Maybe there’s finally enough Christmas music, or maybe it’s election fallout. Exploring the Xmas intersection of cheesy and ironic? No thanks, I’ve had my fill. Got lots of roots obscurities? Obscurity without illumination is just what I’m afraid of. How about that volatile mix of commerce and religion? I’ve had enough.
So Irish American female folkies recorded the only current CD that fills my bill this year—a modulation of the familiar mixed with something fresh in a consistent voice that doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’m no Celtic music devotee and have never been to County Kildare, although I do know Yonkers. But I can feel the immigrant’s lament in the fiddle and the whistle. My Christmas memories take me back to my vinyl, and my vinyl takes me back to its American roots: that gospel choir in the little country church down South and the place across the ocean the Clancy Brothers came from. Jesus was Jewish, and for a while he was German, but the music says he turned Irish and African as soon as he had the chance.
When the Ladies bracket lead singer Heidi Talbot’s take on the Great Christmas Songbook with trad-sounding instrumentals, I hear something, well, Irish American, that forward-backward, ethnic-universal thing modern folk music was designed for. Talbot is exquisite throughout, Björk combined with Enya. Of course, in this genre exquisite can get dull—too much purity makes you desperate for a blue note. But the Ladies pace Talbot with reels and slow songs and a few judicious harmonies that set up a tasteful, heartfelt context, so by the middle of the record even “The Little Drummer Boy” is bearable. With “O Holy Night,” the showstopper at churches everywhere, Talbot makes it new by hitting the center of each note after “Fall on your knees” without deploying the customary volume or drama. And that’s the drama. Followed by a reel.