The Eastern Sea, First Christmas
Some things just can’t be resisted: koalas, M&Ms, re-runs of Doctor Who, and yes, one of my favorite bands in The Whole Freaking Universe doing an album of Christmas songs. Admittedly, if done badly, this kind of thing generally ends up downright terrible, but before going in I felt pretty confident that Austin band The Eastern Sea and its frontman/head honcho/singer/songwriter Matt Hines wouldn’t let me down.
And no, I wasn’t wrong. First Christmas is a gorgeous, crystalline-beautiful, sincere-yet-smiling collection of songs, mostly standards everybody who’s turned on a TV or radio around this time of year knows whether they want to or not, as well as a handful of brand-new original songs penned by the band themselves. The Eastern Sea’s always had kind of a “wintery” feel to them, to my ears, so First Christmas fits damn near perfectly aside this year’s full-length Plague and the band’s previous two EPs.
They start off with an original, the gorgeous, hypnotic “This Is Christmas,” which manages to be a meditation on all the aspects of the holiday, good and bad, and which ends up being pretty much my favorite song on here, even with all the classics. It’s strummy and driving and thoughtful and sweet — that is, everything I love about this band.
From there, they head backwards, with a cheerily entertaining revamp of the ever-popular Alvin & The Chipmunks song “Christmas, Don’t Be Late,” which sees Hines playing the part of Dave Seville, coaching the various members of the band along and looking in frustration for bandmate Chris D’anunzio (oh, and there’s a nice shoutout to Brett Cannon, of PR group Paper Thin Media and the band’s manager). It’s friendly and lighthearted, leading in nicely to “Silver Bells,” where The Eastern Sea play it a bit more somber, with a rendition that’s folky and drone-y at the same time and makes me think (favorably, mind you) of Fleet Foxes.
Eponymous track “First Christmas” follows, and like “This Is Christmas,” in some ways the standards just can’t hold a candle to it; maybe it’s the freshness of the song to my ears, but I’m liking those two tracks more than a lot of the time-tested tunes here. Hines comes off like Sun Kil Moon’s Mark Kozelek, which sounds good to me, and the song itself is sweet, yearning, and full of soul, marrying a snapping, Belle and Sebastian-esque rhythm to some awesome, awesome horns.
Moving on, there’s a ’60s-ish, Simon & Garfunkel-like arrangement of “Walking in the Air” — from The Snowman, apparently, although I sure as heck don’t remember it — and then a serene, humbled, yet still beautiful and soaring performance of “O, Holy Night,” which is fairly mind-blowing. Speaking of things I don’t remember, I’d apparently never really listened all that closely to the lyrics to this traditional tune ’til now, because I feel like I should be singing along, but I’m stumbling on every other line. Finally hearing and paying attention to the words makes the song work even better (der, obviously).
“Carol Of The Bells” is short and a capella, pretty much like you’d expect it to sound; it’s decent, but nothing too far beyond what you’ve likely heard before, unfortunately. The same can’t be said of the band’s version of “Angels We Have Heard On High,” however, which is triumphant and lush and high-flying, like gospel-ized spacerock more than anything else. There’s a strong resemblance to The Decemberists here, maybe more than on the Sea’s original stuff, which is a bit more low-key than what’s here — and now that I’m thinking about it, that holds true for the rest of this album, as well particularly the more “churchy” songs.
“Little Drummer Boy” focuses wonderfully on Hines’ plaintive, clear, boyish vocals and Charley Seiss’s drums at first, but then turns into a ferocious (yet still gospel-tinged) raveup that blows the doors off like few versions of this song can. On a similarly minimal note, there’s the Sea’s jangly, quiet take on “The First Noel,” which makes me think oddly of Billy Bragg.
That minimalism doesn’t last long, though, because soon they’re on into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” which becomes strange and psych-sounding, with a thicker, fuzzed-out guitar sound and an arrangement that wouldn’t sound out of place on a vintage Pink Floyd album. Things come back down to earth a bit for closer “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which is all gentle and warm, bumping along sweetly.
Towards the end of the song, Hines takes a minute to pen a cheery missive to Santa from The Eastern Sea, and I can’t help but smile as he rolls along, smoothly seguing into a list of all the things Santa could bring for he and his bandmates. Like a lot of the rest of the album, it serves a brilliant little wink-and-nod to the audience, while at the same time showing just how much this season means to the folks in the band. Nicely done, y’all.