All I want for Christmas this year is an original edition WPA Federal Writers' Project Kansas state guidebook. And about a gazillion copies of Snow Angels -- A Hear Music Holiday Collection (Compass).
Why so greedy? Since I know I'll have a hard time finding something this pure and good in any mass market CD joint, I have to grab 'em all up before they go out of print or -- if the fates are smiling this time -- sell out.
Aside from appearances by Continental Divide alumnus Joan Osborne (delivering a throaty, explosive take on the old gospel standard, "Children Go Where I Send Thee") and folk dilettante Pierce Pettis, Snow Angels is one of those rare holiday records which foregoes the star-studded lineup and puts the music at the forefront of the proceedings.
The mostly acoustic cast of neo-folk-rockers (Dave's True Story, James McCandless, Louise Taylor, etc.) breathes new life into well-worn standards, wringing completely new melodies out of the nooks and crannies betwixt and between Rudolph's clogged nasal cavities, among other things.
You'll recognize a few more names on the bill, but the music's just as improvisational and ear-opening on Tinsel Tunes (Sugar Hill), a hodgepodge of newgrass, western swing and singer/songwriter stuff that all plays off the -- you guessed it -- warm and fuzzy winter holiday theme.
The contents range from Mollie O'Brien's starkly beautiful "In the Bleak Midwinter" to Chesapeake's jazzy "Christmas Swing." Robert Earl Keen's scabrously off-center "Merry Christmas From the Family" earns top billing for slipping a can of bean dip, a box of tampons and a pack of Marlboro lights into the grain-spiked melodic eggnog.
The holiday pickings are mighty slim after you get past these two gems. Atlanta's League of Decency turn in loose, after-hours blues/jazz arrangements of Christmas chestnuts on A Swingin' Christmas (Intersound). It's got a smooth Mel Torme sheen to it, with just enough rasp and bite to lift it out of the lounge act realm and into the more promising honey-get-the-candles arena.
Tiny Tim's always elicited more of a grab-the-extinguisher-quick kinda response from me. But if it's high drama, camp and jangling ukeleles that you're seeking, then Tiny Tim's Christmas Album (Rounder) may be just the thing to keep you from turning a hose on your stereo. Sounding like a deranged blend of Ethel Merman, Tom Jones, Al Jolson and a horny she-goat, Mr. Tim tiptoes and warbles his way through a surprisingly sincere medley of religious standards and an equally, creepily sincere "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus."
The CD's crowning achievement is the churning "Mission Bell," a mixture of Brill building '60s pop, jerky funk/rock and Meatloaf-esque harmonies. It's the '90s anthem for any of you who still get goose bumps listening to Bryan Ferry murder "Sympathy for the Devil" and "It's My Party."
If you're nodding your head in stunned agreement, then you might also want to spend an hour awash in the synthesized waves of marimbas and underwater sound effects that gurgle throughout Arthur Lyman's re-released With a Christmas Vibe (Ryko-disc). This mostly instrumental set of Esquivel-like Hawaiianized Christmas music will play primarily to the Combustible Edison crowd.
Other than a cheesy stab at the Bingster's "Mele Kalikimaka," this is one to lei off of unless you're seriously committed to a life of extra-dry martinis, ascots and espadrilles.
Enough already! For a sobering reminder that Christmas is but a blip on a dim radar screen for the majority of Americans, turn to Angola Prisoners' Blues (Arhoolie). This reissued collection of field recordings made by folklorist Harry Oster in 1959 at the Louisiana state penitentiary provides a disturbing, yet uplifiting glimpse of the ways in which a varied cast of black prisoners expressed their anger, bitterness and hope via an equally diverse array of musical genres.
The dark, stinging slide guitar and ominous baritone of blues "discovery" Robert Pete Williams sets the tough, resigned tone for the 20-song set. But Butterbeans' drawling country rap, "Hello Sue" and an unidentified a capella group's melancholy doo-wop, "I Miss You So," showcase a wry sense of humor and a melodic sentimentality that has been often overlooked in the field recordings of more myopic, blues-obsessed folklorists.
No one will ever accuse Dry Branch Fire Squad frontman Ron Thomason of myopia. His detractors might find him guilty of a certain degree of loquaciousness (my Grandma in Toledo calls it "diarrhea of the mouth"), but that's all water under the bridge when you consider this one-time Ohio schoolteacher, horse trainer and Ralph Stanley protégé's immense range of storytelling and musical talents.
After nearly 15 years on the bluegrass and folk circuit touring behind his ever-changing band's satisfying but poorly selling studio efforts, Thomason finally brings the pulpit to the people with Live! At Last (Rounder), a rambling set of cornpone, hambone and electrifying bluegrass/old-time sounds.
Without missing a beat, Thomason mischeviously disses the Ivy league, banjo players, Victorian mores and Bob Dylan, weaving these goofily drawled monologues in and out of hard-driving instrumentals and hard-hitting commentaries on industrial decay ("Aragon Mill") and rural poverty ("Hard Times"). Think of it as William Jennings Bryan doing vaudeville -- during a break in the Scopes trial -- and you'll get the idea.
If you want some period '20s background music to complete the picture, immerse yourself in the 46 cuts that make up the two-volume When I Was a Cowboy (Yazoo). This cleanly remastered set of early western music serves as a tuneful reminder that Hollywood sported a potent silent-era singing cowboy posse in Ken Maynard, Jules Allen and Carl Sprague a decade before Autry and the talkies gang moved in for the kill.
One gets the sense that the late country songwriter Jim Ringer spent a lot of nights out on the lone prairie gazing at the stars and warming his hands by a lonesome, flickering fire. The Band of Jesse James -- The Best of Jim Ringer (Philo/Rounder) showcases a majestic songwriter with a weathered, Waylonesque vocal style.
Like Jennings, Ringer put a distinctly profound stamp on every song, cover or original, out-Leftying Lefty on "Saginaw, Michigan" and transforming Roy Acuff's "Streamlined Cannonball" into a stirring, wistful ode to the past. Ringer's own songs are populated with a cast of wayfaring strangers, good-hearted lovers and world-weary survivors -- all trying to make some deeper connection in their own quietly dignified way.
A similar set of sensitively drawn characters stumble and grope hopefully throughout the lyrical terrain of Sourpatch's "All Things Considered," one of the many standout tracks on Out of the Gate Again -- Sixteen More From the Grain Belt (BJAM). This 16-act snapshot of the fertile, yet unassuming, St. Louis area alternative country/rock scene shows that there's a lot more than Wilco, Son Volt and toasted ravioli happening in the Once and Great Future City of the World.
From Three Fried Men's chiming, pedal steel-driven reworking of a Gros Ventfe totem song to the Highway Matrons' ode to a wizened waitress who "pours my coffee and grinds my beans," Out of the Gate Again lures you in and almost makes you want to move to St. Louis. Even if you already did.
Two Angelenos who took the Mississippi River plunge a few years back are the vocal core of One Fell Swoop, multi-instrumental folk/country/rock ensemble whose shuffling Out of the Gate Again contribution, "Fences," is also available on the group's five-song EP, One Fell Swoop (Magoo). Paced by lead vocalist Cheryl Stryker's purring, emotive twang (Iris Dement watch out!), One Fell Swoop is a great bar band with coffeehouse smarts and classic honky tonk chops.
WFMU d.j. and Nashville native Laura Cantrell probably knows more about Kitty Wells and the vintage honky tonk sound than anyone who ever worked for The Nashville Network. Which makes her spritely, tuneful five-song Hello CD of the Month offering such a surprising treat. No aching steel guitar runs or slow shuffle beats here -- just a batch of sardonic, chock-full-o-hook country rockers like "Lee Harvey Was a Friend of Mine" and "Roll Truck Roll" that beg for more, more, more.
If it's just trucks you want, however, you'll be in gear-jammer heaven with the latest Diesel Only project, Rig Rock Deluxe -- A Musical Salute to the American Truck Driver (Upstart/Diesel Only).
Brooklyn jack-of-all-trades and master-of-his-own-sideburn-destiny Jeremy Tepper has hit the jackpot of his coin-op daydreams with this star-laden, hard-rocking set. Rig Rock Deluxe boasts a mighty fine lineup, indeed, featuring everyone who is someone in truckstop rock and alternative country, including Don Walser, Buck Owens, Steve Earle, Junior Brown & Red Simpson, Kelly Willis, The Bottle Rockets, Shaver and Son Volt.
Williamsburg's Coyote studio savant Eric Ambel turns in a cameo appearance with Dan Baird and the Yayhoos on "Highway Junkie," and Tepper and a cast of thousands recall some WKCR country music marathon jam sessions of yesteryear on the goofily sloppy closer, "Six Days on the Road."
It's been a long time since Tepper's World Famous Blue Jays, Jono Manson, Joe Flood, the Blue Chieftains and the rest of the Diesel Only NYC caravan stormed through the Nightingale, the Levee and the Continental Divide in a single weekend.
But rather than get nostalgic for drunken nights past in a town where I no longer live, I'll crank up Son Volt's "Lookin' at the World Through a Windshield" and keep driving until it's time to pull over and make an extended Great Plains pit stop.
Most of the releases reviewed in Rootin' Around can be found at your local roots-friendly record/CD store, in the ever-expanding CD section of our very own Rootin' Bookstore or online at Miles of Music, Roots 'n' Rhythm Mail Order, Rockhouse Music and Village Records.
Contact info for harder-to-find labels is as follows: Compass, 117 30th Ave. South, Nashville, TN 37212; Sugar Hill, Box 55300, Durham, NC 27717-5300; Intersound, Box 1724, Roswell, GA 30077; Arhoolie, 10341 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, CA 94530; Yazoo, PO Box 20124, Columbus Circle Station, New York, NY 10023; Philo/Rounder, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140; BJAM, Box 13245, St. Louis, MO 63157; Magoo, 7536 Forsyth, Ste. 166, St. Louis, MO 63105; Hello, 1-800-HELLO-CD; Diesel Only, 100 N. 6th St., Brooklyn, NY 11211.
- By Kevin RoeKevin Roe