December 12, 2012

All is calm / All is bright :: The Fuel/Friends 2012 Holiday Mix

It finally snowed full-force in Colorado this weekend, enough to divert me off the highway in a flurry of white, and to a roadside La Quinta on Saturday night coming home from the Patty Griffin concert. The temps hovered consistently at a lush 19º Sunday, and is currently at 7º. All is calm and bright because no one wants to move outside their electric blankets, so it’s been a good weekend for me to road-test these songs. I am very pleased to report that this is my favorite December mix I’ve yet made.

When it comes to music I can handle in December, I have a suuuper low threshold for annoying. We talk about this every year, you and me (and anyone who has the bad luck of walking into a retail establishment with me). No chipmunks, no Spanish cantantes with clacky castanets, no cloying duets, and we shall not speak of synthesizers.

I have subjected myself to some of these unpalatable things in my quest to screen out the perfect holiday mix to soundtrack your season, but the good news is that sites like Bandcamp are making is very easy for musicians to release quality originals to their fans for the holidays. This year I had the bonus-really-good idea to ask some musician friends of mine who have been loved by Fuel/Friends over the years if they had anything lying around that they’d like to contribute. A surprising number of them said yes (!!). Ben Kyle of Romantica sent me an original song of his, and Eef Barzelay (of Clem Snide) replied with his pensive version of a Christmas classic. Denison Witmer had lost his copy of “The Gift of Grace” (one of my favorite original Christmas songs in a long time) so I dug it up to put on this mix and sent him a copy.

I’ve been raving to friends all week about the high proportion of just really good SONGS in this year’s mix — holidays, or no. Some of these I might sneak a listen to all year ’round. At the very minimum, I have some new artists in my stable now. This mix also fits on a CD, with gorgeous album art by Ryan Hollingsworth (can we give him a round of applause for donating his design skills for all of my mixes for the last couple/many seasons?) and a photograph taken by my friend Jewel in Portland. Burn copies for all your friends, for the best kind of gift you can give them.

Christmas hugs to all of you, from me. That sweater looks really nice on you.


Christmas Song – Yarn
This song is what would happen if “The Weight” was a holiday carol, and is just so perfectly bittersweet. You know, in a really sentimental good way though. Yarn from Brooklyn released this last year.

Carry Me Home – Hey Rosetta!
This was written in the summer in Australia, but it was after the band had been on tour for a while, and so the sentiments of wanting to be close to family ring true this time of year. This also reminds me of a terrific Graceland outtake or something. I love this band so much x1000. From their new Christmas EP.

Do You Hear What I Hear – Tyler Heath (of The Oh Hellos)
Finding this Christmas EP from Tyler Heath was kind of like hitting the jackpot, since I am extremely fond of the new Oh Hellos record (get it here; they were also on my Fall mix)

Let The Snow Fall – Andrew and the North American Grizzly
This song just walked into my holiday party and won me over with a wink. “These songs are red and green / so let’s sing ‘em.” I swear it wasn’t just the eggnog. From Bandcamp.

Snow – Sleeping at Last
Okay. SO. This Wheaton, Illinois band is just one guy, Ryan O’Neal, and he is two-for-two at totally knocking me for a loop with the unassuming splendor and insight of his songs. I first featured him on my springtime mix (and pulled the mix title itself from one of his lyrics). He spent last year releasing regular EPs all year on a subscription model through his “Yearbook” project, with a whole free album of Christmas music out now. I don’t usually post entire lyrics in the dead-center of a mix, but this is pretty much the best wish any of us can hope for this holiday season. When I burn this mix for friends, I am going to print these lyrics out as a benediction for each one of them.

The branches have traded their leaves for white sleeves
all warm-blooded creatures make ghosts as they breathe
scarves are wrapped tightly like gifts under trees
christmas lights tangle in knots annually

Our families huddled closely, betting warmth against the cold
and our bruises seem to surface like mud beneath the snow
so we sing carols softly, as sweet as we know
and pray that our burdens will lift as we go
like young love still waiting under mistletoe
welcome December, with tireless hope

Let our bells keep on ringing, making angels in the snow
and may the melody disarm us when the cracks begin to show
like the petals in our pockets, may we remember who we are:
unconditionally cared for by those who share our broken hearts

The table is set and all glasses are full
no pieces go missing, may we still a feel a hole
we’ll build new traditions in place of the old
’cause life without revision will silence our souls

Let the bells keep on ringing, making angels in the snow
and may the melody surround us when the cracks begin to show
like the petals in our pockets, may we remember who we are:
unconditionally cared for by those who share our broken hearts

As gentle as feathers the snow piles high
our world gets rewritten, and retraced every time
like fresh paints and clean slates, our future is white
new year’s resolutions will reset tonight.

