The Fogcutters: Jingle These Bells

Better than a sweater party

The Fogcutters add to our Christmas cheer

When done right, Thanksgiving through Christmas is a month-long party of friends, family, and whatever beverage-and-food combination turns you on. It’s also the only opportunity you have all year to bust out the Christmas-music playlists for the gathering du jour. The pressure’s on. Do you go all-Christmas, maybe just leaving on WHOM or putting together an ironic mix centered around “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” or do you sprinkle in Christmas tunes that won’t be obvious outliers into a broader party mix?

That latter is much harder, as the normal songs set unfair bars for the Christmas songs to get over, but it’s helpful when you’ve got an ample supply of contemporarily recorded material. Better yet if it’s local and you’re inclined toward local mixes. Recent efforts from Don Campbell, the Sea Captains, and Cam Groves have helped in that regard, but this year’s contributor is remarkable for fitting in so seamlessly with your Etta James, Sinatra, and Bing Crosby LPs.

The Fogcutters continue to demand attention for big band-style performances and arrangements by simply overwhelming listeners with creativity and competence. They’re no nostalgic novelty. With yet another State Theatre performance looming Dec. 7 [2012], the Fogcutters whet appetites with Jingle These Bells, a five-song Christmas drive-by that offers equal doses of Rat-pack class and Buena Vista Social Club fire.

The opening take on “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is full of the latter, with chiming and teasing horn lines of the central melody that are upbraided by salsa rhythms. There is a sway and ripple to the way the British and Latin influences co-mingle and John Maclaine’s arrangement is very danceable. It also serves as a pretty setting for sax, trumpet, and finally an electric guitar solo from Max Cantlin that’s as laid back as your first neat whiskey of the night.

Finally, with 30 seconds to go, the horns play the song as straight as could be in homage to what, at its core, is a delightfully melancholy number: “When we were gone astray.” (Also: Annie Lennox did a version of this song? Jars of Clay?)

The middle tracks are jazz-traditional vocal-led, featuring a highly resonant and big-voiced Chas Lester on “The First Noel,” where he positively fondles the word “Israel,” and a delivery by Stephanie Davis on “Silent Night” that plays up the lullaby angle enough to make it a little dangerous for late-night parties where people are already well into the nog. Add a woodstove and people will be dreaming of mistletoe.

When Lester and Davis come together on the classic “Oh, Christmas Tree” duet, their back-and-forth is like the Drapers in A Very Mad Men Christmas.

The closing “Jingle Bells,” though, is the attention grabber. It’s possibly too quick to catch on with holiday parties, but its legitimately breakneck pace is impressive. Lester crams words into spaces that hardly exist over straight percussion and when the horns jump in it’s a drop worthy of Skrillex (that may be an exaggeration).

When normal people sing in unison it tends to make them slow down, all waiting to make sure they’re not ahead of others, and so we think of so many of these Christmas songs as near-dirges, but when performed by a band this excited about what they’re doing, a song like “Jingle Bells” can truly sparkle, adorned with every glittering colored light arranger Brian Graham could wrap around it.

The hardest thing is keeping the lead vocal far enough forward in the mix as the full band increases in activity as songs go deeper, but Lester puts a bow on the tune with an extended “sleigh” that finishes the song and album on a high note.

It’s only a side A’s worth, really, and less than 20 minutes, but I expect this isn’t the last holiday offering the Fogcutters will produce. Plus, you want to leave plenty of time for Mariah Carey’s Merry Christmas and your rare Beatles Christmas record, only sent out to members of the fan club.

It just wouldn’t be Christmas without those.

Robert Stillman: Station Wagon Interior Perspective

Station Wagon ride with John Fahey

Robert Stillman returns with the Archaic Future Players

For a guy who plays the saxophone the way people talk about, Robert Stillman is an awful good drummer. And keyboard player. He does a fair bit of impressive composition, too.

The last time the Portland native (now Oxford man) swung through town, in 2009, he was carrying a piano record, Master Box, his first release on his own Archaic Future Recordings. This time through [this originally ran in 2012], he’s teamed with Apohadion Records on Station Wagon Interior Perspective, a 20-minute four-suite work with a couple of bonus tracks tacked on.

Apohadion is Rustic Overtone (and more) trombonist David Noyes and renaissance man Pat Corrigan’s lovechild, and its DIY ethic couldn’t be a better fit for Stillman’s folk/jazz project, ode as it is to John Fahey, the influential fingerstyle guitarist who was well known for going his own way and doing his own thing from the ‘60s until his death in 2001.

He was the type of artist releasing his music on his own label back in the 1970s, when such a thing really wan’t done. Cutting a record back then was a bit more of a project. Starting out fairly clean-cut and precise, like the quickly repeating phrases he would pick out on steel-string acoustic guitar, Fahey got hairier and his music got thornier, delving into heavily reverbed electrified pieces in his late career.

Don’t go in expecting the kind of tribute album that Arborea worked out for Robbie Basho, though, with loving odes to his actual playing style.

This is more of a creative response to a life lived (and there actually isn’t a note of guitar here). It’s noisy and irreverent and unexpected just like the guy Wilco guitarist and Fahey friend Nels Cline remembers dropping trou and taking a leak in front of a folk festival crowd, but also remarkably precise and thought-provoking, just like Fahey’s inventive approaches to the guitar fretboard.

Only maybe “Part III: Stomp” could be said to actually sound like a Fahey tune. It has his pacing, a restless forward momentum of repeating phrases, Stillman on the drums to hit an isolated cymbal like Fahey pinging a harmonic. It’s hopeful, too, with the horn section (the Archaic Future Players) bringing in a bright sun in descending phrases.

It’s like the best backing to any 1970s super hero cartoon there ever was, with Spider Man and Firestar zipping off to fight a swarm of comet-irradiated bees.

Those horns feature Noyes on trombone, along with Kenny Warren on trumpet, Jeremy Udden on “C melody saxophone” (I put that in quotes to remind you to Google it and learn a bunch of stuff about saxophone inventor Adolph Sax), and Benjamin Stapp on tuba.

The latter instrument is a significant presence and has a lot to do with why Stillman’s arrangements sound so novel.

“Part III” isn’t much of a “stomp” when it comes down to it, at least not like you’d expect. And neither is “Part I: Waltz” much of a classical waltz, or “Part II: Blues” much like what comes out of the guitars of Buddy Guy and BB King.

The opener is downright cacophonous, with the tuba lending a serious gravity. Then it picks up some sway, with a Jane Austen/Anna Karenina vibe. Stillman also plays a Fender Rhodes throughout the album and the way he fills the last 20 seconds of this song with it is particularly enjoyable.

“Part II: Blues” is more of a slow creep to start, but then gives way to something seriously slinky. Later the trumpet keeps trying to angle in for some facetime, but isn’t given much room to stretch out.

Finally, there is the heartsick and naked “Part IV: Funeral March,” which features a perfectly tragic entrance by the tuba and trumpet, with the snare leading a march of the damned, reluctant to meet their fate, which, judging by the frenzied finish, is akin to hopping into a meat grinder.

This is demand-your-attention music, with enough going on to occupy you like a Faulkner novel. There are phrases that may unsettle you. There are times when you might feel you’re glimpsing a scene of Americana that rarely sees the light of day. Of course, that’s when the the surprises happen, those unpredictable moments that give you a thrill of discovery, even if they’re not immediately recognizable or comfortable.

Fahey notoriously spent the latter part of his life living out of his station wagon, an itinerant maestro used to playing in front of a handful of adoring fans. Let’s give Stillman a warmer hometown welcome when he swings through Portland.