by Geno Thackara
Quick. Pick one: what’s your favorite holiday song?
I for one am no good at that game. So much of this season’s soundtrack barely even qualifies as musical junk food. It’s more the equivalent of dollar-store party mix full of stale pretzels and that orange-powdered Styrofoam stuff that’s somehow supposed to taste like cheese. Without being able to pick many favorites, my answer is generally “anything I haven’t already heard several hundred times too many.”
Okay, sure, there are a few exceptions even for Grinches like me. You’d have to be truly heartless to hate Vince Guaraldi or John Denver and the Muppets, for instance. But for a change of pace even farther off the obvious path, there are things like Mistletoe & Wine which go way back to the old-time roots of the winter solstice. I’ll gladly take a good “Holly and the Ivy” over any holiday song I’ve heard from a modern pop/rock artist or (God forbid) ex-Beatle.
As you may guess from the name, Mediæval Bæbes specialize in music that makes Beethoven sound modern. A few songs here are actual Olde English or Latin hymns going back as far as the 13th century, and others are original tunes that might as well be. Each one has up to twelve women harmonizing like angels. The traditional instrumentation is eloquent and sparse as needed: maybe a little harp, cello, recorder or glockenspiel. I think there’s a zither in there somewhere. At other times those beautiful voices are perfectly enchanting all by themselves.
It’s also nice that it’s not all Christmas stuff and can work fine all winter long. Some songs relate to the Sun King’s holiday with genuine joy (“Ecce Mundi Guadium” or “In Dulci Jubilo”). Then they’re set alongside things like the pagan-themed “Undrentide” or the surprisingly disturbing “Coventry Carol,” which manages to fit the overall vibe and also sound deliciously ghostly. It’s an acquired taste, but to some ears this is just what a Christmas album should be – no barking dogs, no sonic tinsel and not an irritating sleigh bell to be heard. Especially on the right kind of night when it’s cold, dark and still enough, there’s really nothing like it.