It wasn’t my choice, but I grew up in the Northeast corner of the Empire State, far beyond the cities that jump to mind when someone says they’re from New York. Whenever I talk to someone about the North Country versus New York City, I champion the city’s iron grip on keeping trees in designated areas: parks; fenced in when on city streets; kept in order and organized, much different than how they run rampant and free in the upstate.
Once you get north of Lake George on I-87, even probably past Exit 20 on the highway, you see trees, trees — trees everywhere! If there’s anything that really marks the landscape of the area, it’s trees. They’re not unusual trees, not grand redwoods or haunting Northwesten trees that sprout off the incline of mountain valleys. What the North Country forests lack in character they make up in quantity. The trees are non distinct but everywhere. And when isolated in the North Country, there are limited options when it comes to escaping. Unless you lived closer to Lake Placid, it came down to either Plattsburgh or Burlington.
Separated by Lake Champlain, the northeast New York and its neighbor, Vermont, are different. The North Country is the industrial, uglier sibling whereas Vermont is where the hippies with SUVs go to practice real estate. Plattsburgh had Georgia Pacific and Bombardier plants. Burlington had Waterfront and UVM.
The closing of the local Air Force Base with the Clinton-era defense cuts, it put our side of the lake on a economic downturn whereas Burlington’s tourist appeal made it the epicenter of culture for every teenage weirdo. Our side of the lake didn’t have their specialty clothing shops, second-hand CD stores and, most importantly, an alternative Radio Station.
Before the proliferation of nu-metal turned it to shit, the Buzz was the only real contrary reply to pop stars, boy bands and hip hop. Every Sunday, the mainstay DJ –think his name was Steve Pecard, who only went by his last name–got to live the dream by getting paid to play the current and older college-rock stars, introducing people to bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Modest Mouse long before they would have any brush with fame. It was still a company motivated by a bottom line, so popular songs by Godsmack, Sugar Ray and Smashmouth were mixed in with Ween, The Suicide Machines and Dinosaur Jr.
Like all the other radio stations in the area, the Buzz adapted some Christmas music to the mix when December rolled around. Christmas songs from The Smashing Pumpkins to the Waitresses and anyone in between were thrown in. It was the only time of year I could call in to request the Archers of Loaf and actually get them played on air. “Assassination On X-Mas Eve” probably my third favorite holiday-related song played on that radio station, right behind the last bit of punk that came out of Blink-182 with their “I Won’t Be Home For Christmas.” They both came in far behind a song I only heard once on air, and I was only able to catch the latter half of the song at that: “A Christmas Tree Carol” by Orbit.
Orbit. They broke into the mainstream at the waning end of the Alternative period, their major release of LIBIDO SPEEDWAY coming out in ’97, three years post-Cobain and one year before Korn’s ‘Follow The Leader’ would have bands ditching the distortion-effects pedals in lieu of tuning down their guitars. Their two big hits were “Medicine” and “Bicycle Song,” both which got heavy airplay on 99.9 The Buzz, which also gave their holiday song a spin.
“A Christmas Tree Carol” is a tune about–surprise, surprise–a Christmas tree, mainly one grown on a farm that’s cut down, put “horizontal on an eighteen-wheeler,” before being “bought up by some folks in Milwaukee,” and “stuck in water and colored lights.” The song closes out with a repeat of the chorus of “Merry Christmas/Hope it’s not your last.” It starts off with a plunky piano before the song rolls into the trio-arrangement of guitars, bass and drums before the sound of church bells and a well timed violin adds a controlled-symphonic element to add that sentimental-epic twinge to a somewhat nondescript albeit pleasant holiday song.
I caught the last half of the song from a car radio while someone was talking during the drive out of Plattsburgh. The recurring refrain faded out and for the longest time, I thought the chorus was “Merry Christmas/Put Up Your Lights.”
The DJ said it was Orbit and I listened to that station for the rest of the holiday season, to no avail. The song was never played again. As far as I know, it was only played once, that one time, which was surprising. Listening to the Buzz, one would think that Burlington adopted the Boston trio as their own, with a couple noted live performances (one of which celebrated the band’s ill fated second album, XLR8TR) had one on-air DJ refer to Orbit as “The Buzz’s house band.”
The first Christmas away at college, I emailed the radio station for information about this song. I found out that it was released on a 7″ that was on sale at this one store in Winooski for a limited time. I offered to buy the station’s copy but they didn’t have it anymore. With the influx of Nu Metal, there was an exodus of the original on-air talent. It was likely that one of those original DJs took it with them. I wouldn’t be surprised that Pecard, after ending his Sunday alternative-spotlight, snatched the 7″ before he packed up and moved away. Looking back now, I wouldn’t be surprised that Orbit’s “popularity” on the station was thanks to his doing.
Ten years after that email, the song appeared for sale on Amazon. I think it’s the first mp3 I paid for. Listening to it, it’s obvious whoever uploaded it took it directly from the 7″, the undeniable static of a vinyl record starting, with recognizable pops and cracks heard throughout the song.
I was in a cold, empty kitchen, my laptop resting on a high, rickety two-person table and I sat back with a cup of coffee, listening to “A Christmas Tree Carol” in its entirety for the first time. It was louder and faster than I remembered. But it wasn’t as sad or happy as I thought.
It never portrayed the cutting down a tree as a bad or good thing. Though the chorus says “Hope it’s not your last,” implying that last Christmas might be someones last Christmas ever, the way it’s sung, a joyous call as the song fades away, it doesn’t convey any sense of mortality. It’s an acknowledgement of death but it’s done in the same breath as acknowledging the holiday. Merry Christmas. Hope it’s not your last. It leaves the interpretation if this is a happy or sad song up to the listener.
Orbit never achieved enough success like other Alternative nation acts to warrant continuing on. The Gin Blossoms are playing in 2013, but Orbit broke up in 2001. All that’s left are two major label releases, a couple pre-frame independent albums and this holiday single.
The Buzz started billing itself as “the Rock alternative” and has been playing hip hop (a new song from Eminem is one of this week’s ‘Buzz Cuts.’) and the popular indie rock of the day as Artic Monkeys, Arcade Fire and Imagine Dragons. It remains a station with a bottom line.
Whether or not how Orbit or the Buzz ended up are bad or good is for the listener to decide.