The Jigsaw Seen did what it could with the concept of a holiday record, which isn't a lot, but in capturing the trudging feel of winter, the band succeeded.
As retailers leap-frog Thanksgiving and start pumping Christmas music through their overhead speakers -- we get it, by the way, you're worried we won't spend any money this year so you're warming us up early, great -- you may find yourself wishing they had some music from the Jigsaw Seen on hand. The long-time power-pop group has always had a warm, inviting sound -- something gauzier than the jangle of classic R.E.M. and just barely on the normal side of Super Furry Animals' kooky antics. Now, though, they've gone and made a Christmas album. Well, sort of. It's a winter album -- hence the title, Winterland -- but it doesn't shy away from talking about the holiday season plenty.
The immediate appeal to Winterland is that, well, the Jigsaw Seen doesn't change its approach all that much. It doesn't devolve into caroling and cloying bells -- though there are a few bells -- to achieve its wintry mix. Instead, the album adroitly cools the band's pop sensibilities into the sludgy grey of short December days. Rather than try to warm us up with holiday spirit and firesides and good cheer, this album finds its comfort within a more realistic and chilly atmosphere. It may not make for an album that will put you in the mood to celebrate, but it makes for some subtly charming, and sometimes moody, pop music.
Opener "What About Christmas", with its acoustic guitars and lilting strings, paints a picture of a man alone. He's not exactly lonely, and the song doesn't sound exactly sad, but the promise of perhaps celebrating with others circles the song effectively. "Snow Angels of Pigtown" is a quietly soaring number, perhaps the best here, that builds keys and sweet vocals over an icy, lean riff. These songs are surrounded by the overcast skies and cold stillness of winter, and they play nicely against more lively numbers like "Candy Cane" -- with its plunking pianos and tense chorus -- or the jaunty folk of "Circle of Steel". There's plenty of darkness around -- people tip back gin bottles, people feel isolated, people seem mired in regret -- but Winterland never falls into heavy-handed cynicism. Instead, it's an album that can navigate the limbo of emotions that often come up around the holidays. If it doesn't say anything new about this idea, it at least represents it well.
Still, though Winterland doesn't sound like a holiday record, it often falls into the same trappings. For all the band's pop pedigree, it can't help but fall into Christmas-y schmaltz like so many groups that came before. "First Day of the New Year", a late-record piano ballad, is a curious shift to the maudlin -- "If I don't count the days, the years won't be unkind," sings Dennis Davison -- but it feels overly slick. The strings and clean organs push too hard and feel too lush for such an isolated song, and the results sound saccharin. Of course, it sounds downright subtle next to the overbuilt "Dreams of Spring". The whining guitar fills and -- once again -- heavy-handed strings drag this tune down, so while it strives for a triumphant, power-ballad moment late in the record, it becomes one more straw threatening to break the listener's back.
Those moments don't make Winterland a failure by any stretch. They just point out and amplify the limitations of this kind of project. The Jigsaw Seen did what it could with the concept of a holiday record, and in capturing the trudging feel of this time of year the band succeeded. Unfortunately, once you get past that established feel, there's not a whole lot to go on. You'll be thankful they don't berate you with jingle bells, but what makes this great overhead-speaker shopping music is the same thing that keeps it from being a great record: It's a little too easy to tune out.