24 December 2018

Tired of travelling? Prefer the sofa to a winter walk? Our Schirn Xmas Soundtrack is full of contemplative songs and eternal classics without Wham! and Mariah.

By Markus Farr (text), Felix Kosok (image)

To mark the end of the year, Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt allows a musical expedition to your own four walls – with musicians from the last 60 years who have used the colder months for melancholic self-reflection or to conquer pastures new. Using bedroom studios, they created songs that reference the forthcoming Christmas and New Year festivities not merely with the usual good resolutions.

Instead they critically place the prosperity and peace of our Western world in a global context beyond all the “Do They Know It’s Christmas Time?”-clichés: While some wish themselves away to escapist daydreams and dream journeys, others use humorous cover versions to transport themselves back to supposedly better times.

Compounds of soul, protest song and relentless minimalism

Back in the late 1950s, for example, the Kingston Trio referenced Christian musical traditions, and thus not only prompted the US folk revival, but also had a huge influence on Simon & Garfunkel, who ten years later juxtapose the Christmas classic “Silent Night” with a news report during the time of the Vietnam War. Similarly, certain soul and R&B acts from this time – such as Othello Robertson – addressed the desire for soldiers to return home from the conflict zones.

Aretha Franklin, Image via bbci.co.uk

KONG

by Neneh Cherry

More currently, Swedish singer Neneh Cherry combines hyper-modern soul and protest song, as demonstrated in tracks like “Kong,” produced by Massive Attack and released on the formidable 2018 album “Broken Politics”. On their current album “Die Unendlichkeit,”(“Eternity”) Tocotronic are similarly as unsparing as they are autobiographical when they stylistically combine the early death of a friend during the 1990s with the minimalistic Schulwerk by composer Carl Orff (“The Orff Approach”) in the song “Unwiederbringlich”(“Irretrievable”). And many will still remember where they were on August 16, 2018 when the news broke around the world of the death of Aretha Franklin, who is represented here with a matchless cover of the Beatles’ “The Fool on the Hill”.

New recordings and cover versions at the turn of the year

Johnny” by US-American singer St. Vincent, who re-recorded her poppy, synth-album “Masseduction” with an intimate piano accompaniment for the end of the year. Meanwhile, British musician Richard Hawley has acoustically purged and reinterpreted his song “Tonight the Streets Are Ours”, which opened the Banksy documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop”. The other cover versions are also filled with the sort of heaviness and melancholy that afflicts many at the end of the year.

Simon & Garfunkel, 1966, Image via wikimedia.org

The Beulahbelle cover of the James Bond anthem “You Only Live Twice,” which comes from the Diablo Cody film “Tully,” transfers the watchword of the secret agent to the everyday automatisms of a young mother, while Cologne-based band Locas in Love slow down the already slow-moving title song of the TV series “Twin Peaks” almost entirely. German-British musician Anika takes The Kinks’ “I Go To Sleep” into the realms of deepest dub, while US Indie project Wild Nothing adds an icy, dream-pop layer to Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting”. Others find warmth in the past, for example when American singer Nicole Atkins reimagines the exuberant big-band sound of the 1950s in “A Night of Serious Drinking,” or when twangy guitarist Joel Peterson refines the standard “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” in a retro sound.

In the old animated movies, Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang go ice skating to Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating,” while Sun Kil Moon singer Mark Kozelek has recorded an entire album of Christmas classics in his characteristically disparate voice, entirely without irony.

Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.

Spiritualized

Others flee this earth entirely – in dream worlds like the one of Australian singer Sarah Blasko with her new edition of the Olivia Newton John song “Xanadu” (which, and not by chance, plays on the fictional haven of the title heroes in Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane”) – or directly into the never-ending breadths of the universe as in “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space” by Spiritualized. Further, Berlin-based band Die Heiterkeit (The Cheerfulness) shows how you can embrace the frosty season in “Die Kälte” (“The Cold”.) Franz Ferdinand seek a new beginning with “Leaving My Old Life Behind,” a song by obscure songwriter Jonathan Halper from a film by Kenneth Anger, and British Neo-Psychedelic band Broadcast formulate the most universal of all demands on their debut album: “Come On Let’s Go”.

Or the Flaming Lips, whose early Frank Sinatra cover “It Was A Very Good Year,” in which he looks back at his life, use lo-fi means to bring things back down to earth and thus to pave the way for Yoko Ono, who has recently released a new album at the age of 85, on which she performs the John Lennon classic “Imagine” for the very first time, with her voice audibly breaking – a utopia that outlasts life itself. As you can see, the colder season is no reason for creative stagnation; rather, it has inspired countless musicians time and again and led to varied creations beyond the usual Christmas classics.