The album’s name might seem to belie its subject matter: this is probably the warmest, most emotionally serine piece the band has done, an affirmation of opportunity — rebirth, even — rather than blurred horizons. But frontiers have limits, and Bradford Cox himself compared Fading Frontier to the first day of spring, suggesting fresh starts and, not limits, but limitlessness. That’s not to be confused with the ethereal dream-plush of Halcyon Digest. That ambient fog is lifted. In its place is perspective, something Monomania fabulously worked at. In that way, Fading Frontier arrives almost as a third chapter in a trilogy, one that might ultimately be this band’s legacy. (buy)

Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs: Pop music by Jim ORourke is still music by Jim ORourke, which is to say the “simple” in the album title shouldn’t be taken literally. But it’s not a lie, either. These are songs for driving, for cruising, even, funky struts with Steely Dan grooves and maybe even some Zeppelin riffs. ORourke is riding shotgun, your chuckling navigator, cracking wise while looking back on the side view mirror. (buy)

Ought – Sun Coming Down: The most quotable (and therefore quoted) lyric from the Montreal outfit’s raw, kinetic utterly consuming debut follow is appropriately this: “I am no longer afraid to die / ’Cause that is all that I have left, yes / And I am no longer afraid to dance tonight / ’Cause that is all that I have left, yes.” Strong enough on their own, those words within the context of the album reveal its greatness. Wrestling with anxieties gives way to cynicism, then ennui, then exasperated defiance — the rebellion not of yelling, but of gradually admitting that none of this is real, so fuck it. Reference whatever kind of yester-punk you want with whatever influence, this is new, current. Sun Coming Down is arguably the most “2015” music this year. An of-the-moment piece — in time, feeling, genre — but where the moment is still very much aware of what’s to come — or maybe more accurately, what’s probably not. (buy)


Kamasi Washington – The Epic: A daring debut by Los Angeles saxophonist Kamasi Washington The Epic is about more than scope – though at 171 minutes it is a true journey. It’s a declarative statement: Jazz as an art form has room to grow, live, and thrive in a modern context. Washington is one of its greatest ambassadors, inspired by John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Vince Guaraldi, Stanley Clarke, McCoy Tyner, and dozens more in the jazz pantheon, marshalling his massive band for these rousing, spiritually-invested compositions. (buy)

The Velvet Underground – The Complete Matrix Tapes: While it’s easy to complain about the fact that Polygram made us buy half of these recordings last year as part of the Velvets’ third album deluxe box set, it’s absolutely impossible to complain while actually listening to these four discs, recorded live in San Francisco at the close of the 1960s. Quite simply, the music performed here by Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Moe Tucker and Doug Yule is some of the greatest rock & roll ever made. And the fact that they were playing for what sounds like (at the most) a few dozen people doesn’t end up being depressing — it’s actually pretty inspiring. “The possibilities are endless,” Reed sings. And you believe him. (buy)

Dungen – Allas Sak: Swedish psych-journeymen Dungen returned in 2015 with their seventh lp, Allas Sak. A sweeping and highly musical journey from start to finish, the instrumental “Franks Kaktus” has stayed on repeat. Driven by jazz flute, tribal percussion and washes of eastern-leaning guitar, the song vibes on some serious mystical 70’s prog, and that’s before the electric starts ripping away. (buy)


Protomartyr – The Agent Intellect: Stark Rust Belt proto-punk dirges about digital demons, pornographic corrosion, the white devil, royalty, and visits from the Pope. Singer/lyricist Joe Casey orates like a Motor City Mark E. Smith, his grumbles, shouts, and asides teeming with local detail, religious allusions, twisted humor, and on this album, the band’s third and absolute best, bare observations on love, family, and the inevitable apocalypse. (buy)

Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There: A kind and gentle sorta-sequel to the band’s 1990 cover album FakebookStuff Like That There finds Hoboken’s finest re-teaming with guitarist Dave Schramm, interpreting songs by the Lovin’ Spoonful, pre-P-Funk outfit the Parliaments, and indie rock peers like Special Pillow and Antietam. The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” becomes a gentle honky-tonk shuffle and the quartet inhabits one of Sun Ra’s early doo-wop ballads, “Somebody’s In Love,” fully and warmly. (buy)

Lightning Bolt – Fantasy Empire: Lightning Bolt, Providence, Rhode Island’s mythical art noise duo, has recorded a hi-fidelity translation of their lo-fi body assault of volume and rhythm. Brian Gibson on bass, Brian Chippendale on drums, the two conjure immense energy. Their sound is physical… muscular, and their live shows are visceral, engaging all the senses. Tightly composed, Fantasay Empire carries Lightning Bolt’s throbbing heft and crushing riffs into an immersive—and sometimes beautiful—headspace. (buy)


Jessica Pratt – On Your Own Love Again: Pratt’s meditative, slow-rolling acoustic psychedelia is arresting and beautiful. This, her sophmore lp, reflects and laments on love, hurt, and the past. Without ever getting too loud or too fast, Pratt’s otherworldly voice is unafraid to lead listeners into an unexpected bed of harmony, or left-turn melody, while plumbing emotional depths. Her finger-picking is incredibly nuanced and adept, and the uncrowded arrangements allow the richness of her songwriting to both bloom and transport. And they do, indeed. (buy)

Ryley Walker – Primrose Green: Walker’s vintage influences – Pentangle, Van Morrison, John Martyn, Tim Buckley, just to name a few — are obvious and undeniable. But Primrose Green, the songwriter’s second lp, manages to make those tried-and-true vibes feel fresh and vibrant. He may be looking back, but the music here has plenty of forward-moving momentum, thanks to the thrilling interplay between Walker and his backing band drawn from Chicago’s fertile experimental/jazz scene. (buy)

Joan Shelley – Over and Even: Shelley’s 2014 LP Electric Ursa was a late-breaking favorite, but Over and Even is even better, as Shelley expertly explores love, loss and the unnameable regions in between. She’s as good at detailed, heartrending narratives (see “Jenny Come In” with Will Oldham guesting on backing vocals) as she is at more ethereal vibes (the mystical title track and “Lure & Line”). In tandem with guitarist Nathan Salsburg, it sits comfortably next to classics from Gillian Welch & David Rawlings and Richard & Linda Thompson. (buy)


Steve Gunn & The Black Twig Pickers – Seasonal Hire: Only mere months after releasing his 2014 masterwork, Way Out Weather, Steve Gunn teamed up early this year with Mike Gangloff, Nathan Bowles (a Gunn regular), Isak Howell and Sally Anne Morgan of the Black Twig Pickers. Their melding of Gunn’s desert-swept cosmic Americana and the Pickers’ rustic Appalachian bluegrass made for one of the finest and pleasurable listens of the year, each player rambling in beautiful ramshackle harmony. The sixteen-plus-minute title track closer is a gorgeous soundscape of droning sylvan majesty. One likes to believe John Cale would sit up in his chair, or lie down on his floor, for that cut. (buy)

Carsten Meinert Kvartet – To You: Restored from the original mastertapes, Frederiksberg Records 2015 reissue of To You — the 1968 Danish jazz LP by Carsten Meinert Kvartet. Spiritual jazz incarnate. (buy)

Daniel Bachman – River: Daniel Bachman is a masterful acoustic guitarist and composer in the “American Primitive” vein, and River is his most realized work thus far, approaching concept-album levels of immersion. For example, the 14 minute opener “Won’t You Cross Over To That Other Shore” – a dizzying yin-yang of beautiful, dulcet melody pitted against a detuned, ragged bass-bark. All on the single, common 6-string! (buy)


Destroyer – Poison Season: Dan Bejar has always been a dramatist and a wordsmith. A man who plays with lyrics, melody and song structure that has cemented him as one of the most interesting and rewarding artists of the century. Bejar’s latest follows its predecessor’s gloriously big sound, with Springsteen-esque melodies, 70’s AM pop vibes, saxophone lines, and stories of people, real or imaginary – but all relatable. (buy)

Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe & Ariel Kalma, FRKWYS Vol 12: Recorded on the eastern Austrian coast, Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (Lichens) and Ariel Kalma tune their approach and instruments to their natural setting, allowing babbling creeks and the wind to dictate elements of their drones, synth soundscapes, and skittering, beat-driven electronic experiments. (buy)

Mamman Sani – Unreleased Tapes 1981-1984: The third instillation of the Sahel Sound label’s reissue series of Nigerian organ master Mamman Sani finds them going into the well of early 80s unreleased material. Unsurprisingly, the release is more akin to Sani’s 1978 lp La Musique Electronique du Niger than his late 80’s disc, the celestial, sci-fi Taaritt. On this most recent reissue, Sani’s proclivity towards lo-fi swirling drones and hypnotic trance prevail. His reedy and dreamlike organ reinterprets ancient folklore in endlessly imaginative and glorious fashion. There’s truly nothing else in the world like the music Sani was making. “Bodo” is cloud-draped electronica, pure in its primitiveness, and Sani’s rendition of the American “Five Hundred Miles” is a dreamy waltz into the heavens. Eat your heart out, Peter, Paul and Mary. (buy)


Meg Baird – Don’t Weigh Down The Light:A deeply satisfying LP that feels like an instant psych-folk classic. The former Espers member relocated to San Francisco from Philadelphia recently and you might hear a little bit of Golden State sunshine in the grooves here, as subtle piano and electric 12-string textures fill out the picture. It’s still Baird’s high, lonesome voice and gorgeous fingerpicking that take center stage, however — and rightly so. (buy)

Ork Records – New York, New York:A thing of box set beauty from the Numero Group, compiling the (almost) complete output of Ork Records. Ork was one of the original indie labels, curated by NYC tastemaker Terry Ork. Leading off with epochal 7-inch debuts from Television and Richard Hell & The Voidoids, the label was on the front lines of the mid-70s CBGB scene. We may know it as “punk” these days, but the music on this collection is wide ranging, eclectic and adventurous: the rules had yet to be written. And Numero’s almost 200-page book, filled with great info and photography, is worth the price of admission alone. (buy)

Joanna Newsom, Divers: At times a time travel sci-fi epic, baroque tone poem, and maritime ballad, Joanna Newsom’s Divers is also a lush, inviting group of songs, packed with intricate instrumentation and reigned over by her one of a kind voice. Newsom’s work is so ripe for annotation and analysis that it’s sometimes easy to forget that even without the necessary study required to truly “get” it, it packs a purely emotional punch. Pick any one of Newsom’s detailed couplets – say “I believe in you/do you believe in me?” from “Leaving the City” – and realize that these songs exist to get lost in, to explore, and to wander through for years. (buy)


Thundercat – The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam: Bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner is a key force on two of the year’s best records,  Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, but he’s no slouch on his own. His third solo album, the mini-LP The Beyond/Where the Giants Roam blends hip-hop, jazz, and experimental electronica to create his most song-focused, deepest effort yet. On “Them Changes” he layers his voice over a fluid bass line and an Isley Brothers sample, reflecting on heartbreak through plain poetry. The theme is universal and the sounds are from outer space. (buy)

Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly: Decades from now, we’ll still be dissecting, questioning, and contextualizing rapper Kendrick Lamar’s third album, To Pimp a Butterfly. It’s a musical feast, with Lamar leading Flying Lotus, George Clinton, Thundercat, Bilal, Anna Wise, Rapsody,  Kamasi Washington, Robert Glasper and dozens more through intricate, dizzying webs of jazz, experimental electronic music, and funk, and it’s lyrically massive, with Lamar occupying multiple characters, settings, and timelines to address black identity, systemic racism, personal ethics, and obscured histories profanely, stridently, and with unmatched elegance. Adhering to radical redemption narrative, Kendrick rhymes as prophet, decrying the thieves in the temple, the worshipers, and sometimes the temple itself. It’s a work worthy of both the time and considerable effort it takes to engage it. (buy)

Laraaji – All in One Peace: Collecting three of new age composer Laraaji’s late ‘70s and early ‘80s albums — Lotus Collage, Unicorns in Paradise, and Connecting the Inner Healer… on cassette, their original medium, Leaving Records’ All In One Peace is three and a half hours of peaceful, immersive sounds, drifting treated zither and synth capable of providing “fresh new listening” more than 30 years after their initial, handmade runs by Laraaji himself.

NOW RITUAL CD JACKETMany moons ago, Ryan Sambol fronted the fantastic Austin band The Strange Boys. They disbanded in 2012 after 3 albums. Sambol begat the The Strange Boys at a young age, and the group was praised for its prodigious ability to synthesize all forms of roots, rock, and R&B. So much so, talk about the band became a vortex of genre names and touchstones–garage rock, Dylan, country, Doug Sahm, Nuggets… Apt comparisons, but what made The Strange Boys a great band was their loose, masterful evocation of all those vibes at once–they were a fiery, earnest, feel-good live band. What made The Strange Boys’ music great was Sambol’s keen sense of melody paired with his charming, off-kilter delivery. Yet for all The Strange Boys’ young fun and bombast, there was a countering element of beauty and introspection. The songs contained a world-weary seriousness, and Sambol vacillated between sunny and nihilistic outlooks. It’s a conversation that develops in his solo work, and separated from the vehicle of his band, his songwriter’s persona seems more beguiled and tormented. Now Ritual is Sambol’s first proper solo album, which arrived earlier this year via his Forever Wet Paint Co. imprint on Punctum Records.

