published: 26 /
In his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column Ben Howarth examines Darren Hayman's ten inch vinyl EP, 'Christmas in Haworth', and online musical advent calendar
Ah, Christmas. There are so many noises that can only come from this merry season - the pop of uncorked wine, the bleepety-bleep of breached credit limits, the crunch of broken bauble on unsocked feet and the silence as office party small talk quickly runs dry.
But where is the music? I own hundreds of records and CDs, as no doubt you do too. But how many are appropriate to play while presents are wrapped, potatoes are roasted and Brussels are sprouted?
I would wager that less than 0.01 per cent of the average record collection is suitable Christmas material. Plenty of bands have tried Christmas songs over the years, but too few offer anything you would want to hear more than once.
After a barren 60s, when no Christmas themed songs topped the charts, the 70s constituted a brief golden age. Slade and Wizzard battled it out for the top spot in 1973, before Mud did their best Elvis impression on ‘Lonely This Christmas’ a year later.
By the end of that decade, notions of cool had returned to ruin the chart, and Pink Floyd were inexplicably at Number One in 1979. The 80s saw Christmas songs back in fashion, but the standard had dipped. By the 90s, Christmas novelty had been replaced by songs aimed directly at toddlers (Mr Blobby and Bob The Builder), although East 17 did at least have the decency to sprinkle ‘Stay Another Day’ with sleigh bells in 1994. Only one Christmas song has topped the charts since, and even that was just a remake of Band Aid.
Luckily, it has becoming increasingly common for those of the margins of popular music to step into the gap in the Christmas market. And 2011 might just prove to be a vintage year.
I’ve recently replaced the stylus on a hand-me-down record player, just in time to listen to Darren Hayman’s new 10” vinyl EP 'Christmas In Haworth'. Written and recorded a year ago when Hayman, his wife and his dog spent a White Christmas in the Yorkshire village of the Brontës, it’s a much a record about winter as it is about Christmas.
But it has bells on it, and it sounds warm, fuzzy and festive. It’s not the sound of secret Santas or manic high street shopping trips, but of a quiet family Christmas. It caps what has been a very good year for Hayman (see our Albums of the Year list).
The songs on this EP take his stock of brand new songs released in 2011 past the half-century mark, which obviously wasn’t quite enough, because he is ‘promoting’ the EP with an online advent calendar that promises fifty new Christmas songs.
Already, we’ve been able to help ourselves to Hayman’s own take countrified take on 'Blue Christmas', complete with a David Tattersall guitar solo; the Wave Pictures covering Dean Martin’s 'Christmas Blues'; and (probably the major talking point so far) the first ever recorded song from comedian Josie Long.
But, for me, the real pleasure has come from gift-wrapped new bands. Owl and Mouse sound a little like Allo Darlin’ (a happy kind of sad, on ukulele) while Ralegh Long’s piano ballad has a hint of late period Prefab Sprout.
There doesn’t seem to be any kind of agenda in the selection of who gets to be part of this Advent calendar. They are just bands that either Hayman or his partners-in-crime at Fika Records know and like. It’s a bit like being let into someone’s Christmas party, one with lots of guitars, ukuleles and sleigh bells.
Meanwhil, one of the songs from Hayman’s 'Christmas In Haworth' EP reappears on the 'For Folk’s Sake Christmas' compilation, which raises money for a cancer charity.
This is the second year they have done this, and while none of this year’s songs quite matches Sam Airey’s beautiful version of 'In the Bleak Midwinter' from last year, many come close.
Much of the music here is sad, or at least nostalgic. That often seems to be the key to the best Christmas music – drop the false jollity, and focus on the sadness. Some of my old favourites crop up (Kathryn Williams, the Leisure Society and Devon Sproule) alongside new names who need deeper investigation (Paper Aeroplanes and Fiona Bevan).
If a rolling loop of 'Merry Xmas Everybody' and 'Driving Home for Christmas' has finally got too much, these are the songs to turn to.
Find Darren Hayman’s EP and Advent Calendar here: http://www.fikarecordings.com/christmasinhaworth/
And 'For Folk’s Sake It’s Christmas 2011' here: http://forfolkssake.bandcamp.com/