Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: The Christmas Revels, 'Down Through the Winters: Music and Poetry in Celebration of the Winter Solstice;' The Albion Band, 'Another Christmas Present From The Albion Band'

Critic's pick

The Christmas Revels

Down Through the Winters: Music and Poetry in Celebration of the Winter Solstice

The Albion Band

Another Christmas Present From The Albion Band

The music on two new traditionally minded holiday recordings by the Portland, Ore., collective The Christmas Revels and the pioneering British folk-rock troupe The Albion Band might seem stylistically incompatible on the surface. But the intent is like-minded: to view Christmas as more of a seasonal celebration than a purely spiritual one, with centuries-old inspirations as a guiding voice.

The Revels draw on carols from a dozen "Old World" countries over six centuries for its new album, Down Through the Winters. Performed by Portland choruses, Renaissance bands and brass quintets, and augmented by recitals of narratives and poetry, the recording is so traditional in scope as to be transportive.

Little of Winters is obvious. One of the few exceptions, The Holly and the Ivy, shifts from its usual chiming lyricism to a choral arrangement discovered in Herefordshire during the 1950s. Only the dark, chantlike Gaudete — curiously, a '70s pop hit for British folksters Steeleye Span — and the 12th-century Irish-composed Wexford Carol qualify as familiar. Elsewhere, Winters draws inspiration from the sacred and the secular for a Yuletide spirit that is reverential but unspoiled.

The delights include the angelic choral colors of Ave Maris Stella; the union of a 2001 sonnet of seasonal fortitude, with a trio of Renaissance recorders playing an accompanying 14th-century melody on The Year/Je Sui Aussi; and the rustic French medieval string duo Offerat Ecclesia.

The Albion Band is a decades-old British folk enterprise founded by bassist Ashley Hutchings, who formed two other cornerstone bands specializing in traditional folk as a springboard for contemporary pop and rock: Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span.

Another Christmas Present From The Albion Band is a concert recording pulled from a 1986 performance from one of the last great touring line-ups of The Albion Band, (with guitarist Phil Beer and singer Cathy Lesurf.

Unlike newer studio works by Hutchings' similarly minded Albion Christmas Band, Another Christmas Present isn't afraid to shy away from amplified tradition or even rock 'n' roll, as evidenced by The Official Branle, which is Ding Dong Merrily on High performed Morris dance-style on fiddle, melodeon (courtesy of Albion alumnus John Tams) and bells, and a suitably festive take on Chuck Berry's Run Rudolph Run.

But the selection of wassails, including one with a narratives that views Christmas from the front lines of World War I, makes Another Christmas Present a lively Yuletide throwback not only to the decade from which these performances were given but to the previous centuries and spirits that so lovingly inspired them.

WAlter Tunis, contributing music writer