I’m Dreaming Of A Mute Christmas

It’s that special time of the year where the sounds of well-worn Christmas hits from yesteryear fill playlists and people begin to debate whether ‘Fairytale Of New York’ really is the best Christmas song of all time.

With some help from my good friend and Mute afficionado Jorge, I here present a trawl through the back catalogues of Mute artists past and present to deliver an alternative compilation of seasonal songs; songs that range from the traditional, the just plain festive and on to the downright tenuous. Jorge has meticulously prepared a Spotify playlist containing everything we could get our hands on, though for some of the songs you may need to hope Santa brings you a Discogs gift voucher. For your optimal listening experience, Jorge’s should be listened to while wearing this year’s limited-edition Mute Christmas t-shirt and drinking one of the cocktails from Erasure’s Snow Globe box set. 

I often think of Erasure at Christmas, mostly because I remember receiving a 7″ of ‘You Surround Me’ in 1989 in my stocking. The year before, Vince Clarke and Andy Bell narrowly missed securing the coveted Christmas number one slot with Crackers International, an EP which led with ‘Stop!’ but also included the moving ‘She Won’t Be Home’ (renamed ‘Lonely Christmas’ on the slightly dubious The Erasure Christmas Gift 7″); elsewhere on the EP, the duo delivered a spooky version of the traditional carol ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ complete with authentic choir-boy vocals from Bell, while two years before the pair did a relatively throwaway take on ‘Silent Night’ for the US Yulesville promo LP. The limited formats of the ‘Am I Right’ EP (1991) featured a festive Me Company design of Christmas trees with a photo of a young boy holding presents, while Andy Bell co-hosted Channel 4’s Camp Christmas in 1993, with musical accompaniment from Vince. Andy also featured in a short film called I Hate Christmas as a market stall worker. 

2013 was the year that Erasure went all-out Christmas with the celebrated release of Snow Globe. The album collected a number of classic Christmas songs, including ‘Silent Night’ and ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ in updated splendour, as well as some of Vince and Andy’s own tracks. The limited-edition box – or should I say the obligatory limited-edition box, since if Mute did one thing in 2013 it was to ensure that their avid fans went without their turkey after spending out a small country’s GDP on ever more elaborate and expensive box sets – included a bauble, balloon, a packet of sweets and some Erasure-themed cocktail recipes. 

Other artists who’ve covered Christmas songs include Echoboy, who released a special split EP with Six By Seven for a Christmas show in Nottingham in 1999 which included a very alternative version of ‘Silent Night’. Richard Hawley also delivered a very easy listening take on ‘Silent Night’ for a special one-track CD given away to people who attended his show in Sheffield in December 2006; during winter gigs and on radio Hawley has also covered ‘Blue Christmas’, made famous by Elvis Presley, but I haven’t heard a recording of that yet (if anyone feels charitable enough at this time of giving to send me one in the name of research, please get in touch). 

In the wake of their 2008 album Seventh TreeGoldfrapp found time to record a beautifully jaunty version of ‘Winter Wonderland’ for a US Starbucks compilation, while former Blast First act Sonic Youth recorded a sketchy and somewhat unpleasant version of Martin Mull’s ‘Santa Doesn’t Cop Out On Dope’ for a 1996 compilation, which is definitely one for completists only. 

For Can completists, the veteran Krautrockers put out an ultra-twee take on ‘Silent Night’ way back in 1976 on Virgin in the UK. The Residents launched their audacious avant-garde music career with Santa Dog in 1972, a double 7″ single mailed out to various people featuring four tracks by various pseudonymous artists, all of whom were actually The Residents themselves (whoever they are). The band have released several other versions of Santa Dog since 1972 – in 1978, 1998, 1992 (‘Show Us Your Ugly’), 1999 (Refused), 2006 and 2012 (SD12). Way back in 1956, occasional Blast First artist Sun Ra co-opted the alias The Qualities and issued the doo wop 7-inch ‘It’s Christmas Time’. Backed with the sincere blues of ‘Happy New Year To You!’ this curiosity remains one of the most surprisingly accessible pop releases in the expansive Ra catalogue, and proof that they celebrate teh holidays on Saturn just like they do here on Ra’s adopted home.

