Many artists — particularly those of the country, soul and pop persuasions — record at least one Christmas album in the course of their career. They're a sure-fire seller, guaranteed to move units. “Mom likes Tim McBride and he's made this holiday album, so OK, I know what I'm getting for her stocking this year.” The way most of these are made, you can knock one of these out in just a few days. Who doesn't know the music backwards and forwards already? All you need are the right people to sing your little “crossover duets” with. It's like making your own money.
Low's Christmas album is just called Christmas. It was made well before Sufjan made Christmas safe for indie-rockers, and is far more original and less cloying than Sufjan's holiday recordings, likable as those may be. There are four originals and three cover songs on here. It's just under 30 minutes — Beatle length — but it's surprisingly diverse. Some of the songs sound like they were recorded live in a living room while others employ a total, Spectorific, wall-of-sound approach. Instruments employed include an organ that sounds like a flute, guitars both strummed and fuzzy, and, naturally, a lot of bells. I wonder if half the bells sold in music stores aren't for people playing Christmas music. Some of the tunes are fuzzed-out and blissed-up, while others are these gentle little lullabies that you have to listen to over and over. True to the band's “slowcore” aesthetic, all the numbers unfold at an achingly, deliberately slow pace.
If you were anywhere near a TV set in the early ’00s, you've likely already heard their take on “Little Drummer Boy.” It was featured in an oft-repeated Gap commercial (umm, speaking of commerce). Theirs is the second-best version of this song ever recorded, in my own humble opinion (the first being the one by David Bowie and Bing Crosby, of course). Their dreamy molasses pop approach to the song advances toward the sublime on this song. I know that's a totally rock critic type thing to say but it's true! Their jazzy version of “Blue Christmas,” which showcases Mimi's strong voice, is very nifty and you should put it on a mix tape for your folks right now. The take on “Silent Night” is solid too, though it's so stripped-down and earnest it might not merit as many repeat plays as the rest.
The original numbers are really the centerpiece here. In a just world, they'd have become standards already. The most controversial one is the slow-burning and lovely “If You Were Born Today.” The song's opening lines go “If you were born today/ We'd kill you by age eight/ Never get a chance to say/ Joy to the world and peace on the earth.” The tune continues with a handful of Christ's best-known sayings. Coupled with those startling introductory lines, the song can't help but remind the listener that Christ's messages of total love and the desire for peace can't help but be absolutely revolutionary, and so clearly at odds with the everyday machinations of our governments and our shopping malls. It's as if the song is there to remind us all that giving thanks for the birth of Christ is of course awesome. But don't forget, that hippie looking guy not only said “Blessed are the meek,” but also “Deny the flesh” and “Deny all that's evil.” What's extraordinary is that Low manage to say this in a delirious and pretty little song without any didacticism at all.
To blazes with a diamond! Low's Christmas album is the real gift that keeps on giving.