Christmas comes but once a year, and for those who hate Christmas records this is a good thing. Whamageddon, a game in which players attempt to avoid hearing Wham!’s “Last Christmas” before Christmas Day (excluding remixes and cover versions) suggests many citizens wish to escape Christmas music. There are however many great seasonal songs, and any self-respecting singer-songwriter will probably want to have a crack sooner or later; if nothing else, the Christmas song can be a massive cash generator.
Australian singer-songwriter Paul Kelly already has a classic Christmas song, “How to Make Gravy”, written for a series of charity records The Spirit of Christmas (on the 1996 edition). The song also appeared on a four track EP, with initial income to charity, but until now never made a Kelly studio album (although an edited version is on Kelly’s 1997 greatest hits collection, Songs from the South). It’s a “can’t get home for Christmas” song with plaintive lap steel guitar but no chorus, the original version over five minutes long with an understated beginning and slow build as the song progresses, in the voice of the imprisoned Joe writing to his brother by way of reminder that he’ll be missing the family’s Christmas celebrations. A recipe for gravy (which was passed to Kelly through his first wife’s family) is helpfully included in the lyrics (you’ll need flour, salt, red wine, tomato sauce).
The letter from Joe in the song was written on 21 December, a date which has become known as “Gravy Day” in Australia (several years ago, Kelly began to acknowledge the trend by hosting “Gravy Day” concerts). All of this may seem obscure to non-Australians, but this emotive, heartfelt song has been likened to an Australian Christmas carol.
This loved Christmas song, played at gigs all the year round by Kelly (and a favourite audience sing-a-long), is on Christmas Train in a new version recorded in one or two takes (apparently Kelly hadn’t thought of including the track, but the incredulity of friends convinced him otherwise). The recording is not a dramatically new musical interpretation; there’s a minor change to lyrics (“Nina Simone” instead of “cologne”), with the song re-vitalised through Kelly’s different vocal emphasis (“extra tang”!) and even more prominent guitar. Drummer Peter Luscombe re-visits his part as the sole member of the band who played on the original. This new version now clocks in at about five minutes and 24 seconds, the longest studio version to date.
Kelly came up with “How To Make Gravy” in response to not being able to contribute a cover of “Christmas Must Be Tonight”, written by Robbie Robertson and originally recorded by The Band for their Islands album, to The Spirit of Christmas 1996 – James Blundell had already delivered his version for the 1994 release. Kelly’s own cover of “Christmas Must Be Tonight” later made The Spirit of Christmas 2001 and also appears here, a recording with Luscombe on drums, Gerry Hale from Uncle Bill on fiddle, and Richard Pleasance playing everything else and singing harmony in his backyard studio. It’s a warm and relaxed performance, reminiscent of Dylan and The Band at their peak.
Christmas Train (originally to be titled No Reindeer, No Mistletoe, No Holly) takes the “soul-review” style, with contributions from different artists and players as on Kelly’s 2014 The Merri Soul Sessions, and it features some familiar names for Kelly fans – Vika and Linda Bull, Dan Kelly, Kasey Chambers, Alice Keath, Sime Nugent, et al. This adds to the overall feeling of community spirit on the album, with family members also pitching in on a mix of traditional seasonal songs and Christmas pop songs. In addition there’s two poems set to music and a spoken word track.
Many of the songs will be immediately recognisable, some of the traditional songs in particular. “Silent Night” is performed as a three vocal harmony with Alice Keath and Sime Nugent. Shane Riley plays all instruments on the track, which has a Hawaiian influence due to its ukulele and steel guitar, and Keath sings one of the verses in German.
Keath and Nugent (who also perform together as band Sweet Jean) appear on a number of the more traditional tracks on this album, and have previously worked with Kelly, both separately and together, on various projects and songs, including Seven Sonnets & A Song (2016), Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds (2019), and “Sleep Australia Sleep” (2020). They are both on “Three Drovers”, an Australian carol by William James and John Wheeler, which is usually sung by a choir. Kelly, Keath and Nugent deliver an impressive full choral sound.
