The latest release from Django Mack marks another creative high point for this singer/songwriter steadily growing in both accomplishment and fame. The single “’Round Christmas” and its B-side “Big Black Dog” present two distinct sides to a multi-talented artist as well as his ability to select the best collaborators possible for rounding out his musical vision. The players on these two tracks show a multi-faceted ability to adapt their style to whatever the song demands and Mack shows the same comfort with shifting instrumental voices that has distinguished his earlier efforts. Mack wears his influences on his sleeve, but equally so, he transforms those influences into something uniquely his own.
His avowed influences, namely Tom Waits, can be most clearly discerned on “’Round Christmas”. The cement-mixer growl underlying the vocal isn’t strictly for effect and certainly not without nuance. He knows exactly what syllables to elongate, what words to stress, and this skill for phrasing that he shows remains consistent throughout this track and the B-side alike. Notably, he never forgets that he’s singing with a band rather than against them – his voice falls into all of the right places.
It helps, naturally, that he has quite a good lyric to work with. The wordplay isn’t enough to overshadow either his voice or the arrangement; instead, the words are tailored to the musical mood. There’s a couple of guitar tracks that carry the instrumental melody, but the rhythm section plays an equally important role thanks to the weighty undertow that it gives the song. The drumming, in particular, is stripped back and patient in the way that it concentrates on keeping the tempo while only pushing the track forward at scattered key points. The song runs three minutes and change, but the audience will be hard-pressed to feel cheated. “’Round Christmas” is a complete musical experience.
The same can be said for the B-side, “Big Black Dog”. There’s a much more comedic element at play here than we’ve heard on earlier songs and Mack changes up his vocal approach accordingly to accentuate that element. The arrangement is much more reliant on piano and a fluid, yet tight, rhythm section than the contributions guitar made to “’Round Christmas”. There’s a lot of antecedents for this song, Mack is revisiting a familiar blues staple with the title and subject matter, but what sets this apart, as it did on the first song, is the personality that he brings to the performance. Like the first song, Mack gets in and out of the listener’s life with a minimum of fuss, but there’s little question that the quality of these tracks will stick with anyone who hears them long after they’ve stopped playing.
No one can accuse Django Mack of doing things the expected way. Christmas songs, more often than not, are sentimental and try to see the best in that time of the year. Mack would have none of that. He wrote a barroom blues for the holiday season and paired it with a classic musical yarn about a woman he can’t get close to. Despite going his own way, you’ll have quite a challenge discovering any similarly themed tracks as good as “’Round Christmas” during the holidays.