Sunday, 29 November 2009

A Very Cherry Christmas (Cherryade Records)

When you think about Christmas music, what do you think of? Carol singers knocking on your door, Cliff Richard and Slade on endless TV reruns of Top of the Pops 2 or older generations moaning that the Christmas number one isn’t what it used to be?

For a certain type of music fan, Christmas only means one thing: Cherryade Records' annual compilation of seasonal songs, A Very Cherry Christmas. Radio 1 DJ Huw Stephens once said that receiving a copy was like getting ‘a Christmas card from the gods’, and the album is also a go-to place for hearing new music. Such is its popularity that submissions started arriving in May and June from the really keen bands.

A Very Cherry Christmas fits into a long tradition of alternative Christmas records. Rachael said: “I do love the Phil Spector Christmas album (who doesn’t?), but I was more influenced by wonderful alternative seasonal compilations such as Get Thee Behind Me Santa (Puppy Dog), A Christmas Gift From Fortuna Pop! Volumes 1 and 2, Cwistmas Twee (Total Gaylord), Gold, Frankincense and Purr (Purr Records), The World in Winter (Cherry Red) and others like that.”

Rachael counts songs as varied as ‘Last Christmas’ by Pullover, ‘Christmas Wish’ by The Priscillas, ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’ by Belle and Sebastian, ‘Christmas Reindeer’ by The Knife, ‘Space Christmas’ by Shonen Knife, ‘Santa Claus’ by Thee Headcoatees, 'Christmas Tree's on Fire' by Holly Golightly and Billy Childish's Christmas albums and singles among her favourite Christmas releases.

She said: “I don’t think there’s one thing that makes a great Christmas song. When you look at the range of seasonal songs out there it’s obvious that everybody seemingly has a different take on what they think a Christmas song should be.”

This year's is the fifth Christmas compilation Cherryade has released, and at 25 tracks is the longest. Rachael acknowledged: "We've had quite a range of music over the five compilations so far. Although there's been quite a lot of indiepop, we've also had a really filthy song from The Pocket Gods and an all recorder version of 'Stop the Cavalry' from Zoltan Kodaly School for Girls."

2009’s volume contains some of the most eclectic takes on the Christmas genre yet, with everything from boisterous country to languorous ballads and more conventional covers of Christmas classics. Subject matters tend towards the bizarre, from The Pocket Gods’ ode to Kentucky Fried turkey and the Tiger MCs’ tale of a tiger in the snow to current indie favourites, Lancaster duo the Lovely Eggs’ toddlerish punk screams demanding a Tyrannosaurus Rex for Christmas. It’s not all jollity though – a few songs and two spoken word tracks, including Everett True reading from his book about Nirvana, explore the darker emotions around Christmas.

“Christmas songs can be bright and joyful, silly or hushed and spiritual, but, equally, they can be dark and miserable because not everyone experiences Christmas as a happy time of year. I think it’s this contrast of feelings that makes Christmas such a great subject for song-writers,” Rachael explained.

Cherryade Records started in September 2005 when Rachael was at Lancaster University and had a show on student radio, which meant she came into contact with a lot of unsigned bands. It was after travelling to Norwich to record a documentary, and meeting people who were running their own record labels with limited experience and resources that Rachael was inspired to form a record label and Cherryade Records was born, taking its name from a song by Norwich band Bearsuit. Norwich bands are still represented, as well as local Manchester bands, although songs came in from around the country.

Rachael said: “I absolutely love Christmas and Christmas music so when we started the label a Christmas compilation was top of my list of priorities. It was a bit of a vanity project really but other people seem to enjoy it too!”

A lot of people who buy the album are collectors of Christmas music and buy it to add to their collections but I think most people buy it because of the quality of the music.”

She admitted: “It’s just a really magical time of year, I love winter, the cold and the dark, the feeling of stillness, and there’s just something really exciting about the build-up to Christmas through November and December. I love the city in December.”

My favourite tracks on the album are some of the stiller, more reflective moments amidst all the excess. Detox Cute and the Beauty Junkies (aside from having a wonderful name) coat their dreamy, slightly electro take on Christmas and New Year in a warm blanket of strings. Dutch band Persil filter the familiar phrase 'Dear Santa' through wistful space-electronics and noise-scapes of guitar reverb, like a Christmas letter beamed from far away and Foxes’ downbeat, organ and drum machine-led 'Christmas Gifts' is like Electrelane meets Christmas. Allo Darlin’s wistful ‘S P A C E Christmas’ is a whimsical ukulele based love song that stays just the right side of twee.

Equally, there are songs that just make you want to dance around, such as the Humousexual's 'Come Take My Hand in Winter', a song that is almost as good as their name. For me, though, the obvious highlight is Hearts! Attack's Shins-esque punk-pop song, based around rickety chord changes, 'It Was Christmas That Killed Us'. Shunning the bells and choral flourishes of some of the other tracks, its seasonal theme only becomes obvious once you listen to the lyrics.

Now based in Didsbury Cherryade will be celebrating the album’s release with a gig on December 12, with performances from Manchester bands The Shrieking Violets and Doris and the Jumpers, Jimmy from Lancaster band the Bobby McGee's and the 10p Mixes. There will also be Christmas song bingo with the chance to win Cherryade prizes, a Santa's grotto with presents for all and mince pies, candy canes and other festive treats, followed by an all night Christmas disco and Underachievers Please Try Harder clubnight.

Even if the thought of Christmas and sleigh-bell overload makes you want to stay inside with your hands over your ears, Rachael claims: “Even people that don’t like Christmas can usually find something to enjoy.

I think that people have an idea that Christmas can’t songs can’t have much variety or much of a shelf-life but I can think of more songs about Christmas that I could listen to all year round than songs about summer.

I can vouch that the Christmas albums still sound great in July so it’s not like you can only listen to them in December!”

Cherryade Christmas Party, Saki Bar, Rusholme, Saturday December 12.

A Very Cherry Christmas Volume 5 costs £6 (or can be purchased with all the other Christmas albums for £18 plus £2 p&p) and is available from and all good record stores.

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Saturday, 21 November 2009

Manchester's Mr Blobby - and other decorations

You know it’s that time of year again when (aside from creeping TV commercials spreading thin, enforced jolliness for sale at Tesco and B and Q), the workmen start arriving in Albert Square.

It starts with the legs - four huge blocks big enough to support what comes next, the obese, oversize frame of Manchester’s own Mr Blobby. Early in November, Santa’s lifted into pride of place on the Town Hall, from where he can survey the town square in all its glory, his twinkling boxes of golden presents scattered across nearby lampposts.

His vantage point is dark until his welcome party, the customary Christmas lights switch on, when Santa reminds the city of his existence in a display of 100,000 glowing lights. This year, he was announced by X Factor winner Alexandra Burke plus, appropriately for such an over-the-top caricature, local pantomime stars.

Sitting atop a 32 foot structure, Santa wishes those below a ‘Merry Christmas Manchester’. Subtle it isn’t; at ten metres tall, eight metres wide and six metres deep, his scale is huge. Something so cartoonish is an absurd sight on Alfred Waterhouse's stately neo-gothic Town Hall. Santa completely overshadows other seasonal reminders such as the pair of discreet poppies that flank him on the town hall around Remembrance Day. They can’t compete; though they too are oversized, they don’t have his sheer bulk.Santa’s so fat he doesn’t even have legs, just bloated, blobby feet, and seems to prompt mixed reactions from shoppers at the Christmas markets below. A 59 year old from Swinton said: “I would prefer something more traditional. I preferred the old one in the tower, but it kept coming down. Maybe it will look better in the evening when it’s lit up.” His wife, though, said: “I like it. It’s only there for a couple of weeks anyway - it’s not like it’s permanent!”