Einstürzende Neubauten stalwart F.M. Einheit and Caspar Brötzmann recorded an album called Merry Christmas which Paul Smith‘s label put out in 1994, but it isn’t at all festive and, besides, it was released in May that year. Still, the album’s sleeve of a hand-drawn tank reminds me of troops putting down arms during World War II, so maybe there’s a connection to the festive season somewhere on this album after all. Mute US duo The Knife recorded a song called ‘Reindeer’ for their eponymous album in 2001; as if the song wasn’t festive enough already with its lyrics about Santa, The Knife issued a version with Christmas bells (renamed ‘Christmas Reindeer’) in 2006 as a free download. Holger Hiller’s eponymous last album for Mute in 2000 included the track ‘Once I Built A Snowman’, while Ben Frost’s 2017 album Music From Fortitude opened with ‘This Is Not Christmas’. 

Andreas Dorau, he of one-time Mute group Die Doraus Und Die Marinas, has recorded two Christmas songs. ‘Weihnachten Ist Auch Nicht Mehr Das Was Es Mal War’ is a bouncy electropop track that appeared on Staatsakt’s Santo Klaus sampler in 2016, and just over ten years earlier, he released the track ‘Weihnachten Im Wald’ as a limited-edition of 100 CDs for a Carhartt jeans promotion. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion‘s 1992 Sub Pop Singles Club 7-inch paired together two excellent tracks – the wild rockabilly gestures of ‘Big Yule Log Boogie’ and the ‘Blue Christmas’-esque ‘My Christmas Wish’.

Josh T. Pearson became the first Mute artist to deliver a whole EP of Christmas songs, with his maudlin Rough Trade Bonus disc getting released in 2011 as a Rough Trade shop exclusive accompanying his Mute debut, Last Of The Country Gentlemen. This year, Pearson issued a new song, ‘2020’s Silent Night Hindsight’ straight to YouTube, and a more perfectly cynical take on a shit year you will be hard-pressed to find. 

In 2012, Canada’s Ladan Hussein, variously known as Al Spx and later Cold Specks covered Mary Margaret O’Hara’s ‘Christmas Evermore’ for a Christmas compilation, complete with brass and obligatory messages of peace and hope and a bit of Diamanda Galás-esque tremulous wailing. The debut Cold Specks album, I Predict A Beautiful Expulsion (2012) also features the stirring track ‘Winter Solstice’. 

Looper‘s 2003 album The Snare features the haunting and evocative ‘New York Snow’, while the ‘Intro’ track on M83‘s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming has dreamy lyrics about walking in snow. Way back in 1982, Yazoo‘s Upstairs At Eric‘s included the sparse ‘Winter Kills’ and an orchestral version of ‘Only You’ was used in a Boots TV ad in 2017. A year before Upstairs At Eric’s, future Mute artists A Certain Ratio recorded the irrepressable long-form funk track ‘Winter Hill’ for their To Each album, while, some twenty years later, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds released the wintery ‘Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow’ in 2001, regrettably the closest the songwriter has yet come to recording a seasonal song. Surely there’s a Christmas album in St. Nick somewhere? Moby‘s never done a Christmas track either, though he did remix arch-crooner Tony Bennett’s ‘I’m Coming Home For Christmas’ in 2007, but the track was only ever released as a promo. 

Maps, known to his parents as James Chapman, kicked off his pre-Mute career as Short Break Operator, including the haunting ‘Some Winter Song’ as the first track on his debut EP from 2003. In fact, of all the Mute roster, Maps is easily the most prolific Christmas-loving artists. He recorded the frosty ‘Sparks In The Snow’ for his second single, went on to cover East 17’s ‘Stay Another Day’ for a promo CDr and released ‘Merry Christmas (My Friend)’ straight to Soundcloud in 2013, which is among the most atmospheric things Chapman has ever recorded. 

Later still, 2016 Chapman’s collaboration with former Mute artist Polly ScattergoodOn Dead Waves, yielded two Christmas songs in the form of a cover of ‘In The Bleak Midwinter’ and the track ‘Winter’s Child’ that closed the duo’s only album together. This year, Polly Scattergood released her own Christmas track, ‘Snowburden’, which followed this year’s career-defining and intensely personal album In This Moment. The new song found the singer somewhere between Laurie Anderson-esque sound art and sensitive balladeering. 

