Uke Tunes

Uke-ifying my favourite songs


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It’s Christmas!!

…and it’s time to roll out all the usual Christmas tunes. There’s always something reassuring about those old chestnuts (roasting on an open fire), and it is that recurring familiarity that wraps us in a comfort blanket of sound and memories. But those old standards were new once – hard as it seems to imagine – and their all pervasiveness hinders equally classic, but much less well-known songs, from getting the attention they deserve. So this post is a my small attempt to put that right, as I present four Christmas songs that – in my book – *are* classics, and deserve far wider attention than they get.

<A Pretty Good Christmas>  <Christmas Day>  <I Wish It Was Christmas Today>  <Vegetarian Christmas>

 

Exhibit One. A Pretty Good Christmas, by The Disappointment Choir. I know *nothing* about this band, although I probably should investigate them further off the back of this absolutely gorgeous Christmas song. This falls into that slightly-miserable-but-ultimately-hopeful category of Christmas tunes. As I write this we’re awaiting the results of the UK 2019 General Election, and the words to this somehow chime relevant at the moment – “I don’t know what the first of the next year will bring / But it’s going to be a pretty good Christmas”.

<A Pretty Good Christmas>

 

Exhibit Two. Christmas Day, by Kasey Chambers. Kasey Chambers is an Australian country singer and songwriter who, over the period of 20 years has established a solid body of work. Chambers was raised a a Seventh Day Adventist, and although she hasn’t aligned herself with the church for a long time, she retains a strong spiritual belief, something that comes through in Christmas Day (from her 2014 album, Bittersweet) which picks up on the religious aspects of Christmas, and offers a telling of the Christmas story.

<Christmas Day>

 

Exhibit Three. I Wish It Was Christmas Today, by Julian Casablancas. Former lead man from The Strokes, I Wish It Was Christmas Today was originally a novelty item on the US variety show Saturday Night Live. But Casablancas amped it up, gave it a new wave work-over, and from that emerged this real banger. There is just *no* reason why this song shouldn’t be up there on the Christmas repeat list.

<I Wish It Was Christmas Today>

 

Exhibit Four. Vegetarian Christmas, by Feet. Bang up to date, Vegetarian Christmas was – as I write – only released a week ago. But in my book this deserves to become a regular fixture on Christmas playlists. I’ve actually seen Feet a couple of times this year, firstly supporting Lauren Hibberd, the second time headlining themselves. And they were fab! Intelligent guitar-driven indie in a vein not dissimilar to Sports Team, this is a band that is full of character, imagination and variety. Vegetarian Christmas extols the virtues of a meat-free diet with a surprisingly traditional, family-centric view of the season.

<Vegetarian Christmas>


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The Fear – Lily Allen

I find Lily Allen an interesting proposition. In era of somewhat anodyne and airbrushed pop stars, it feels good to have one who doesn’t play by the PR and careerist rules, who gets people’s backs up, makes mistakes, says it like she sees it. If this sounds like I know what I’m talking about, I probably don’t! But what I do know is that this is a great song.

<songsheet>

The daughter of a comedian Keith Allen (something that has probably been a blessing and a curse), Allen first came to musical prominence in 2006 with the sunny pop-reggae of Smile and it’s accompanying album, Alright, Still. Smile was a number one single, and it launched her into a  the tabloid spotlight, a place she has lived in ever since through various career and personal ups and downs.

The Fear was the lead single from Allen’s second album, It’s Not Me, It’s You. Whilst musically the song sits on a sleek electropop groove, lyrically, the song takes a swipe at materialism, consumerism and celebrity culture, although given her background this struck some as at best ironic, and at worst down-right cynical. Some even missed the somewhat obvious sarcasm in the song and saw it as a  For me, though, the song is just a well-observed and well-deserved poke at (albeit fairly obvious) targets in our money and fame-obsessed society.

Given some of the lyrics, this probably isn’t one for public performance – certainly not family audiences (although there is a “clean” version)! But to my ears it works well as a uke song. Chord wise it’s pretty straightforward, singing it definitely pays to be familiar with the song. Allen is never going to get awards for vocal gymnastics and dexterity, but that means it’s not a tricky sing. Enjoy!


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Wanda (Darling of the Jockey Club) – Duke Special

dukespecial<songsheet>

My track record on these pages for songs recorded in this century isn’t great, I’ll have to admit. And when they do appear, they’re usually throwbacks, often country and folk, to a distant sound and era. This song is *not* going to change that, and then some!

Duke Special is an artist from Northern Ireland. Known to friends as Peter Wilson, Duke has adopted a somewhat unorthodox bohemiam, white-man-in-dreadlocks-and-make-up look that certainly makes him stand out from the crowd. And his music has adopted, almost wilfully so, a similarly unorthodox approach that has little truck with the fads and sounds of 21st Century popular music. From his initial adoption of the Duke Special persona over ten years ago, he has moved from a set of low-fi EPs, almost hitting the big time with his debut album Songs From The Deep Forest and it’s follow-up I Never Thought This Day Would Come, before taking a series of left-turns with albums of original songs for a Bertol Brecht play, a collection of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson songs from an unfinished musical based on Mark Twain’s novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, an album of songs inspired by the fictional silent film star Hector Mann, an EP of songs from 1950s Irish country superstar Ruby Murray, and a suite of songs commissioned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrating the work of pioneering photographers Paul Strand, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen. And that’s before the wildly eclectic seleciton of cover versions, taking in the likes of Joy Division, Buggles, Chaka Khan, Razorlight, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 1950s rock-and-roll and country songs. Live he performs solo, sometimes accompanied by a vintage gramophone, sometimes with a band (including Roy Castle’s son Ben on woodwind), and often with the legendary percussion player “Temperance Society” Chip Bailey, who will almost play / hit anything including the kitchen sink! Despite the bewildering variety of material and styles, in concert Duke somehow manages to unite this seemingly disparate material in both an entertaining and deeply affecting way. Those concerts are a real joy, and usually something out of the ordinary – the last two times I’ve seem him involved (i) wheeling an upright, candlelit piano into the middle of the audience and singing a mini-set totally acoustically, and (ii) handing out songsheets for the audience to join in!

Wanda… is taken from The Silent World of Hector Mann, a collection of songs commissioned by Duke from his songwriting friends, with the premise that they should be in a “pre rock-and-roll style”. This particular song was written by The Divine Comedy’s Neil Hannon, and adopts a jaunty 1920s style. Telling the humorous story of a female aviator, it taps into a whole series of themes and styles from that period.

As you’ll notice the original is performed with a piano accompaniment. But the style and general vibe of the song lends itself quite nicely (I think) to the ukulele. So here is the songsheet. It throws in a lot of chords, but nothing too tricky. The trick is getting that jaunty 20s feel to the accompaniment – the rest of the song will then flow from that. Enjoy!

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