We’re in the home stretch of holiday shopping!
If you’re still looking for that perfect gift for your special someone (or if you’re gifting to yourself!), you’re in luck, as a number of talented authors and artists have some new releases this holiday season. Here are just a few of the standouts to help stuff your stocking:
Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile
“Lotta Sea Lice”
There’s a laid-back vibe throughout this amiable album. The opening number, “Over Everything,” sets the tone: Barnett and Vile trade verses over a loping beat while their guitars ring and chime. The casual, offhand feel is partly due to the context — the pair recorded when their paths crossed during tours — but it’s also the result of craftsmanship. On “Let It Go,” for example, a crisp, martial beat gives Barnett’s mumble just the oomph it needs. “Blue Cheese,” a silly country-tinged tune, has loopy lyrics like “I didn’t mean to cough on her/Forgot to add the fabric softener.” The record has dark moments, though, including “Fear Is Like a Forest,” written by Barnett’s wife, Jen Cloher. It’s a moody song featuring cranked-up guitars. The record ends with a cover of Tanya Donelly’s “Untogether.” But where the Belly frontwoman coos and swoops, they drawl. “I was friendly with this girl/Who insisted on touching my face,” they sing.
— Ray Simon
“You Make it Feel Like Christmas”
Music and TV star Gwen Stefani always seems to be in an eternal state of bubbly agelessness, so we’re surprised no one came up with the idea of having her record a Christmas album sooner. (And yes, we know No Doubt recorded a punk-rock Christmas song back in 1997 for “A Very Special Christmas 3,” but this is a different holiday animal.)
This collection of holiday songs features an equal amount of classic holiday tunes and originals penned by Stefani and other writers, including Blake Shelton and Justin Tranter. So the only question is, which version of Stefani is coming down the chimney bearing music? Is it the spunky punk rocker, the electro-pop diva or the materialistic R&B/hip-hop appropriator?
The answer is none of the above.
Stefani goes straight for the nostalgic saccharine retro-early rock and swing/big-band sound for the entire album, often feeling more like something Brian Setzer or Bruce Springsteen would do instead of a fashion-conscious alt-rocker. What the album lacks in adventurousness, it makes up for with warm, fuzzy nostalgia. Yeah, Stefani’s voice running through a version of the sultry classic “Santa Baby” is a no-brainer, but it’s also a slam-dunk. Her festive versions of “White Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” both have a grandiose swinging feel that goes over like gangbusters as well.
The original songs try to keep up with the classics and, for the most part, succeed. The title track and “Under The Christmas Lights” share the same retro vibe and breathe the same frosty air as the classics, and the most modern-sounding track on the album, “Christmas Eve,” takes the heartfelt piano-ballad route, standing out among the other tracks.
If you are looking for a fresh Christmas album that will appeal to multiple generations of holiday revelers, Stefani’s latest will make a fine addition to your holiday playlist.
— Larry Nichols
“Any Other Way”
This two-CD set presents a fairly complete picture of Shane, an African-American trans woman who played around Toronto during the 1960s. The first disc contains all of Shane’s 45s plus some studio scraps. It’s the sort of workmanlike music cranked out by countless gigging musicians, but disc two cooks. Culled from a live set at the Sapphire Tavern, Shane tears through a set of R&B staples while her backing band, the Hitch-Hikers, lays down a solid groove. She’s equally adept at up-tempo numbers like “High Heel Sneakers” and lovelorn ballads like “Raindrops.”
Shane, who was regarded as a drag queen back then, isn’t lip-syncing. Instead, she belts, croons, pleads, shouts and sighs, mixing brazen queer culture with chitlin’ circuit showmanship. In the midst of “Money (That’s What I Want),” she raps in earnest: “As long as you don’t force your will and your way on anybody else, live your life, because ain’t nobody sanctified and holy.” Words to live by.
