Jars of Clay: Christmas Songs

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Jars of Clay: Christmas Songs

Nashville folk-pop outfit delivers a refreshingly unique holiday album

Jars Of Clay released its first holiday record, the four-song Drummer Boy EP back in 1995

. For fans who've awaited a full-length Christmas record from the band ever since, it was like being allowed to open one small gift on Christmas Eve, but then having to wait a seeming eternity for the rest of Santa’s payload.

On Christmas Songs, Jars reprise their two yuletide favorites from Drummer Boy, an exercise that illustrates how the intervening years have seasoned the band’s creative approach. You can hear the influence of classic holiday music that members of the group enjoyed growing up: big-band in the snatches of jazz guitar and the sophisticated orchestrations, while more unorthodox influences manifest themselves in electronic gurgles and snaking synth lines. The purely acoustic Jars of yesteryear are still evident, but this time around the wise men arrive bearing gold, frankincense, and Moog.

When frontman Dan Haseltine croons “we don’t have to do the things Eskimos do” in the languorously playful “Hibernation Day,” it seems like he’s also absolving the band of the rules governing a typical Jars studio release. Most of Christmas Songs finds the band reaching for a sound that’s endearingly off-kilter. Still, it wouldn’t be a Jars release without some moments of arresting beauty and solemn earnestness. These qualities abound in the anchor track “Peace Is Here,” and the elegantly simple “Winter Skin” (an answer song to Death Cab’s “Summer Skin,” perhaps?), which captures the magic of a snowy night with clinking chimes and the misting-breath refrain, “We put on our winter skin and walk, and we watch the snow fall.”

By avoiding the temptation to retread holiday chestnuts bombarding shopping-mall loudspeakers--opting instead for idiosyncratic covers and band originals--Jars have crafted an album that’s unique not just on the holiday CD rack, but within the band’s own catalogue. It’s a holiday record in the truest sense: a gathering of friends reminiscing, sharing bravely optimistic hopes for the prospects of peace on earth and “simply having a wonderful Christmastime.”