RANI ARBO AND DAISY MAYHEM
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Only a group as fabulous as like Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem [sic] could make me come within a country mile of a holiday album, a genre of music I would gladly ban. Luckily, Ms. Arbo and her band don't stray into musical swamp of "Jingle Bells," "Rudolph," and plastic holly. The best December albums are generally those in the vein of this album's title: Wintersong. Christmas is part of the end-of-the-calendar lock-down that becomes palpable around December 1, but it's not the whole story. Call this one an album for those who want to embrace the whole winter package, including Christmas.
There are, indeed, Christmas songs on this album, but not the sort you'll hear assaulting your ears at a mall all-too-near you. Instead, Arbo et. al. draw from decidedly non-conventional sources: poets, rock composers, Cajun songs, and the ever-popular traditional well. It opens with a fine Christmas song, Jesse Winchester's "Let's Make a BabyKing," presented in a bluesy, gospel wrapper. It—like other offerings on this album–is also a challenge to live up to the promise of what Jesus' birth is supposed to symbolize: Once upon a Christmas morning /There was a pretty little baby boy/Seems like I remember sadness /Mingling with the joy. The same sentiments come across in their cover of Ron Sexsmith's "Maybe This Christmas," a call to make love and forgiveness more than (dare I say it?) a trite slogan in a rote-memory falala carol. These are indicative of the album's bittersweet offerings, including three inspired by poets. "Ring Out, Wild Bells" reworks Tennyson's verses in a ring-out-the old-ring-in-the-new fashion whose laconic café-style vocals and dark mood could have been plucked from June Tabor's repertoire. "Christmas Bells" is an antiwar offering inspired by a Longfellow poem," and "Christmas Carol" another poignant piece–it's based on the namesake G. K. Chesterton poem, and offered as an old-time song whose tune is faintly reminiscent of "Shady Grove."
There is plenty of light to counter the darker side of winter. daisy mayhem gives us a cover of Quaker songwriter Sydney Carter's "Julian of Norwich" and its promise of renewal: All shall be well again, I know. "Hot Buttered Rum," a Red Clay Ramblers' staple, is a winter love song: You're my sweet maple sugar, honey/Hot buttered rum. Sweetness (with a little edge) comes through on the home-for-the-holidays "2000 Miles," a Chrissie Hynde cover; and it's hard to top the Cajuns when it comes to joy, hence a frenzied fiddle and dancing vocal take on Michael Doucet's "Bonne Annee." Arbo also dusts off the scratchy fiddle on Bessie Jones' "Yonder Comes Day," a slice of back porch soul. Others in the happy mode include "Children Go Where I Send Thee," a traditional cumulative song in the vein of "Twelve Days of Christmas," and "Singing in the Land," collected by Ruth Crawford Seeger, and performed with Appalachian-style close harmony singing.
Bottom line: If you're contemplating a jump into the icy Connecticut River rather than hearing about mama kissing Santa Claus again, try this CD instead. It just might get you through to spring when all shall be well again.
Those living near Northampton, MA can hear Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem perform this album at the Parlor Room on December 18 at 7 pm.