In Brief: Pretty, but a bit too restrained. While I appreciate their takes on lesser-known and more “classical” Christmas carols than the usual fare, the self-production and some of the instrumental choices can often feel like something’s being held back that keeps these carols from bring as inspiring as the best versions from FoF’s first two Christmas EPs. At other times, it feels like they’re trying too hard to reconstruct the exact same formula that made those EP’s a breath of fresh air back when they were new.
This year, I’ve decided it might be a good idea to review the new Christmas music I’m listening to before Christmas actually arrives. I’m often guilty of doing this on, like, December 30th or something. Since all I’ve got this year is a new 5-song EP from perennial favorite band Future of Forestry, I figure that getting it done early for a change should be a pretty easy task.
It didn’t occur to me when Future of Forestry released their first Christmas EP back in 2008 that their sound lent itself so well to Christmas music. At the time, I still considered them a “worship band”, one capable of breathtaking instrumental arrangements with plenty of classical and experimental instrumentation thrown in, but still a rock band at its heart. I wasn’t prepared for that disc’s approach of slowing down each carol to a pace where you could really ponder each word and gradually build a song up over several minutes to evoke a sense of awe and wonder at the birth of Christ, rather than just going for the usual rock-out, thrill-the-college-kids sort of arrangements that I was kind of still rooting for at the time. Thanks to the Travel series, my expectations were adjusted considerably and I began to appreciate the more abstract, post-rock approach that FoF (now more of a solo project for Eric Owyoung with a rotating cast of contributors than a true “band”) had presumably gleaned from artists like Sigur Rós and Sufjan Stevens. So by the time their second Christmas EP came out in 2010, I was excited for it and I actually made the rare decision to catch one of their Christmas tours (something I’d never do with most artists, because I usually vastly prefer a concert full of original material to one mostly devoted to the same songs I could just be singing myself in church every December). I wasn’t sure if we’d ever get a third one, but I guess it’s becoming a tradition, because 2013 has brought us the third volume in this series.
The weird thing is, following the release of the well-meaning but somewhat lackluster Young Man Follow in 2012, is that I’m kind of ready for another shift in FoF’s sound. Don’t get me wrong; I love the idea of taking indie rock and baroque pop sensibilities and applying them to something as timeless as Christmas carols, with the occasional bit of heavier rock influence for dramatic effect. But it’s sort of becoming a cliche after five years and sixteen tracks of the stuff. I suppose it beats the old “youth group worship band” cliches and the glut of middle-of-the-road CCM Christmas releases that rehash everything to death year in and year out. But still, the approach taken on most of these songs is entirely predictable based on past performance, to the point where Advent Christmas Volume 3 can feel more paint-by-numbers than truly inspired. I had problems with the second volume in a few isolated places, mostly due to experiments that didn’t completely work, but that EP at least carved out a different identity for itself than that of its predecessor. And the first volume, inventive for its time, is probably my favorite Christmas release ever by any artist. I just don’t feel moved the same way by these mostly understated arrangements, respectable and pretty though they may be, that I did by so many of my favorite moments from the first two. I do appreciate the attempt to cover a few lesser-known pieces that won’t typically be sung by casual carolers. And I’m glad that FoF has kept its commitment to pondering the birth of Christ was reverence and keeping the sappy sentimentality out of the equation. So folks who are tired of hearing the same stinkin’ songs on every Christmas album, and who are downright sick of being deluged with the same chirpy “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”-type stuff every time they dare set foot in a retail establishment, may find some solace here. But I’d definitely recommend checking out the first two EPs in the series before moving on to this one.
1. Silent Night
Judging from the ambient tape loop noise at the beginning of this one, it seems that FoF is up to the same “weird glitchy indie Christmas” tricks that they were on Volume 2, but I’ll give credit where credit is due – that stuff’s just window dressing and this turns out to be a pretty clever arrangement. The mood here is sparse and tranquil, with piano chords slowly ascending up the scale, providing a melodic backdrop for “Silent Night” that wouldn’t even tip off which song it is until you hear the vocal melody. I like the swaying, lullaby-like feel of the original carol’s rhythm, so I have to admit I was taken aback by FoF turning it into plain, slow 4/4. But ultimately, this works as an example of rethinking what makes a Christmas carol tick, and still being true to its overall intent despite the unusual approach. When the orchestral arrangement swells up and Eric’s voice goes into falsetto midway through, it’s not as massive as the usual FoF Christmas carol climax, but in this case, since the song is called Silent Night, I think that actually works in its favor. I probably wouldn’t have placed this as the opening track, since I think it works much better as a meditative finale. But it’s still beautiful regardless of its placement.
2. Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring
It’s funny that I often describe Future of Forestry and other independent bands of their ilk who use a lot of classical instrumentation alongside the expected drums, bass, and guitar, as “baroque pop”. In this case, they’ve covering a piece from the actual Baroque period, composed by Johann Sebastian Bach, who may have just come up with one of the most breathtaking melodies of all time. I’d imagine it would be pretty easy to screw this one up, but since this one tends to remain more in the realm of classical music than pop, I don’t hear many modern-day artists attempting it, so fortunately I’ve never heard anyone butcher it. It fits Future of Forestry’s style like a glove – they opt for glockenspiel to carry the weight of its iconic melody, and while they take chances elsewhere with pounding drums and a rather busy string arrangement, they know better than to mess around with the timing or structure of that melody. Having Eric echo the melody with his breathy vocals in a few places also adds a bit of intimacy to the song, which I like. But I’m not so big of a fan of using that same vocal approach on the actual lyrics, which are in Latin. FoF has done songs in Latin before – see Volume 2’s take on “Pie Jesu”, or “Sanctitatis” from Twilight – but in those cases the enunciation is clearer. Here, it’s all so slurred that he might as well be singing Sigur Rós-style gibberish. I’m sure that was probably the inspiration, but it just ends up distracting me from an otherwise good arrangement. Also distracting are the limitations of Eric’s production style – the ending wants to be all big with its multi-tracked vocals ascending toward the heavens and the drums going for “approaching the throne room of God Himself” levels of majesty, but the sound just doesn’t leap out of the speakers the way it did on their versions of songs like “Little Drummer Boy” or “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”.
3. Carol of the Bells
Here comes another one of those repetitive and yet subtly intricate melodies that seems to have remained mostly unspoiled by ill-conceived “mall pop” arrangements. (I’m sure somebody’s screwed this one up. But please don’t ruin it for me.) I’m actually surprised that it took until EP #3 for FoF to attempt this one – heck, the bells and chimes are built right into the band’s default sound these days. This one starts off sounding like you’ve just opened a music box, which isn’t too surprising, but then it takes an interesting left turn by dropping the melody out entirely in favor of light drums, letting the vocals carry the tune for a bit, and then bringing the bells back, allowing these elements to dovetail quite beautifully. Eric has smartly layered his own voice here, playing all the roles in a small choir that handles the harmony vocals (which usually mimic the sounds of bells in arrangements of this song that have only voices and not the actual bells). While this one gets off to a slow start, with the same sort of awkward pauses in the lyrics that made Sixpence None the Richer‘s arrangement of this one a bit odd, it actually turns out to be one of the band’s more brisk takes on a classic carol once it does away with the pauses. (And to be fair, this one can be a bit of a mouthful. Most people don’t seem to know the lyrics to this one offhand, unless they’ve had to memorize it as part of a choir themselves.) Interestingly, this is the only “secular” carol on any of the three EPs thus far, being just about the sound of the bells and the approaching season. It has its roots in antiquity just like a lot of my favorite “religious” carols – I just never stopped to think about it that way. (It has its origins in pre-Christian Ukraine, where it originally heralded the arrival of the spring season and the end of winter. Thanks again, Wikipedia!)
4. O Come All Ye Faithful
This is the arrangement that feels a bit like “lather, rinse, repeat” based on the arrangements of carols from past installments. I probably would have loved this for the same reasons that I came to love everything on the first EP in the series, but it feels a bit dated now. You can predict exactly where this one’s going, all the way from the slow, carefully pondered verses, through to the big rocked-out climax, which means that the heavier guitars and drums in the bridge unfortunately don’t come as much of a surprise. When I say “rock-out”, I still mean in that post-modern sort of way of evoking a mood of grandeur rather than just being noisy for the sake of showing off, so this isn’t a terrible thing. But it lacks the inventiveness of the similarly heavy climaxes of “Joy to the World” (which unexpectedly went into an arrangement of a whole other song) or “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (which went for the big finish, but did it suddenly, almost jarringly). I guess I’m relieved that doing this one the predictable way at least means it’s not an awkward experiment like “Angels We Have Heard on High”, the red-headed stepchild of the otherwise worthwhile Volume 2. I still get goosebumps when the chimes are ringing fast and furious at the end, even if this has become a bit of a played-out trick to make sure an FoF Christmas song has an appropriately “wintry” tone to it. I just wish this one pushed the envelope in some way.
5. Still, Still, Still
This Austrian carol dates back to the 19th century, but I’ll confess that I don’t remember having heard it until now. So, I have no other versions of the song, nor fond memories of singing it growing up, to compare this arrangement to. Like “Silent Night”, it has a very a tranquil arrangement, this time heavy on the cello and the other supporting stringed instruments, with the piano providing basic chords to anchor the melody. Nothing here is terribly surprising or innovative for a mellower FoF, but it’ll do. At this point I feel like they’re leaning a bit heavily on the bells/chimes to work the magic, though I do like the harps that come in during the final verse – I can’t remember the band ever making use of that particular instrument. This one seems like it’s shaping up to be an understated, but fittingly reflective finale, but then its ending just sort of trails off with no real sense of closure to it. If I had it my way, I’d have opened with “O Come All Ye Faithful”, put this one in slot #4, and then closed with “Silent Night”. The whole thing just seems to flow better that way.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Silent Night $1.25
Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring $1.25
Carol of the Bells $1.25
O Come All Ye Faithful $.75
Still, Still, Still $.75
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF: