The image above is actually a wine stop, available from Strika Distribution.
Here is the first of two holiday posts this year. Originally, the plan was to split it into a post of mostly acoustic holiday songs and another post of a wild mix that might turn out to be the Oliver di Place Cabaret Holiday Party. This is the acoustic post, but something interesting happened while I was putting this together. This post wound up being a celebration of the varying traditions that are celebrated at this time of year. I chose the songs I liked best from five wonderful albums, but I am also thrilled that it worked out this way.
Laurelyn Dossett, Rhiannon Giddens, Mike Compton, Joe Newberry, and Jason Sypher: Gathering Night
The Gathering started out as a six song cycle by Laurelyn Dossett, commissioned by the North Carolina Symphony. These are the first six songs on the album, and they do not have an orchestra on them as recorded. Instead, there is a five-piece folk ensemble. Rhiannon Giddens, from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, is the only one I had heard of before, but on the strength of this album, I am going to have to fix that. The six songs that start the album The Gathering are the original cycle, and Gathering Night is the opener. The cycle tells of a woman who is anxiously returning home after a long absence, on a winter’s night. The symbol of the candle in the window is evocative of many winter holidays, including Solstice, and the power of this symbol comes through beautifully in this haunting performance.
Once Dossett had assembled this fine band to record the six songs, they decided to expand the recording to a full length album by adding seven Christmas songs. These include a stunning rendition of O Holy Night arranged for just a single voice and stand-up bass, and a joyous version of Christ Was Born on Christmas Day for the full band, that closes this wonderful album on a high note.
Traveler‘s Dream: Holly and the Ivy Revisited
Traveler’s Dream is the duo of Michael Lewis and Denise Wilson, but each plays several instruments, so they often sound like a larger group. Cold Blows the Day is an album of Christmas songs, mostly familiar. There are many such albums, of varying quality. Aside from the quality of the musicianship, what makes an album like this work is a set of performances that make it clear that the artists care about the meaning of the songs. Lewis and Wilson deliver. There appear to be very few Solstice songs, but there are more than most people realize, and they are hiding in plain sight, as Christmas songs. The Holly and the Ivy is one of these. The line in the chorus about “sweet singing in the choir” almost certainly replaced earlier words as the song became Christianized. But Lewis and Wilson, with Holly and the Ivy Revisited, put the song back in the woods that it came from. Their lyrical changes are not restorations of lost text, but simply an attempt to restore the original spirit of the song. The care for the roots of this music comes through beautifully in their performances throughout the album.
Robin Greenstein and Cecelia Kirtland: Hanuka (Ladino)
On Songs of the Season, Robin Greenstein and Cecelia Kirtland joyously perform some of the familiar Christmas songs. But the real gems here are the less familiar songs. There is a set of Kwanzaa songs here, and also a wonderful set of Hanukkah songs. When most people think of Hanukkah, they think of the celebrations in the Ashkenazi tradition of the Jews from eastern Europe. But another group of Jews turned west instead of east, and settled for a time in Spain. These are the Sephardic Jews, and they developed their own traditions, and their own language, Ladino. Hanuka (Ladino) is one of their songs, and the performance here is just beautiful. I know most of this background because my uncle is Sephardic, but I never learned the language, so I don’t know what the song means. Can anyone help in the comments?
Louise Taylor: Let‘s Make a Baby King
Wonderland is one of many multi-artist samplers with a holiday theme. Often, this kind of album forces the listener to sift through the chaff to find the few good songs. But this collection comes from the Signature Sounds label, so the talent level is very high, and no sorting is needed. That said, Luoise Taylor’s performance of Let’s Make a Baby King is a standout. Jesse Winchester wrote the song as a pop-gospel number, but Taylor transforms it into a spiritual with a bluesy flavor and real power. Taylor plays guitar and adds African-sounding percussion and little else, but that’s all she needs.
Danaher & Cloud: Santa Claus, I Believe in You
I featured Danaher & Cloud’s last album here, and you can look for coverage of their next one after the new year. But, in between, they have released The Holiday Album. This collection is almost evenly split between familiar songs and originals. The album opens with a haunting rendition of O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. I have never heard of Gretchen Guard before, but based on the wonderful cover of her song Follow Now, O Shepherds, I will need to find out more. And an original song, The Little Birds in the Snow, is an eloquent reminder of the true spirit of the season. But I settled on Santa Claus, I Believe in You for its classic sound. This is a frothy and jazzy number that needs only to be heard by the right person in the music industry, and it will become a massive hit in a big, overblown arrangement. But I like it just as it is here, with a small combo, a spot-on fizzy vocal, and a wonderful lead part on fiddle.