In Brief: Not as solid as the first Advent EP, but worth checking out for its unusual arrangements and song selection.
Eric Owyoung, the lead singer and mastermind behind Future of Forestry, would like us all to slow down a bit this holiday season. I mean that quite literally. Sure, the whole point of his band putting out covers of Christmas songs is to get us to stop and reflect on the birth of Christ, and the significance that this quiet, humble event would have on the world. But where other contemporary recording artists would seek to give some of our favorite carols describing this event new life by jazzing them up or making them all danceable and poppy, Eric seems to only be happy with them when they are slowed waaaaaaayyyyyyy dooooooowwwwwwwn. He said as much during this month’s Advent Christmas tour, in which he brought with him the usual small “chamber rock” ensemble that’s made the band’s tours for their Travel series so intriguing. I guess he feels like we blow through these carols so quickly and casually when we’re singing them, that they can lose their meaning and sound a bit hokey. As a result, FoF’s take on a number of Christmas songs that so many of us have known and loved since childhood is likely to seem ponderous, even ill-advised at first, the magic only revealing itself as a sparse arrangement gradually builds up with beautifully, frosty layers of sound. This was done beautifully on the group’s first Advent Christmas EP in 2008, a record which I didn’t really get into until the following holiday season, and I guess I wasn’t even ready to give it the full marks for its excellence then that I definitely would now. 2010 brought another incarnation of their yearly holiday tour, and with the Travel series finally finished, they found time to record Advent Christmas EP Volume 2, which effectively doubled the available material for these concerts. Not wanting to repeat my mistake of waiting to long to snag some unusually good holiday music, I jumped on this one as soon as their tour began in the band’s native Southern California.
My first reaction to the first EP was that it was weird. Songs stretched out to six or seven minutes sometimes, with the “rock” element of the band’s music mostly restrained and the familiar choruses not delivering their expected payoff until the end. That’s all become unequivocally beautiful to me now. But the second EP is decidedly stranger. Where the group made no effort to hide their love of post-rock acts such as Sigur Rós on the first disc, here they’re showing the more idiosyncratic side of Christmas, as if Björk had been feeding them a few ideas. The group also takes a few detours from the expected line-up of well-known carols, throwing in a brief instrumental track, a left-field segment of a non-seasonal hymn, their first original holiday-themed songwriting effort, and even a modern take on part of a Catholic mass. Long story short, it’s a grab bag. I admire the willingness to change up the expected arrangements of most of these songs, and at times they evoke the same sense of larger-than-oneself grandeur that every single track on the first EP did. But just as it’s possible to make a classic carol seem pithy and annoyingly perky by giving it a peppy muzak arrangement, it’s also possible to sound like you’re trying a little too hard to make some of it work for the indie hipster set. My reaction here is still mostly favorable, but it’s sort of like how I felt about the results of Travel III, their long-awaited non-seasonal sequel – I like it, but there’s a fair amount of missed potential. On the upside, the same production difficulties that plagued Travel III are nowhere to be found here, so when the band wants to go big, it works without feeling like there’s any clipping or other loss of quality. That’s an important victory for a band that self-produces.
1. Joy to the World
The soft clicks and whirrs of an electronic beat are probably not what you’d expect when you first pop in a Christmas CD. The wintry mood is corrected easily enough with a glockenspiel chiming away in perfectly measured time, which is the most obvious point at which to compare FoF’s sound with Björk’s. But things get strange again as soon as Eric starts singing, drawing out that traditional descending melody that we’re all used to spilling out so quickly and naturally, as it is slowed to match the rhythm of tiny Christmas robots marching or whatever mood they’re trying to evoke here. Once T. J. Hill brings in the clattering percussion that he and I are both so fond of, and Liz Lee‘s cello becomes more prominent in the mix, that’s when the track shows signs of more closely resembling the Future of Forestry that I know and love. But the song takes a hard turn after two verses of this, deciding then that it’s a good point to speed up the rhythm with the steady thump of live drums, as the song morphs into the refrain of the hymn “All Creatures of Our God and King”, complete with the euphoric zip of a well-placed guitar solo. Eric tries to bring the two halves together with a spirited coda that finds him passionately wailing, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, Rejoice!” at the end, but it doesn’t quite make sense of these two very disparate moods being presented. If anything, “Joy to the World” is one of the few songs that I think is meant to be sung fast and joyously, and that doesn’t work as well given the more reflective style that usually works so well for this band. To sum up, this track is an interesting experiment, but I think they could have sewn the two songs together more seamlessly.
2. Do You Hear What I Hear?
As with “Little Drummer Boy”, which was the apex of the first EP, the band seems to excel at arranging songs that were born during the era of recorded music (as opposed to most of the enduring Christmas carols we know, which are easily centuries old). Originally written in 1962, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” is the newest of the non-original Christmas songs that the band has tackled thus far. The song follows a natural progression from large to small, starting out with the night wind whispering to that little lamb, sparking a series of good tidings that makes it all the way to the king, and thus the entire kingdom. So it makes sense for the group to start off with their usual statement of tiny wonder, the drums and bass ambling about gently as they would at the beginning of a Sigur Rós track that makes you anticipate a buildup to the “good part”. What’s really fascinating – and what sure surprised the hell out of me when I first heard it performed live – is how the second verse falls off into a beautifully sleepy little glockenspiel interlude, only for a truly massive refrain of loud, slicing guitar chords to suddenly cut in, as the message is brought into the king’s courts with all of its regal pomp and circumstance. This will probably annoy the purists and the old-timers to no end as they continue to slam on those two chords before and after the third verse – why do those young folks have to make all that racket? But I love this aspect of the song now that I’ve adjusted to it. The part that baffles me is how it falls off into a sort of moody afterthought in the fourth and final verse, with Eric singing sleepily over a decidedly un-classical loop of backmasked keyboard sounds. I’d expect that to be the “biggest” verse as the king is now propagating the message of Christ’s coming out to his subjects all across the land. But maybe it needed to be scaled back to give us space to meditate on the words “Pray for peace, people everywhere”, because despite the Prince of Peace visiting us once, it’s a lesson that we modern, sophisticated humans still haven’t really learned.
3. The Earth Stood Still
This is Eric’s original composition, an attempt to imagine himself as an onlooker at the nativity scene, among all of the shepherds and peasants and animals gathered there to see the newborn Jesus. He’s given a mostly simple arrangement, with the piano returning to this one chord that gives it a gentle pulse, like a twinkling star in the night sky, as the rest of the band gradually adds subdued acoustic guitar, cello, and percussion. It’s a refreshing attempt to help us view a familiar scene with fresh new eyes, much like Relient K did with “I Celebrate the Day” many years ago. The best moment is probably the wordless refrain of voices ringing out that comes at the end of the song, though it’s because the “chorus” has no words that the song probably doesn’t quite have the spark of recognizability that it would need to become a modern classic in its own right. That’s OK. It’s lovely for what it is, as if the band wanted to keep the scale small and humble.
4. Angels, We Have Heard on High
For me, this is the most baffling arrangement of a well-loved hymn that the band has come up with on either EP. It’s their most minimal arrangement, stripping away all of the computer-assisted stuff and most of the “chamber pop” instrumentation as well, to focus on the simple, light thump of drums accompanied by the steady picking of an acoustic guitar. By itself, this would be a simple but effective instrumental piece. But despite the breezy pace of it, Eric seems committed to singing as slow as possible, once again, this is the rare Christmas song where slow just does not work. I have a rule when it comes to this song – if an able-bodied person with healthy lungs can’t get through the extended “o” in “Gloria” without taking more than one breath, then it’s too slow. Eric has to take several breaths due to the ponderous speed of it, as does Olga Yagolnikov, lead singer of Kye Kye (the supporting band on FoF’s Christmas tour this year), who handles the background/harmony vocal. The two voices mesh beautifully, but perhaps due to the attempt to keep the arrangement as small-scale as possible, they also sound a bit anemic. I realize that playing this song at normal speed can cause most bands to blow through it in a minute or two, but playing it this slow sort of sucks the joy out of singing it.
This reflective piano piece, set against the backdrop of footsteps on a sidewalk while cars whiz down the street, is probably meant to evoke the mood of a bustling city during the holidays. It’s pretty, especially when the band’s most beloved instrumental, the glockenspiel, joins in. But if you didn’t know you were listening to a Christmas disc, this track wouldn’t tip you off. It actually reminds me of some of the transitional instrumental pieces on Mae‘s recent series of EPs.
6. Pie Jesu
Cue the pipe organ! Come on, that’s probably the only way to make a traditional Latin mass work. (Then again, see “Sanctitatis” on the band’s non-seasonal record Twilight.) Slow and meditative makes total sense here, with the band channeling a bit of an Arcade Fire vibe, but without the sneer, seeing as they actually have a favorable view of religion and all. Eric sounds good chanting the Latin lyrics, which are translated in the liner notes for the sake of us vulgar peasants who don’t speak the language: “Sweet Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world, give them rest.” From what I’ve gathered, this is most commonly played as part of a funeral mass, so it’s an interesting choice to cap off a Christmas record. (Just about anything themed around Jesus seems to fit into a Christmas album as far as contemporary Christian music is concerned, so I can allow some creative license here.) I like the fusion of modern and traditional as the drums and decidedly electric guitar build up for a big finish, though the song isn’t quite given the drawn-out runtime you’d expect for a Future of Forestry finale. It almost seems like they ran out of studio time, given how suddenly the bells and keyboards at the end of the song cut off. That’s a bit of a glaring error in an otherwise immaculately produced (wow, unintentional pun there) recording, but not a big enough one to warrant any major gripes.
This disc’ll be a good keepsake for fans who enjoyed the first Advent Christmas EP. It’s not really an ideal introduction to FoF’s sound, which is slightly disappointing, because in comparison, I’d take full confidence in using the first Advent disc as a gateway to lure fans of Christmas music into eventually checking out the band’s non-seasonal material. It’s best to appreciate the second volume as a companion to the first, so if you’re reading this and haven’t read my thoughts on the previous installment, go check that out before you considering downloading this. (Which is the only way you’re gonna get it before Christmas now that the tour’s winding down, the band being indie and all – thank God for the gift of iTunes, right?)
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Joy to the World $1
Do You Hear What I Hear? $1.50
The Earth Stood Still $1
Angels, We Have Heard on High $.50
Pie Jesu $1
Eric Owyoung: Lead vocals, guitars, bass, assorted instruments
T. J. Hill: Backing vocals, drums, guitars, bass, glockenspiel, assorted instruments
Liz Lee: Cello, glockenspiel, occasional percussion
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.