As with the season they're generally cashing in on, Christmas albums somewhat mercifully only come round once a year. While much festive fare is as depressingly jolly as it is unbearably ubiquitous – see Top of the Pops 2's annual Xmas special, plus department stores' endless looping of the Now That's What I Call Christmas compilation – there have been some genuinely inventive reimaginings of the season of goodwill in pop form.
Both Motown and Phil Spector released superb Christmas compilations, while The Beach Boys and James Brown filled a whole album apiece to their very singular takes on festive fare. On a more leftfield front, both ZE Records and Factory-connected Belgian label Les Disques du Crepescule released Christmas albums. While the former gifted the world The Waitresses joyous Christmas Wrapping on ZE's dryly named A Christmas Album in 1981, the latter's Ghosts of Christmas Past collection found the likes of The Durutti Column, Cabaret Voltaire and Michael Nyman giving their own instrumental impressions of the season the same year. Only Aztec Camera's Django Rheinhardt inspired express-train-paced guitar medley of Christmas carols, Hot Club of Christ, seemed to embrace the season's full cracker-pulling frivolousness.
Another track on Ghosts of Christmas Past was an early solo work by Paul Haig, who had quit as singer with Edinburgh band, Josef K, who'd also released material on Crepescule as well as Alan Horne's Postcard label, earlier that year. Unlike the franticly jangular guitar stylings of Josef K, Haig's Ghosts of Christmas past contribution, Christiana, was a funereal ballad backed by drum machine, keyboards and acoustic guitar.
Sounding like a template for former Arab Strap vocalist Aidan Moffat's own brand of downbeat miserabilism, Christiana offered a more contemplative and world weary take on what sounded like a very lonely season of good will. By the time Haig re-recorded the song in 2010 for After Twilight, James Nice's Les Temps Moderne label's compilation of former Les Disques du Crepescule recording artists' revisitations of old work, Christiana was now a mandolin-led lament sounding not unlike Joy Division's The Eternal of it had been recorded by Cold War era John Barry.
Somewhere in-between Haig's two versions of Christiana, in 1999 slowcore melancholics Low released Christmas, a mini-album of eight songs designed as a festive treat for fans. As well as original material, Christmas featured versions of Silent Night and a drone-soaked take on Little Drummer Boy, a song taken to number one in an unlikely duet by Bing Crosby and David Bowie (and let's not forget Boney M's version either!).
There's something of Low's dolefulness in this lovely new album by Bill Wells' National Jazz Trio of Scotland, which refreshes twelve Christmas classics in startlingly apposite fashion. By engaging four different singers, Wells invests seemingly throwaway sing-alongs with a new sense of seriousness and weight that also lays bare the fragile ambiguities of sentiments previously taken at face value.
To make things clear, the National Jazz Trio of Scotland aren't a jazz band. Nor are they a trio. Wells formed what was originally an instrumental-based band along with various players from the Glasgow indie scene who had embraced him as one of their one in a way that Scotland's conservative jazz scene had failed to recognise such a unique self-taught composer, arranger, pianist and bass player. Wells named the National Jazz Trio of Scotland as a cheeky pop at Scotland's jazz hierarchy unable or unwilling to get that it was okay to look to Brian Wilson and Burt Bacharach as much as Mingus and Monk for inspiration.
As well as self-releasing several albums with his own Octet and Big Band, Wells worked with The Pastels, Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Future Pilot A.K.A., Isobel Campbell and Belle and Sebastian guitarist Stevie Jackson. More recently, Wells teamed up with Aidan Moffat for the 2011 album, Everything's Getting Older. Like Wells, Moffat hails from the satellite town of Falkirk, which may or may not explain a few things. Everything's Getting Older was something of a small-scale crossover hit, and won the inaugural Scottish Album of the Year Award.
Since forming in 2007, Wells' NJToS has featured players such as Stevie Jackson, trumpeter Robert Henderson, Johnnie and the Entries drummer Kate Sugden and Aby Vulliamy, viola player with Nalle and The One Ensemble. Both Henderson and Vulliamy feature on Everything's Getting Older.
In another dig at jazz orthodoxies, the loose-knit aim of this even looser-knit group was to create a set of original tunes that would become standards. The roots of the NJToS Christmas album date back to the end of 2010, when Alasdair Campbell, then in charge of the Tolbooth arts centre in Stirling and the venue's Le Weekend festival of left-field music, and now in charge of the equally eclectic AC Projects, responsible for this year's Counterflows festival, invited Wells to curate and take part in something called Black Christmas.
Wells duly selected a bill that included Moffat, Davie Scott of The Pearlfishers and Icelandic singer Benni Hemm Hemm, the latter of whom was then resident in Scotland. A set of what was then described as 'off-kilter covers of Christmas classics' was premiered by Wells and the NJToS, with vocals provided by Vulliamy, Sugden and Lorna Gilfedder, previously drummer with Park Attack before singing and playing guitar in Golden Grrrls.
A year later, and with the Wells and Moffat partnership beginning to gain momentum, NJToS were headlining in an Edinburgh church hall for DIY promoters Tracer Trails Christmas party, who'd put up decorations and provided mulled wine for an occasion which also featured Teenage Fanclub's Norman Blake guesting on vocals. Blake recorded the new album, released on the Berlin-based Karaoke Kalk label and with snow-flake cover art by Jad Fair, some time ago.