Come – Oh, Starling
A Christmas original that weaves together a lot of carols you know, and filters them through a warm haze like falling asleep on the backseat of your parents’ car on the way home from church services when you were seven. Oh, Starling is one of Denver’s finest pairings, of Jessica Sonner and Dan Craig, who both make wonderful music also on their own, and have two holiday EPs.

Rebel Jesus (Jackson Browne) – The Wood Brothers
Also from these Colorado mountains, the Wood Brothers (as in Medeski, Martin, and Wood) offer up their slightly broken, roadworn take on Jackson Browne’s classic hymn to the pagan heathens and the true rebellion inherent in the Jesus that some of us celebrate this season.

Joy To The World – Eef Barzelay
Since Eef (of Clem Snide) does such magical things with his music, both his originals and his reinvented covers, I asked him what he had for the season and he replied with this. There is no triumphant majesty here, but there is a quiet peace.

Brightly Above – The Prairie Empire
The seasonal EP from this Brooklyn band is so lovely that I broke form and put them on here twice. Their full-length debut record has also been on Fuel/Friends rotation.

O Holy Night – Branches
Everyone probably has their favorite Christmas song and this is mine. I especially favor ones I can sing along with at the top of my lungs, so the prominent alto harmonies here are my jam. Branches are doing this cool California mini-tour next week of singing along to Christmas songs. If I still lived there, I would go and belt it. From their Christmas EP on Bandcamp.

Christmas Night – Justin Jones
This is a love song camouflaged as a Christmas song, kind of like how my favorite Jason Anderson song is only peripherally-related to the 4th of July. Justin Jones is from Washington D.C. and he has an Americana record out called Fading Light.

In The Bleak Midwinter – The Weather Station
Good job on making this song actually feel a bit bleak and midwintery, in the quiet delivery that feels a little like a Nico song (they also make records that look like it). This song came from 2010′s Ho! Ho! Ho! Canada Deux free mix from some neighbs to the north.

Christmas Eve Can Kill You (The Everly Brothers) – Bonnie “Prince” Billy & Dawn McCarthy
I’m not sure anyone, ever, done better harmonies than the Everly Brothers, and Will Oldham nails it here with Dawn McCarthy, also his collaborator on The Letting Go. They make being stuck in the snow trying to hitchhike home almost sound good. And ooh, you can buy this song (and another) on 7″ vinyl now; I think it would sound real nice on the turntable this time of year.

Winter Eclipse – Beta Radio
These guys contributed “The Song The Season Brings” on last year’s December mix, and it was probably one of my most listened-to of the bunch. They’ve released another seasonal EP for free on Bandcamp this year.

The Gift of Grace – Denison Witmer
Denison remembers this song as one of his first experiments with home recording, and I remember it as one of my favorite original Christmas songs ever written; so pure, so clear. So humanizing. You might have recently seen this bit of majesty from Denison last week, alongside his longtime bud Sufjan Stevens (promoting Suf’s Friendship Slay Ride), and I think he should make me more holiday songs. Maybe in white spandex.

Winter’s Night – Joshua Hyslop
If it’s cold in Colorado, I hear it’s even colder in Canada, where Joshua Hyslop hails from, and his voice sounds like the way a warm sweater feels. I want to snuggle into it. Joshua’s debut record Where The Mountain Meets the Valley came out this year.

Bring A Little Light – Ben Kyle
I met Ben in 2007, along with his Minneapolis band Romantica, after a recording surfaced online of a duet he did with Ryan Adams, which wormed his music deeply into my ear. Ben is from Belfast with his lovely lilt, and has a solo record out now (featured on my MPLS mix). He sent me this haunting original for this mix.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel – The Gundersen Family
I want to be around Noah and Abby and the rest of the Gundersens all the damn time. This is from their holiday party last year at the Fremont Abbey in Seattle. [watch]

Silent Night – Prairie Empire
And this one — this song is the sound of the deepest peace to me, in all of its forms.


August 1, 2011

Fuel/Friends Chapel Session #5: Denison Witmer

Philadelphia songwriter Denison Witmer crafts songs of uncommon incisiveness, sung directly and piercingly in his simple tenor. I’ve known his music for a few years, having probably first noticed him through his musical collaborations with his friends Sufjan Stevens and Rosie Thomas.

I fell hard for his cover of “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” years before that fella from Wisconsin did it, and his song “The Gift of Grace” scores every Christmastime for me. I’ve adopted “California Brown and Blue” as a (slightly depressing) theme song. There’s something in the way that he sings that just lays it all out for me, bare and unadorned.

