My musical interests, which tend to be Scottish and Anglophile, have one major exception — Carbon Leaf. I discovered the band in college; they made frequent appearances on the University of Richmond campus a decade ago, and they played other venues around the city when I was student there.
2010 has been a big year for Carbon Leaf with three releases — the Curious George 2: Follow That Monkey soundtrack in March, How The West Was One (an EP) in July, and Christmas Child this month.
As anyone who knows me knows, in spite of my innate heathenism, I absolutely love Christmas music. I listen to it year-round. I’ve thought, for a number of years, that Carbon Leaf should record a Christmas album. Christmas albums are somewhat in vogue; musical acts take a whack at that pinata every year, and sometimes there’s a gem like Jethro Tull’s Christmas album, and sometimes there’s a wreck like Bob Dylan’s. Carbon Leaf has performed Christmas music live; I have concert recordings of “What Child Is This?” and “My Favorite Things” (which isn’t a Christmas song, but people treat it as such), Nothing Rhymes With Woman‘s “Snowfall Music” evokes a wintry tableau, but a full album of holiday tunes would be simply fab.
And this year it finally happened.
Christmas Child isn’t a long album — nine tracks, a half-hour running time. All nine tracks are original compositions; someone looking for holiday favorites like “Winter Wonderland” or “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” won’t find them here. What that person will find, however, are Celtic-tinged alternative rock Christmas songs.
The opening (and title) track, “Christmas Child,” is typical Carbon Leaf — a lovely and gentle narrative song that follows a child counting down the weeks to Christmas. What’s unique about this song is the mandolin riff; it sounds like snow falling in December. “Christmas Child” conveys well the feelings of anticipation of the season
“Red Punch Green Punch” is a jaunty, country-flavored number. “Ice and Snow” begins as a gentle waltz, like a light snow falling on a cold evening, and it becomes energetic and vigorous as the snow changes over to ice. The fourth track, “Sutton’s Reel” is an instrumental piece, mandolins and banjos, something that you could imagine Old Fezziwig dancing to in A Christmas Carol; the piece can’t help but bring a smile to the face, and the energy and tone simply feels Christmassy.
“Ode to the Snow” returns to the feel of gentle snowfall, but then grows into something poetic about the possibilities inherent in a world covered in the white stuff. (Let’s just say that, for me, this song hearkens back to Blizzardammerung.) “Drifting” is the album’s second instrumental, and the title should give some clue to its feel and intent of the piece — I’m reminded of Vince Guaraldi’s “Skating” from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The seventh track, “Christmas at Sea,” conveys a wistful tone, the story of someone who feels adrift during the holiday season. I’m not entirely sure the song works; the lyrics are weak by Carbon Leaf’s standards, and the middle eight reprises “Tip Toe” from Nothing Rhymes With Woman, but the reprise doesn’t feel organic. Next up is an instrumental reprise of “Christmas Child” which brings the mandolin work to the fore, and then the album closes with “Toast to the New Year,” which is the hardest-edged song on the album, conveys with some poetry the promise of the new year — “May we dream ourselves forward, frozen wind at our backs” — and provides a solid and emotional climax to the album.
Overall, Christmas Child, despite its lack of Christmas standards, serves quite well to instill the listener with the Christmas spirit. It feels wintry and, as I said above about “Sutton’s Reel,” it’s not impossible to imagine some of this music as fitting with Dickensian Yuletide classics. For long-time listeners of Carbon Leaf, Christmas Child is reminiscent of their older, more Celtic-infused style, more the era of Ether-Electrified Porch Music and Echo Echo, less the era of Love Loss Hope Repeat. Finally, the brief running time prevents Christmas Child from outstaying its welcome, and with just one weaker track (“Christmas at Sea”) the album never suffers from the mid-album sag.
Christmas Child is the second of Carbon Leaf’s releases in their new release style — a self-released EP or a short album, recorded and mastered quickly. The album is available through the band’s Bandwear store in a variety of different packages; the “base package” provides a physical CD (shipping at the end of the month) and an immediate mp3 download of the album.
Now, if only Elbow would record a Christmas album… :party: