Courtesy: Memphis International
The holiday season is officially here, and that means the air is alive with the sound of Christmas music. Yes, that awful Sound of Music pun was intended. It seems that from one year to the next, audiences are treated with the same old same old when it comes to musical holiday fare around this time of year, so the question always comes up, is there anything original out there? The answer this year is, thankfully, yes. That originality comes in the form of Memphis Ukulele Band’s new EP Holidays Ain’t The Same. The seven-song EP is a good change of pace from the standard holiday fare for those who want something different. This is proven right from the album’s outset in the group’s cover of the classic holiday tune, ‘Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas.’ This song will be discussed shortly. The band’s original song – and the EP’s title track – is another example of what makes this EP a welcome change of pace for the holidays. The record’s closer, ‘When The River Meets The Sea’ is yet another example of what makes Holidays Ain’t The Same stand out among this year’s musical holiday offerings. Between these songs and the others not directly discussed, the whole of the EP proves to be its own early Christmas present for audiences.
Memphis Ukulele Band’s new EP Holidays Ain’t The Same is a welcome gift for holiday music fans who are looking for something other than the standard fare that is offered seemingly year after year by retailers. This is proven in part through the record’s opener, ‘Gee Whiz It’s Christmas.’ This song, like many of the other numbers featured throughout the EP, is a cover. In this case, it is a cover of Carla Thomas’ original song. Neither Thomas’ original nor MUB’s cover are commonly played in stores and radio stations during this time of year, even today. That is even despite Thomas being known by so many as the “Queen of Memphis Soul,” which hints at her being quite well-known. In terms of its musical arrangement, it pays full tribute to Thomas’ original work, and that was intentional. Band co-founder Jon Hornyak explained in an interview, saying the band wanted to pay full tribute to Thomas. “We are referencing the original recording in a very minimalistic but soulful and respectful way,” Hornyak said. He is right, too. Even though Thomas’ original is very R&B-centered while MUB’s take is centered on its more familiar acoustic sound, the band’s take on Thomas’ original goes a long way toward staying true to its source material. Singer Kyndle McMahan’s vocal delivery even bears a certain stylistic similarity to that of Thomas with its soulful sound as she sings happily, “Hello there/Merry Christmas/How’ve you been/It’s so good to talk to you again/It’s been a long, long time/Can’t explain why you crossed my mind/I guess it’s just to wish you a Merry Christmas. The upbeat musical arrangement and Johnson’s equally happy delivery does so much to make translate the song’s overall happy vibe and message. That message is just as clear as McMahan continues to sing Thomas’ original wording, “My best friend’s having a party, and everybody’s going/I know it’s gonna be a lot of fun/Oh, by the way/It’s snowing.” From there, she goes on to sing from the subject’s perspective, “It’s funny that I haven’t thought to call you before/And why is it I haven’t seen you around anymore/Another year passes and I can’t erase/the memory of your smiling face/So I have to call you up and say Gee Whiz, it’s Christmas.” This is something that could come from a man or a woman. Considering that the subject notes that “It’s funny I haven’t thought to call you before/And why is it I haven’t seen you around anymore?” is interesting. This sounds like maybe a relationship of some sort that has been on the outs for a while. Even despite this, the subject is still upbeat and maybe trying to re-launch that relationship in a certain coy fashion by inviting someone to a holiday social event. It is an interesting thought. When coupled with that mid-tempo arrangement, the thought makes the song that much more of a fun holiday piece for listeners of all ages. It is just one of the songs that makes this EP so enjoyable. The EP’s title track is another welcome addition to the EP.
‘Holidays Ain’t The Same (Without You)’ stands out because it completely changes the album’s pace and feel. Whereas the album’s opener paid tribute to Carla Thomas’ 1963 R&B holiday hit by maintaining that R&B vibe, this song boasts more of a folk vibe through its arrangement. One could almost make a comparison to the best works of John Denver in this case. One could even argue that there is a hint of Bob Dylan here, too, in singer Mark Edgar Stuart’s delivery. The gentle, flowing pace of Stuart’s delivery and the performance on ukulele makes the song even more endearing. It is just one part of what makes the song stand out. Its lyrical content adds to the song’s interest.
