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Wednesday, Dec 22 1999

Low has been cranking out moody, slowcore hits since the early '90s, and yet the band has the nerve to end the decade that embraced it with an album of completely reverent Christmas carols. The group's prolific husband-and-wife recording team, Mimi Parker and Alan Sparhawk, are Mormons, and they cradle a couple of the more traditional birth-of-Jesus tunes, "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Silent Night," in a shroud of minimalism. On "Drummer Boy," some creepy organ (though it might be a synthesized guitar) drives the melody, and while Parker creates a muffled, metal-hitting-metal, German-noise-band sound on percussion, the melody and harmonies remain straight up.

The somber original "The Long Way Around the Sea" contemplates the scene at the manger in lo-fi, and "If You Were Born Today" is also a celebration of the birth of the Christ child, noting that if he walked among us today, he'd probably be killed. Among the secular songs, the band's version of "Blue Christmas" is a countrified, holiday moan; perhaps it's a tribute to that other King, or just an inspired slice of the jingle bell blues, but it suits the band's humble way. A jolly wall of sound, sleigh bells and all, props up "Just Like Christmas."

Three of the songs on Christmas were previously released; two were taken from a U.K. 7-inch, while a European compilation was home to another, "Taking Down the Tree," a track on which everything sounds broken. The holiday concept is definitely a clever theme, even if the record was constructed from pieces. But what distinguishes this release from so many other contemporary Christmas records is that the original songs and the traditional ones are barely distinguishable from each other. Even for non-caroling types -- especially for non-caroling types -- it's as easy to get swept up in the wash of sound as it is to embrace the Christmas message. The hand-drawn sleeve by bassist Zak Sally and charming greeting from the band -- "Despite the commerce involved, we hope you will consider this our gift to you. Best Wishes." -- only add to the homespun and heartfelt quality of the set.

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Denise Sullivan


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