A businessman visitng from the US said: “Maybe it’s there to draw people here, but I wish it was on a slightly more human scale! The colours and pretty and the lights are nice, but I didn’t notice it until you pointed it out!” On the other hand, 21 year old James said: “It’s a good piece of culture!” and a woman from Leyland said: “It’s lovely. I’m a fan of Christmas and all the things that go with it.”

When he was first unveiled (a similarly grotesque inflatable Santa was finally laid to rest in 2006 after succumbing to a growing shabbiness and propensity to puncture), Councillor Pat Karney proudly proclaimed: “'It is very hi-tech and very 21st Century'. It will put Las Vegas in the shade.” It’s as if the council has done a tour of those notorious houses which compete with rooftop displays every year, and decided to go one better with what they have on their roof.

Of course, it’s not just Albert Square that gets the Christmas lights treatment. The pollution of Oxford Road is offset briefly by rows of green firs. Deansgate is a wonderland of simple but wintry scenes. I have to admit, though, that my favourite is the unconventional Christmas tree in Piccadilly Gardens.

Eschewing a traditional tree (that honour is reserved for Albert Square, which hosts the fir tree that’s donated by the people of Stavanger, Norway every year), instead the shape of a tree is loosely represented in a 32 foot tower of illuminated silver balls. A real tree could look tawdry and forlorn rattling around in that empty concrete space (a conventional tree would have to be massive to make any impact on the open space of the gardens, and could too easily become tacky if overloaded with too many decorations or shabby if vandalised), but there’s something really simple yet effective about the sphere tree that I love. When illuminated at night, its fragile, delicate cages cast a monochrome white glow that offsets the coldness of Tadao Ando’s concrete pavilion. The pile of wire baubles somehow makes the sparse space, which is dominated by Ando’s minimalist concrete wall, more welcoming. What could be stark and lost amongst the rich architecture of Albert Square somehow fits in Piccadilly Gardens.

Piccadilly Gardens is no stranger to unusual takes on trees. The ball tree has replaced a cone tree that was previously installed at Christmas time, and at the other end of Piccadilly Gardens, there’s already another unconventional tree, the 11foot high steel Tree of Remembrance that was erected in 2005 to remember the victims of bombing in Manchester during the second world war. These two opposing visions of trees somehow make you appreciate the few bare trees growing around the area even more.

The ball-tree is a beacon, visible from the northern quarter, guiding you down the narrow streets late at night towards Piccadilly Gardens and the prospect of home. Its only potential downfall is Manchester’s unpredictable weather, occasionally falling victim to high winds.

However you feel about Christmas, the Christmas lights add a sheen to the city that could make even the most hardened anti-Christmas cynic believe in magic - or at least spread a little glow for a small period of time. It’s nice to see a bit more colour on the city streets (imagine if the fairy lights cheering up Piccadilly Gardens were made permanent, like those in the trees outside Piccadilly Station or around Sackville Street Gardens) even if it’s just for a little while.

Sunday, 1 November 2009

The Shrieking Violet Issue 4

November's self-assembly Issue of the Shrieking Violet Can be downloaded here.

Quite a pretty issue, with a beautiful, beautiful front cover by Lora Avedian, illustration by Laura Skilbeck (this is a page by itself which slots into the front cover of the fanzine), Fuchsia Macaree and Jennifer Bell and photography by Adam Faulkner.

There is also poetry by Andrew Beswick.

There is an article on the proposed elected mayor for Manchester by Andrew Bowman and a report on the EDL march in Piccadilly Gardens by Adam Faulkner.

I wrote about Manchester's forgotten palaces (see previous posts). I also made my first attempt at illustration. I like the pictures better than the article, which didn't turn out quite as I hoped.

Emily McPhillips
wrote a charming short story.

There are also listings and things to make and do:

a sewing pattern by Rebecca Willmott plus recipes by Rebecca and Rosa Martyn.

The editorial contains a mini-appreciation of the poet Carol Batton, who I will probably write more about later.

There will also be paper copies around town. It is free.

I am looking for contributors for December's Issue. I would be particularly interested in receiving Christmas/ seasonal recipe ideas!