Archive for the ‘Christmas’ Tag

Balsam Range- It’s Christmas Time review   Leave a comment

Balsam Range It’s Christmas Time Mountain Home Music Company


Considering I’ve yet to experience the group in concert, I would still place Balsam Range on my list of contemporary ‘top ten’ bluegrass bands. I’ve written about them several times (Here, here,  here, here, and again here) and I am certain they have never disappointed me across their six albums.

It’s Christmas Time, the group’s new seasonal EP, is a very different project for the North Carolina group. If one went by the F-I-L SoBA (Father-in-Law Scale of Bluegrass Acceptability), there is no doubt the release falls short.

Bluegrass instrumentation is for the most part down-played, while the Nashville Recording Orchestra—a violin section, violas, cellos, and double bass—is prominently featured. The result is an acoustic melding of ‘down-home’ and ‘uptown’ that isn’t going to appeal to most staid members of the bluegrass community; the lively saxophone break amid the free-spirited “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” will absolutely be an adornment too extreme for many.

“I’m Going Home, It’s Christmas Time,” which I associate with Ralph Stanley and Ernie Thacker, is provided the most ‘straight-forward’ bluegrass interpretation, with Darren Nicholson taking the lead place with just his Balsam Range partners participating. Certainly it is my favourite number on the seven-track release, but that doesn’t mean the more embellished productions fail. Rather, they are quite extraordinary: they just aren’t dyed-in-the-wool bluegrass, and—as such—leave this listener unfulfilled.

The group’s intent with It’s Christmas Time was most obviously to push themselves beyond the boundaries of the five-person bluegrass ensemble. The bluegrass vocal arrangements of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel” are impressive, and the string section accompaniment is appreciated given the group’s motivation. Also appealing is Balsam Range’s interpretation of Doc Watson’s “Christmas Lullaby”. BR chooses to broaden Watson’s concise arrangement, not only with sweetening from the NRO, but providing ample space for the group member’s accompanying instrumental fills and breaks. The result is somewhat cinematic.

Most assuredly, It’s Christmas Time will fit-in aurally beside the ‘background’ Christmas music we will hear over the next week or so. Unfortunately, I’m equally certain bluegrass should never be ‘background music.’ Nope, for me the energy, vibrancy, and masterful vocal creations that comprise bluegrass should always be placed to the fore.

And while the skill and execution of Balsam Range and their collaborators on It’s Christmas Time is never in doubt, I don’t see this collection replacing Larry Sparks’ Christmas in the Hills, and my Hay Holler, Rounder, Pinecastle, and Sugar Hill seasonal compilations.

Impressive and appreciated, certainly. Beloved? Sorry, no.



Ox- Silent Night & Other Cowboy Songs   Leave a comment

 Ox Silent Night & Other Cowboy Songs (Cosmic Daves Record Factory)

What happens when that slightly off-putting collection of shaggy musicians and ne’r-do-wells from down the block get a-hold of their grandparents Christmas albums?

When Mark Browning and his raggle taggle collection of lo-fi, alt.folk friends get together, creativity abounds. “White Christmas”, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, and “O Holy Night” and a half-dozen other seasonal classics are dismantled and reconstructed in a manner that is a bit off-putting but also strangely attractive. Quite experimental, the set holds together well. On some songs, such as “Silent Night”, accompaniment is kept to a minimum and the song appears to be little more than a singer hunched over his guitar. Other tracks are more elaborately arranged, as on “Good King Wenceslas” with organ and other instruments seemingly multi-tracked around tape loops that hint at the familiar melody.

One admires their brass at taking a run at beloved tunes in the manner they do. 

Listeners get a better understanding of the project when the original numbers are examined. Neither “Xmas in the Jailhouse” (“I spent Christmas in the drunk tank”) nor “Christmas with the Band” (“Wrapped up all the dope and tied with bows ready to smoke, Socks tied to the dashboard with bungee cord, got cookies, beer, and jam sandwiches”) are likely to become standards, but they do reveal the perspective of the group: the glorious Christmases of yesteryear, as magical as they appear in memory and movies, are not something that everyone can relate with.

This is made poignantly apparent in the decision to include “Arthur McBride”, a mid-19th century Irish folk tune centering on the likely fate of poor lads recruited into British army. The ballad, which I wasn’t previously familiar, is provided with a more than impressive performance, and will make it onto my annual Christmas compilation.

Folk? Roots? Indie Rock? Ox is a band, a collective, that defies categorization. Not always focused, with this set the band has created an impressive and ambitious collection of modern alternative Christmas sounds. Endearing is Silent Night & Other Cowboy Songs. Seek it out.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee.

Posted 2010 December 12 by Donald Teplyske in Uncategorized

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