A few months ago one of my friends was hanging out at South By Southwest (you all know how I feel about that shit, my friend is lucky I still speak to him), and I made him promise me that he would check out U.S. Christmas. I think they were playing a Neurot showcase. I don’t remember. He sent me a text mid-way through their set saying that the band’s percussionist was frying on mushrooms, and that the band sounded incredible. For the first time in my life, I was actually jealous of somebody at SXSW. I guess there is a first for everything.
My love for U.S. Christmas is similar to that of artists like White Hills, Emeralds, Harvey Milk, Spiritualized or Earth. They can do no wrong. If a new album is on the horizon, you don’t have to ask me, of course I need to obtain multiple copies on different formats. When the first e-mail graced my inbox detailing the new U.S. Christmas album, Run Thick In The Night (a title culled from the Sam Peckinpah western Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid), I demanded an advance. I requested an interview too…but we’ll see if that ever materializes.
If you’ve heard the band’s recorded output, the foundation of the band’s sound should be familiar by now. Guitars (two, three, maybe sometimes four!?), synthesizers, drums (sometimes two drummers!), bass, drones and strings (most often violin). Salt The Wound featured cuts (some reworked or re-recorded) from the band’s first two self-released CD-rs, Prayer Meeting and Bad Heart Bull (I guess now’s as good a time to say that if you own either of these, I need to buy them from you). The band’s self-titled EP was the first recording of theirs I heard. From the first bars of the fantastically raw, spaced-out blues rocker “Lazarus” I was one-hundred percent sold. By the time Eat The Low Dogs was released, I’d started hailing USX as one of the best rock bands in the world. The have been desribed somewhat simplistically by various music rags as “stoner rock,” but there is much more depth to the band, in my mind they defy such easy classification. There’s a southern, bluesy aspects (without that annoying whiskey-soaked posturing you find on a lot of stoner/metal records). There’s also a ton of far out, Pink Floyd shit involved. Synthesizers and effects pedals spiraling off into distant galaxies, kaleidoscopic and grand, pierced by the heavily-processed vocals of guitarist Nate Hall.
Run Thick In The Night is as consistent and far-out as anything the band has released to date. Some of the melodies actually stand out now, instead of being crushed to dust beneath walls of noise and feedback. You can actually hear chord changes! The band doesn’t play with space as much as on Eat The Low Dogs or Salt The Wound (see: “Silent Tongue,” “Lazarus,” etc.), but the increased attention to filling in gaps between notes aids the band’s desired wall-of-sound. As someone who loved and appreciated the — dare I say it — minimalist compositions of the band’s earlier albums, I’m happy that the more fleshed-out songs on Run Thick In The Night don’t distract from the band’s essence. So often a band decides to record a new album with a highly-touted producers (as USX has done this time around, enlisting Minsk’s Sanford Parker to record, whose credits include Pelican, Lair Of The Minotaur, Nachtmystium, Zoroaster and more) to terrible, over-produced results. That’s most certainly not the case here.
Highlights include the so-very-U.S.-Christmas-esque opener “In The Night,” the acoustic guitar and violin ballad — that’s right, it’s a fucking kick-ass ballad — “Fire Is Sleeping,” and “Suzerain,” which sounds like what Rex could have sounded like if they didn’t go for broke with the alt. country vibe after their first LP. “Fire Is Sleeping” or “Devil’s Flower In Mother Winter” — both stellar acoustic dirges — remind me of that self-titled Flying Canyon record. It’s not CSNY on horse tranquilizers in an echo chamber, but it’s close. Of course, these tunes sound prettier.
The 13-track album closes with the slow-churning hymn, “The Moon In Flesh And Bone.” This is U.S. Christmas at its best. Minimal guitars, straightforward drumming, oozing with violin drones, slow-building with call-and-response vocals, finally reaching its crescendo, catapulting the listener into the deepest regions of space, eventually collapsing into a mess of chaotic noise. At some point I realized that those swirling synthesizers — the key elements of the bands previous albums — had quietly exited some time ago. It’s okay. The guitar/violin interplay is just as great, and it shows that U.S. Christmas is so much more than just a one-trick pony. USX is now capable of both sending you off into the deepest, uncharted recesses of your brain — where the totally psychotropic shit resides — and breaking your heart with ornate requiems. I too once tried to oversimplify the U.S. Christmas sound to a friend by saying, “They pretty much have only one song, but I fucking love it and they play the shit out of it.” Run Thick In The Night blows that idea out of the water, and I am happily humbled to hear it. Like I said earlier, you can’t easily classify a band like U.S. Christmas. You just have to tell people that they fucking rock.
U.S. Christmas – Fonta Flora