Richmond, Va. indie folk / Americana artist Saw Black has released the second single from Christmas in the Background. Christmas in the Background will be released on all streaming platforms as well as a limited-edition 100-copy run of vinyl via WarHen Records.
With its mix of original songs and abbreviated carols, Saw Black & the Toys’ Christmas in the Backgroundreturns a sense of magic, mirth, and old-fashioned melancholy to the holidays. It’s an off-kilter Christmas album — the sort of thing you’d only play for your visiting relatives after they’d finished a few cups of spiked egg-nog and could appreciate the weird, wonderful world that songwriter/ringleader Saw Black and his collaborators have cooked up. From lo-fi, rootsy songs that recall Neil Young’s Harvest to nostalgic arrangements that nod to classic Christmastime recordings by the Beach Boys, Chuck Berry, and Brenda Lee, Christmas in the Background mixes genuine songcraft with a slightly irreverent approach, never taking itself too seriously but never missing a chance to deliver the goods, either.
It all started with a summertime trip to the James River in Black’s hometown of Richmond, VA. The day was June 24th — exactly half a year before Christmas Eve — and Black was mulling over his next steps as a musician, having already released locally-acclaimed solo albums like 2017’s Azalea Days (the most-played record of the year at Richmond’s WRIR) and 2018’s Water Tower. With the encouragement of co-writers Andrew Murray (formerly of Recluse Raccoon) and Pete Curry (Crystal Pistol, FM Skyline), Saw Black spent the following month piecing together a Christmas album that examined the contrast between holiday cheer and the lonely isolation that the Christmas season can sometimes produce.
“The title track, ‘Christmas in the Background,’ is about a feeling that Christmas is happening around you, but you feel disconnected from it,” explains Black. “That’s a valid feeling to have around Christmas, and it’s a feeling throughout the record, too — these feelings that the whole thing is bullshit, or that this play of tradition and agreed-upon strangeness is happening. But that’s what also makes that time sentimental. It’s about those two sides of the holiday.”
Recorded to analog tape in Black’s mother’s garage, the “Darley Dojo”, Christmas in the Background pairs eight originals with four Christmas carols, the latter of which were tracked during a loose, late-night session at Murray’s Tree’s Lounge; a popular venue for Richmond house shows. Most of the songs were captured live with only a handful of microphones, creating a homemade warmth and ambiance that suits the holidays. The Toys also indulged their retro whims on songs like “I Know What I Want,” whose doo-wop harmonies nod to some of the holiday hits from their parents’ generation.
“We were also inspired by ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ and The Drifters’ ‘White Christmas’,” says Black, who finished the record with help from two more Richmond-area luminaries: Adrian Olsen, who mixed the songs at Montrose Recording, and Allen Bergendahl, who mastered the album at Viking Recording. “A lot of this record is about purposely being able to indulge in nostalgia, and going back and being able to emulate old records.”
With lyrics that spin stories of Christmas morning hangovers, cold plates of green bean casserole, and awkward family reunions, Christmas in the Background is at once humorous and all-too-relatable, shining a light on the holiday’s pros and cons. Scattered throughout the tracklist are short, harmony-heavy recordings of “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” and other holiday staples, a move that helps connect this modern-day Christmas album to the rich catalog of Christmas music that came before it. Sandwiched between Saw Black’s co-written originals, those familiar carols sound new again — the holiday spirit lives on.