Crate-Digging Christmas Special: Low – Christmas

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

…Unless I decide to skip around the alphabet. Or post a Christmas special.

(Chairkickers Union Music, 1999)

More than any other time of year, Christmas is steeped with the greatest sense of tradition. It’s the time where families converge to celebrate, and also to unwind and reflect following the busy months that preceded it. It’s the last great moment of rejoicing before the winter truly turns cold and brutal. We’ve got a few good traditions: My mother-in-law wears out Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown Christmas album, and my father-in-law has a collection of obscure Norwegian Christmas carol parodies. My wife Julie always curls up by the fire at her parents’ house on Christmas Eve, and the holiday doesn’t even count until we’ve viewed Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and How the Grinch Stole Christmas on TV. My parents, brothers, uncle, and me all wear our new housepants, with a brand new pair of boxers on the outside – don’t ask, really. But now, with the imminent departure of my in-laws to Florida, as well as a new little “Critical” Masteller on the way in spring, it’s time to start thinking about how our traditions will change, and what new ones we can institute in their place. Enter Low’s Christmas.

Actually, I should mention that Christmas has gotten a lot of airplay over the years during the holidays. We introduced it to my wife’s family’s playlist, and it’s stuck (do I have the coolest in-laws or what?). So it’s not technically a new tradition, but it’s our tradition, and it’s one that we’ll carry over into our new circumstances.

Low, the kings of slowcore, would seem to fit the material perfectly. They openly acknowledge their Christianity (husband and wife vocalists Mimi Parker and Allan Sparhawk are Mormons – whatever) and therefore can inject quite a bit of that religious background into their music without sounding trite or fearing to alienate their fanbase. So even though they tackle traditional tunes here on this album (three in fact), the majority are Low originals, and are infused with biblical references. Take “If You Were Born Today,” for instance, which imagines that if Jesus Christ were born in this period of history, we’d kill him by the time he was eight years old. Low goes on to suggest that some of his greatest proclamations – joy to the world, peace on the earth, blessed are the meek, etc. – would never reach the ears of those who would need to hear it. Heavy stuff, but the band isn’t known for its levity.

But what’s this? Album opener “Just Like Christmas” actually has a tempo you can tap your toes to! Ostensibly chronicling a Scandinavian winter tour, Parker sings, “By the time we got to Oslo, the snow was gone, and we got lost. The beds were small, but we felt so young. It was just like Christmas.” Young lovers in a foreign country, strange and unusual circumstances – Parker and Sparhawk take great pleasure in the warmth of each other’s company, and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? And the travel vibe shakes the powder as sleigh bells provide the rhythm – I think the best method of transportation between Stockholm and Oslo in the winter time is probably sledge. It even reminds me a bit of indie rock’s other royal married duo – Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley could certainly have cranked out a similar Christmas original … if of course they weren’t Jewish. But I think the sentiment would be the same.

And while these originals are perfect seasonal meditations, and also fit in well with Low’s discography, it’s the interpretations of the classics that really sell the record. And since there are only three here, it’s imperative that the band make them their own. “Silent Night,” while performed simply on acoustic guitar and featuring both singers in harmony, is a beautiful rendition, even if it’s a similar version to those you’ll hear performed in front of congregations at Christmas Eve services countrywide. But Parker’s take on The King’s “Blue Christmas” strips away the gloss and schmaltzy ego of Elvis’s original and infuses it with a gorgeous torch song beauty that you’d be surprised exists within the composition. And “The Little Drummer Boy” – let’s just say Yo La Tengo would be proud of this one too. Cloaked in a Hammond haze and backed by a snare, Sparhawk’s voice melts over the classic – yes, Low owns this one. In fact, they made a little extra gift money a few years ago when The Gap picked up the song for a holiday commercial. That was an awesome year for programming between the Christmas specials – I felt a sense of hope at television advertisements that I’d never felt before … and never would again… It’s definitely the highlight of Christmas, and anchors it with a credibility lacking from most holiday cash-grab albums.

Yes. This is one of the best Christmas albums you can get, even though it’s only an eight-song EP. I’m happy to have discovered it when I did, so that I’m now able to include it as part of my family’s holiday celebrations for years to come. Merry Christmas!

RIYL: Christmas traditionals, Yo La Tengo, Bedhead

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