Also this year, one of Mute’s longest-serving sons, David Baker – one half of I Start CountingFortran 5 and Komputer – released ‘The Lights Of The Pub’, a charity single under his Joanna-tinkling alias Dave The Keys in aid of his local London boozer, The Lamb on Holloway Road. Inspired, in part, by ‘Fairytale Of New York’, ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ has the requisite mix of memories, festive bells and a Dickensian air of that which has been lost. Read more about ‘The Lights Of The Pub’ here

Speaking of charity, here’s a shameless plug: in 2012, Documentary Evidence compiled MuteResponse, a double download charity compilation album intended as a tribute to Mute’s legacy, and also to rule off the first ten years of writing this very site. On MuteResponse #1, I was able to include one-time Credible Sexy Units act Vic Twenty‘s ‘Christmas In Korea (New Year In Japan)’. Angela ‘Piney Gir’ Penhaligon and Adrian Morris recorded the track years ago but it was never officially released until the MuteResponse compilation. I first heard this track years ago during an interview with Morris, and I always wanted to make sure that others would get to hear it, and so I was delighted to let the song see the light of day. Incidentally, Piney’s done plenty of other Christmas songs, one of my personal favourites being the lovely ‘For The Love Of Others’ in 2009. You can find MuteResponse over at Bandcamp

So we’ve surveyed the traditional and the festive – what about the tenuous? Look no further than Mute’s most bankable act, Depeche Mode, whose only obvious Christmas connection was Dave Gahan delivering a festive message on the aforementioned Yulesville compilation. However, a year earlier, Depeche’s Alan Wilder and Martin Gore penned the track ‘Christmas Island’ as the B-side to ‘A Question Of Lust’; it isn’t remotely festive, it was released in May that year, it’s named after an island in the Indian Ocean, but it’s got the word Christmas in the title and so, dubious though it is, onto the Dreaming Of A Mute Christmas playlist it goes. 

Christmas is supposed to be fun, and so here’s a version of The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’ by The Bombshelter Brigade, re-titled ‘Merry Christmas’ and taken from the 1988 compilation Christmas At The Bombshelter.

Happy Christmas to Mute fans everywhere. 

Words: Mat Smith 
Spotify playlist and Mute Navidad nous: Jorge Punaro 

(c) 2020 Documentary Evidence & Jorge Punaro. Earlier versions of this feature were published in 2012 and 2013. If we’ve missed anything let us know and we’ll get them added in.

Electronic Sound 35

Issue 35 of Electronic Sound has been out for a while, and this month features a major in-depth look at the work of much-missed German producer Conny Plank.

This issue features the last part of my feature on Alison Moyet, here focussing in on her influences. Such pieces are often really illuminating, particularly – as here – were they cover non-musical influences, and it was no different on this occasion. The interview was conducted in a bar in Chelsea back in May, and is the companion piece to a feature about Moyet’s latest album, Other.

My other major feature for this month was about the weird world of the Welcome To Night Vale podcast, something’s that been running for years but which totally passed me by. My interview with Jeffrey Cranor, co-author of the podcast, was definitely one of the most fun things I’ve done this year.

On the reviews front, I covered Gregg Kowalsky‘s ambient delight L’Orange, L’Orange, the very Night Vale-friendly strangeness of Snapped Ankles‘s Come Play The Trees, a reissue of an overlooked album by Twins Natalia, an absolutely fantastic electronic jazz crossover in the form of Brzzvll‘s Waiho, a more subtle jazz-with-synths hybrid in the form of Chet Doxas‘s Rich In Symbols, the fantastically raw No Luscious Life by Glasgow’s Golden Teacher, and a career-spanning piece on Simian Mobile Disco‘s ADSR reissue and Anthology collection.

My final contribution this month was among the most personally rewarding. For the magazine’s Buried Treasure section, I wrote a piece on Vic Twenty‘s Electrostalinist, an album which sadly seemed to pass everyone by when it was released in 2005. Vic Twenty was originally a duo of Adrian Morris and Angela Penhaligon (Piney Gir), they supported Erasure in 2003, and Mute‘s Daniel Miller set up a new independent label called Credible Sexy Units just to release one solitary single by the duo. Piney left to follow a successful solo career and Morris carried on alone. I drafted a review of the album for Documentary Evidence when it was released but never finished it, much to my regret, and so it was a pleasure to finally give Electrostalinist the coverage it deserved.

Electronic Sound can be purchaed at www.electronicsound.co.uk.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence for Electronic Sound

Alison Moyet – Other (Cooking Vinyl album, 2017)

Other should be heard as a companion album to Alison Moyet’s The Minutes from 2013. Both carry with them a sense of freedom and experimentation thanks to the fluid working method Moyet has serendipitously developed with Björk and Madonna producer and classically-trained multi-instrumentalist Guy Sigsworth. Moyet herself believes these last two albums represent the best material of her career, and, in the case of ‘Other’ specifically, proves a contended reflection on what it’s like to be a middle-aged woman observing the world instead of being observed in the limelight of success.

