In Brief: I wish there were more to it, but all five of the tracks here are inventive arrangements done with great respect to the soul of each original carol.
I must have been suffering from Christmas music overload at around this time last year, when one of my favorite “best kept secret” bands, Future of Forestry, put out a Christmas EP. I say that because I can remember briefly listening to the project on the band’s MySpace and deciding that it wasn’t really for me. Now, hearing it again a year later, I’m not sure what my problem was. maybe it just needed a little context – the band expanded their musical scope significantly with the eclectic instrumentation on their EPs Travel and Travel II this year, and now that I take a second look at their Advent Christmas EP, I realize that the seeds for that stylistic growth were being planted as they came up with their own expansive arrangements for a few beloved Christmas carols. What once seemed to be a ponderous little record with a lack of energy now strikes me as a nugget of ethereal beauty, one which takes its time to get to the payoff, but provides a wonderful atmosphere in which to contemplate these age-old carols anew.
The band’s Christmas tour this year probably had something to do with my change of heart – after witnessing an impressive opening set for Delirious? back in March and then seeing the band pull out all the stops a full set of their original material in September, I didn’t mind taking lead singer Eric Owyoung‘s invitation to see the band a third time within the same year. The addition of a cellist to the band’s usual repertoire of guitars, big heavy drums, glockenspiel, accordion, etc. made their arrangements quite stellar in a live setting, and that was when I knew I had to pick up the EP. With most bands, I get impatient with EPs and just want them to put out an entire album already, but since Future of Forestry has gathered so much solid original material on their other EPs, they’ve got me drinking the Kool-Aid to the point where I’ll snag just about any musical morsel I can get from them.
1. O Come, O Come Emmanuel
The first track is probably the best example of Future of Forestry taking their sweet time to get to the payoff. It seems I can’t get through a Future of Forestry review without making reference to Sigur Rós, and the moody intro to this carol is no exception, the two-chord guitar figure and melancholy horns bringing to mind that Icelandic band’s “Ný Batterí”, but with a bit of glockenspiel thrown in for good measure. This works perfectly for a minor key song that was written to reflect hundreds of years of Israel’s longing for a Savior – Eric Owyoung’s slow and even vocal delivery really helps to bring out the aching sense of expectation, and it’s intentional that he puts off singing the chorus until after the second verse. So it’s several minutes into the song before the drums come a-crashing and the electric guitars get all lit up and the emotional outpouring of “Rejoice! Rejoice!” leads into a stirring instrumental break before the final, solemn coda. At six and a half minutes, the band has plenty of time to infuse their take on this carol withquiet reverence and loud splendor, with neither element feeling out of place.
2. What Child Is This?
The dramatic string intro that leads into this song, accompanied by Eric’s eerie “Ooh”s, give the listener a feeling of being ushered into some sort of a throne room. Fitting, for a song that describes an onlooker’a amazement at the nativity scene. The band actually keeps this one going at a relatively brisk pace, thanks to the piano, drums, and bells (you know, the Christmasy kind), but without any pretense of trying to make it poppy. Vocally, Eric plays it a bit more straight and doesn’t delay the expected chorus, but there’s still plenty of room for instrumental interplay leading into each verse. Nobody’s showing off here, but the entire band (in whatever configuration Eric had put together at the time) works together to give each verse and chorus its own distinct texture. I love how Eric lets the second verse of the song repeat and trail off into silence as the song’s intro – most of us don’t know it as well as the first verse, but he must have felt that it was important to end on “The King of kings salvation brings, let loving hearts enthrone Him.”
3. The First Noel
Despite having known this carol for pretty much my entire life (the repetitive chorus makes it easy for little kids to learn and annoy their parents with all the live-long day), I can’t say that I’ve heard many “grown-up” arrangements of it in recent years. So it’s become one of those “forgotten carols” for me (I swear I’ve never heard the third verse before this version). The band’s arrangement of this one is acoustic, delicate, and unfussy – easy to follow along with, and quietly lovely in much the same way as the band’s original songs “If You Find Her” and “Close Your Eyes”. There’s a teeny bit of accordion and synth in the background, but these are modest ornaments that don’t detract from the tree. Man, I wish I could fingerpick like this guy!
4. Little Drummer Boy
A quiet, understated version of a song that’s about a kid playing a percussion instrument would somehow just be wrong, and that’s a trap Future of Forestry wisely sidesteps by marrying their slow-burn tendencies to a persistent snare drum march, which seems to set too slow of a pace for the song at first, but man, just wait ’til this baby gets going! This is the “rockiest” arrangement on the EP, first using the electric guitar to send a few shards of electricity through the speakers, before finally erupting with a true solo after the second verse. Given that it’s a song about a kid wanting to play his best for the baby Jesus, I think a bit of showing off is called for. (And the recorded version is just a warmup compared to the dizzying, everyone-playing-drums-at-once outro that the band tacks onto it in concert!) Fans of the band’s percussion-heavy Travel II EP will probably find a lot to love here. At the risk of offending die-hard fans of Jars of Clay‘s innovative arrangement (which has become a bit of a CCM staple), I have to say that I might just consider this my favorite arrangement of the song.
5. O Holy Night
This is my all-time favorite Christmas carol, and because it’s got such a wide-ranging melody and a trickier chord progression, I’ve become rather possessive of it over the years as I’ve heard flavor-of-the-month pop artists butcher it. It’s hard to get this one right. The song is built for showing off an impressive set of pipes, so when you’ve got a rock singer with more of a limited range taking it on, it can feel a bit strained. Eric and his buddies wisely avoid the temptation to show off here by playing it almost too subdued at first – a wash of electronic sound leads into the album’s slowest, sparset arrangement, with little more than glacial piano chords to guide it along. Eric has a way of singing these slower songs almost as if they’re prayers, which is part of what makes it work when they really open up a song like this midway through. They don’t even go for the payoff the first few times through, truncating the second “O night divine…” from the chorus, which would have been enough to make me cry foul if not for the sublime, U2-inspired guitar delay that pierces the still nightsky after the second verse – think of the intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name” and you’ll get the idea. (Risky to quote such a common influence on Christian bands so blatantly, but I think it’s an inventive enough use of the technique that if feels more like a homage than a ripoff.) Rock fans will expect the song to “kick in” at this point, but it bubbles just under the surface with its swelling waves of wintry sound, the graceful climax stretching out toward the seven-and-a-half minute mark to close the EP with genuine grace. I could see Björk fans getting into this.
Admittedly, this EP is a bit of a difficult one to find, only physically available at their shows, but you can get it instantly as a digital download from their online store (where you can also find a DVD called Solstice which gives you a taste of how they pull this stuff off live, as well as a bit of extra insight into the ongoing Travel EP series). I might be guilty once again of telling you about good Christmas music too late for you take part, but if all else fails, hit up their MySpace page – they’ve got most of the EP posted, and you can always keep it in mind for next year.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
O Come, O Come Emmanuel $1.50
What Child Is This? $1.50
The First Noel $1.50
Little Drummer Boy $1.50
O Holy Night $1.50
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.