vrijdag 24 november 2017
The first 2017 Christmas singles: Backstreet Girls, Tarja, Residents and The Legendary Stardust Cowboy
Now that 2016 is out of the way, it is time to turn to the 2017 Christmas 7”'s!
Backstreet Girls: Christmas Boogie / A Merry Jingle (Universal Music Group, 602557441185, Norway, 45 rpm, limited to 500 copies)
This was typical a single where everything was different from what it seemed to be. The band was called the Backstreet Girls, but there was no girl to be found in the line-up. The single was called 'Christmas Boogie' / A Merry Jingle', but 'Christmas Boogie' was actually the song on the B-side of the single – or better, the AA-side, as the single was a double A-sider. A-side 'A Merry Jingle', a medley of 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas' and 'Jingle Bells', that had first been recorded in 1979 by The Greedies, a band featuring Thin Lizzy singer Phil Lynott and members of The Sex Pistols. And AA-side 'Christmas Boogie' was more a dirty sounding rocker than a boogie song. A song that provokes images of men on motorbikes with leather jackets, sunglasses and serious beards, driving on dusty American highways. In Norway, that is.
Backstreet Girls was formed in 1984 in Oslo, Norway, by brothers Pål Kristensen (bass) and Tom Kristensen (vocals). Joined by guitarist Petter Baarli of the band Riff / Raff and, a little while later by his brother and Riff / Raff bandmate Bjørn Terje Baarli, the band started out playing local shows. Backstreet Girls, who probably took their name from the Rolling Stones song with that title, played boogie rock, inspired by bands like AC/DC and Status Quo, but injecting their sound with the energy of the Ramones. After trying out two different second guitarists in 1984 and 1985, they returned to a four member line-up. Backstreet Girls changed singers as fast as most other rock bands change drummers – the Christmas single was recorded with Bjørn Müller, who was already their fourth vocalist. 'Christmas Boogie / A Merry Jingle' was their debut for major Polygram, after they had released their first two albums on independent labels. Backstreet Girls would go on to become one of the most popular Norwegian rock bands, reason why 30 years after it's initial release Universal Music decided to re-release 'Christmas Boogie / A Merry Jingle' for RSD 2017, with the original artwork intact. The band is still active, with guitarist Petter Baarli as only remaining original member, although singer Bjørn Müller, who left the band in 1991, has joined the band again since 1995. The single has aged well, and still sounds powerful and fresh.
Tarja: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel / Ô Viens, Ô Viens, Emmanuel (Ear Music, 0212455EMU, Germany, 45 rpm, limited to 1000 copies)
Tarja: O Tannenbaum / O Christmas Tree (Ear Music, 0212454EMU, Germany, 45 rpm, limited to 1000 copies)
When I start thinking about bands or acts to ask for the Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club, I always make a shortlist. It's funny to see that two acts that were on my shortlist but who I eventually did not approach, actually release Christmas singles this season! And one of them, Finnish vocalist Tarja Turunen, even releases three singles! I did not contact her, as I felt she was 'too big' for a small indie label and also because she is signed by a quite big German label. Tarja, as she is simply known, came into the spotlight as singer of the very succesful Finnish symphonic metal band Nightwish. She started her solo career in 2006, after she left Nightwish at the end of 2005. She had already recorded a solo single in 2004, a Christmas single, titled 'Yhden Enkelin Unelma' ('One Angel's Dream'), with two songs, 'Kun Joulu On' ('When It's Christmas') and 'En Etsi Valtaa, Loistoa' ('I Don't Search For Power And Glory'), that sounded like classical Christmas hymns. It was a big hit in Finland, went Gold, and charted again when re-released in 2005. At the end of 2006, Tarja released her first solo album, 'Henkäys Ikuisuudesta', a Christmas album that was more pop orientated than her 2004 Christmas single, alhough it also had some more classical sounding songs. The album mostly had covers of well known Christmas song, some with Finnish lyrics, some with English lyrics (like Abba's 'Happy New Year', that was chosen as single of the album, and was partly sung in English and partly in Spanish). It also included two originals. It was a kickstart of her solo career, as the album went to number 2 in the Finnish album charts and sold more than 50.000 copies. Tarja's next album, 'My Winter Storm' continued the winter theme. The album had a variation of styles, and was another chart success, a number 1 in Finland, but also in countries like Russia, the Czech Republic and Austria it sold very well. Tarja's next album was the first that was not Christmas- or winter-related, but she returned to Christmas music in 2009, when she contributed three songs to the charity Christmas album 'Maailman Kauneimmat Joululaulut' ('The World's Most Beautiful Christmas Songs'). These three songs were also released on a CD-single, in Argentina, where Tarja was living at the time. After several year's without any Christmas related releases, Tarja released her first full-on classical album in 2015, a record that had twelve different variations of 'Ave Maria'. And now, in 2017, Tarja released her second Christmas album – a total different album than her first from 2006.