Keath, who Kelly describes as a “secret weapon” in the making of the album, also appears on “Intonent Hodie”, a Latin hymn from the 14th century about Saint Nicholas, suggested by Keath when Kelly realised he had no “Santa song”. Keath performs the vocal as well as playing guitar and violin; the track has a distinct wintery appeal. Keath also suggested the 16th century “Coventry Carol”, performed here by Kelly with Keath, singer-songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke, and opera singers Jess Hitchcock and Marlon Williams. It’s an atmospheric interpretation due to the vocal arrangement and brass instrumentation. Keath composed the vocal harmony for the Hanukkah song/Hebrew prayer of peace, “Shalom Aleichem”, performed melodically with Emily Lubitz (Tinpan Orange) and singer-songwriter Lior. There is one further “foreign language” track, “Tapu Te Pō” (“O Holy Night”), which is beautifully sung by musician and actor Marlon Williams and the Dhungala Children’s Choir (arranged by Jess Hitchcock and conducted by Alice Keath) in te reo Māori.
Another familiar collaborator is singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers (by way of interest, one such collaboration was on Chambers’ “I Still Pray” for Spirit of Christmas 2001). Together they’re here on the country shaggy donkey of “The Friendly Beasts”, a song previously performed by artists such as Johnny Cash, Burl Ives and the Louvin Brothers. Singer-songwriter Dan Kelly, who has also been a regular co-conspirator over the years, joins on harmonies, and also plays banjo on “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing”, a warm interpretation of a 19th century song. Kelly says he discovered it through a Sufjan Stevens version on one of his Christmas EPs (Hark!: Songs for Christmas, Vol. II (2006)), and similarly credits the Staple Singers for introducing him to the traditional “The Virgin Mary Had One Son”, here performed with deep soul by singer-songwriter Emma Donovan and Vika and Linda Bull.
Kelly was aware of traditional Irish ballad “Arthur McBride”, on which Arthur and his cousin run into some English soldiers on Christmas morning, through the version by Paul Brady on a 1976 album made with Andy Irvine; Kelly and Brady also performed it together on an Australian tour. The version here is without Brady but with the studio band, and is a great, dynamic performance.
Kelly has previous experience of setting poems to music – his 2016 release Seven Sonnets & A Song a great example of his skill in his area. “Nativity” pairs a John Donne poem with some gentle accompaniment, with Kelly backed by his daughters singing harmony. “The Oxen” sets a poem by Thomas Hardy in a melodic setting to effectively emphasise the narrative’s sense of wonder. The spoken word track “Surah Maryam” is well read by Australian broadcaster and writer Waleed Aly, an English translation of a chapter in the Qu’ran in which Jesus is honoured as a prophet.
Kelly was aware of the risks in putting out a Christmas record, with “a lot of schlock” in the way of Christmas music being pumped out to harassed and distressed victims in supermarkets. His choice of covers for the Christmas pop songs on the album avoids the hackneyed and opts for the less obvious. The title track featuring Vika Bull is an uplifting garage stomper from American band The Bellrays 2008 album Merry Xmas, Love The Bellrays (an album which also includes a song called “All I Wanna Do Is Shag For Xmas”). “Christmas”, an Australian song of longing for home, is a cover of a track by Melbourne band Large Number 12s (Chris and Wes Harrington) from their 2005 album Every Sunday, and here is a raucous undertaking, with Billy Miller on harmony.
Australia, or at least a Christmas with sunshine, is well represented by Christmas Train; the pulsating “In the Hot Sun of a Christmas Day (by the Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso) reflects the feeling of summer, albeit in a disturbing sense under military rule, with its “machine guns in the hot sun of a Christmas Day”. There’s also the first outing of “Swing Around the Sun”, written by Casey Bennetto, in a spirited, uplifting performance.
More well known pop songs are represented by the rousing wall of sound of “Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)”, featuring Linda and Vika Bull, and Kelly’s version of the Bowie/Crosby classic “Little Drummer Boy”, here with great, full harmony vocals arranged by Kelly’s sister Mary-Jo. “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” is a song made famous by Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald, Harry Connick Jr. and others, and is well sequenced to close the album after all the Christmas revelry. This version is sung by Alma Zygier in a relaxed and distinctive style, with father Willy Zygier on guitar.
Stimulating and engaging, Christmas Train is a mammoth double album with 22 tracks; it’s evident much thought and love was put into its planning and execution, and it succeeds artistically due to the many outstanding performances and interesting song choices. There’s no “Last Christmas”, despite a recent survey of 1,000 dog owners in the UK suggesting that it’s the British canine’s most popular Christmas song. Christmas Train is certainly no dog, and with its’ wealth of material we suspect this album could fast become a festive favourite.
Christmas Train is available on vinyl, CD and download.
“How To Make Gravy” has also been recently released on limited edition 7 inch vinyl in the shape of a gravy boat (with previously unreleased B side “Pied Beauty”).
Label: Gawd Aggie/Cooking Vinyl/EMI
Release Date: 19 NOV 2021