Soundbites: New Holiday Songs From James Kochalka Superstar, Mister Burns Hits the Road | Music News + Views | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Soundbites: New Holiday Songs From James Kochalka Superstar, Mister Burns Hits the Road


Published November 30, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 30, 2022 at 11:19 a.m.

  • Courtesy Of Sam Simon
  • James Kochalka

On a mild day last week, as I walked the dog around the Old North End of Burlington, I had a frankly shocking thought.

Enough of this spring weather crap, I growled to myself. Just get to the white stuff already.

No, not cocaine, though I can understand why you might assume that. I'm talking snow. I found myself anticipating a layering-up, putting-on-the-snow-tires, no-one-has-seen-the-sun-in-days, let's-just-get-this-over-with kind of Vermont winter. After living up north for decades, had I finally gone native?

Eh, not really. I'm not the kind of person who freaks out and runs for his snowboard as soon as Mount Mansfield turns white. Maybe I'd grown more pragmatic and just figured that the sooner we started the winter, the sooner we could end it. Because that's science, right? For real, I'm asking. No? That's not true? Well, shit.

Then I decided it wasn't winter itself I was anticipating, but the holiday season. Which seemed weird, because it's rare for me to get into the holiday spirit. Don't get me wrong, I love the whole aesthetic, but Christmastime for me mainly means meeting deadlines, driving and avoiding Hallmark movies.

No, it's not even the holidays themselves that get me excited — it's their music. The first time each year that I hear "Christmas in Hollis" by Run DMC, something inside me changes. All of my snarky comments about retail culture and postcapitalism quickly turn into an obsession with holiday music and the weirdness that surrounds the tiny subgenre.

For example, did you know that legendary record producer and future murderer Phil Spector made a holiday record in 1963 called A Christmas Gift for You From Phil Spector? In a strange bit of foreshadowing, the album was released on the very day that president John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick" was released just a few weeks after that, and the song still managed to chart. Christmas 1, Lee Harvey Oswald 0! (Too soon?)

Or take the recent story about Mariah Carey trying — and failing — to trademark the title "Queen of Christmas." The singer of "All I Want for Christmas Is You" attempted to lock down "Princess Christmas" and "QOC" while she was at it, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office bah-humbugged her efforts.

Something about the holidays inspires musicians to move out of their comfort zones and attempt to capture the festive spirit in song. Their efforts often go astray — and the results are all the better for it.

In Vermont, musicians have already started churning out this year's weird, wonderful holiday music. First up is the return of James Kochalka Superstar, the recently revived band of cartoonist and musician James Kochalka. He's been teasing a forthcoming album full of collaborations such as his Halloween tune "The Mummy's on the Loose," which featured the Dead Kennedys' Jello Biafra and Rough Francis.

"Punching the Christmas Tree" dropped on Black Friday — appropriately, since the song deals with all the angst the holiday season can bring. "Blinking lights and jingle bells got me feeling like an elf who has fallen off the shelf / Everybody save yourselves," Kochalka sings over a frantic, rocking song featuring his friends Neil Cleary and Benny Yurco. The two producers layered various instruments and backing vocals over Kochalka's basic track, which was fittingly created on a Game Boy. It's already a Christmas classic, as far as I'm concerned.

Bellows Falls singer-songwriter Dylan Patrick Ward has teamed up with Bennington's Nate Goyette to make a proper countrified tune of Christmas heartbreak called "I Don't Want a Thing From You This Christmas." Telling the tale of a jilted lover who rebuffs the apologies of her ex, the song features biting lyrics such as "Jesus Christ was born in a manger / He may forgive you, but I don't / You can spend Christmas with a stranger / Who'll do for you all the things I won't."

On Ward's Bandcamp page, he describes the song as having been "written in a trailer park on a crisp December afternoon in Bennington." The track sounds exactly like that, with twangy guitar licks and a shuffling rhythm underpinning Ward and Goyette's sad-sack story of holiday divorce.

"Merry Christmas everyone," Ward writes, "and if he don't respect you, leave his ass!"

  • Courtesy Of Luke Awtry Photography
  • Mister Burns

It's not all holiday sour grapes, though. Local hip-hop artist Mister Burns (Lynguistic Civilians) has teamed up with North Carolina-based rapper C.Shreve the Professor for a December tour of New England. The nine shows, starting on December 9 at the Snow Shoe Lodge & Pub in Montgomery Center and ending on December 17 at Montpelier's Bent Nails Bistro, are part of the series "Rapping for Presents." Presented by Aeolian Sound, the shows raise money for Burlington's Lund, a nonprofit dedicated to breaking the cycles of abuse, poverty and addiction.

The shows feature dates at Higher Ground in South Burlington with rapper Oddisee and supporting CL Smooth in Sugarbush Village, as well as an interactive fundraising game with prizes from Vermont Teddy Bear, Switchback Brewing and Darn Tough.

It's not even December yet, so you know this is just the first round of holiday music. Stay tuned in the coming weeks for tips on the good holiday shows — as well as the oft-demanded Best of the Year review.


New York City-turned-Charlotte artist and musician Zach Pollakoff is back with his project Narrow Shoulders. The experimental trip-hop act premiered two songs on Tuesday, both collaborations with Texas rapper ULTRAVIOLETENVY, a member of Pollakoff's Twosyllable Records label.

The first track, "I Guess," features Burlington artist and singer Liza Phillip. The B side, "Every Time," showcases rapper and producer Rivan. A music video for "I Guess" also debuted on Tuesday and includes hand-painted stop-motion animation from Vermont painter Wylie Garcia.

To celebrate the release of his new tracks, Pollakoff plays a show on Friday, December 2, at the BCA Center on Burlington's Church Street. Montréal electronic artist Ouri joins the bill, as well as local dancers Sage Horsey and Steph Wilson.

Ida Mae Specker - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Ida Mae Specker

Singer-songwriter and folk music teacher Ida Mae Specker is riding the Arts Bus, a traveling art and music studio, theater, and pop-up library dedicated to engaging the creativity of Vermont's kids. Over the summer, Specker recorded the song "Vermont, Our Home" in Manchester, Rutland, Stockbridge and Bethel, adding the voices of an assortment of her young students.

The video for the song is up now on the Arts Bus' YouTube channel, featuring some lovely shots of the Green Mountain State and Specker and her students frolicking and singing "Vermont's our home" together.

Williston's Transitory Symphony is celebrating a decade as a band. The alternative folk act, a brainchild of singer-songwriters James Heltz and Tom Haney, has released Underground Celebrities, an anniversary compilation/greatest hits album. In addition to songs from the band's previous six albums, it features four brand-new tracks, including "Blue Skies and Yellow Fields (will always be free)," a song dedicated to the people of Ukraine and featuring excerpts from speeches made by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

"Ten years is a nice round number," Heltz wrote in an email. "As a teenager during the summer, I would lie awake at night and hear the sounds from the car radios drifting in and out of my bedroom as they passed by on the street. It was a collage of rock & roll, folk, pop, jazz, soul, country, big bands and the blues. A Transitory Symphony."

Many happy returns, fellas.