[Sleepy Cat Records; Dec. 11]
Ever since Mariah Carey’s 1994 gold standard, Merry Christmas, the holiday album has become something of a rite-of-passage for artists.
For the collaborative, close-knit Carrboro label Sleepy Cat Records, this meant gathering its artists for a winter mixtape of original—and originally reimagined—holiday tunes. The resulting album is thoughtful, inventive, and very fun. And while the liner notes stress that Sleepy Cat wanted to make a collection that wasn’t pious, there’s still a hint of the holy in several of its astral Laurel Canyon covers.
A Trippers & Askers original, “Christmas in Mumbai,” kicks off the mixtape with a warbling, vulnerable acoustic ditty that circles the refrain “Hallelujah, I’m alive” with gravitas. Chessa Rich’s cover of Judee Sill’s 1971 “Jesus Was a Crossmaker” touches on hallowed ground: The song has been covered by the likes of Linda Ronstadt and Warren Zevon. But while Sill’s original was yearning and frantic (supposedly, she wrote it during a breakup), Rich makes it soundly her own, with a clear-eyed, steady delivery that has a slight chill of the occult, as sleigh bells shiver in the background.
Next comes another standard: Joni Mitchell’s emotional “River,” which was released the same year and also finds its roots in heartbreak (Mitchell wrote it while in the process of breaking up with Graham Nash; appropriate to this year, the song laments a holiday spent apart). Where Mitchell’s voice is wild with emotion at times, singer-songwriter Chris Frisina is patient, his voice deep and reaching as he draws out each syllable to its barest, most vulnerable winter wish.
T. Gold’s trippy, glitchy “305 ‘til I Die (Christmas in Miami)” is, as the title would imply, an original. It’s a golden ode to freedom and skateboarding by the ocean, with production (termed “lawless” in the liner notes) that’s reverb-heavy, irreverent, and unique. It’s the standout of the album.
There’s more: a silvery Vashti Bunyan cover by Blue Cactus; a roiling Kinks cover by Owen FitzGerald; the ballad of a troubled mall Santa by Earleine (who recently joined the Sleepy Cat fold, and whose lacey psychedelic vocals are astonishing and new to me); a full-bodied, orchestral Libby Rodenbough cover of Low’s “Just Like Christmas,” and, finally, an original by Josh Kimbrough, who has another holiday release in the works. It’s an endearing, oddball mixtape, and it satisfies from start to finish.
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