But there is also much more to Denison’s music than I was familiar with. On a sticky hot Sunday last weekend, he sat comfortably in a big empty church, slight and snappily-clad in a pink micro-checkered shirt. He unfolded four of his songs for us, and each one blew us away. His voice is unassuming, and I find it all the more powerful for that – similar to how one of those nimble lasers can cut you so much more quickly and effectively than the big heavy scalpels. If I had to pick one single word to describe his music, I would call it simply “piercing,” right to the core.


Take More Than You Need
This. Song. Is. Amazing. Denison hopes to release it on a future EP, and I had never heard it before. As I sat next to Conor the sound guy while Denison did a few takes of this, we kept looking over at each other, wordlessly saying “Wow.” To me, this is a stunning song about authentic (and scary) intimacy. Intimacy is a word that gets thrown around a lot, with varying meanings and depths implied. But the way Denison understands it reminds me of Kelli Schaefer’s song “Gone In Love” as she sings: “When the burden is love, it is the only weight that ever was worth carrying.”

It’s an invitation to gorge on a reliable love. We get so damn used to taking just the minimum from each other, afraid to be ravenous at times, afraid to be desperate, even though we all are.

Stay, stay with me here for a while
when the water in me dries, when the water in me dries
Wait, wait with me all afternoon
when the spirit in me moves, when the spirit in me moves

If you’re lying awake
with a lifetime to go
and the thoughts that you take with you
take more than you know

…If you’re lying awake
with my hands on your waist
wondering what you can take from me
…take more than you need.

California Brown and Blue (revisited)
I came across this perfect song when I was crafting the very personal San Francisco mix last year, full of all the songs all about and for and reminiscent of my hometown area. It does a really good job at getting into this hot-edged tangle of feelings I have in my belly and my heart for California, and for the people that live there and still hold parts of me. The arrangement Denison played at the chapel session is elegant and reinvented as something even more stunning. Another coastline gives in to waves and fades away…

Your Friend
According to Denison, the themes of his newest record are patience, mindfulness, and reverence. This song carries through some of the themes of the work of growing in intimacy that I hear in “Take More Than You Need.” Denison wrote:

“I wanted to take a very simple phrase like ‘I’ll be your friend’ and dive into what it truly means. I wrote this song for my wife… so it is primarily about getting married — the long term implications of that type commitment. It feels overwhelming because there is a certain death of self or lack of ego required to make things work. I don’t see the death of self as being a bad thing at all. I see it as a positive. We have much more to gain from losing our ego than we do in holding tightly to our selfish motivations.

Jennie and I got married in our early 30s. We had both been in a decent number of serious relationships before we met each other. We all carry the baggage of our past into our future relationships. We carry the baggage we create in real-time in our relationships as well. In the last verse of the song leading up through the ending, I sing: “…scattered our young hearts in the stones / in the weeks away / how your garden changed / but day by day you’d hardly know / now the fruits of our love fall out of the trees…” Even though we feel like we aren’t improving at times, being patient and mindful can result in true change within… The garden grows even when we don’t notice it.”

Three Little Birds (Bob Marley)
Denison is known for loving covers, arguably as much as I do. It’s one of the reasons we get along so well. He’s reinvented so many fantastic songs in his own vernacular, as part of his Covers Project (now permanently hosted over at Cover Lay Down); he probes the underpinnings and the rough edges in songs, bringing them to us in ways we’ve never heard them. Instead of a steel drum dancealong tune, this one becomes a simple little wisp of reassurance.


Denison’s new album The Ones Who Wait is out now, as well as a great collection of live material from house shows in the past year, Live In Your Living Room, Vol. 1. The live album is fun because it also captures Denison’s banter; for all the pristinely humble beauty of his songs, he can absolutely tell a great story or ten. We went out for beers after the chapel session and he had us in stitches with his story about the worst Denver show he ever played: it involved a dude with a skullet (bald mullet) and a lady that looked like Stevie Nicks, lifting up her flowy skirt during his set. It was incredible.

If you’re new to Denison, I would strongly recommend his 2005 album Are You A Dreamer? for a starting point (Sufjan appears on almost every track; this was around the time they were touring together), and watch for his new EP sometime later this year. Denison is a gem.

December 19, 2008

Your Naughty/Nice Christmas mix

Christmas is coming and kids are having fun (so said the chorus of my fifth grade play “Shaping Up Santa,” for which I still know all the words and thankfully no longer have to wear the green elf costume).

I have a love/hate relationship with this time of year because of the overabundance of really bad, synthy, jingly, repetitive Christmas music that bombards me at every pass. But tonight I was listening to my friend Dainon‘s superb radio show out of Salt Lake City and he filled two and a half hours with the kind of Christmas music that reminds me why I do love it.

I tend towards the melancholy, the meaningful, the achingly pretty at this time of year, and tonight’s show inspired me to finally put the finishing touches on my own mix of music for the season. Twenty-five songs to get at the goodness under the busy surface this time of year. Enjoy.

No Christmas For Me – Zee Avi (new Malaysian artist I’m excited about)
Joy To The World – Clem Snide
Christmas Is Coming Soon – Blitzen Trapper
Egg Nog – Luna
It’s Christmas So We’ll Stop – Frightened Rabbit
It Won’t Seem Like Christmas Without You (alternate take 6) – Elvis Presley
Christmas TV – Slow Club
Sweet Secret Peace – Neil Finn
Xmas Time Is Here Again – My Morning Jacket
Gift X-Change – Calexico
This Christmastime – Mascott & Gramercy Arms
The Secret of Christmas – Ella Fitzgerald
Christmas – Leona Naess
Just Like Christmas – Low
Song For A Winter’s Night (Gordon Lightfoot) – Erica Wheeler
Icicles – Let’s Go Sailing [from the Plastic Snow compilation]
Goin Home For Christmas – Nicolai Dunger
Goin Home For Christmas – Merle Haggard
Snowfall – Josh Rouse
The First Noel – Pedro The Lion
Please Come Home For Christmas – Willie Nelson
The Gift of Grace – Denison Witmer
New Year’s Resolution – Otis Redding & Carla Thomas
Winter Wonderland – Radiohead
Silent Night – Evan Dando


If you want even more Christmas music, the excellent WXPN out in Philly is hosting 12 Days Of Christmas with local bands and free mp3s each day. Ten down, two to go, check it out.

Merry Christmas.

[image from the fabulous Anne Taintor]

December 17, 2006

Christmastime is here again

Well, it finally happened.

I was finally subjected to my first live performance of the season of “Feliz Navidad,” which ne’er fails to make me want to gouge my eardrums out with a knitting needle. I also was at a fancy office Christmas party on Friday night and the soul cover band kept throwing in trombone lines from Joy To The World and Sleigh Ride, etc etc etc.

It brought to my attention the fact that this post is long overdue. I’ve got a pretty sizeable collection of “Christmas Music That Won’t Drive You To Drink Unless You Want To” — which just got a shot in the arm this year thanks to a rockin’ 3-CD compilation I received from Philly friend Brian (yay Brian!).

There’s a lot of schmaltzy crap out there this season, kids. Stay safe. Here’s a haven of good stuff for your seasonal mixmastery:

We Four Kings – The Blue Hawaiians (surf music!)
Everything’s Gonna Be Cool This Christmas – Eels
Do They Know It’s Christmas – Pete Yorn
Work on Christmas – Harvey Danger
God Is Real (Jesus Is Alive) – John Davis (of Superdrag)
Angel In The Snow (unreleased version) – Elliott Smith
Washington Square – Chris Isaak
I’d Like You For Christmas – Julie London
Donna and Blitzen – Badly Drawn Boy
You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch – Luce
That Was The Worst Christmas Ever! – Sufjan Stevens
Back Door Santa – The Black Crowes
Baby, It’s Cold Outside – Leon Redbone & Zooey Deschanel (Elf)
Winter Wonderland – Liz Phair
The Gift of Grace – Denison Witmer
Christmas Eve – Teenage Fanclub
Silent Night – Ben Harper & The Blind Boys of Alabama
When I Get Home For Christmas – Snow Patrol
Listening To Otis Redding At Home During Christmas – Okkervil River
Xmas Curtain – My Morning Jacket
Fairytale of New York – Stars
The Rebel Jesus – Jackson Browne
Maybe This Christmas – Ron Sexsmith
What A Year For A New Year – Dan Wilson (of Semisonic)
Merry Christmas Everybody – Rooney
The Winter Song – Eisley
White Christmas – Mark Kozelek
Christmas – Leona Naess
Christmastime is Here – Snowden
Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Hem
Holy, Holy, Holy – Sufjan Stevens
Silent Night – Brian Wilson

**HO HO HO, The file as a ZIP**

That helps to slightly ease the sting of briefly having — and then cruelly LOSING — the vinyl Christmas With Elvis record last night at a houseparty with a white elephant gift exchange.

It was mine. I was so excited. But now the doe-eyed Elvis (with those dewy lips, good heavens) is gone from my Christmas celebration, stolen by another gal, sending me home with a plastic candy cane full of little bottles of flavored Stoli instead.

I’m still in mourning.

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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