I admit it. I am a holiday music fanatic. Each year, I roam the stores in search of the perfect Christmas record. But this year I was beginning to despair. Because, although I am obsessive about the music, I am not indiscriminate in my affections. I’ve been wading through the countless CDs by such superstars as Kenny G, Amy Grant, and even the Irish tenors, all of which left me wondering if the spirit of Christmas (whatever it may be) has finally succumbed to commercialism.
Then I had the good fortune to stumble upon Low’s Christmas. This quiet little album has single-handedly rescued holiday music for me. Combining covers of traditional Christmas songs with several originals, Low’s approach to a holiday album is unlike any other. Eschewing the jolly—and overplayed—ditties that increasingly fill the other albums, Low presents a vision of Christmas that is a bit somber, but ultimately more filled with Christmas spirit than the whole wall of holiday hits at Sam Goody.
The album begins with a rocking and merry original, a significant departure for the usually uncannily reserved band. “Just Like Christmas” conveys an infectious happiness that carries through the dolor of the remaining seven songs, soothing their troubled take on the holiday.
“Long Way Around the Sea,” another original, returns Low to its signature style, with Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s beautiful harmonies slowly winding their way through the music. The song’s poetry and serenity capture the holiness of the holiday, offering a gentle glimpse of the Biblical origins of Christmas. The album’s third original song, “If You Were Born Today,” is a rather grim assessment of what Christmas has become whose subdued condemnation resonates in the song’s wistful melody. “Taking Down the Tree” is a tender and affectionate commentary on the aftermath of Christmas fun that feels sweetly like looking through a family photo album.
The band’s choice of traditional songs is wise and almost humorous in its appropriateness. This album is thankfully free of “Rudolph” or “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” instead including three less raucous classics. Low’s version of the “Little Drummer Boy” is backed by a keyboard drone and distant drums, lending a slightly disquieting quality to the already haunting vocal harmonies. For “Blue Christmas,” Parker channels the ghost of Elvis, or perhaps Patsy Cline. Rich harmonies and bare guitar chords give “Silent Night” a touching simplicity.
My favorite song of the album may be the last. “One Special Gift” is tiny but lovely. Accompanied by an achingly, slowly strummed guitar, Parker sings, “After we’ve spent all the money on nieces and nephews and a couple of friends, there’ll be just enough left. For one special gift. For one special guest.” With that, the album ends, leaving the listener with a richer perspective on negotiating the conflicting demands of the season and a reminder of what is often brushed aside during the holidays.