Flannelgraph’s annual panacea has arrived! As the stores and stations ring with the sound of the same ten Christmas songs, over and over, this collection of all-new instrumentals restores some sanity to the season.
Every year, Flannelgraph offers a viable alternative to the soundtracks of the airwaves and the malls. As a benefit compilation, the album reflects the holiday spirit; this year’s proceeds will buy mattresses for an addiction recovery center. And in terms of music, this album, like its predecessors, is shockingly good. We say “shockingly” because so many holiday albums are not good at all, although they sell by the droves, coasting on name brand recognition alone. These are replaced the next year by more Christmas albums from current and fading stars, but display no lasting value.
To understand the boldness of Flannelgraph’s venture, consider the non-commercial value of Volume Four‘s longest track, Circuit Des Yeux’s “Glacial Fault”. An eight-minute track stuck in the center of a 76-minute, 19-track set, “Glacial Fault” doesn’t have words one can sing along with; it includes no catchy melodies; and it’s twice the length of a radio single. And yet, the track captures the mood of the season: one of glowing anticipation, created by the crackle of ice, the rustle of a distant drone, a meditative piano motif and a sweet surge of electric guitar. Suggestions of trains and hoofbeats enter the sonic field late in the piece. It’s the sort of track that one can imagine playing after the holidays as well. How many times will you want to hear “Holly Jolly Christmas” in January? How many times do you want to hear “Holly Jolly Christmas” now?
Kurt Friedrich’s “White Fields” includes a wonderful use of samples: a quiet holiday party, a distant set of carolers. While listening, one appreciates the track for being subtle rather than obvious. It’s not something one will get sick of hearing by Christmas – either this Christmas or next. The warmest tracks possess this replay quality. In previous years we’ve made multiple mentions of The Parade Schedule, who really need to record an instrumental album ~ once more, their track (“One to Ninety Two”) is one of the collection’s best, possessing the hearth-like quality of Do Make Say Think. Moor Hound’s “Blizzard of ’95” echoes this tone, along with happy strumming and light, lyric-free singing. And of course, the addition of sleigh bells on several tracks is enough to grace them with ebullience (Candy Claws’ “Alp Shades”, John Autry’s “Warm Fire, Soft Snow”).
All manner of instrumentals are included, from Casio beats to feedback drone to metal riffs. The sequencing is as haphazard as tossed tinsel, but the variety lends the set a “what’s next?” quality. And shouldn’t that be the way we experience the holidays: with a sense of wonder, rather than one of predictability? Congratulations to Flannelgraph for another cool set; we’re still playing the first three volumes, but we’re already looking forward to the fifth. (Richard Allen)