It’s often easy to overlook holiday music. After all, we only listen to it for a few weeks a year (which is weird... a little like only listening to love songs when we’re in love; to the Beach Boys when it’s summer; and to Talking Heads when we’re in chemistry class), and even fans tend to forget about it until it’s jammed up their noses.
Who among us, for example, spent weeks puzzling over the identity of the forty-seventh disc in last year’s Complete Bob Dylan box set, before finally remembering “oh right, the Christmas album.”
How many of us have piles of John Fahey CDs all over the house, but keep the festive discs in the attic, with the rest of the seasonal decorations?
Who plays the final track on John Lennon’s Shaved Fish compilation in March?
It’s a scenario that has never changed, of course, but it is slowly shifting. Recent years have seen a handful of mid-winter themed projects emerge, some stating the holidays as something more than Santa’s Sensational Spendathon Spectacular; some reclaiming them for traditions that are older than Christmas itself; and some simply curling up by the fire with some eggnog and chestnuts, for the sheer fun and frolic of singing their favorite carols.
Which tends to mean “Jingle Bells” doesn’t get a look in. Sorry.
Both Sproatly Smith and the Owl Service have ventured gallantly into these waters in recent years, and emerged with recordings that you really won’t feel awkward listening to at other times of year. And now the Rowan Amber Mill, whom regular readers will recall from The Book of the Lost a year ago, deliver Silent Night Songs for a Cold Winter's Evening, a seasonal gathering that pairs the genius Mill’s instrumental vision with the pristine tones of Angeline Morrison... one half of the Emily and Angeline duo with another recent Spin Cycle heroine, Emily Jones.
Let’s get the “that sounds great... where do I get it from?” out of the way first. Head on over to the Mill’s Bandcamp page, where a Deluxe Download offers the six track EP with four bonus tracks, extended artwork, lyrics and video etc; or a choice of CD digipacks play delightful variations with the packaging. Something for everyone, then, and that’s before you listen to the thing! Which you really need to do right now.
Silent Night Songs for a Cold Winter's Evening would be well-titled even if its name didn’t simply conjoin the first two songs on the disc, “Silent Night” and “Cold Winter’s Evening.” It’s a gentle listen, traditional-feeling instrumentation conjuring the atmospheres through which Morrison’s vocal... warming here, fragile there, delectable always... floats like the best seasonal wishes. Icily beautiful, tinglingly spooky. The soundtrack to an evening reading Charles Dickens's ghost stories, perhaps. Or the backdrop to finding yourself drawn into one. A combination of familiar themes (“Wassail,” “I Saw Three Ships”) and new material, a blend of vocal and instrumental pieces. Belsnickels looming out of gaslit alleyways.
It is an album of drifting snow and falling darkness, of cheerful lights and chilly breath, of all the things that we would like to associate with the holidays, and which we probably would, if we weren’t too busy worrying whether or not Santa will bring us the vintage jukebox we asked for, or just another pack of toy socks.
Again we’re speaking generally here, but too many festive records are so intent upon making you Have A Good Time that it all starts to get a bit Godfather Christmassy... you’d better be jolly and full of festive cheer, or you might just find a reindeer’s head in your bed. A wassail you cannot refuse, as it were.
Silent Night Songs for a Cold Winter's Evening, on the other hand, demands nothing more than that you let it play... let it fill the room and your imagination too. And if you find you’re still playing it in early spring, or at the height of summer... so what? Good music, great records, should be enjoyable all year round. And this is one that will be.