The album, that was officially released November 17 on her German label Ear Music (part of the Edel Music Group), is called 'From Spirits And Ghosts', and is subtitled 'Score For A Dark Christmas'. In a way, it is a return to her Nightwish years, as it mixes classical music with gothic influences. What is missing from the mix is the metal part. The loud guitars are replaced by big orchestral arrangements, done by Jim Dooley. Dooley is also responsible for the music of the Pushing Daisies television series, and has done orchestral arrangements for several previous albums of Tarja. Dooley knows perfectly how to come up with the right arrangements for Tarja's voice.
Some of the songs on 'From Spirits And Ghosts' are traditional Christmas carols/hymns, like 'We Three Kings' and 'Pie Jesu', but the album has also more secular Christmas songs like 'Have Yourself A Merry Christmas', album closer 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas' and even 'Feliz Navidad'. The album also includes one original song, 'Together'. 'From Spirits And Ghosts' comes in a gothic-styled cover, with Tarja all dressed in black, looking quite scary, with a dark background with some burning candles – black candles, of course. According to Tarja, the album is meant to explore “the other side of Christmas. The Christmas of the lonely people and the missing ones. The Christmas for those that do not find joy in the blinking lights and the jingle bells”. Long, long ago, an album was accompanied by a single, to promote the album, and that was it. But not in 2017. This album can be ordered in several different package deals, including a t-shirt, posters, a signed Christmas card and even a graphic novel and a photo book. That's all nice, but unimporant compared to the decision of Ear Music to also release three 7” singles! At least, for a Christmas 45 addict like me. Each single has one song of the album, in two different version – the version on the album and an alternative version. Tarja looks quite different on the singles than on the album: dressed in white, with white hair, a bit like a ice queen. Which is a song by another legendary gothic metal band, by the way, Within Temptation, but now we are going off-topic here...
The first single of the three singles was already released on October 6, and had two versions of 'O Come, O Come, Emmanuel'. The album opener and first single is perfectly representative of the album. It is definitely dark, but also has a outworldly beauty, a result of the combination of Tarja's flawless vocal delivery and mostly subtle orchestral arrangements. It's perfect fitted for a dark and cold Christmas night and one of the strongest versions I know of this song – one of the Christmas hymns that never was one of my favorites, but Tarja's version changed that. By the way, it is funny to know that this album was not recorded in the middle of a cold Finnish winter, but in the middle of the Caribbean Summer. To quote Tarja: “Producing a dark Christmas album in the middle of the summer is a very interesting process, especially if you are doing it by the turquoise Caribbean Sea. Significantly different from the snowy Christmas that I am used to in my home country Finland. Another proof that the darkness comes from deep within.” On the B-side of the single, Tarja proofs she knows her languages, and does a French version of the song: 'Ô Viens, Ô Viens, Emmanuel'. The video sees Tarja, ice queen-style, singing the song in a wintery landscape.
The second single of the album was released three weeks later, on October 27. A cover of 'O Tannenbaum'? One of those Christmas songs I never could take seriously, and that I never heard a version of that really made me think: wow, what a great song this is! Okay, the version They Might Be Giants recorded for their 1993 Christmas single was funny, but it did not make me change my opinion about this Christmas song. But that all has changed now. When you cover a song, you can just try to sound as the original. But that is rather useless, because it does not add anything to the song, and you will never be able to top the original in the first place. You can also try to cover a song in your own style – like if you are a punk band, play a song that is not a punk song as a punk song. That is already has a little bit more useful, but it's still not really original. And probably another punk band has already done it before. You can also try to re-interpret the song, play with a different arrangement, do a few subtile changes in the lyrics, and in that way, you still stay true the original, but you also make the song your own. Most of the best cover songs are done in that way. But you can also take it one step further, and re-invent the song. Actually make the song better. And that is exactly what Tarja and arranger Jim Dooley have done with 'O Tannenbaum'. It is definitely the best version I have ever heard of this song, and takes it to a complete new level. Altbought I can imagine it is not for everyone, also because of the almost Wagner-like orchestral break in the middle of the song. On her website, Tarja explains she wanted to do the version in German 'because it brings me beautiful memories from the time I was living and studying in Germany. I heard the song frequently back then.' She describes it as 'an intense and dark war battle that will blow you away'. And, yes, it did. For those of you who rather prefer an English language version of the song, just turn over the 7”, and there you find it. But really, this song needs the German language to make it all complete. After all, that was also the language it was originally written in. Knowing the history of the song, describing it as a dark war battle is even not that far from the truth. The song is based on a 16-th Century Silesian folk song, written by Melchior Frank, 'Ach Tannenbaum'. In 1819, inspired by this folk song, Joachim August Zarnack wrote a tragic love song, that contrasted the 'faithful' fir tree, that always stays green and firm, also in the hard times of winter, with a faithless lover. Five years later, Leipzig organist, teacher and composer Ernst Anschütz rewrote it, and added two new couplets. As in the 19th century the custom of the Christmas tree developed, the song became seen as a Christmas carol, and in the 20th Century, the 'true' of the leaves changed to 'green'. But Tarja's version brings it right back to its dark origins.
