Graded on a Curve: Bloodshot Records’
13 Days of Xmas

‘Tis the season for holiday music; some relish it, many appreciate it, others tolerate it, and a few avoid the stuff like a pestilence. Those not in the last category are likely to enjoy at least one song, and maybe more, on Bloodshot Records’ 13 Days of Xmas. Like most multi-artist compilations, the first holiday album from the noted alt-country/ roots label is a mixed bag, but the highs, of which there are a few, make it worth keeping around for future December engagements. It’s out now on translucent green or red vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

First, a story; it must’ve been, oh, 1993 or ’94, and while scoping the Just In bin at a local record shop, I found a copy of Dexter Gordon’s The Panther staring back at me. The price was fair. Flipping it over revealed the date of recording to be 1970 and the personnel to be Larry Ridley on bass, Alan Dawson on drums, Tommy Flanagan on piano, and of course, Dexter on sax. Adequately swayed, I made the purchase, and promptly listened at home without inspecting the credits further.

Things moved along rather swimmingly, but as the end approached, The Panthers’ penultimate track revealed itself to be “The Christmas Song,” the Bob Wells-Mel Tormé-penned tune that’s been interpreted a few hundred times, with the consequence being seasonal near-ubiquity; had Dexter’s rendition snuck up on me in early December, I’m guessing my reaction would’ve been some degree of positive, but in reality it was late July in the middle of a heatwave, and I was, to put it in polite terms, not in the mood.

But in retrospect, Prestige Records tucking a Christmas song into one of Gordon’s steady stream of post-comeback studio albums displayed a degree of chutzpah, as the typical maneuver is to pack a bunch of holiday material onto a single release, either by one artist/ band or a host of them, and then drop it into the marketplace as the festivities are nigh.

Once bought and given a few plays, these albums get shelved and in most cases, remain there until the same time the following year, when they might be lucky enough to get pulled for a spin or two. Or in the case of compilations, a handful of needle drops. Multi-artist Christmas discs have an especially rough time of it; unified by theme, the musical lucidity tends toward the bland or the saccharine. More frequent are collections that are so broad in their contributors that listening to the entirety becomes a chore for everybody in the vicinity.

When the stylistic focus gets tightened, and plainness or oversweetness is avoided, the ratio of success potentially rises. Such is the case with 13 Days of Xmas; while ultimately falling short of classic status, Murder by Death’s “O Holy Night” provides an opener of such stop-you-in-your-tracks beauty that it helps to salve any lesser moments moving forward.

As a person holding no strong (or for that matter, weak) Christian beliefs, it may seem odd that I (generally) prefer the occasion’s religious songs to the secular, but it largely comes down to conviction. Offered straightforwardly and boldly but without straining, “O Holy Night” places the comp’s best moment right up front. Barrence Whitfield and the Savages’ “Papa Barrence’s Christmas” follows, the guitar reverb and sleigh bells contrasting sharply and endearingly sounding as if it all took about an hour or so to conceive and record.

It leads into the sturdy Britishness of Jon Langford and His Men of Gwent’s “Christmas Carol, Christmas Ray.” If Whitfield scales down and energizes the mode of a certain Xmas warhorse by Springsteen, Mekon founder Langford and his crew ease into Pogues territory but without any traces of imitation. From there, Ruby Boots “I Slept Through Christmas” injects Yuletide Spector into a ’60s country pop mode that brought Brenda Lee to mind.

The first snag comes courtesy of Ha Ha Tonka’s “The List,” which simply has too much whistling from what strikes these ears as a mainstream indie neighborhood. If I heard it pumping out of the speakers in a department store while shopping for sweaters on December 23, I’d surely dig it more than an umpteenth hearing of something or other, but baby, that’s faint praise indeed.

The vaguely Bert Jansch-like fingerpicking of James Elkington’s “Christmas is Now Drawing Near at Hand” fares much better, as does the assured twang and fuzz of the Dex Romweber Duo’s instrumental “Dark Christmas.” It segues nicely into the jazzy-lounge-isms of Kelly Hogan’s “Blue Snowfall,” which is solid enough, but could’ve benefited from a more desolate aura, like it’s 2am on Christmas Eve, there’s only a smattering of lonely bodies in the whole joint, and the only way to make it better is to sing a melancholy tune. It’s noticeably heavier than George Morgan’s ’62 version, though.

Devil in a Woodpile’s “The Pagans Had It Right” is anything but a downer. In fact, the combo of banjo, kazoo, washboard, and slap bass inches toward the zany, though overall, it’s closer to the wilder side of neo-Old Time. Going by the title of Zach Schmidt’s “I’m Drunk Again This Christmas,” you might be expecting a return engagement with the depressive, and hey, you’d be right. But as the folky acoustic and honky-tonk pedal steel explore the topic of imbibing to cope with family members, the stealth dark humor of the lyrics undercut the gloom a bit.

All Our Exes Live in Texas’ cover of their fellow Aussie Paul Kelly’s “How to Make Gravy” tackles the family theme from another angle, as elevated vocal harmony narrates a prisoner’s correspondence home. I suspect that the four-member female group’s other recordings fall somewhere outside of my bag, but in terms of this LP, it all goes down okay.

“White Christmas” is one of the few secular holiday songs that seems to demand a modicum of faithfulness to the original. Ron Gallo doesn’t deviate far, delivering it in immediately recognizable form but with a tangible country (and slightly Hawaiian) edge. His take on a secular behemoth bookends well with the religiosity of Murder by Death, though Bloodshot fittingly saves the sturdy alt-country of The Yawpers’ “Christmas in Oblivion” for last. It wraps up a largely likeable package with a vivid, slightly frayed bow, and helps 13 Days of Xmas’ chances in steering clear of the trade-in pile.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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