Mike Richmond of Love Tractor swears there's no such thing as an "Athens sound."
"Well, it's just an 'all over the place' sound," he explains. "It's really hard to define." But, he concedes, "I do know what they mean by 'jangle pop' and all of that."
He should know. As a pioneer of the so-called golden age of the Athens music scene in the early 1980s, his band rode on the first wave of danceable party poppers.
Beginning with its 1980 debut at a party on Barber Street, the Tractor helped harvest a bumper crop of New York art-damaged/Southern-gothic-fried New Wave music with quirky, folk-injected themes. In '91, the band took a decade-plus break, finally returning to the scene a couple of years ago with a series of well-crafted yet often-overlooked material that purposely veered away from the big hairy beat of its now-distant past.
"I intentionally steered away from that sound," Richmond says. "It's not that I don't like it, I just wanted to do something different." Some longtime fans complained that the retooled band, featuring Richmond as the only remaining original member, surrounded by a team of technically precise players, was a little too different.
"We can't keep making the same record over and over," he says. And they sure didn't; 2005's Black Hole and this summer's Green Winter both offered thick and challenging excursions into dense terrain. The chirpy, eccentric heart of the band flickered alive at times, but seemed snowed under by the ponderous new direction.
In October, during sessions for White Mountain, scheduled to be released next year, Richmond and multi-instrumentalist Billy Holmes began goofing around with Christmas songs on a break.
"We just had a ball," Richmond says. "And without even really thinking, we had the beginning of a Christmas album.
"My parents had been saying for years that Love Tractor should do a Christmas album," recalls Richmond, who initially dismissed the parental requests. "But you know, I love Christmas music. I grew up listening to Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas LP. I can enjoy it any time of the year."
Inspired by Guaraldi's nontraditionalist jazz leanings and modeling the project after the work of another unlikely titan of tinsel, Brian Eno, the result is Before and After Christmas. Released by Chicago-based Fundamental Recordings, the collection comes complete with a cover featuring Eno's famous Before and After Science LP art gleefully altered with a Santa hat and beard.
Before dismissing the project as a throwaway trifle or a bit of yuletide fluff like most seasonal fare, snooty rock purists should consider that this hour-long disc is actually very well done and strikes a fine balance between serious and silly.
The opening track, "Jangle Bells," is a welcome visit from the ghost of that style of Love Tractor's past. Sounding much like an outtake from 1989's Themes From Venus, the song is Richmond at his genre-defying best, deftly melding a cheery guitar-driven melody with abstract narrative imagery featuring inspiration from the mystic musings of William Blake and the off-kilter phrasing of Lee "Scratch" Perry.
"Christmastime In Athens" follows, which Richmond describes as his Bill Murray/lounge-lizard imitation, but longtime Tractor observers will note it brings his vocals to heady fruition: from nonexistent in the band's first two years, to tentative, to lead voice to this bold bellow. "Hey, I'm still no Bing Crosby," he laughs, "but yeah, that's me, really belting it out. We were cracking up as we recorded it."
A moody take on the late Syd Barrett's "See Emily Play" kicks off the jingling final half of the album. Then Holmes takes the reins, steering the Love Sleigh through surprisingly faithful renditions of most of Guaraldi's "Charlie Brown" soundtrack suite.
"It's just fun, and Christmas is supposed to be fun," explains Holmes, who also skewers the nutty "I Want A Hippopotamus for Christmas" and a roaring stab at the Residents' "Santa Dog/Dumbo the Clown." "This record is the Athens sound," Holmes says. "It's got a little of everything at once -- and that's Athens."
I'm pretty sure he was 19.
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