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Indie Spotlight: Holiday 2021 edition

Holiday releases from Jeremiah Lockwood, Hiss Golden Messenger, L Shankar and others are reviewed in the Indie Spotlight column.

By Lee Zimmerman

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Christmas albums are more than a trend these days. In fact, for many artists, they become a key component in many a catalog. Some opt to write their own holiday tunes while others are happy to simply revisit cherished Christmas carols and standards. Jesse Terry takes the latter route on his new album Peace: A Christmas Collection, and while he tends to take a traditional approach with little to no variation on the age-old arrangements, those who have followed his career ought not find it come as any surprise. Terry’s an amiable fellow with a decided sensitivity and emotive approach to all his material, not to mention the voice of a choirboy. Consequently, the new album lives up to its title with 20 selections that cull holiday favorites such as “O Little Time of Bethlehem,” “Do You hear What I Hear,” “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Silent Night” and the like. Likewise, with the great Neilson Hubbard helping helm the production, the material is given the sensitive treatment it deserves. The inclusion of Joni Mitchell’s “River” seems almost mandatory, but here again the care and comfort inevitably shine through. It wouldn’t be surprising if this evolves into a Christmas classic in the years to come.

  

Lockwood

Chanukah sometimes gets short thrift when it comes to holiday happenstance, and while that’s not necessarily surprising, it should be remembered that there’s more to that musical tradition than rote replays of “The Dreidel Song” (here reimagined as “Drey Dreydl” with accompaniment by Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars) Consequently, credit guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood for taking an intellectual and educational approach to the sounds of the season with a series of solo instrumentals that source mostly from original works. Lockwood, the grandson of a cantor and a musical scholar in his own right, manages to meld the inspired tradition of Jewish liturgy with traditional tapestries reminiscent of the work of John Fahey, Brownie McGee and those musicians who plied their skills to Piedmont blues traditions. The results are both sensitive and sublime, but flush with an emotional expression that transcends cultural and ethnic designs. It’s music that can be appreciated by all.

  

Shankar

L Shankar’s Christmas From India offers an intriguing, if unlikely, meld of traditional Christmas songs (“Silent Night,” “Jingle Bells,” “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Deck the Halls” etc.) with an exotic far eastern accent, as informed by the sound of sitar, tablas and, of course, Shankar’s signature violin. On first hearing it sounds somewhat like a novelty record that defies any typical template, but given a fuller listen, its charms become apparent. Shankar’s occasional vocals come across as somewhat quaint and dainty, but in many ways, they actually add to the appeal. On the whole, it’s both fanciful and fusion-esque, a clever blend of World Music and a hallowed holiday heritage shared with innovation and imagination. At the same time, it creates a decided mood and ambiance well in keeping with the spirit of the season. Consider this nothing less than a genuinely innovative offering. 

  

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Lori McKenna is one of today’s most prolific — and successful singer/songwriters. In addition to a string of highly acclaimed albums — 2020’s The Balladeer, 2018’s The Tree and 2016’s The Bird & The Rifle —- she is the proud recipient of three Grammys, the distinction of becoming the first female to win Songwriter of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards, and a much in-demand songwriter for such A-list artists as Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Little Big Town, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, Hunter Hayes and Reba McEntire. It’s little wonder then that her new EP, Christmas Is Right Here, is the sort of record that can easily stand up the rest of the year. Boasting five original songs and a melodious take on Paul McCartney’s sublime “Wonderful Christmastime,” it shares the sometimes fraught and fragile emotions that often accompany the arrival of the holiday season. Yet, at the same time, there’s a keen sense of nostalgia that overrides those sentiments, especially as evidenced by the tender torch songs “Christmas Without Crying,” “Grateful” and “Still Christmas in Nashville.” McKenna has the unique ability to be able to tug at the heartstrings without appearing maudlin or melancholy in the process. Here again, is another tribute to her talent.

  

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Rehya Stevens taps into cherished holiday traditions with her latest album, ’Tis the Season, an upbeat and effusive set of songs that not only celebrate the season, but also rekindle glad tidings, good wishes and goodwill for all. A follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2018 holiday album, Celebrate, ’Tis the Season finds Rehya offering another set of all-new, soon-to-be Christmas classics along with a selection of beloved holiday standards such as “Santa Baby,” “Please Come Home” and a medley comprised of “All Through the Night” and “The Holly & The Ivy.” As always, she exudes an emotional embrace, draping each song in a tender tapestry of warmth, reverence, care, and comfort. Combining rich arrangements with her soulful yet sensitive vocals, she turns the richly romantic “Marry Me for Christmas,” the bubbly and bodacious “Christmas Is Coming Soon,” the solace and solitude of “Wonderland of Winter” and the vintage-sounding stand-out “Santa, Won’t You Hurry” into veritable gems that shine and sparkle as bright as the tinsel on the Christmas tree.

  

Hiss Golden Messenger

Credit Hiss Golden Messenger with a different sort of holiday album, one that dives deep into a more contemplative sort of sensibility. Here again, many of the songs found on O Come All Ye Faithful may not necessarily be directly identified with this particular time of the year — CCR’s “As Long As I Can See the Light” being one of the most obvious examples — but all convey the solemnity and sanctity that the holidays imply. That won’t be a shock to anyone that’s followed this band over the course of their collective career. Hiss Golden Messenger have always been a thoughtful bunch, and here again, on songs such as “Grace,” “Hung Fire,” and “Shine a Light,” they delve into a series of sublime melodies that resonate with reflection, grace and insight. “Hanukah Dance,” “Silent Night,” “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Joy to the World” offer spiritual solace, but the melodies are adapted to the group’s own tonality and template. As a result, O Come All Ye Faithful becomes a very special entry into the cache of today’s seasonal songs, and one that’s well worth exploring.

  

O'Connell

Tim O’Connell puts a singular spin on Silent Nights, a collection of original songs that view the holidays from a somewhat cynical perspective. Titles such as “Let’s Save Christmas,” “Is That Not What We Celebrate at Christmas?” And “I’m Not Getting Anything for Christmas” hint at darker designs, although there’s more than a glimmer of hope and happenstance that still shine through, especially in a song such as “Days of Wonder,” in which the true spirit of the season still shines through. O’Connell is a gifted songwriter and his melodic designs and clever lyrical twists clearly shine through. “I’ve been sober since October, maybe some time you can come on over,” he pleads on “Evangeline,” a heart-worn homage to a lost love. On the other hand, the rollicking “A Rocking Little Rhythm” keeps the pacing at a premium. Other interesting twists include an unlikely low-key medley of “The Star Spangled Banner” and “The First Noel” and a cover cartoon that pictures an individual who’s clearly found that the holiday’s gotten the best of him. Kudos for cleverness.