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Every Single Star
Rare is the Dori Freeman review that doesn’t mention her producer, Teddy Thompson. And, to be fair, whatever he’s doing or isn’t doing certainly isn’t hurting. But, frankly, the Americana-country that Freeman purveys is so pure, simple, infectious, and direct that the only way a producer could do her wrong is to get in the way. And no producer worth his salt would even dream of getting in the way of “I’ll Be Coming Home” and “Like I Do,” the motherhood songs of the year, hands down.
Not counting the two a cappella Jack Black tracks (one a Passover ditty) that bookend this semi-reverent tribute to the Maccabean miracle, no two cuts sound alike. Bluegrass and jazz spell the synth-pop and the dream pop, and that WASP’s WASP Loudon Wainwright III (of all people) discerns in the eight nights of oil a prefiguring of the multiplication of the loaves. Each cut sounds good, with the exception of Haim’s performance of Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will.” It sounds great.
Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors
The smoothest and brightest hook among these heartland folk-rock delights belongs to “Make It Look So Easy,” a husband-to-wife love song of impeccable emotional well-roundedness. The deepest wisdom belongs to “You Want What You Can’t Have” and “Maybe,” Beatitudes-echoing explorations of the importance of not always (and maybe not ever) allowing one’s reach to exceed one’s grasp. Most of the others toe the thin line between lighthearted and lightweight. Time-saving tip for vinyl purchasers: The weighty stuff is on Side 2.
Load the music of this Illinois combo into a time capsule not to be opened until everyone who could possibly know better has died, and it could easily pass not only for an authentic ’60s sample of what has come to be known as “baroque pop” but also for an example of why revivalists—which is one thing that these psychedelic Furs are—kept such music alive. They have the verbal idioms down too. And when they deign to romp and stomp, their pop gives way to rock.
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These songs, mostly South American folk favorites played for all their sprightly worth by a band that at this point probably couldn’t play them any other way, emphasize the season’s less-religious aspects—festivity for festivity’s sake, one might say. Spanish speakers, however, will recognize an exception in the opening track, “La Rama,” which bases its festivity on Christ’s birth and His virgin mother’s beauty. In other highlights, the band has a go at doing for Freddy Fender and José Feliciano what it once did for Ritchie Valens.
Music for the Christmas Season
For the first 16 tracks, carol follows hard upon carol. Yet as performed by Fletcher, a classical guitarist of strikingly economical virtuosity, there’s no sense of haste or waste. In the dozen that follow, the familiar—Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” Pachelbel’s Canon in D, excerpts from Praetorius’ Terpsichore, Joseph Brackett’s “Simple Gifts”—alternates with the less familiar, concluding, and climaxing, with Andrew York’s “Jubilation” (aka “Sunburst”). The simplest but most appreciated gift of all: Fletcher’s opting for Kirkpatrick’s “Away in a Manger” over Mueller’s.
Immanuel: The Folk Sessions
You can look at this unplugged, EP-sized condensation of Penn’s full-length, plugged-in 2017 Christmas project in three ways: as a trailer for the latter, as a bonus disc completing the latter’s so-far-nonexistent deluxe edition, or as an uncommonly pellucid, stand-alone work of Scripturally based Christmas folk-pop. Two selections appear for the first time—“I’ve Seen the Glory” (sung from the point of view of Simeon) and Penn’s rearrangement of “The First Noel.” Neither feels like filler (unless stocking filler counts).
We Wish You a Merry Christmas
Three-hit ’60s wonders in the U.S. (“Georgy Girl,” anyone?) but a veritable ’60s hit machine Down Under and in the U.K., the Seekers originally released this refreshingly unpretentious collection of carols and Santa songs in 2001 under the title Morningtown Ride to Christmas. This Decca Records reissue adds “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (thus justifying the new title) and a much more attractive cover. The overall effect is not unlike being serenaded by a band of carolers straight out of Currier and Ives.
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Kanye West’s film Jesus Is King, which documents one of West’s gospel-extravaganza “Sunday Services,” garnered more than $1 million during its weeklong run in IMAX theaters.
The good news for those unable to score a ticket is that there’s another musical Sunday Services project worth investigating.
Music from Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service (Ace) is an eclectic compilation of 23 tracks featured by the erstwhile Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker on the Sunday-afternoon BBC Radio 6 Music show that he hosted from 2010 to 2017. And although the album is greater than the sum of its parts, the taxonomy of those parts reveals the workings of a most interesting, and refreshingly open, mind.
There are offbeat covers (the Katzenjammers reimagining Gary Numan’s “Cars” as a lo-fi steel-drums exercise, the King’s Singers reimagining Prelude’s version of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush”) and not-so-offbeat covers (Nina Simone’s reimagining Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” as reggae, Headless Heroes reimagining Daniel Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End” as an end-credits theme for an imaginary art-house chick flick, the Camarata Contemporary Chamber Group playing Satie’s “Gymnopédia No. 3” straight).
There are quizzical spoken bits (Cocker and David Cunningham’s 32-question survey “The Interrogative Mood,” Jake Thackray’s disquisition on sheep-counting arcana in “Old Molly Metcalf”), not-so-quizzical spoken bits (the atheist Christopher Hitchens sharing his “Thoughts on Religion”—and music and love—as the Phoenix Foundation plays the progressive-folky “Corale”), and laugh-out-loud comedy (Miranda July shouting postmodern romantic clichés throughout all 61 seconds of “Rock Intro” as a horde quite possibly sampled from Kiss’ Alive II roars approval).
There are even surprisingly deep cuts from relatively shallow artists (Art Garfunkel’s “Waters of March,” Bob Welch’s “Don’t Wait Too Long”). Together, they almost make up for the inclusion of “Crazy in Love” by the insufferable Antony & the Johnsons.
Of course, no album with “Sunday Service” in its title would feel complete without gospel songs. And in “Won’t That Be a Happy Time” by Joseph and Louise Spence and “Peter and John” by Andrew Wartts & the Gospel Storytellers, Cocker has found an ideal way (whether as a religiously unaffiliated “None” he meant to or not) to remind listeners of the holiness of the Sabbath.
He excavated “Peter and John” from Side 2 of Andrew Wartts & the Gospel Storytellers’ 1982 underground gospel classic, There Is a God Somewhere (vinyl copies of which, incidentally, are currently fetching $200-$400 among collectors). Compared with the sleuthing required to locate that nugget, finding “Won’t That Be a Happy Time” on Nonesuch’s seminal 1966 Joseph Spence showcase, The Real Bahamas: In Music and Song (aka The Real Bahamas Vol. 1), must’ve been a breeze.
The Spences’ song, on which Louise sings lead while Joseph contributes Bahamian Blind Willie Johnson backup vocals and joyful acoustic fingerpicking, celebrates heaven. The Wartts track, which unfolds amid experimentally moody funk, transforms the details of Acts 3 into a powerful sermonette.
Between the two, a voice (Cocker’s?) says, “Think about it.” Kanye West—and anyone else for whom Jesus is King—will gladly comply.