The Indigo Girls | Holly Happy Days (Vanguard)

I’m not sure they’ve created this year’s must-have holiday release, but they have given us a collection of ear- and crowd-pleasing songs.

 

 

For many years, the Indigo Girls’ version of Joni Mitchell’s “River” was in heavy, heavy rotation in my Christmas playlist. There are days I almost prefer their version to hers; they bring a warmer element to this tale of holiday melancholy, in the way tears are warm. Joni serves it up a little more icily, but Emily and Amy make it real. And their cover of that song is the perfect illustration of a common theme in modern Christmas songs; they are misleading in their warmth and cheer. The snow and ice and loneliness is never far below the surface. In fact, some of the more modern classics are downright heartbreaking. One needs only listen to “2000 Miles” by the Pretenders or “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues to be convinced of this.

 
A Christmas album is always a tricky release, particularly in today’s world. First, you’re automatically alienating half of your audience who simply don’t celebrate the holiday, or at least, are removed from the religious facet of Christmas. And, honestly, many Christmas albums are just rehashed classics that bring nothing new to the table. A punk rock version of “Silent Night” is something no one needs to hear. The best ones, the ones that linger, are played repeatedly and sell well, are ones that offer a fresh perspective on what is arguably a really old genre. Most of our traditional carols are 19th century or older, particularly some of the traditional English offerings. Vince Guaraldi gave us a classic. Bob Dylan hit it out of the park last year. Sting even produced a solid collection of “winter songs”, which, although they were released for the Christmas music crush, deliberately extended beyond that holiday. With the Indigo Girls offering, Holly Happy Days, I’m not sure they’ve created this year’s must-have holiday release, but they have given us a collection of ear- and crowd-pleasing songs that will be a sweetly accessible addition to this increasingly popular genre.
 
Emily and Amy recorded the bulk of this album in Nashville with a cadre of world class bluegrass players. It incorporates a broad range of songs, from traditional carols with modern arrangements to original numbers with a very Americana feel: conjuring visions of snowy mountain tops, crackling fires and the scent of pine, cinnamon and whiskey in the air. Even the packaging is a smart combination of modern holiday design elements in the color block snowflakes, with three Currier and Ives inspired ornaments, complete with lyrics to three of the original compositions (“Mistletoe”, “The Wonder Song”, “Your Holiday Song”) printed on the back within the fold. This is nostalgia served up fresh, one of the many holiday themes that comes around year after year.
 
Some of the tracks, including, “I Feel The Christmas Spirit” and “The Wonder Song”, are jarringly bluegrass, as it’s not a sound expected from this duo. But the players on these tracks bring credibility and skill to this foray. Those players include Allison Brown on banjo, Luke Bulla on fiddle and mandolin, Carol Issacs on accordion and Lloyd Maines on pedal steel. Brandi Carlile lends her vocals on several tracks, filling out the harmonies into the higher register, as traditional bluegrass vocals dictate that range. The arrangement for “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” could have been used in O Brother Where Art Thou; it’s a very traditional bluegrass vocal styling with Julie Wolf adding the third voice and a ukulele softly strumming behind them. “It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)” and “Your Holiday Song” are a little more to type, but include many interesting musical elements, such as strummed open chord electric guitar lines and very jazz-like percussive elements from Jim Brock. Both are very pleasing, mid-tempo, jangly tracks, smoothed around the edges by the fiddle and mandolin. The ensemble gives us a more uptempo version of “O Holy Night”, with a beautiful counter melody from Bulla’s fiddle. “Mistletoe”, a nearly conversational, tender love song is tinged with sadness and regret, and this fits right into the typical style of the Indigo Girls. “Peace Child” features a beautiful piano arrangement played by Don Saliers, Emily’s father, and “In the Bleak Midwinter” gives us a lovely verse sung as a round and a gorgeous fiddle exploration of the melody to close it out.
 
“Happy Joyous Haunukkah” is a Woody Guthrie composition and structurally follows that raucous folk he was famous for. This ensemble makes it a very percussion led, country reel arrangement, complete with handclaps. Janis Ian and Mary Gauthier lend vocals to this track, which lyrically mirrors “The 12 Days of Christmas.” “Angels We Have Heard on High” opens very traditionally with a piano, vocals descending through the scale much like a soloist in church, and later expands into a fuller instrumental interpretation with the whole range of bluegrass elements present. It is quiet for a bluegrass song, but almost playful considering the history of this carol. The album closes with “There’s Still My Joy”, written by Beth Nielsen Chapman, Melissa Manchester and Matt Rollings. The track completely abandons the Americana spirit that has fueled this album and serves us a melancholy piano and string based composition, a somber ballad after the jamboree. It’s beautiful, but possibly out of place with the feel of the rest of the tracks.
 
Everything about this is soft and warm, like the gold glow of holiday lights on a tree or their reflection in the snow on a winter’s evening, as you trudge up the path to reach the warm house at the end. This is the season’s holiday party album; it creates the right mood of close and tender feelings and contains songs all your guests will enjoy and connect to easily. This unashamed Christmas music lover finds this a welcome addition to her collection. B+ | Courtney Rau
 
RILY: Alison Krauss, The Indigo Girls, Gillian Welch, holiday music
 

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