In the video, the black and white Tarja's sing the song together.
The third single will be released in December – so we need a little bit of patience, also because it is not made public yet which of the 10 other songs of the album will be featured on this single. But that only makes it more exciting.
You can still order the complete package of the three singles through Tarja's official webshop
The Residents: Santa Dog 17 / Fire (Psychofon, PR016, Germany, 45 rpm)
So, the three Tarja Christmas singles were already a very nice surprise, and soon after I found out about Tarja and her singles, there came another nice surprise: the legendary American avantgarde collective The Residents was going to release a new version of their classic 'Santa Dog' for Christmas 2017. For those who think – 'The Residents? Never heard of', a small history lesson. We go way back in time, to 1972.
On December 20, 1972 packages were send out to about 300 adresses all over the United States. All these packages contained the same item, a 7” record. Or better, two 7” records, in one gatefold sleeve. Many packages arrived at the doorsteps of people from the art and music scenes. Frank Zappa was send a package. And even president Richard Nixon was send a package (He returned it unopened). The sender of these package was Residents, Uninc. After opening the package, the receiver found a silk-screened gatefold sleeve that resembled a (rather large) Christmas card of an insurance company. The title on the card, 'Santa Dog', was an anagram of 'Satan God'. On the outside of the card was a dog, dressed up as Santa, with bones all around him, plus a few Christmas decorations. The inside included the message 'Season's Greetings, Residents, Uninc', surrounded by 50s style drawings of accidents causing damage, with below each picture a description of the cause of the damage: fire, explosion, lightning and aircraft damage. The four descriptions returned on the labels of the two 7”'s, each label carrying one of the descriptions, that turned out to be the title of the songs, with below the title, a name of what probably was the band perfoming the song. Respectively Ivory And The Brain Eaters, Delta Nudes, The College Walkers and Arf And Omega. All bands nobody had ever heard of before, with rather weird names. But the weirdest part was yet to come, and that was the music. What to think of the first song, 'Fire', very repetitive with a very unusual sounding voice, that was not really singing, but also not really talking. With lyrics that went 'Santa Dog's a Jesus Fetus / Has no presents / Has no presence / In the future...', and 'A fleeting and a sleeting scene of snowness severed sleeves', which was repeated six times, and was followed by 'Bing, Bing, Bing, Bong, Bong, Bong, Snowness severed sleeves'. It also featured some xylophonic echoes of 'Jingle Bells', so there could be no understanding that this was really meant as a Christmas song. And the rest of the songs (if you could call them that) were even more strange: the melody of Jingle Bells, barking dogs, a cacafony of strange noises and voices, old movie samples, African sounding percussion, it was all there. According to its creators, the single was about 'a weiner dog in a Santa suit'. Absolutely the most avantgarde Christmas single ever made, at least, when it was orignally released in 1972.
The ones responsible for all this was this avantgarde collective / band called The Residents. 'Santa Dog' was the vinyl debut of band, that took their name from a rejection letter they received of Warner Bros. executive Hal Halverstadt, after they had send him a reel-to-reel tape with some of their music. As the band had not included a name with the return address, Halverstadt had simply put 'for the attention of the residents' on the enveloppe. At least, according to the official biography of the Residents. As with everything the band claims, the question is if it really happened that way, or if it is just a made up part that fit in well with the whole concept of the band. Another important element of the concept of the band was that the members kept their identity hidden. It was even not known how many members the Residents had. On photos, the members appeared dressed in top hat and tails, with helmets on their head, helmets that look like a big eye ball. It is believed that the members of the Residents originally hail from Shreveport, Louisa, and in 1966 moved to California, where they started to experiment with different art forms: tape loops, photography. In 1969 they were joined by British guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Phil Lithman (aka Snakefinger) and the German avant-gardist N. Senada, who had a big influence on the band, that started to focus more on making music and sound collages, that they recorded on tapes. In 1971 the Residents did their first live shows and in 1972, they moved to San Francisco and formed their label, Ralph Records. It was around this time the band also put out the Santa Dog single.
