Social Distancing Spins: Christmas edition

By Joel Francis

It’s been a while since we’ve had any social distancing spins, but hopefully everyone is still social distancing and staying safe. I’d say Happy Holidays, but these are all Christmas albums, so Merry Christmas and thanks for reading.

Various artists – Motown Christmas (2014)
Various artists – A Motown Christmas (1973)

I didn’t spend a lot of time with Motown Christmas before tucking it into my pile of purchases. Seeing Smokey Robinson and the Temptation among the featured artists was all I needed. You can imagine my surprise when I played this album months later (I bought it out of season) and discovered this was a collection of contemporary Motown artists. I didn’t bother me too much, because it didn’t cost much and what’s here is great.

Smokey Robinson opens the album with a song that has that classic Miracles sound augmented by a drum loop that is way too prominent in the mix. Gregory Porter and Anita Wilson take us to church with a soaring gospel mash-up of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Other high points include India.Arie and Gene Moore’s duet on “Mary Did you Know” and Tye Tribbett, who turns “The Little Drummer Boy” into a serious dancefloor jam.

A Motown Christmas is the album I thought I was buying the first time. Oh, what a difference that little article – the letter a – makes. A Motown Christmas rounds up the best moments from several of the label’s biggest Christmas albums. Let’s face it, no one needs to own all these albums, but sprinkling the high points across two records is a pretty tasty collection.

A Motown Christmas serves up four songs each from Stevie Wonder (including “Someday at Christmas” and “Ave Maria”), the Temptations and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Diana Ross and the Supremes get five cuts and the Jackson 5 have six songs, plus a Michael Jackson solo performance of “Little Christmas Tree.”

Either yuletide Motown set will keep spirits high. If you play them back-to-back the label’s impact becomes even more apparent.

J.D. McPherson – Socks (2018)

Oklahoma singer/songwriter J.D. McPherson mines the same early rock and roll territory that has served Brian Setzer so well on his holiday records.

While Setzer borrows from the high-octane crowd of Gene Vincent, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, McPherson draws from a more diverse pool. “Hey Skinny Santa” sounds like a Louis Jordan jump song and “Twinkle (Little Christmas Lights)” has a New Orleans shuffle and a piano solo that sounds like it was lifted from Huey “Piano” Smith. McPherson veers closer to Setzer’s territory on “Bad Kid,” which features a guitar solo that splits the difference between Duane Eddy and Dick Dale, and “Santa’s Got a Mean Machine” which sounds like it was cut in Sun Studio.

McPherson also scores points for writing 11 original holiday songs for this album. Not only is McPherson a solid songwriter, but this means you don’t have to slog through the same overworked standards that are always on repeat at the mall.

Various artists – Psych-out Christmas (compilation)

If you learn one thing about me through all these Social Distancing Spins blog entries, you should know I will absolutely buy any album if the cover art and sleeve are intriguing and the price is right (read: cheap).

Cleopatra’s 2013 compilation Psyche-out Christmas is one such purchase and I am all the better for it. The album opens with a dumb skit featuring Halloween monsters throwing a Christmas party that sounds like something Dr. Demento might reject for being too corny, but don’t let that put you off. The Elephants rip through the Beatles’ “Christmas Time is Here Again” and Psychic Ills live up to their name with a hung-over reading of “Run Rudolph Run.”

Miss Quintron and the Pussycats are the only band to get two tracks. Their performances of “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bell Rock” are fun. For some reason a group called the Sons of Hippies cover the Zombies’ “Time of the Season.” The biggest name is Iggy Pop who delivers a straightforward version of “White Christmas” that’s called the “Guitar Stooge Version” for some reason. I guess that means James Williamson or Ron Asheton play on the track, but the guitar follows the vocal melody and is pretty low in the mix. Hands-down, the best song is Sleepy Sun’s version of “What Child of This,” which features a galloping rhythm section complemented with shoegaze guitars.

Psyche-out Christmas is one of those collections that is greater than the sum of its part. Aside from Sleepy Sun there aren’t really any songs that scream to be included on a playlist (or mixtape) on their own merits. But the 17 songs here hang together for a very enjoyable listen that is guaranteed to draw at least a couple puzzled looks when unsuspecting listeners have to confirm if they are really hearing what they think they are hearing.

Various artists – Death May Be Your Santa Claus (compilation)

If Psyche-out Christmas doesn’t drive the squares out of your holiday party, Death May Be Your Santa Claus should do the trick. This 2013 Record Store Day – Black Friday exclusive gathers sermons, blues, jazz and gospel tracks issued in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.

Clips of Reverend J.M. Gates sermons from the 1920s appear every couple songs and provide not only the title track but ask the question Will hell be your Santa Claus? Um, maybe? A little bit of Gates goes a long way and I could have done with half as much. The rest of the songs from Sonny Boy Williamson (the first one), Bessie Smith, Tampa Red and very early Duke Ellington are will appeal to fans of early blues and jazz. Aside from the Heavenly Gospel Singers’ version of “When Was Jesus Born?” not many of the other songs are very well-known.

The award for best song title and group name combo goes to Butterbeans and Susie, who perform “Papa Ain’t No Santa Claus (and Mama Ain’t No Christmas Tree).” The song comes from the pen of Fats Waller’s lyricist Andy Razaf and ragtime pianist Alexander Hill. The Butterbeans and Susie are Joe and Susie Edwards, who sing, and pianist Eddie Heywood.

The Edwards were a married comedy team that performed from the 1920s until the 1960s, which is pretty impressive when you consider how much comedy changed during that time. They started in the vaudeville era and managed to keep it going through the advent of radio, talking movies and finally television. Joe Edwards was known as Butterbeans, which is how the duo got their name. You can learn all kinds of stuff on the internet.

John Fahey – The New Possibility (1968)

Folk guitarist John Fahey remains fairly unknown nearly two decades after his death, but he inspires a deep devotion from those that discover him. Listening to this album it is easy to hear why.

The performances on The New Possibility sound like they were captured in one take with a live guitar. If there is any overdubbing it is hidden well. The tempos across the 14 standards captured here are fairly steady as well.

I understand that this can read like the recipe for a snooze-fest and in most circumstances I’d agree. But there is something in Fahey’s playing that is both magnetic and intimate. The New Possibility makes me feel like I am sitting inside Fahey’s guitar, feeling the wood vibrate around me while the strings oscillate overhead.

While the arrangements are fairly straightforward, there is something in Fahey’s playing that simultaneously makes me want to pull close and provides a feeling of comfort. Every time I’ve put this album on at a holiday gathering, people will almost immediately stop talking and listen. When I play this album by myself, I usually end up playing it twice because the environment it creates is so soothing and refreshing. Next time the holiday blues or yuletide fatigue start to fade in, send them packing with The New Possibility.

Keep reading:

Classic Christmas Carol: “In the Bleak Midwinter”

Classic Christmas Carol: “Greensleeves”

Review: The Flaming Lips – “Christmas on Mars”


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