Christmas albums should be approached with caution – most of them aren’t very good and, like an unwanted present, need to be discarded as soon as possible. Thankfully, ‘Christmas In The Background’ by US indie-folk/Americana singer-songwriter Saw Black, from Richmond, Virginia – the album is credited to him and The Toys – is one of those festive records that should be welcomed into your home, rather than left out in the cold.
Recorded live to analogue tape in Black’s mother’s garage, the album is made up of eight original songs, as well as some short Christmas carols, which were captured at Trees Lounge – a venue in Richmond. The concept behind it is to show the contrast between holiday cheer and isolation that Christmas can bring – the carols feel a bit unnecessary, but when they’re juxtaposed with Black’s own compositions, they help to get the message across.
The best Christmas songs are always the melancholy ones – the gorgeous, lo-fi title track, with harmonica and weepy pedal steel, sounds like Galaxie 500 playing vintage Neil Young, and deals with that feeling you get when Christmas is happening around you, but you’re disconnected from it. We’ve all been there…
‘Once A Year’ is the antithesis of Wizzard’s ‘I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday’ – over a jaunty, acoustic guitar backing, Black laments: “I spent all my money on a Christmas tree, but I can’t afford the lights. Every time we get together, my family’s got to start a fight… I’m just glad that Christmas time only comes one time a year.”
On the fragile and stripped-down ‘Ol’ Saint Nick’, Black is sat by the fireside, but trying to cope with the loneliness that some people suffer from at this time of year: “Sometimes I feel just like I’m stuck in a snow globe…” It’ll make you want to shed a tear all over your turkey dinner for one.
Things get more cheerful on the whimsical, throwaway country of ‘Ur Parents’ Haus’, the rock-‘n’-roll-meets doo-wop of ‘I Know What I Want’ and the jazzy ‘Christmas In San Francisco’, which has Santa flying over North Beach and drinking with poets.
There’s plenty of wry humour here, but at the heart of this record is a beautiful sadness that makes it much more moving than the usual over-sentimental, festive musical offerings. The odds are looking good for a Black Christmas.