Central to Other’s, er, otherness, is a deeply poetic approach to lyric writing and phrasing that means these songs are loaded with intrigue and complex, often impenetrable and highly personal ruminations. Moyet prefers not to explain the themes at play in her songs, and that somehow adds to the slightly curious way these songs appear to us as listeners.

However, we know that the languid, soulful trip-hop of ‘English U’ is a tribute both to her mother and the English language generally; that the stirring, towering ‘The Rarest Birds’ deals with diversity and the right to be whoever you want to be, and was a product of watching life go by in her adopted home of Brighton – the evocative line ‘navigate the city walks by gum-grey constellations’ coming after watching a woman walking along a gum-strewn pathway in the town. References to Brighton also pop up in the deeply affecting reflections etched into ‘April 10th’ and the opener ‘I Germinate’, itself a metaphor for new life, something which feels apt given the way that upping sticks to the south coast seems to have given Moyet something of a creative rebirth.

If Other showcases the many fibres and facets of Moyet’s voice – the raw, bluesy intonation, the complicated balladry, the West End-honed chanteuse – musically, we find Other delving carefully into electronics, atmospheric soundscapes and clever, almost glitchy beat structures which enrich these songs with varied textures and hues. For anyone desperate to know what a 2017 version of Yazoo might sound like, the skittering, dense, moody synthpop of ‘Reassuring’ or the angsty, stop-start disco euphoria of ‘Happy Giddy’ are about as close as one might ever get.

The talented Sigsworth, like, say, Goldfrapp’s Will Gregory, is adept at blurring the lines between the programmed and the organic, imbuing these songs with as many pianos, strings and guitars as he does carefully-wrought electronics. The vaguely dubsteppy ambience of ‘April 10th’ sets a spoken-word poem to an exciting tapestry of noises and non-rhythms, with cadences in Moyet’s delivery that would have made this a compelling addition to Rufus Wainwright’s recent collection of reimagined Shakespeare sonnets. The creeping, edgy ‘Alive’ that concludes the album nods to Sigsworth’s work with Massive Attack, setting Moyet’s aching vocal to a haunting, cinematic noir-ness that feels like it’s where her voice belonged all along.

With an album as deftly-executed as this, It would be all too tempting to see Other as Alison Moyet’s creative nadir; instead it has the feel of a new beginning, of an artist working furtively with a like-minded collaborator and approaching her unique talents – as a vocalist and as a songwriter – in utterly unexpected and enthralling ways.

This is the second of three pieces I wrote to coincide with the release of Other, but it is only now being published. The first was a full interview with Moyet that ran in the issue 30 of Electronic Sound. The third piece, which focuses on her influences, will be published in a later issue of Electronic Sound. The two feature articles were drawn from an interview with Alison a bar in Chelsea in May 2017.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Originally written for This Is Not Retro – previously unpublished

Electronic Sound – Issue 30 – Kraftwerk / Alison Moyet

Issue 30 of Electronic Sound has hit the newstands with everyone’s favourite Düsseldorf electronic pioneers (and onetime Mute act) Kraftwerk gracing the cover and the subject of a major feature to coincide with their UK tour. The special edition version of the magazine includes a 7″ with Orbital covering ‘Numbers’ from Computer World, backed with a new track from Der Plan.

This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Alison Moyet over drinks in Chelsea about her sensational new album Other, her second collaboration with multi-instrumentalist producer Guy Sigsworth. I also wrote pieces on clever techno producer Daniel Ruane, electronic legend Ragnar Grippe, IX Tab, the wonderfully-named Deathcount In Silicon Valley, ex-Coil / Psychic TV member Drew McDowall and the latest album from Ghostly Records Brooklynites Xeno & Oaklander.

Rounding out all of that, I wrote a long review of the second Floating Points album; Sam Shepherd’s first album, 2015’s Elaenia was my favourite album of that year and Shepherd has somehow managed to sidestep the typical difficult-second-album issues with a thrilling electronically-inflected jazz rock epic influenced by the environs in which it was recorded, the mysterious Joshua Tree National Park.

A big congratulations to the team at Electronic Sound who just completed an extremely successful funding round on Crowdcube.

The special edition issue of the issue 30 can be purchased here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence