Saturday, December 27, 2014

On The Book-Burners' outstanding Christmas record, The Ghosts of Christmas Past

I work in customer service, so believe me when I say that for some of us, the Christmas season is a war of attrition. It's long hours, stress, and human beings who've forgotten to acknowledge humanity in others. Lots of “where's my stuff?” and “you ruined our holiday” and the like. But it's also camaraderie, cooperation, and the bonds forged in the pressure cooker of the Christmastime call center between co-workers and those customers willing to let themselves be helped, to work together to make this season the ideal everyone hopes for as the calendar is turned past Black Friday.

But mostly, the attrition thing.

As I write this on Christmas Eve, my newly-minted wife is chopping onions & garlic for rolling meatballs to slow-cook for the friends we'll watch Home Alone with tomorrow while noshing on dips and cookies and laughter and relaxation. She loves Christmas and does me a great service in reminding me that the day is separate from the season, and that it's worth all the trial to get to the food, the revelry, and hell, even the music. Not that I've ever been big on Christmas songs, especially with how vapid they've gotten in recent years. “Christmas Shoes?” What the hell, man.

But that's why The Book-Burners, a collective of friends surrounding our Great Lakes, convene every year to produce a new collection of original Christmas music that shies away from all that cloying faux-sentiment and gets to the real goods. Curated by Burners Bradley R. Weissenberger (late of rock band .22) and Isaac Turner (also of Kalamazoo's Minutes), The Ghosts of Christmas Past was released today as a free Bandcamp download, in true egalitarian, share-and-share-alike Book-Burners fashion. They're very much about the people, you see, and it comes through on Christmas Past, as Brad and Ike have recruited comrades from Minutes, Small Awesome, The Family Ghost, and the rutabega to join them (and regular Book-Burners Jon Terrones & Eliza Rohr) in a triumphantly ambitious collaborative effort. Files have been shared, tracks have been swapped, and the end result is 14 tunes (“but Bandcamp says 13!” Ghosts, y'all) of haunting, meditative, and joyous reflection on a holiday that is equal parts celebration, contemplation, and consternation—cheesy movies, slow-cooked meatballs, hot-tempered customers.

Songs like “The Book of Love” and “Brothers and Sisters” take stock in relationships lost while looking forward to the next year's possibilities, while “Kindness” is a collective cheer for a forever friend that went through life's pressure cooker and came out shining like a diamond on the other side. This one's a standout, by the way—just about everyone who plays on it sings, and the chorus is as close to church as you'll get on this collection. (That being said, the rutabega's Josh Hensley contributes three instrumental versions of traditional Christian seasonals that somehow manage to revitalize them while playing 'em relatively straight. Think you've heard enough versions of “Away in a Manger?” Think again.) Some of the tracks borrow from pre-existing material (“Book of Love” features lyrics from “American Pie” while the fuzzed-out “The Departure” re-appropriates from Kafka), driving home the universality of the subject matter while expanding the Christmas sourcebook with new, re-contextualized traditionals.

There's ambient noise all over these tracks, and I don't mean that in an incompetent lo-fi way, even though there's a distinct “home recording” vibe to the whole collection (“The Book Of Love” is an iPhone demo with vocals layered on top, after all). No, what I mean is that when you put on a pair of headphones and let the ghostly slow burn of “Brothers and Sisters” drape over you like a sheet, you can feel the room it was recorded in. You don't hear it so much as feel it, and it's organic and welcoming and warm, and—seriously, can we talk about this song for a minute? There aren't enough synonyms for “haunting” and “beautiful” to fully convey the exquisite aching of this track, so let me just say it's haunting and fucking gorgeous. If one of these songs deserves inclusion in the Great American Christmas Song Pantheon, it is this one—the tape loops and backing vocals from Faiz Razi push this over the edge into would-be-classic territory.

Like I said before, it's been a rough Christmas season, this December Twenty-One-Four. It's positively healing to hear a band of Midwestern snow-bound scruffs put together a collection that captures the sting of the December air while wrapping you in a blanket by the fire. It's Christmas Eve and I can hang up the phone, put away the grumps, and hang out with my lady while The Ghosts of Christmas Past dance in our heads. As gifts go, this one arrived just in time. Thanks, friends.