Although 'Santa Dog' was far from catchy or commecial, the first piece of the disk, 'Fire', has been covered quite some times. All by the Residents themselves. In 1978, six years after the initial release of the double 7”, the Residents released 'Santa Dog '78', with an updated version of the song 'Fire' on the A-side, and the original version of the song on the B-side. As the style of The Residents had changed substantially over the years, the band felt it would be a good idea to re-record 'Fire' as 'Santa Dog '78', in a version that would be more representative of their current style, and so they did. The record was packed in a card box sleeve, with four weird looking Santa Claus figures on the front cover (representing the four members of the Residents), a message on the back cover, pressed in an edition of 2700 copies and send out the their mailorder customers as a Christmas present. According to the text on the back, the Residents had decided to record the song again as 'a tribute to the innocence of their former days'. Although it would almost seems impossible, the 78 version of 'Fire' sounded even more weird than the 1972 version had, with nasal-sounding vocals, high-pitched backup vocals that were almost harder in the mix than the lead vocals, and all kind of strange sound effects. The '72 version of 'Lightning' on the B-side was mastered at 40 rpm, so when you played the B-side on 45 rmp, it played a little bit faster than the original version had.
The Residents would record several more versions of the song, in 1984, 1988, 1992, 1999 (all these were compiled on a 1999 CD with all available versions of 'Santa Dog' until then), 2000 and 2006, but none of these versions have been released as a 7”. But now, after vinyl made such a glorius come back in the last five years, the band felt it was time to record another version of 'Santa Dog' and to release it in the best way possible. On a 7” vinyl single. The make the circle complete, the single has the original version of the song, 'Fire' from the 1972 double 7”, on the back.
We live in dark times, and that is not only reflected by Tarja's record, but also by the Resident's 2017 version of 'Santa Dog'. The song starts out with spooky sounds, a howling dog, and a slow, industrial sounding rhythm. It reminds me in a way of a song by another avantgarde band, 'Die Liebe' by Laibach. The members of the Residents must be well into their sixties, or maybe even in their early 70s – so it is no surprise that the voice sounds like the voice an old man. Something that is probably done intentionally, as the Residents don't hide that they are not in their 20s anymore. Halfway through the song, after 'Santa' is repeated a few times, the atmosphere changes completely – the speed goes up, the industrial rhythms are replaced by (mechanical sounding) handclaps and it starts to swing. As far as a Residents song can swing, of course. Until a rather explosion is heard, and there is another change of atmosphere: the music now sounds melancholic and a voice tells the continuation of the story of Santa Dog. As always with this band, it is different from anything else you have heard.
You thought that Tarja was overdoing it with all the different package deals? Wait until you see the different options The Residents and their label Psychofon Records present to buy this new version of Santa Dog. A regular black edition, a limited edition in green vinyl (limited to 100 hand-stamped copies and 10 euro more expensive than the already expensive 16,99 euro of the regular edition), a limited edition in red vinyl (again hand-stamped and limited to 100), a collector's edition (that comes in a 10" box, and is limited to 200 copies) and a die hard edition, that is limited to 45 handnumbered copies - what it exactly is, is still a secret, and if you want to know, you must be willing to spend 99,99 euro on the 7". Expensive? Well, not if you compare it to the 2000 euro someone is asking for the 1972 original on Discogs...
Unfortunately, the 2017 version is not yet to be found on the internet, so we leave you with the B-side, 'Fire', the original Santa Dog.
