In 2013, veteran Canadian roots rock band the Skydiggers released a five-song Christmas EP called Angels in part to commemorate their 25th anniversary. The set obviously went over so well that now the group has expanded it to a full-length album, complete with 11 songs (one of them is a hidden bonus track). And, if you want to feel good by buying this holiday LP, know that a portion of the record’s proceeds will go towards the Unison Benevolent Fund, a non-profit organization that provides counselling, emergency relief, and benefit programs for those in the Canadian music community who face personal or professional challenges due to hardship, illness, unemployment or economic difficulties. So what’s on Angels? Well, there’s a cover of the Pretenders’ “2000 Miles”, a version of John Prine’s “Christmas in Prison”, a rendering of the traditional spiritual “Poor Little Jesus”, a take on the Placide Cappeau poem “Minuit Chretiens” that is known in English as “O Holy Night”, as well as, here’s the surprise, an adaptation of Will Oldham’s “I See a Darkness”. Angels covers a lot of ground. It’s a welcome collection in a year where Canadian perennial favourites Blue Rodeo also have released a Christmas disc, so it certainly seems like Canadian musicians are in a celebratory mood this holiday season. Well, sort of. Angels is not your traditional Christmas album. It can be, at times, pretty dark.
The thing about Angels, though, is that it is probably not going to replace your favourite Christmas LP of all time, whatever that may be. (My vote goes towards the soundtrack for A Charlie Brown Christmas — “Christmastime Is Here” brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it.) There are deficiencies on the record, as much as there is goodwill. The main thrust of the problem points come early on. The vocals on “2000 Miles”, the first track, and its follow-up “I Wonder As I Wander” are inherently weak, particularly during the latter as the vocal melody calls for a fairly high pitched voice. That’s about the worst that I can say though about Angels, and the disc does get better as it goes along. This is due to some rather unusual choices: “Christmas in Prison” features female vocals, and the song definitely works in spite of this change. It sounds heartfelt and hopeful, and the singing is sterling. And since “Minuit Chrietien”” is done in Canada’s other official language, French, it’s a great nod towards the Francophone Canadian market. It’s a welcome move for an English-speaking band.
However, the real treat of this album is the hidden track. Peter Cash’s take on “I See A Darkness” is poignant and stark. It’s not exactly an explicit Christmas song, but it becomes one in the hands of Cash when you consider lyrics such as “Well, I hope that someday, buddy, we have peace in our lives.” I’m not sure why this is being treated as a bonus, aside from the fact that it doesn’t come out and bash you over the head with mistletoe. I’d say that it’s among the best things, if not the best thing, that Angels has on tap. However, this disc, as noted earlier, does better and better as it goes, ending on a particular high note overall. “The Holly and the Ivy”, a reading of a traditional British carol, may make the hairs on the back of your neck prickle, and closer “Good King Wenceslas” is a folksy strum of a song that offers a wrinkle in how you may remember it with an acoustic guitar arrangement that sounds as though it’s on antidepressants.
If some of these changes sound a little on the dour side, they are. As lead singer Andy Maize notes in the press release, the album offers “moments of melancholy, regret and truth that are in their own way as much a part of the Christmas experience as any joyous carol.” That’s a courageous move, to unleash a Christmas album that isn’t necessarily full of Hallmark sentiments. On the basis of that, Angels, despite its flaws, is intrepid and thoughtful, much in the same way that Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas songs are. There’s something about folk musicians wanting to explore the darker sides of the Christmas season, a time where the weather grows colder and the nights are at their longest during the year.
Basically, Angels is a disc for those who already appreciate the Skydiggers. It’s kind of a treat from the group to its fans. To those who aren’t, the recommendation would be to try and sample the material if you can and see if the band’s sometimes morbid take on the Christmas season is something that works for you. Critically, though, the record is enjoyable overall and it certainly earns points for not being a traditional holiday album. Mixing in old favourites with newer pop song covers, along with a choice Skydiggers original or two, makes for an intriguing fabrication. Given the somewhat sad nature of this disc, I must admit that I’m a little surprised that there isn’t a cover of Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” on it as it would fit the mood quite well. Still, Angels is an album of sorrow and hope in equal dollops, and is something for those who cannot stand the crassness and commerciality of Band Aid, especially now with the criticisms that “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” is considered to be in poor taste in the way that it depicts Africa.
This record may be challenging, and there are the aforementioned obvious signs of the group exceeding its reach, but its mood and themes, as well as the fact that its sales are supporting a good cause, make this rather beguiling in a way. If it is said that every time a bell rings, an angel earns his or her wings, Angels shows that some get their wings clipped now and then, but that’s okay because there is the hope of redemption just around the corner. Christmastime may also be a dark period for some people, and Angels exposes that while not necessarily wallowing in it. And that, my friends, is a much needed offering of glad tidings and joy to those who, ultimately, just want to hear something different during these troubling times.