The lyrical content presented in ‘Holidays Ain’t The Same (Without You)’ is interesting because it is, at its roots, very similar to the likes of ‘Blue Christmas,’ which the band also covers on this EP. Even more interesting is that its content can be interpreted as a man singing either to a child or to a love interest. This is inferred as Stuart sings, “The evening shade can be so cold/With December around the corner/I can hear the raking leaves/From a neighbor I don’t know/The better days from our past/Make us feel so lonesome/But I got bars/Make believe/Make me feel alright/Hey little girl, Hey little girl/The holidays ain’t the same without you.” He goes on to sing, “Save a place at the table/In case I decide to come home/And make a place for sweet Louise/Even though she’s no longer here/I can still see her face/Like a picture on the TV/Pretty paper and I’ll be home/Is the soundtrack of my mind/hey little girl/Hey little girl/The holidays ain’t the same without you.” It is difficult to pinpoint through these lyrics if the song is aimed at a love interest or a daughter. Regardless, the bittersweet vibe of the wording, coupled with the equally gentle musical arrangement creates an original atmosphere that completely encompasses listeners, and in turn is certain to move listeners just as deeply. Even with the comparison to ‘Blue Christmas’ with its musical and lyrical content – and the comparison to the likes of Bob Dylan and James Taylor – the song still maintains its own enjoyable identity. Taking this into consideration, it gives listeners that much more to appreciate from the record. It still is not the last of the EP’s most notable entries. The record’s closer, ‘When The River Meets The Sea’ is one more notable addition to the collection.
‘When The River Meets The Sea’ stands out in part because of its history. It is a cover of the original from singer-songwriter Paul Williams. Williams originally composed the song in 1977 for the famed Muppets holiday special Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. The song was later covered by none other than John Denver and even later, featured on Williams’ 2015 album A Little on the Windy Side.’ What is really interesting here is that despite being included in a holiday special, it lyrically does not come across as a typical holiday-style work. Rather it comes across more as a gospel song. Nothing has been changed from Williams’ original as McMahan starts off the song, singing, “When the mountain touches the valley/All the clouds are taught to fly/As our souls will leave this land most peacefully/though our minds be filled with questions/In our hearts, we’ll understand/When the river meets the sea.” Stuart takes the lead in the second verse, singing, “Like a flower that has blossomed/In the dry and barren sand/We are born and born again most gracefully/Thus the winds of time will take us with a sure and steady hand/When the river meets the sea.” The pair goes on in the chorus together, singing, “Patience my brother/And patience my son/In that sweet and final hour/Truth and justice will be done.” McMahan retakes the lead in the song’s final verse, singing, “Like a baby/When it is sleeping in its loving mother’s arms/What a newborn baby dreams is a mystery/But his life will find a purpose/And in time he’ll understand/When the river meets the sea.” Stuart joins back in during that final line before the song launches into a full-on bluegrass/Appalachian style opus, completely changing the song’s mood to the positive.
Up until that moment, the song’s musical arrangement had presented quite the somber mood, very much in the vein of the works crafted by both Williams and Denver. The band’s take on those renditions stays largely true to the source material, but also gives the song its own new identity here. When McMahan and Stuart’s vocal talents are joined here, they make the moment even more memorable. Taking into consideration that balance of old-meets-new and the originality in the song’s very presentation, the song in whole is another wonderful addition to this EP that again shows clearly why it is a welcome change of pace in this year’s vast sea of holiday musical offerings. Just as with the other songs featured in this record, it is another piece that few listeners think of when they think of holiday music. Keeping that in mind, it — along with those songs — makes the EP in whole a must own for anyone wanting something uncommon for the holidays, yet still holiday-themed.
Memphis Ukulele Band’s new EP Holidays Ain’t The Same is among the best of this year’s new musical holiday offerings. That is because the majority of the music featured on this seven-song disc are anything but typical holiday tunes. Yes, there is a cover of ‘Blue Christmas,’ and of the famed ‘Mele Kalikimaka’ featured in the record, but the cover of Carla Thomas’ ‘Gee Whiz, It’s Christmas,’ the band’s original ‘Holidays Ain’t The Same (Without You)’ and the cover of the beloved tune ‘When The River Meets The Sea’ are not as commonly considered when it comes to holiday music. They are known, but are not commonly run on radio or even on store radios. The same can be said of ‘Merry Christmas Baby’ and ‘Merry Christmas Broken Hearts.’ Simply put, while some of the songs may be known, they are not the standard fare offered on so many CDs this time of year. They break that norm and give listeners something different, which is so welcome, and which so many listeners will welcome. To that end, it is a record that anyone looking for something different for the holiday season should own. It is available now. More information on Holidays Ain’t The Same is available online now along with all of Memphis Ukulele Band’s latest news and more at:
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