An omnibus review of midwinter holiday music

cover art for A Winter's NightEnsemble Galilei’s A Winter’s Night: Christmas in the Great Hall
St. Agnes Fountain’s Acoustic Carols for Christmas, and Comfort & Joy
Various artists’ Oh Christmas Tree: A Bluegrass Collection for the Holidays

And how do you approach your midwinter holiday? It all seems to be wrapped up in our imprinting — those early dreams tattooed on our souls. Some folks dive right in, and celebrate away, others wax lyrical about how the holiday season trains us to be good little consumers, and still others turn to alternative rituals, creating something new out of threads from the distant. For myself, it’s a time to remember holidays past that were filled with family and church, great music, loads of midwestern comfort food, and the annual fight between my parents about the more technical aspects of decorating the Christmas tree. And going forward through the holidays as adults, we make many choices about what to carry forward, which things to imprint on those following us.

The gifts, the parties, and the anticipation of this holiday show us how to create a frenzy within ourselves as the darkness of winter climaxes. As children, the rituals teach us to suspend disbelief while our anticipation grows to unbearable dimensions; by the time a child actually gets to the unwrapping, so many things have been anticipated, questioned and disregarded that the distinction between what the self knows and consensus reality proclaims has been lost in little minds. Slowly we bcome the adults carrying inevitable residue of this fevered holiday, with its subtext of adult weariness born of late nights wrapping, non-stop cooking, shopping during free moments, and hauling great boxes of decorations from closets for the pleasure of cats and children.

And what has this to do with holiday CDs, you ask? Well, to my mind, the music is such a central part of this season that simply to hear certain carols brings me back to those holiday states of mind — tension mixed with anticipation and a firm determination to enjoy the season and damn the emotional torpedos. Bringing out the holiday music is as much a part of the ritual as baking cookies, pounding out some carols on the family piano, and wrapping presents. These are the types of discs that get played year after year, or discarded if they don’t measure up. With so many lackluster albums out there, as well as those crass attempts to pander to holiday sentimentality and separate the holiday shopper from her hard earned coinage, this can be a difficult category to review. My personal holiday tastes run to the traditional and instumental, and I prefer those that refer to the religious or seasonal aspects of the seasons; I loathe those lounge singer holiday albums that go on about Santa bringing diamonds, or snowmen officiating weddings. Give me a holiday album that doesn’t pander to the frenzy, something soothing and instrumental, I say. Now that I’ve warned you, dear reader, on to the discs.

Ensemble Galilei have created a delight! A Winter’s Night is one of the best holiday discs I’ve heard in years. I’ve been a fan on Ensemble Galilei for awhile, and loved this female ensemble’s take on women’s music, The Mystic and the Muse. Ensemble Galilei approach their holiday music with the same grace and elegance as their other work, bringing a freshness to music that spans the medieval to the modern. The ensemble consists of Liz Knowles (fiddle, viola), Debora Nuse (Scottish small pipes, fiddle), Sue Richards (Celtic harp), Carolyn Anderson Surrick (viols) and Sarah Weiner (oboe, tin whistle, recorder), with guest Kieran O’Hare (uilleann pipes, flutes, low whistles, tin whistles). A Winter’s Night combines familiar Christmas carols with lesser known selections ranging from seventeenth century Italian dances to Irish airs.

What sets Ensemble Galilei apart is their exquisite taste, individual and collective artistry, and their unerring sense for arrangments. As before, original compositions like “Bells and Bows (Knowles) / New Year’s Dawn (Nuse)” blend seamlessly with sets of traditional Irish music like “Bottom of the Punch Bowl / The Man Who Died and Rose Again / Apples in Winter” and with well-known carols like “I Saw Three Ships.” This is instrumental holiday music like it should be, presented with elegance and warmth. A Winter’s Night is bound to appeal those who like “Celtic Chamber Music,” or as they put it: Irish, Scottish, Early Music and Original Works. It’s sure to stand the test of time, and become a favorite holiday soundscape.

cover art for Acoustic CarolsSt. Agnes Fountain take a slightly different approach to selecting their Christmas music, as their Web site tells us about their first album: “This is the real thing, genuine, top of the range Christmas merchandise comprising full length album… And none of this obscure stuff either. No fifteenth century plainsong here. These are all top quality traditional family favourites (more or less).” But a quick look at the roster of Julie Mathews (piano, keyboards, acoustic guitar, mandolin, harmonica, vocals), Chris While (acoustic and electric guitar, bodhran, percussion, vocals), David Hughes (acoustic guitar, vocals) and Chris Leslie (mandolin, fiddle, bouzouki, vocals) will convince you that this is no attempt at crass commercialism. Rather, it’s an ensemble formed for midwinter touring, bringing a folk sensibility to the tradition, and creating some new holiday material along the way. All this is not surprising from folks associated with the institution that is Fairport Convention. Fans of the latter will be very likely to start playing both offerings as soon as the holiday season looms.

Acoustic Carols for Christmas consists entirely of traditional carols given the St. Agnes Fountain treatment. It’s a great disc that falters in only one place — the spoken word delivery of “Deck the Halls” which will probably appeal to fans of David Hughes, if not to this reviewer. The arrangements of the “top quality traditional family favourites” will appeal to most fans of folk and folk rock, with their fresh, enthusiastic and approachable arrangements. I particularly liked “I Saw Three Ships” with all four vocalists weaving in and out, accompanied by bodhran, along with some hot fiddle and a mean bouzouki. “The Holly and the Ivy” is also given a fine instrumental treatment, while “Good King Wenceslas” seems to have made a brilliant move to a country near the Appalachians where the fiddles wail and the singers drawl. It’s lovely. The four principals are joined by Gerry Conway (drums/percussion), with some help on selected tracks by Kellie While, Dave Pegg, and Mark Tucker.

cover art for Comfort & JoyComfort & Joy contains more traditional carols as well as lots of new material like the bonus track where Ralph McTell reads a selection from his autobiography entitled “Uncle Alf, Two Turkeys and a Piano Accordion,” a personal childhood memory of the sort I alluded to at the beginning of this review. This disc also includes an ode to holiday inspired hopes for peace, “Christmas Day in the 1950s,” and “Present Times” which consists mostly of a lovely “Noel” harmony and tradition-inspired melody. The traditional material blends well with the originals in most places, although the themes are quite divergent, as in “The River,” which explores the sadness born of a holiday far different from our traditional dreams, mourning the loss of a lover.”Follow that Star” is an original written as a ballad, telling the story of a shepherd that almost misses the miracle of the first Christmas. “Once in royal David’s City” gets a reggae treatment, while “O Little Town of Bethlehem” gets a cool jazz arrangements with some impeccable vocals by Chris While.

cover art for O Christmas TreeGiven the prejudices proclaimed above, you’d expect me to hate O Christmas Tree, which contains a large selection of original bluegrass compositions written with true blue American sentimentality, full of predictable motifs about family, holly in the window, icicles on the barn, and so forth. But I can’t. Somehow this all works. I’m not sure why! Perhaps my heart has grown three sizes while listening to this CD. Or perhaps the unabashed twang of the singers, the fiddles the banjos, are the best place for songs like “Winter Wonderland” and “Silver Bells.” American favorites like “The Friendly Beasts” and “O Come All Ye Faithful” are particularly at home here, evoking my own memories of singins hymns with unsullied sincerity as a child. Whatever. I particularly liked Alecia Nugent’s “Beautiful Star of Bethlehem;” she is surely an artist who deserves more attention. Other standouts included Open Road’s spritely yet despondent “Blue Christmas” and The Cox Family’s simple and direct version of “Go Tell it on the Mountain.” Tony Trischka’s “Precious Child” perfectly evokes that sense of old time religion that doesn’t ever let up about being saved — I felt as if I had been transported to a church where banjoes are played! It doesn’t get more ‘merican than this, folks.

This one will appeal to bluegrass and country fans searching for holiday music that suits their ouvre. It’s not quite the America I grew up in, but it’s recognizable. O Christmas Tree has an appeal that will tug at many heartstrings, and who could be surprised at that, with a roster that also includes Rhonda Vincent, Lynn Morris, James King, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver? I’m not blue this Christmas, and this disc will help keep it that way!

So what makes it into your sound system over the holidays? Each of these has a different yet very real appeal. We’re expecting 14 people for a party tonight, the house is a mess, and the kids’ presents aren’t wrapped, and the champers has yet to be purchased. As I try to resist the frenetic pace I’ve set for myself over this holiday season, I’m likely to put these all into the machine, press random selection, and begin getting ready!

(Maggie’s Music, 2001)
(Folk Corporation, 2001)
(Folk Corporation, 2002)
(Rounder, 2002)

Kim Bates

Kim Bates, former Music Review Editor, grew up in and around St. Paul/Minneapolis and developed a taste for folk music through housemates who played their music and took her to lots of shows, as well as KFAI community radio, Boiled in Lead shows in the 1980s, and the incredible folks at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which she's been lucky to experience for the past 10 years. Now she lives in Toronto, another city with a great and very accessible music and arts scene, where she teaches at the University of Toronto. She likes to travel to beautiful nature to do wilderness camping, but she lives in a city and rides the subway to work. Some people might say that she gets distracted by navel gazing under the guise of spirituality, but she keeps telling herself it's Her Path. She's deeply moved by environmental issues, and somehow thinks we have to reinterpret our past in order to move forward and survive as cultures, maybe even as a species. Her passion for British Isles-derived folk music, from both sides of the Atlantic, seems to come from this sense about carrying the past forward. She tends to like music that mixes traditional musical themes with contemporary sensibilities -- like Shooglenifty or Kila -- or that energizes traditional tunes with today's political or personal issues -- like the Oysterband, Solas, or even Great Big Sea. She can't tolerate heat and humidity, but somehow she finds herself a big fan of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys (Louisana), Regis Gisavo (Madagascar), and various African and Caribbean artists -- always hoping that tour schedules include the Great White North.

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