Ryan Sambol :: A Human Being

The Ritual begins in media res with “A Human Being.” The tune lives on a tense chord and an expectant, antsy rhythm, turned around by explosive, shattered outbursts of electric guitar. Like many of Sambol’s songs, it’s laced with questions: “isn’t it weird being loved?” and “isn’t it weird being wronged.” The subject prances from love to a genetically modified farmer to a faceless cop, stirring up a mood of uncomfortable reflection and inquisition. His distinctive voice snakes between powerful, passionate cries and gentle coos, and the double tracked vocals amplify the sonic anxiety.

Ryan Sambol :: She Who Rarely Hears Her Full Name

As this album progresses, a tension of opposites become clear–woman/man, fight/peace, rich/homeless, unknown/known–even the title combines “now,” the individual, present, passing moment, with “ritual,” the sacred, ordered, historical ceremony. The songs are daubed with Sambol’s prime palette of sounds: thick, biting guitar chords, whirring organs, and his excellent, barrelhouse inspired piano playing… It’s got an intimate, deconstructed feel compared to the band sound of The Strange Boys, but that just means the soul in these songs have room to live. “She Who Rarely Hears Her Full Name” unfurls over a shimmering, melodic lift, in which Sambol telescopes between distant statements such as “a woman needs to learn how to find the end/ a man needs to learn how to prolong the ending/ these are human powers” to wonderfully specific images like “that’s the loudest I’ve ever heard you/ walk down the stairs.” In a similar vein, he deploys a witty Q&A in “Amazing Rain”: “does a computer get déjà vu?/ how’s it been for you?/ a child named data/ reared in the fastest age.” The album culminates in a “Unknown Unknown Known,” which carries a positive, willful sentiment, but also a golden ratio for the existential psychodrama present in these songs. 2 parts unknown to 1 known.

This year, Sambol has emptied out the archive somewhat: his Forever Wet Paint Co. doubled up Now Ritual, which was recorded while he was living in San Francisco in 2012, with Peace Mob, another full-length he recorded in Austin in 2013 with his post-Strange Boys band, Living Grateful. That band was comprised of Sambol, Chris Catalena, Greg Enlow, Geena Spigarelli, and Casey Seymour. They toured, recorded an album, then disbanded. However Peace Mob is a fine document, reflective of Sambol’s sunnier side and full of excellent tunes. My favorite track from that LP is called “How Far Is Far” (again, filled with questions!), which begins “young person it’s ok/ that you feel you don’t fit in today/ there are plenty of more days to come/ where you feel like you belong.” Excellent advice. words / a spoto

Ryan Sambol :: How Far Is Far

Phil-Spector-ChristmasIf you have a window near, go ahead and look outside. Chances are, there are some Christmas lights up somewhere within view. In the coming weeks, you’ll probably frantically brave mall crowds and horrific parking lot jams for last-minute gifts, wondering why it is that you avoid the mall for an entire year only to finally cave when it’s impossibly chaotic, deafeningly loud and smells something like garland draped across a junior-high locker room. Nearly 50 percent of you have already seen It’s A Wonderful Life this month, and roughly 92 percent of you will catch at least one of the 22 available viewings of A Christmas Story that will run every two hours from Christmas Eve night up through the morning of the 26th. These things are undeniably Christmas. Other things are too, but somehow, the meaningful stuff is more distinct. But nearly everyone seems to live the lights, the movies and the malls. And the songs, of course.

Well before I planned to write about Phil Spector’s Christmas Album (or whichever name you prefer to call it), I was actually wondering how these holiday staples came to be–like Hermey, the elf who wants to be a dentist, or a Red Rider BB Gun, and most specifically, a song. Most of the jingles we carol are pretty old. Hell, “Jingle Bells” is 150 years old, while the 1930s and ’40s seem to be the heyday of holiday tradition. I guess they wouldn’t really be traditions if they weren’t old, and we like to keep them that way, apparently. Consider that Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” (1942) is the best-selling single of all time, of any music, not just holiday music. (His “Silent Night,” from 1935, is third all time.) That’s not to say new traditions can’t be created, it’s just that many of them reside somewhere below the lofty status held by these longstanding customs, and I wonder if it’s even possible to create a Christmas classic anymore.

