Chair Kicker's Union/kranky
By: Robert H.
In a year sponsoring releases by apparently infallible talents like Luna, Beck, and The Magnetic Fields, a band consisting of an undistorted guitar, a plodding bass and a snare drum might seem likely to fall through the cracks. But, damn, if Low isn't a surefire nominee for band of the year. For not only do they have Secret Name on their side, an album that is both a departure from past releases and the best example of their cleanly wrought and whisper pretty songcraft, they also have presented us with one of the best Christmas albums since the fall of Bing.
The idea of a Christmas album from a band that at times appears to think the world is moving towards despair in slow motion might seem about as appealing as burning elves. After all, who wants to hear "Jingle-Bells" transformed into a droning dirge? But to have this expectation is to miss the sweetness, sincerity and Sisyphean hope that underlies Low's otherwise melancholic tone. (Anyone who has ever seen them play and has witnessed the beatific countenances behind Alan and Mimi's angelic voices understands this immediately.) "Christmas" should highlight this point for even the most skeptical. The album consists of eight songs, five of which are originals. As if to put their most festive foot forward, the opening "Just Like Christmas" is an uncharacteristically upbeat tune that almost forces you to dance. Sleigh bells, rhythm guitars, and poppy drum track: this is not the Low we have known. Well, that's about all of that. The band retreats to its sparse vision in "Long Way around the Sea", a ballad underscoring the toil of the three kings' journey with the lonely harmonies early Low has taught us to love. Track three gets more Secret Name-ish with a kick-ass version of "Little Drummer Boy" (which is, incidentally, the only Christmas song one could imagine Low's ancestor Ian Curtis covering) featuring a stoic snare keeping time over a synthesized, distorted drone. Probably the best original song on the album, "If You Were Born Today", offers a perfect example of Low's bleakhope vision. Opening line: "If you were born today/ we'd kill you by age eight/ never get the chance to say/ 'Joy to the World…'" Got it?
Continuing their 1000 batting average in cover-choices, Low offers a straightforward but palpably pining "Blue Christmas" featuring what might be Low's first traditional (albeit slow) guitar solo, and a "Silent Night" that would be a peaceful lullaby for the most anxious of insomniacs. Low ends with two of the most innocent and endearing morning-after songs that have ever been written. "Taking down the tree" features the unpredictably beautiful combination of triangle and banjo, and the final track tells us that after all the money is blown there is still enough left for "One Special Gift." As the insert can tell you, this Christmas album is that gift. I, for one, thank Low very much.