Had not heard from Christian rockers Smalltown Poets since their last album in 2004, so it was a nice surprise to get a notice this week about a new release coming from them, a Christmas album due out November 1st.
Smalltown Poets were a bright light on the Contemporary Christian music scene with their 1997 self-titled debut, and they earned two Best Rock Gospel Grammy awards, seven Dove Award nominations, and a Billboard music video award over the ensuing years.
For their new Christmas-themed release Smalltown Poets Christmas the band retains their edgy alternative rock sound and applies it to a batch of classic carols and a few less familiar tunes. They imbue “O Come O Come Emmanuel” with just the right amount of gothic majesty, add guest vocals from Larkin Poe‘s Rebecca Lovell on “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, and give “In the Bleak Midwinter” a Jars of Clay-esque acoustic rock treatment; other familiar tunes such as “Angels We Have Heard on High” are present via brief mostly instrumental interludes.
The highlights of the album, however, are two nontraditional songs. “In The First Light” is from Christian a capella group GLAD, in Smalltown Poets’ hands it becomes an insistent, harmony-driven retelling of the classic Christmas story from a full biblical perspective. “St. Nick Is Alright” is an alt-pop sounding ditty that’s catchy and captivating while it addresses the Santa vs. Jesus dichotomy of the Christmas holidays: “We hope to awake around the earth to the sign of the gift we don’t deserve.”
Speaking of gifts you don’t deserve, I happen to have three free downloads of Smalltown Poets Christmas to give away–first three responses in the comments to this post get them, just make sure you include your email address so I know where to send them. If you don’t win, you can still stream the album from the band’s Bandcamp page at http://smalltownpoets.bandcamp.com/
The NYC trio Cookies (featuring Ben Sterling of Mobius Band) have a new trippy electro-pop single, “Wilderness Tips” that comes with a stop-motion video directed by Wyeth Hansen (re-edited from a Sesame Street classic) of an orange with a great personality…don’t get too attached to the juicy lady, however…there’s a killer plot twist at the end of the clip.
S.H. Kress & Co. may be long gone from the retail landscape, but the company’s many Art Deco buildings remain curious remnants of the 1920′s and 30′s, repurposed for everything from apartments to office and retail space.
North Carolinian Jon Shain recorded his latest album live in a loft inside the Kress building in Durham, NC in front of an intimate audience of forty people, and the appropriateness of such an artistic endeavor taking place inside a building erected by S.H. Kress ought to be obvious–in addition to founding the retail chain, Kress was an avid supporter of the arts.
Shain’s musical history includes time in the groups Flyin’ Mice and WAKE, but his more recent efforts have been in service of a brand of laid-back bluesy folk that’s neither blues nor folk, really, but a quintessentially American distillation of his many influences.
Shain isn’t a traditional-sounding blues singer, instead coming closer to the ragtime reminiscence of Leon Redbone on songs such as the brief “Joe Turner Riding Down Main Street.” He nods to the equally diverse New Orleans sound on “Ooncha Ooncha Music” and comes close to his folk-rock roots on the Neil Young-esque “Give My Regards To Brother Ray.”
Throughout both “sets” represented here, Shain is supported by the Trio (which inexplicably is actually a quartet, if you include Shain) including F.J. Ventre on upright bass, John Currie on dobro and guitar, and Bill Newton with some well-placed harmonica fills. It’s the kind of band that’s good enough you don’t really notice how good they are, with Shain’s fingerpicking accented by Newton’s chugging harp and the stinging dobro solos from Currie, all of them working together seamlessly. The sound is impeccable, almost studio-quality if it weren’t for the bursts of applause at the close of each number and the numerous humorous asides between songs by Shain and the band. “You guys going to bring the mystical?” he asks at the start of “Like The Ocean,” and sure enough, they swell into a appropriately mystical Led Zeppelin-sounding intro to the spiritually themed tune.
Altogether, this is a wonderful testament to the enjoyable nature of an intimate evening of musical entertainment that makes one wish they had been there, and makes one feel like they almost were–Mr. Kress would most certainly approve.