I think Phil Spector probably wondered this, too, only he was in a position to do something about it. His curated mix of holiday tunes pushes the limits of Christmas music–whether it’s tweaking the lyrics of “White Christmas” or writing his own in Christmas (Baby Please Come Home). Spector, a Jew born on Christmas day, did what few were or are capable of doing. He made the largesse–both genuine and contrived–of Christmas even bigger.

a1209021129_10Philly’s Spacin’ are set to coast into 2016 with their long delinquent second album – Total Freedom. Recorded deep in the depths of the Chillinger Community Center, the fuzzed out choogle they hang their no shirt, no shoes, no problem mantra on is transmitted blaringly loud on the opening cut “Over Uneasy”. Vamping on the less is more (much more) platform, Eva Killinger’s Tucker-motorik drumming lays the bedrock for Jason Killinger (Birds of Maya) and Paul Sukenna’s (Steve Gunn Band / Chris Forsyth’s Solar Motel) ear-splitting power chord chug as boognish inspired vocals wax ho-hum “I’m late for work man … nevermind” riddles. The emerging racket is so blasted and savory one wonders where he can get his hands on the electric hoagies they have been gobbling. As the album’s enclosed doctrine attests – blast it soon or remain condemned to a million years probation. words / d norsen

Spacin’ :: Over Uneasy


“Most of my albums are a simple collection of songs that have nothing to do with each other except that they were written around the same time and, perhaps, have some recurring themes,” songwriter Cass McCombs told Relix in 2013. His new collection, A Folk Set Apart: Rarities, B-Sides & Space Junk, ETC., is the result of taking away the shared time frame, a collection of songs written between 2003 and 2014, with little regard for genre — the comp encompasses Velvets-style drones, experimental cowboy poetry, mellow folk pop, and protest ballads – and disparate themes. If McCombs’ albums are normally scattered, A Folk Set Apart is even more so. “All my records are kind of like collections, but this one being the most obvious,” McCombs tells Aquarium Drunkard via the phone. But like his best work, it hangs together in a curiously coherent way, tied together not formally, but emotionally.

Cass McCombs :: Evangeline

“I don’t know if it has flow, but it’s a weird journey and you can see the mutation of the music, of my voice even, and the people I play with…it’s definitely not commercial music,” McCombs says.
Over the last 15 years he’s worked with a number of collaborators, including guitarist Chris Cohen, drummer Joe Russo of Furthur, Mike Gordon of Phish, Tim Dewit of Gang Gang Dance, all of whom shade and color his songs and appear on the new collection. “I love playing with people who know their craft, who have a voice, something to say,” McCombs says. “You give them full reign to do whatever the fuck they want to do, they embrace that and do something with that.”

The collection is a testament to McCombs’ trust in his colleagues, but also his omnivorous musical tastes. He reels from garage punk on “I Cannot Lie” to gentle roots pop on “Three Men Sitting on a Hollow Log,” from ass shaking riff rock like “An Other” to the “hillbilly bop” of “Catacombs Cow Cow Boogie,” a “mutation of Duane Eddy, Link Wray, the Ventures — that kind of [music was a] transition from hillbilly to rockabilly to surf and something even more randy,” McCombs says. Many of the songs featured were released on split singles with artists like the Meat Puppets, Michael Hurley, and White Magic, sharing McCombs’ love of their music and their singular approaches.

waits christmas card

In December of 1978, Tom Waits recorded an episode of Austin City Limits. The now-mainstay music program was in its relative infancy – only its fourth season – and had built a solid fanbase of Americana music enthusiasts. As the ACL website notes:

“…the show came in through the back door, so to speak. Terry Lickona, who became producer in Season 4, was trying to book singer Leon Redbone. Redbone and Waits shared a manager, who promptly requested that Terry book his other client as well. In order to make sure the Redbone show happened, Terry agreed, even though he was nervous that the roots-oriented audience ACL had already built in its previous three seasons might think that Waits’ avant-garde gutter poetry was too radical for the show.”