The Legendary Stardust Cowboy: Twas The Night Before Christmas (Flexi Disc, Vollmond Flexis, VF-001, USA, 45 rpm, limited to 500 copies)
A flexi disc is of course not a vinyl disc. Still, I decided to write a few words about The Legendary Stardust Cowboy's flexi, as it is just too nice to not bring to your attention. The Legendary Stardust Cowboy (real name: Norman Carl Odam), who already used that name in 1961, when nobody knew him, is now truely a legend. He came into the public spotlight by the song 'Paralyzed', or well, song... anyway, since then, he build himself a career, and is even seen as one of the originators of the psychobilly style. The red flexi-disc, that is packed in a beautiful looking 7” sized Christmas card has The Legendary Stardust Cowboy's reading of the famous Christmas story 'Twas The Night Before Christmas', that was recorded for KMSU Radio on December 7, 2011. The song has some sounds played in the background by Kat Baumann, but is mostly the Cowboy's voice telling the story. The card comes with a nice Christmas message by Odam. It's limited to 500 copies, quite cheap and can be obtained from Vollmond Flexis. You can even order five copies with a discount, so you can send it as a Christmas card to your friends!
That are all Christmas singles, apart from the three Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club singles (Bis, The Limiñanas with Pascal Comelade and Seafang) that currently have been released.
But there is much more on its way.
Today, it's Black Friday, and as part of Record Store Day Black Friday a total of 4 Christmas 7"'s will be released. Two split singles of Paul McCartney, that both have his 1979 Christmas hit 'Wonderful Christmastime' on the A-side. The first, that comes on green vinyl, as The Decemberists doing 'Jesus Christ' on the B-side. The second has Norah Jones on the B-side, witb a live recording of 'Peace'. Both are released by Capitol Records.
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats will also release a Christmas-themed 7", that has two cover songs: Baby, It's Cold Outside on side A, and 'Santa Baby' on side B. The single is released by legendary soul label Stax.
Fourth and last 7" is by Detroit horrcore duo Twiztid, who 'Ain't Been Right' on the A-side, and team up with Blaze Ya Dead Homie for a 'Sad Christmas Song' on the B-side. Released by Majik Ninja. Run over to your local record store to score these four fine singles!
Talking about Paul McCartney and special releases: what to think of a box set, that for the first time brings together all seven Christmas flexis The Beatles released from 1963 to 1969. But this time pressed on coloured vinyl, with all singles packed in a nice looking picture sleeve, and coming with a 16-page booklet! This perfect Christmas present for every music lover will be released on December 15 on Capitol. Also for sale in yor
Of the regular suspects, that release Christmas singles every year, the Norwegian Nordpolen Musikklubb will release a 4-track mostly instrumental EP this year, titled 'Snowflakes' (I like that title!) by piano player Sven Erik Libæk. Comes in a beautiful cover and is already out. Jump Up Music will release the second volume of Christmas Inna Babylon Vol 2< by The Brooklyn Attractors. Don't know when this will be released, but I expect soon. Don't know yet what Kingfisher Bluez will release, but I am pretty sure there will be at least one new Kingfisher Bluez Christmas single this year!
What else do we have? Well, what about northern London indie trio Girl Ray, another band I considered asking for this year's Snowflakes Christmas Singles Club. But it turned out to be necessarily, as the three girls themselves decided to release a Christmas single, and kept well to the Snowflakes format, with an original on the A-side, '(I Wish I Were Giving You A Gift) This Christmas', and a cover, 'I'll Be Home For Christmas', on the B-side. Put out by one of the coolest UK indie labels, Moshi Moshi Records. Out December 8, but it can already be pre-ordered.
Another English indie band that brings out single that has some connection with Christmas is Martha. It's called 'The Winter Fuel Allowance Ineligibility Blues', but to be honest, apart from the title and the front cover, that has a Santa Claus picture if you look well, there is not really a connection to Christmas. It's the last single on indie label Fortuna Pop!, unfortunately. It's sold out with the band, but still to be found in several online shops.
Something completely else is the Christmas single by UK progrock band Big Big Train, that has 'Merry Christmas' on side A and 'Snowfalls' on side B. The single, put out on vinyl by Plane Groovy, comes in a beautiful gatefold sleeves, and is officially out on December 8. You can pre-order it through Burning Shed.
There is also a Japanese double-A single by Shun Ishiwaka, with one of the two songs, 'Christmas Song', being a, uh, Chrismas song. Although you wouldn't really guess from listening to this jazzy song. Put out by Octave and only to be found in Japan. The single was already released on September 27.
Last, we have a re-release of Emmylou Harris' 1975 Christmas single 'Light Of The Stable', but with a different B-side, her 1980 single 'Little Drummer Boy'. It is supposed to be released on Reprise Records in The Netherlands, but I haven't been able to track it down yet, so I don't know if it is already out.
That's was all as far as 2017 Christmas 7"'s goes for the moment. As soon as I have received some of the above mentioned Christmas 45s have arrived here, I'll come back to write a nice (hopefully) review.