Moffat meanwhile continued the Black Christmas lineage around the same time as Wells and the NJToS were decking the halls by releasing a digital EP of four seasonal pieces. These included a forty-six second destruction of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, as well as a relatively faithful cover of Wham's Last Christmas. In 2011, Wells and Moffat turned Bananarama's bubblegum 1980s smash hit, Cruel Summer, into the lovelorn ballad it was always meant to be. This year, the pair knitted together two unrelated songs titled The Power of Love – by Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Jennifer Rush – as well as Peter Cetera's Glory of Love (as featured in the film, The Karate Kid), with the latter sung by Blake on a Frankenstein's monster of a song released on limited edition 7”.
The disparate elements on the NJToS Christmas album, on which Wells plays all instruments apart from Vulliamy's sampled viola, go similarly beyond novelty value to make something equally profound. As well as Gilfedder, Sugden and Vulliamy, Wells' band is further augmented by the presence of Gerard Black, formerly of Findo Gask and currently a member of Francois and the Atlas Mountains and his own band, Babe. As the sole male presence on the album besides Wells, Black is noted for being the only voice that sounds even vaguely joyful about Christmas.
The tone is set from the off with Sugden's take on O Christmas Tree, the sixteenth century German folk tune adopted for communist anthem, The Red Flag. While another jazz pianist, Vince Guaraldi, played an instrumental version of the tune for the 1965 animated film, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Sugden's delivery is more akin to Robert Wyatt's mournful version of The Red Flag, released on his Nothing Can Stop us album in 1982. Here, Wells' keyboards rise and fall with a repeated coda that twinkles in counterpoint to Sugden's vocal without ever being at odds with it.
Gilfedder, Sugden and Vulliamy singing lead on three songs apiece, with Black on two before a three-woman chorale transforms We Three Kings into the sweetest of gender-bending finales. Such quiet subversions point to a sense running throughout the album of Wells sound-tracking something bigger than the songs themselves, which are reimagined in impressionistically looped swirls that suggest as much darkness as light. On God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen in particular, there's a penetrating sense of menace behind Gilfedder's voice, as if the cherub-faced aliens in The Village of the Damned had joined the school choir.
On Hark The Herald Angels Sing, Wells's piano sounds like it's being played in an underwater grotto while Black sings like a more plaintive Roddy Frame accompanied by percussive clicks that speeds things into other dimensions. For Carol Of The Birds, Wells concentrates on the lower register keys that give the song an eerie air even before Sugden starts singing.
Winter Wonderland's normal karaoke romp-along is pared down to a Hearse-like pace that suggests the wonderland Wells and Vulliamy have stumbled on is considerably stranger than the one normally sung about. The spartan after-hours piano and voice arrangement here makes for an oddly emotive affair. The same applies to Jingle Bells, again sung by Vulliamy, with Gilfedder on backing vocals, even with the kindergarten percussion that pulses a woozily kaleidoscopic ride through wide-screen blankets of the white stuff. It's a ride that continues on Sugden's rendering of I Saw Three Ships, though things perk up considerably during Good King Wenceslas, which finds Gilfedder led astray by a jaunty guitar before Black gets even more emotive on The Christmas Song.
In The Bleak Mid-Winter is already one of the most gorgeous hymns ever written, something accentuated even more by Wells' school assembly piano and Vulliamy's voice on a tantalisingly brief one-verse miniature version. Oh Come All Ye Faithful finds Gilfedder's voice wrapped up in Wells' subterranean piano, a sucker punch for the sheer loveliness of We Three Kings and its opaque hints at the odd Steely Dan-ism or Court and Spark era Joni Mitchell.
Crucially, such arrangements never overwhelm an album on which it would have been easy to festoon with kitchen-sink choirs and strings to score a cross-over hit. Conversely, it's the moody minimalism, both of Wells' stark arrangements and the unstudied precision of the voices, which allows the songs to breathe in a way that lends them an over-riding intensity.
It would be easy to lump the NJToS' Christmas album in with Nouvelle Vague's series of albums that reinvent contemporary punk classics as playfully constructed retro-chic, but Wells and co are doing something deeper. There are instrumental echoes here of Bernard Hermann and even John Barry at play here, while the purity of the voices recall the likes of Claudine Longet, the breathy-voiced French singer who released several albums in the 1960s and 1970s while married to crooner Andy Williams before being put on trial after her skier boyfriend was shot dead.
There are hints too of Basil Kirchin's theme song for the 1969 British thriller, I Start Counting, sung guilelessly by Lindsey Moore, and Alison Statton's non-jazz jazz singing when Brit-jazz luminaries such as pianist Keith Tippett guested on Weekend's Live At Ronnie Scott's album. Such arrangements would also suit Wells' one-time vocal foil, Isobel Campbell, who recorded a mini-album of Billie Holliday songs with Wells before she started to hang out with rough boys like Mark Lanegan.
At first listen, then, Wells and the NJToS have produced an album of considerable charm that sounds pitch perfect for the next few weeks quieter moments. But once the decorations have been packed away and the now threadbare tree taken down, listen again, and the dark-heart hidden in a bunch of songs you thought you knew backwards is plain to hear. Unlike a lot of presents that end up being thrown out beneath a pile of torn wrapping paper, the National Jazz Trio of Scotland's Christmas Album isn't just be for Christmas. It's for life.
A shorter version of this appeared in The Quietus, December 2012