When the end of the year approaches, there are usually three routes musicians take with new music releases. Some embrace making recordings that feature the established canon of various carols, hymns, and secular radio hits. Other musicians opt write holiday songs of their own creation. Then there are those who choose to forge ahead with new music outside the holiday season all together. No one route is more correct than the others but in the case of Side Saddle’s Ian McGuinness, it seems the indie folk-rock bandleader and songwriter has found a way to slide his newest single, “Evergreen Magic,” into a creative space that sits somewhere just between the latter two approaches to winter-time songwriting.
Initially, this modest, four minute song might seem like it belongs squarely in the “original holiday music” category, with no applicable grey area. However, one of the things that’s most pleasant about McGuinness’s latest piece of work, is its degree of seasonal subtlety. Sure, there’s no denying that anyone who is celebrates or is familiar with Christmas, would likely be able to read between the lines of the song, and infer a reference to Christmas trees. Still, one can appreciate the fact that beyond the setting of McGuinness’s story itself, neither the lyrics nor the instrumentation go out of their way to project the musical style or added mental association toward Christmas. This isn’t to say had Side Saddle piled on the sleigh bell percussion, an upper octave twinkly piano hook, or thrown in a turn of phrase about the magic of ‘this time of year,’ that the song would have lost any appeal. It’s more that there’s something enjoyable about believing one knows what’s in store with a song likely about Christmas trees, and finding that what actually plays, is much closer to a “evergreen” indie rock song than something that will sound dramatically out of season if played anytime beyond December or January. This touch of the unexpected almost serves as its own form of creative magic, if you will.
“Evergreen Magic” doesn’t stop there though. The opening lyrics plunge listeners right into the middle of an active scene – a memory from McGuinness’s younger years – and this recollection frames the song much more clearly as a coming-of-age story than a holiday dedication, even from a perspective of original writing. Certainly, an artist like Elizabeth Chan, who thrives on the writing of original Christmas music, and who has turned to her own memories and relationship with Christmas for narrative inspiration, might debate the idea that McGuinness’s experience doesn’t draw a line that connects explicitly to thoughts of the holidays. Perhaps its Side Saddle’s long existent tenure as an indie band driven by stories of personal growth outside of the Christmas season, that makes it easier to see “Evergreen Magic” more for its highlighting of another aspect of McGuinness’s life, than his attempt to tap into the mental aesthetic of the holidays. (The opening line’s incredibly nuanced reference to the Michigan Wolverines football team really drives home the song’s nature of personal family connection , as well as a fun little nod of regionality.)
We pile in the car
Wolverine Starter Jacket’s on
Kate and I in the back
Mom and Dad are up front
Driving down our street
Snow on the tall pines
A three-mile drive
I’ve waited a lifetime
– Lyrics from “Evergreen Magic”
Regardless of why, “Evergreen Magic” can thrive nicely in playlists filled with other bells and whistles of wintertime wonder and Christmas cheer, as much as it can stand on its own. Particular memories aside, this track is another solid piece of indie folk rock songwriting that puts Side Saddle’s classic harmonizing and crisp chord progressions and production style clearly on display. The imagery of the McGuinness family out and about among tall, pointy evergreen trees, with the foggy air of winter and roads lined with snow providing a constant chill, pairs very nicely with the very close knit vocal harmonies that McGuinness is known for using. The clean, tonally bright open chords of the chorus in particular, aligning with the visualization and accompanying sensory concepts of a cool, crisp winter experience.
Everything, from the thoughts of the crackling sounds of the family’s Wolverine parkas with each movement, to the crunch of stepping in snow, to feeling the bite of frosted air with every exhale while searching for the perfect tree, is then paired with a suitable sonic companion. Cleanly splashing cymbal hits in the chorus, the snap of the snare’s tone on each downbeat near the end, the stripped down but bright and highly defined tone of the acoustic guitar, the crystalline edges of McGuinness’s multi-layered vocal delivery – especially with the “da da da da” syllables McGuinness sings in perfectly executed a cappella at the end…all of these choices made for the crafting of “Evergreen Magic” further enrich the vividness of the memories McGuinness is sharing. And it doesn’t even matter that just about anyone who hears this song won’t have lived McGuinness’s memories with him. Each element of the music works together to enhance the picture Side Saddle has painted for this story and for those reasons alone, the song will be easy to cue up well past when Christmas is over because a thoughtfully composed and produced song is just that. Side Saddle having succeeded yet again in this regard, there’s nothing awkward about enjoying some “Evergreen Magic” all year round – even if it is a song about chopping down a first Christmas tree.
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