Holiday Coverfolk, 2009: New Christmas Covers
from Joel Rakes, Sam Phillips, Tori Amos, A Fine Frenzy, and more!

It hasn’t snowed since early October. Over at Star Maker Machine, we’re still talking about leftovers. Heck, we didn’t even manage to get the last of the autumnal leaves off the lawn until Sunday.

It’s cold, to be sure. But it certainly doesn’t feel like Christmas, yet.

Which is fine, as I usually try to avoid the whole Christmas kicking in early thing. But as the sitetracker shows, visitors and google searchers have been coming in for weeks with increasing frequency, looking for songs for their holiday mixtapes. And I suppose there is something to be said for being prepared for the inevitable onslaught of commercial radio and in-store soundtracks. If nothing else, we owe it to you, our loyal readers, to provide the delicate and real as an antidote to the same-old same-old, the hoary, overplayed chestnuts of yesteryear.

In the coming weeks, as always, we’ll be offering up more of the gentler stuff, framed by artist, songwriter, source, and sentiment, as is our wont. Today, we kick off the season with a look at a few choice tracks released in recent weeks, for your consideration as new additions to the holiday canon.

Last year’s free holiday tunes from honest, versatile Philly-based singer-songwriter Joel Rakes were among my favorite new recordings of the season; as I noted at the time, Rakes’ earnest carols are performed with a loving ear towards the new indiefolk crowd’s preference for both bedroom production and subtly computer-assisted, guitar-and-banjo based sound, and as a collection, they make for a nice, mellow, diverse set.

This year, in addition to hosting ten of his previous holiday selections absolutely free, Rakes will once again release a new song each Monday in December as Christmas approaches. The annual project kicks off today with a richly layered, rhythmically nuanced take on O Come O Come Emmanuel that’s ringing and sweet, and complete with more than a hint of pop boyband harmonies, showing once again that the site - and the artist - are well worth tracking throughout the season, and beyond.

I’ve been keeping a close eye on the monthly singles club over at lo-fi label Where It’s At Is Where You Are ever since we featured their Springsteen tribute back in March, and this month’s free EP is a nice mixed bag quartet of tunes for the holiday - two originals, and two covers. The label’s output goes far beyond the boundaries of folk, of course, but the grungy acoustic approach brit folkrock duo Oh, Atoms brings to Wham! classic Last Christmas is raw, rushed, and heartwarming, with just the right balance of banjo and fiddle in the mix, proving once again that even the most overcovered song can be rejuvenated in the right hands.

Whimsical alt-slash-indie singer-songwriter Alison Sudol - “known professionally”, as Wikipedia puts it, as A Fine Frenzy - isn’t generally considered part of the folk set, but her two-week-old EP Oh Blue Christmas has a nice touch of twangy, upbeat alt-Americana to it, most notably for judicious use of pedal steel and mandolin. As a bonus, her recent acoustic video remake of Blue Christmas, despite echoey poolside audio and an electronic metronome beat, is a fun visualization of the holiday classic.

Cold Dark Night, the second release in Sam Phillips‘ year-long Long Play subscription project came out last week, and as we might have expected from one of our favorite earthy, alto-voiced popfolk songstresses, it’s a seasonal slam dunk, containing two holiday originals, and four traditional holiday songs otherwise unavailable at any price. I’m especially taken by Sam’s new, gorgeous take on It Came Upon A Midnight Clear, which she first recorded as the title track for the 1992 movie starring Gary Sinise; dark and delicately atmospheric, it’s the perfect soundtrack to any cold, silent night.

Participation in the Long Play project runs 52 bucks for a proposed total of five EPs and a single full-length, all available via lossless download in a variety of formats but nary a hard copy; the price seems dear at first, but as the project materials include a rich panoply of videos, essays, behind-the-scenes footage, demos, and more, it’s well worth the investment. Kudos to Sam for taking advantage of the digital world’s tendency towards true fandom in such a creative way, and to fellow fan and subscriber Jonathan Rundman, whose Styx cover we featured earlier this year, for reminding me about the project.

While this year’s crop of Christmas EPs is rich indeed, it’s practically an inevitability for popular artists to at least consider releasing a full-length holiday album at some point in their career; in the past two years, seasonal releases from delicate indie folkster Rosie Thomas, bluegrass banjo bandleader Allison Brown, popfolk keyboardist Aimee Mann, and indiefolk duo Over the Rhine have tickled our fancy, and all had staying power. This year is no exception, and while many of this year’s releases are predictably pop pap (see, for example, Sting, that guy from American Idol, and Neil Diamond), a select few have turned out to be quite nice, indeed.

I’m having trouble seeing the new Dylan Christmas album as anything but a cultural curiosity - and truly, if you want to hear it, you can just surf the web - but there are some gentle gems on Midwinter Graces, a Solstice-themed album from Tori Amos which, like Over The Rhine’s 2007 incredible Snow Angels, mixes recrafted traditional holiday fare with atmospheric, occasionally new-agey originals. And though it is predominantly a country album, there’s some eminently worthy countryfolk both soft and loud on Sugarland’s new holiday CD Gold and Green, most especially their version of the hilarious old holiday novelty tune Nuttin for Christmas, which might make the mixtape, after all.

Finally, while we’re on the subject of novelty: I found Lois Casino’s cover of 1994 Mariah Carey pop holiday cheese-ball, which transforms the bombastic, faux-sixties original into a fireside bedroom indiepop, over at Letters Have No Arms, and though it seems to be a year old, I couldn’t resist passing it along. If the accents sound a bit unusual to those acclimatized to phonetic indie swedish transliteration, it’s because Casino is Spanish; if the sweetly lo-fi delivery and handclaps don’t make you smile, you might want to check your pulse.

Cover Lay Down publishes new coverfolk features and songsets each Sunday, Wednesday, and the occasional otherday. Still to come before the new year dawns: reissued holiday fare and other great covers from one of our favorite UK singer-songwriters, a few new additions to our Covered in Kidfolk series, and more great holiday coverfolk from yesteryear.

Category: Holiday Coverfolk

4 Responses to “Holiday Coverfolk, 2009: New Christmas Covers
from Joel Rakes, Sam Phillips, Tori Amos, A Fine Frenzy, and more!

  1. Susan

    Thanks for these! - I had already ordered Tori’s and Bob’s (hardtotakethisoneseriously) CDs… but news of the Sam Phillips’ was a treat and I went to to buy the title cut…

  2. Biscuitman

    Thanks for the heads up on Joel Rakes. Immensely impressed - these will go on the Xmas rotation straight away.

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