The A.V. Club loves the holiday season, and we also love opening small doors and eating the stale chocolate lurking behind them. We’ve found a way to combine those things with our love of pop culture, and we’re hoping you’ll join us through the holiday to open one of our virtual doors and find out which holiday-themed entertainment we’re covering that day. This week’s theme: holiday classics, old and new.
Bands making Christmas albums is almost never a good idea—used CD bins (do such things still exist?) are littered with discs that somebody should have known better than to record and manufacture. Smash Mouth did one. William Hung did one. David Hasselhoff did one. The Brady Bunch did one. Carol Channing. Twisted Sister. Bad Religion just released one this year, for Christ’s sake, and they’re called Bad Religion. Some are good for a quick laugh, some might have a traditional song worth hearing, but most are just naked cash-ins—easy to record and foist on completists who have extra holiday cash in their pockets.
For the minimalist Minnesota trio Low, a Christmas album—1999’s appropriately titled Christmas—was something more, though. First off, Low was the rare publicly religious band to make its way into the blatantly secular world of indie-rock, where publicly being any kind of practicing Christian, and certainly practicing Mormons, is probably just slightly less acceptable than worshiping Satan. (Next rung down: Scientologists, though Beck seems to get a pass for keeping it sorta quiet—or maybe people just aren’t that interested in Beck anymore.)
But here was Low, having just released the delicate yet thunderous Secret Name, putting forth a short disc of holiday songs—five originals and three covers. It was a beautifully earnest move from a band that had gained a following by playing slow and sad, who had wrung joy from some truly dark corners. In hindsight, maybe Christmas was a sort of turning point for the band, whose next album, 2001’s Things We Lost In The Fire, would feature some of its first songs that could be described as happy, though a very qualified kind of happy.
But back to the holiday. Christmas works not because two of its players—husband-and-wife Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker—are Mormon (bassist Zak Sally isn’t), or because Low fans were clamoring for new Christmas music (they probably weren’t), but because the actual songs are so goddamn good. (Wrong adjective?)
The genesis of Christmas actually goes back to 1997, when Low released a 7-inch single for the indelibly hip British record label Wurlitzer Jukebox, which was known for limited runs of droning beauty by the likes of Mogwai, Broadcast, and Stereolab. The A-side, “If You Were Born Today (Song For Little Baby Jesus)” isn’t some sort of blind Biblical devotion—it spins with the weirdness of its presentation, speculating that if Jesus were born now, he’d be murdered before he got a chance to do any good. (“We’d kill you by age 8,” goes the relevant lyric.) It’s certainly not the way to convince your Christian parents that this band is acceptable.
That honor might go to the flipside, a cover of the country classic “Blue Christmas” that was made most famous by Elvis Presley. Low’s version, with Parker on lead vocals, is chillingly gorgeous—it’s slowed down so significantly that it’s a full minute longer than Elvis’ version. It removes the cutesy backing vocals and corny instrumentation of prior recordings but sticks to the heartache and sentimentality of the composition better than most country versions. There’s real pathos here—as with most Low songs—but also indebtedness to the song’s ’50s core. It sounds like a girl-group 45 played at 33. (It made a recent appearance on Eastbound And Down, which says something about its marketability.)
Low’s version of “Silent Night” might similarly please parents, office parties, or church groups: It couldn’t be simpler, with Parker and Sparhawk singing with only a spare acoustic guitar backing them, all recorded in what sounds like a small, empty room on one microphone. “Little Drummer Boy” goes hazy and strange, more in the style of the band’s Kranky Records contemporaries of the day: The snare is buried under a drone, and the vocals rise out of the mist.
The other originals on Christmas cast the two sides of Low in sharp relief: On one hand, the band was experimenting with friendlier pop sounds, and “Just Like Christmas” could—and should—take its place with the great holiday songs of all time. (“We felt so young / It was just like Christmas,” goes one line, jauntily underscored by sleigh bells.)
On the flip side of that, Low hadn’t let go of its tendency toward dark corners: “Taking Down The Tree” is a little creepy, with its pinging bells, spooky bass, and cryptic lines like “another velvet ribbon / another nosebleed.” “One Special Gift” is similarly eerie—it’s slow and sorrowful and minimal, and might’ve fit on the band’s 1994 debut, I Could Live In Hope. (It wouldn’t be the last time Low flirted with creepy Christmas vibes, either: In 2008, it released “Santa’s Coming Over,” which might be the scariest Christmas song ever—and I’m still not entirely sure if that’s intentional.)
I’ve seen Low play probably 50 times in the past 20 years—including a pretty ridiculous number of times in the ’90s. The shows it played around the time Christmas was released had a special air about them, though, and a fond place in my long memory of the band. Though I’m not religious in the slightest, those songs and shows felt, to me anyway, like the conduit for something bigger—as the best art does. It’s probably the closest I’ll ever come to understanding churchgoing, so I guess it worked. It must have.
Tomorrow: A new movie gets at the darker side of the holiday.