The fifth studio album from Annie Clark, also known as St. Vincent, seduces listeners by tempering her arty ambitions with electronic beats, pop hooks and plenty of sex. On “Savior,” she mixes glossy funk with explicit lyrics: “You dress me up in a nurse’s outfit/It rides and sticks to my thighs and hips.” “Sugarboy,” an unabashed ode to desire, pulses and throbs like cheesy Eurodisco. But it also includes lines hinting at a certain darkness: “Sugargirl, dissolve in me/While you cry from kicked-in teeth,” she sings. Sometimes, that negativity is obvious. “Happy Birthday, Johnny,” for example, is a ballad addressed to an addict. Usually, though, Clark’s approach is oblique. Consider the moody song “Slow Disco.” As its curious coda winds down, Clark’s aunt, jazz singer Patti Andress, sings, “Don’t leave me to slow dance to death” over and over. In fact, the real pleasure of this record is Clark’s sheer musicality. She’s a quirky, interesting guitar player, and she has a lovely voice.
“Christmas Queens 3”
Producer Entertainment Group
Featuring a who’s who of drag superstars from TV and club stages, this album serves up a broad array of songs and classics to glitter up any holiday gathering.
The charm of this collection comes from the quality of the performances, mixed with the radical shifts in tones and style. Some queens chose to go the classic rock ’n’ roll route like Ginger Minj on “White Christmas” and Phi Phi O’Hara on “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Others go in a somber, acoustic country-blues direction like Sharon Needles on the gloriously dark “The Murder of the Lawson Family” and Thorgy Thor on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Hanukkah gets represented by the campy alt-rock tracks “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” and “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.”
There is also some thoroughly modern holiday action on the disc. Alaska Thunderfuck injects moody electro/goth undertones to the mostly vocal choir-driven version of “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and Ivy Winters takes a similar layered choral route on “The First Noel.” Miss Fame delivers ambient balladry on “Christmas Waltz.” Jiggly Caliente goes full naughty with the rump-shaking dance track “Christmas Luvin.”
There are comical and shade-throwing spoken-word skits and interludes sprinkled throughout the album but, as a whole, “Christmas Queens” seems to revel in the holidays rather than rebel against the conventions. Yeah, you’d think there’d be more excursions outside the holiday traditions but, for the most part, these queens get into the true holiday spirit, especially toward the end of the disc, where they come together for a (for lack of a better term) straightforward version of “Joy to the World,” and Michele Visage delivers a pitch-perfect classical rendition of “Silent Night.”
Definitely invite these queens to your holiday music mix if you want to have a rip-roaring good time with a generous helping of sentimentality.
“A Body Of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back”
By David Hallberg
In his intense memoir, dancer David Hallberg describes his “hunger and passion” for ballet as he chronicles four key stages in his life and career. This includes finding a tough but fair teacher who trained him as a child, his hard work at the Paris Opera and success at American Ballet Theatre, joining the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia and his career-threatening injury and recovery.
Hallberg writes honestly about the adrenaline of dancing, his difficulties partnering and the risks and rewards of performing — such as sacrificing a romantic/social life for an artistic one. His candor about being bullied for his sexuality, his loneliness and vulnerability as a performer, his fears about being judged and his need to trust himself more will resonate even with readers who don’t know a plié from a barré. Ballet fans, however, will appreciate Hallberg’s insider’s view of the world stages and companies, his Prince roles and name-dropping of dance greats.
— Gary M. Kramer
By Armistead Maupin
This breezy and highly entertaining memoir by the author best known for “Tales of the City” expands on material covered in the recent documentary “The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin.” For fans who want to know about the author and activist’s vivid life, this book reveals plenty, including Maupin working for Jesse Helms (before he was a senator), a surreal meeting with President Nixon and his sexual encounters with Rock Hudson.
Maupin is an elegant, eloquent storyteller. He recounts his difficult, complicated relationship with his parents; his personal struggles with money and his sexuality; and, of course, how he came to create “Tales” and its memorable characters. Maupin also peppers “Logical Family” with amusing anecdotes about sharing a lover with Ian McKellen; being named one of the “Ten Sexiest Men” in San Francisco; and his poignant, empowering “Tales” coming-out column, “Letter to Mama.” Maupin’s life, as “Logical Family” proves, is as remarkable as his fiction. n