Artist: Sixpence None the Richer
Album: The Dawn of Grace
In Brief: Delicate, diverse, personal, and generally quite charming. The flaws are forgivable, because this album fits my usual state of mind at this time of year.
As I mentioned in my review of their My Dear Machine EP, Sixpence None the Richer made a comeback of sorts this year after being “broken up” since 2004. While new original material from the band – even just a 4-song EP – was an exciting appetite-whetter for this longtime fan, my enthusiasm turned to confusion when I found out that their new full-length disc, The Dawn of Grace, was actually a Christmas album. Is a modest collection of holiday songs really the best way to re-introduce yourself to the general public? I’m still not certain that it is. But having had the better part of December to digest it (keep in mind that I refuse to listen to Christmas music until after Thanksgiving in most cases), I can say that they did a reasonably good job with it.
There’s something about the fragile, angelic voice of Leigh Nash and the string arranging skills of Matt Slocum that always seemed like those talents would lend themselves well to a Christmas album. Sixpence is also known for flipping back and forth between lovelorn relationship songs and more reflective, challenging spiritual material, so it also seems reasonable to assume that they’d offer a reverent, meditative take on a few well-known Christmas carols while also tacking on a few “secular” tunes about what it means to be with a loved one at Christmas (or the lack thereof). So they’ve got all of the bases covered, without too much of an emphasis on the schamltzy stuff. I prefer my Christmas albums to be more on the spiritual side (because I think most “secular” carols are pure fluff), so this works well for me.
What about what doesn’t work? Well, there’s the usual tendency to change up arrangements of carols that we’ve all heard hundreds of recordings of. Sixpence actually doesn’t flub things up too badly in this department – actually, on a few of the traditional carols, they surpass my expectations. But there are a few that merely pass as “pleasant” when they could have done more. Probably the weakest link here is Leigh’s vocal performances on some of the tracks. That may sound funny when I just praised her voice in the preceding paragraph, but the fact is that some of these carols simply call for a “bigger voice” to pull them off. Leigh’s got more of an alternative chick-rock-lite sort of appeal to her; it has a sort of “I’m just an innocent bystander trying to find my way, please don’t hurt me!” sort of vibe that works well for Sixpence’s moodier material, or for the light, lilting pop of her solo work, but not so much for extended “Gloria”s or really anything that requires holding long notes. The net balance is still positive – The Dawn of Grace does its job and brightens my mood despite the gloomy Yuletide weather (remember, we dream of grey Christmases here in Southern California, not white ones). But it comes across as more of a stocking stuffer than a fully realized, individually wrappable under-the-tree gift.
1. Angels We Have Heard on High
The complaint about “extended Gloria”s would apply to this, the opening track. (What, you were expecting “Ding Dong Merrily on High?” Now there’s an obscure carol that I’d like to hear some modern act try to make sense of…) It slides in gently with its delicate tempo and its fragile guitar picking and an overall sense of crystalline loveliness, but it comes up a bit short when Leigh’s breathy chorus fails to capture the grandeur of this well-loved carol. I can’t fault her for not being able to hold the “o” for that long – I can’t either – but then it begs the question of why they went with this understated arrangement. Not bad, but upping the tempo might have given it a little more character, as well as requiring less breath-holding on Leigh’s part.
2. The Last Christmas
It took me a few tries to make sense of this song, the first of two Sixpence originals on the album. Matt Slocum penned it, and whenever I hear references to a baby being born in a Christmas song, I naturally assume it’s the baby Jesus. So the chorus, which proclaims that it’s “The last Christmas without you”, didn’t seem to make much sense, until I realized that it was about Matt and his wife knowing that this would be their last Christmas before the arrival of their own little bundle of joy. It sort of throws me off that Leigh is singing a song which is actually written from Matt’s wife’s point of view, but then, this is the same guy who wrote a love song for Leigh to sing to a guy whom she told to bring his flowered hat, so clearly this group doesn’t mind doing a little first-person role playing. Nothing wrong with that – it’s a cute little song that puts a person spin on the ubiquitous nativity scenes that we see year in and year out.
3. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
This one seems to be a standard that ends up on nearly everyone’s Christmas albums – the minor-key melody feels as old as time itself, and if there’s one thing Sixpence does well, it’s minor key. They do a good job of setting the mood with the slightly dark hues of the guitar intro, but I’m a bit thrown off by that intro being in 3/4 while the song itself is in 4/4. Leigh seems to breeze right through it, too. Again, this is decent, but I’ve heard more compelling arrangements.
4. Silent Night
Here is where the album kicks into high gear. Sixpence took another of the most well-known carols in the book, and this time they put a very unique spin on it, not by doing anything upbeat or campy, but by adding a little color to the fairly basic chord structure (they threw some major-sevenths in there to vary the dominant use of the G chord), and by bringing in Jars of Clay‘s lead singer Dan Haseltine for a duet. (After their killer collaboration on “Mirrors & Smoke”, I guess he owed Leigh a favor.) He’s not just singing a pleasant harmony vocal here – he’s singing entirely different lyrics, which are written in an attempt to connect the ancient silent night in the original song with the modern silent night, where Christ’s birth is celebrated in the historically inaccurate season of winter, a time of year that tends to be a depressing for some folks, and where the true meaning of the holiday often gets lost amidst presents and glitzy light displays. Dan’s voice fills in the gaps between each line of Leigh’s vocals, and it is a truly lovely effect, creating something new and compelling out of something timeless. (There’s an animated video for this one that you can find on YouTube. Go look it up, if for no other reason than to hear this brilliant recording.)
5. Riu, Riu, Chiu
This recording of a Renaissance-era Spanish carol is about the last thing I’d have expected to work for Sixpence, but fans who have kept tabs on Leigh’s past work with the band as well as her solo work will recall Sixpence’s gorgeous “Puedo Escribir” and the isolated Spanish lines in Fauxliage‘s “All Alone”, and recall that she’s not too shabby at this whole foreign language thing. Never having heard anyone else perform this song, I have nothing to compare it to, but the classical guitar approach helps to cast Leigh’s words in the most gorgeous light possible. It’s all going to be gibberish if you don’t understand Spanish – and her words fly by fast enough that I can only grab bits on pieces of it myself despite studying the language for all four years of high school. There’s a little bit of English thrown in there to help us along. Essentially, it’s an allegory about Christ’s coming told through the chirping of a nightingale (hence the bird sounds that give the song its title). Despite this being far from an “original” song, Sixpence gets high marks for their song selection and interpretation here.
6. Carol of the Bells
Here’s a carol that I’m quite familiar with, but that I rarely hear new recordings of, likely because it’s a bit of a mouthful and it seems like one of those songs that doesn’t work too well without a choir and a bunch of handbells. Well, Sixpence gave it the old college try, with Matt putting one of his moody, looping guitar melodies front and center, and a few modest bells ringing and some strings swooping about here and there, but for the most part, they keep it uncomplicated and Leigh is not backed up by the expected army of backing vocals or anything. It’s a more intimate arangement – and a confusing one at first due to how Leigh keeps pausing at unexpected points between certain lines. For that reason, it probably won’t go down as a classic version of the song, but at least it’s an intriguing take on a song I’d have never expected a “rock band” to attempt in the first place.
7. Christmas Island
I’m honestly not sure what they were thinking with this one. It feels like a cover of something from the 50’s or 60’s, with a lazy, loping rhythm, a bit of harmonica, and that whole “white people trying to make Hawaiian music” sort of feel. It doesn’t work. Leigh can’t quite pull off the sultry, bending notes (this sort of thing just begs for Over the Rhine to attempt it), and the whole notion of ditching sleighbells and cold weather for a secnario where Santa sails up to your island in a canoe is just too goofy to take seriously – even for a song about Santa Claus. Adding to the confusion, the use of sleighbells right after Leigh sings “Let’s get away from sleighbells” kind of kills the intended tropical mood. I’m not sure where they dug this one up, but I don’t think they could have been much cornier even if they had decided to record “Mele Kalikimaka”.
Some amount of digging through Leigh’s personal collection fo favorite Christmas songs must have happened when the band was working on this album, because this downbeat cover of an old Joni Mitchell song feels very personal and timely given Leigh’s recent divorce. In other words, this is a rather depressing song about losing your honey and having to spend the holidays alone. Don’t get me wrong; I think there’s a time and a place for Christmas songs that identify with those for whom this is a lonely time of year. Relient K has done a few good ones in that category. But it’s too much of a jump from the mood of the previous song, which is unfortunate, because it comes across as nothing short of absolutely genuine and heartfelt. Again, I haven’t heard the original, so I can’t tell some of the quirks such as working a minor-key “Jingle Bells” melody into the song were Joni’s ideas, or if they were Sixpence’s. Either way, it’s a beautifully sad song that feels slightly out of place.
9. Christmas for Two
The one original track on this album that Leigh wrote sort of continues from the reflective and solitary mood of the previous song, ramping up the optimism a bit as Leigh recounts the little details that makes Christmas with a significant other so special, but still steeping it in bittersweetness because we know it’s about a lost love. The band is doing a very good job, at this late stage of the album, of adding just the right amount of bells and strings and forth to give their recordings a glistening, “frosty” sort of feel, but not going overboard and screaming “This is HOLIDAY MUSIC!!!” right in your face. And there’a a cute little whistling interlude here. So this one’s ultimately a keeper.
10. Some Children See Him
One final obscure cover shows up at album’s end, turning the focus back to more spiritual matters, but describing Jesus in much more of a children’s tale sort of fashion, which is very far removed from the usual hymn-like, theological expressions of a lot of the classic “church carols”. It also sounds like it could have been written in the 60’s, because there’s a “kum ba yah” sort of feeling to the way that each verse describes children of a different race imagining Jesus looking like them. It’s weird that it takes me more than one verse to realize that this is the song’s intent, because the first verse describes white children seeing Jesus as blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned, and we’ve seen images of that “traditional European Jesus” so many times that it’s easy to forget the guy was likely a bit darker and rougher around the edges than that. This message of Jesus relating to various cultures despite not being from any of them (unless you lump the Middle East in with the verse that describes the Asian kids’ view of him, I guess) gently underscores the belief that he was born for the remption of the entire world, not just the Western world, without beating us over the heads with the obvious. And it’s a nice sentiment to close the album with, but musically, it’s a bit lacking. The music is so hushed that Leigh’s voice kind of hangs out there, all by its naked self. With such a slow song that hits its share of high notes here and there, this isn’t the most flattering treatment that her voice can be given. I can’t be too hard on her for that, because some of my all-time favorite Sixpence songs had what sounded like “ouch” notes at first, and later became endearing (I’m thinking of “Still Burning” and “Dizzy” in particular). But she seems to do better when the arrangement behind her is more full-bodied and she’s not required to sustain the notes as long.
Part of me wishes that there was a little more to the song selection here, but I do applaud Leigh and Matt for trying to create a holiday album that had personal meaning to them, and not just stuffing it with 10 of the usual Christmas carol suspects. At any rate, 14 newly recorded songs is 14 more than I expected to get from Sixpence this year, so while I still don’t have a clue what to expect from their next full-length album (you guys are coming out with one, right? In 2009? RIGHT??!?!?!?), I’m glad that the band is alive and kicking, with the creative juices flowing and both the “spiritual” and “secular” sides of their collective personality intact.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Angels We Have Heard on High $1
The Last Christmas $1
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel $1
Silent Night $2
Riu, Riu, Chiu $1.50
Carol of the Bells $1.50
Christmas Island $0
Christmas for Two $1
Some Children See Him $.50
Leigh Nash: Vocals
Matt Slocum: Guitar, cello
Justin Cary: Bass
Jason Lehning: Drums
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: