Fontana North / Red 2017
Taking their eclecticism to new heights, merry gentlemen from Toronto deliver Yuletide letters from around the world – and get away with it.
The method of melange has long been this band’s modus operandi, but now it’s put to the test in the most inauspicious circumstances of a seasonal swirl, when making a record is easy yet making it as memorable an album as to become a perennial seems almost impossible. The Canadian quintet pull it off with an envious aplomb, though, creating a kaleidoscopic kind of tapestry, where ghosts of Christmas carols and Bach opuses haunt a heady mix of traditional fare, original numbers and covers, and where the group members rub shoulders with guest singers and string ensembles who hark from various countries.
Opener “Turkish Greensleeves” has it all laid out for everyone to see and marvel at how West and East can meet in a joyous dance to evoke the titular melody’s Andalusian spirit which marries Anatolian strum to electric twang – and, perhaps, not for nothing the cycle’s ska-kissed closer “Feliz Navidad / Come On People Sing” is sung, by Alex Cuba, in Spanish and English. There’s a constant rhythmical shift, too, the fiddle-abetted, solemn-to-playful march of “Little Drummer Boy” taking a back seat to violinist Chris McKhool’s own “Sing For Kwanzaa” that’s fluttering on the wings of a Saharan groove, and the bass-spanked jive behind “Celebrate The Holydays” that SWEET HONEY IN THE ROCK voice effusively dissolving in the misty Gaelic medley which features Chieftain Paddy Moloney on penny-whistle.
Closer to home, Crystal Shawanda takes a vocal flight on the orchestra-heightened “Jesous Ahatonhia” while the hosts’ strings anchor the ancient Huron song to local soil with a timeless effect, before the band let “The Little Swallow” soar over the Carpathians and flamenco figures resolve into “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” to stage an even more dramatic rise. But if “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” is turned into a lush ballad, Ruben Blades and Luba Mason infusing the Lennon classic with passion, “A Django Christmas” – another instrumental potpourri – does its reckless Klezmer knees-up with an occasional spiritual swell on the other end of emotional spectrum, and “Himalayan Sleigh Ride” pitches catchy raga into the picture.
The result is a bewitching carousel of images that span far beyond Yuletide; like Christmas shops which work all year long and draw punters, this album is to be spun just as long.