Daniel and Lauren Goans, the indie darlings also known as Lowland Hum, are back again, one year after their gorgeous release Thin, with gifts for the holiday season. Songs for Christmas Time is one of those rare collections that hits all the right notes, and offers us a path through the hectic days to come. If you are looking for a place of rest and solitude, tucked inside the celebrations, this is a fine place to start.
Christmas albums, as a genre, are a mixed bag. There are the traditional records, with all the classics you know and love, there are the goofy and wonderful kitchen sink releases, unpredictable, yet entertaining, and there are those that are plainly dreadful and commercial.
Some of my fondest memories as a child were of Christmas mornings, with the family. The best gifts were an interesting mix of things you wanted, things you needed, and things you never thought of but grew to love. Songs for Christmas Time is that sort of gifting. There are seasonal songs you know by heart, some traditional tunes that you may be unfamiliar with, and a chestnut or two from Johnny Cash and Vince Guaraldi.
The magic in this record is the way in which the Goans see and hear the holidays. The song selection is excellent, and the arrangements fresh and new, acknowledging that, for adults, the holidays can be challenging emotionally. And, as you might expect, the performance is gorgeous and understated, holding true to their mantra “Support Quiet Music.”
The whole affair starts with the venerable classic “Joy to the World.” Above a gently strummed acoustic guitar the Goans usher in this wonderful set of songs. The joy is there in the opening track, not a giddy sort of joy, but muted, perhaps tempered by the experience of living. And yet it is still a celebration of faith in the midst of the challenges and dangers of the modern world.
And what better way to look forward than by drawing strength from (healthy) traditions; anchors that remind us who we are and where we come from? The second track is an eighteenth century poem, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” It is the inclusion of this song and a couple of others that make this collection personal and unique to the Goans’ vision. Google search this song; its origin is interesting as is its possible connection to the Song of Solomon.
Set right in the middle of this nine-song offering is a gem of an African American spiritual, “Ain’t That Rockin’ All Night.” Often given the big performance treatment by gospel choirs, Lowland Hum rearranges the hymn and uncovers a wealth of emotional comfort. By turning in a subtle take on this number the Goans highlight the tenderness of a new mother cradling her babe in her arms. In that moment of maternal love and shelter the Christmas story becomes even more intimate and divinely human.
“We are the Shepherds” is a wonderful Johnny Cash tribute to the shepherds who came to the view the newborn king, bringing their simple gift of a candle. It highlights the hope of the Christmas season, that it is for all people, not merely those who can afford lavish gifts. “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night” are beautifully done as well.
The closer, “Christmas Time is Here,” is the much-loved Mendelson/Guaraldi number we all know from the Charlie Brown Christmas special. It is a fine choice to wrap up this holiday gift, returning to the childlike hope we all must hold on to in order to navigate this unpredictable life.
The beauty of this recording is in the wisdom of the choices Lowland Hum has made. Smartly avoiding treacly sentiment, instead they offer us a variety of emotional shadings, delivering a depth often missed in holiday recordings. This is an album that will carry you through the season, grounding your heart when all the demands on your time pull you in a hundred directions.
This is a great record for late at night by the fire, or in the quiet of the morning, with a simple cup of coffee. It draws you into a space where it is possible to declutter your heart and mind, and simply be in the moment. I think that is one of the things Lowland Hum does best. They seem to know how to call us into that place where we can recover our hearts from all the burdens laid upon them. And that is cause for celebration.
Lauren puts it best. “Regarding the album, it is a collection of acoustic Christmas classics retooled for those of us who desire a more understated approach to holiday cheer. For most of us, Christmas time stirs up a mixture of complicated emotions, even if we enjoy certain aspects of the holidays. To celebrate the season, we wanted to make a record of old songs that we love, and express them in a way that could empathize with the emotional mixture many of us experience this time of year. We hope that people feel at home in these recordings, whether they are feeling jubilant, overcast, or one of the many gradations in between.”
To describe this as an alternative Christmas record might be too drastic in terms of labels, but Songs for Christmas Time sits right in the queue with the Chieftains’ Bells of Dublin and Bruce Cockburn’s Christmas at my house. It is an important album, if that can be said of holiday releases. Treat yourself this year and don’t pass this one up, you might just need it more than you know. www.theflamestillburns.com