The rest is history. Waits put on a stellar performance mixing songs from his then recently released Blue Valentine, some older material, and debuted “On the Nickle” which wouldn’t see a proper release until 1980’s Heartattack and Vine. If you’ve never seen the full televised performance, it’s worth seeking out.

Now, it was December, after all, and having just put out a record with a song called “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” and Waits being a festive guy, he had to know it was a must for the set list. Opening and closing the song with excerpts of “Silent Night,” Waits delivers the song in a way that varies quite a bit from the Blue Valentine version. Gone is the singing delivery of the narrator’s letter – at least for the first part. Waits delivers it in a style familiar to fans: his spoken-word storyteller voice. It adds to the song – which already has a subtle but important sadness in its lyrics – a gravity which makes it just that much more melancholic.

Initially, the Austin City Limits crowd isn’t quite sure how to take it. When Waits kicks off “Silent Night,” the audience laughs rather loudly. It’s hard to blame them. Waits’ raspy delivery, not even yet halfway to the circus-barker-of-the-damned tone he has now, was probably not the most obvious interpreter of Christmas carols. The audience, too, has a smaller chuckle over “Christmas Card…”‘s opening line of “Hey, Charlie, baby, I’m pregnant,” being delivered in that same voice. Though a funny thing happens on the way to the coda. The audience, slowly, gets it. Sure, they laugh at the narrator’s comment about her lover’s hair grease and even chuckle softly at Waits’ interpolation of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Going Out of My Head,” but all of a sudden, something shifts.

When Waits’ narrator loses her record player and softly pines that she “almost went crazy,” Waits, perhaps sensing he needs to bring the audience fully into the song’s grey world, shifts back to his singing voice. And it works. Yes, they laugh about the narrator’s dream of buying a used car lot, but there’s something awfully sad (and telling of their situation and station) about someone’s dream being to buy a used car lot and to drive a different car every day “depending on how I feel.” And the audience seems to realize it. When the narrator reveals her deception – and her prison whereabouts – they are silent. And when Waits returns to finish “Silent Night,” they remain quiet to the very end, fully brought into the broken world of the song. If one were to compile proof of Waits as a master performer, you could do a lot worse than placing this at the very top. words / j neas

a charlie brown christmas

Lucy Van Pelt loves the beautiful sound of clinking nickels. She wants real estate for Christmas.

Snoopy challenges passersby to find the true meaning of Christmas by winning “money, money, money” in his “spectacular super colossal neighborhood Christmas lights and display contest.”

For her part, Sally Brown forgoes her lengthy list of gifts, asking Santa instead for cash — tens and twenties. You know, to make things easy. All she wants is what she has coming to her. All she wants is her fair share.

This doesn’t help Charlie Brown’s depression.

Nor do the grandiose material expressions of the holiday season –beginning as soon as our Halloween candy bowl runneth empty – help ours if we think too long about them.

Charlie Brown, wrought with insecurity and doubt, laments the commercialization of the season. More than that, though, his isolation stands out, sadness because he feels so alone amidst it all. “I know nobody likes me,” he says. “Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?”

charlie brown christmasSo begins A Charlie Brown Christmas, the boy’s journey from despondency to hope. And despite the TV special airing in 1965, there is some relevance all these years later. Some of us, like Charlie, feel like our basic understanding of the season – giving, receiving, relative levels of joy – lies in contrast to popular culture’s rendition of it. Some of us, like Lucy, have embraced the latter rather than bemoan it – she prefers pink aluminum trees, and she’s not upset by it. Some of us are Snoopy opportunists. And plenty of us, to be sure, are like Linus, whose purist perspective can’t be fazed by all the noise. The resulting emotional schizophrenia is staggering, if predictable.

There’s loneliness and companionship, joy and despair, truth-seeking and blithe celebration, all during what’s marketed to be the most wonderful time of the year. Your interpretation of the season begets your holiday spirit, whatever version it may be – bah humbug and good tidings. It’s little surprise then that Charlie Brown’s soundtrack, as well as our own, is something just as introspective and shifting. Something like jazz.


Each December, Brian Reese at Big Rock Candy Mountain deals out a month’s worth of holiday esoterica from the far corners of vintage twang, fuzz, scuzz, r&b, blues, country, garage, lounge and beyond. Keeping it loose, he trims his tree with Red Simpson and Mae West, then tops it off with The Sonics, Hank Snow and Champion Jack Dupree. It’s a heady brew. Go ahead, deck them halls.

Download and tracklisting after the jump. . .