Review: Smalltown Poets – Christmas Time Again

Smalltown PoetsLife is different these days for longtime rock outfit Smalltown Poets, the band stepping off the road for the most part and living apart from each other in different states. Yet they’ve defied the odds as, after a seven year hiatus, they began recording together as a band and putting music out, both for the fans and the love of the craft. That release, Smalltown Poets Christmas, led to the opportunity to tour and later, another set of new music, this time an EP of new and unreleased material. Now, the band is back once again, with the holidays again in their crosshairs on Christmas Time Again.

And from the sound of this recording, Smalltown Poets haven’t lost a step. The record opens up with the ethereal, ambient flavors of “Cantus Sacrum Nocti/What Child Is This,” a gentle, haunting piano fill building before exploding into the fuzzy guitar rock of “Wassail Song,” Byron Goggin’s drum work pounding its way through. “Christmas Time Again” is a warmhearted touch of classic Christmas nostalgia, the lyric sung sincerely by frontman Michael Johnston while “Joy to the World” gets the Smalltown treatment, infusing it with some playful guitar fills and just an extra dose of musical joy.

Strings and keyboards undergird the hope-filled ballad “This Day in Bethlehem” as “Angels From the Realms of Glory” is rendered pretty faithfully, if a bit more energetically. “Good King Wenceslas,” on the other hand, is rendered with a moody choral vocal and a brooding arrangement that builds to its rousing conclusion, feeling a bit like something from The Digital Age. “Merrily on High” is a playful rocker and the lesser known “Patapan” is a true standout with its big, hammering drums and an almost medieval rock vibe rolling throughout.

Those ancient elements carry over into the classically tinged “Sing We Now of Christmas,” choral vocals blending with warm strings before giving way to the piano driven tones of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” the classic composition lift given some new life and emerging as something of a powerful rock worship jam, Johnston’s voice rising to the challenge. Another unique highlight emerges alongside the whole band’s great vocals on “Children, Go Where I Send Thee,” the collective’s talents adapting to an a cappella bluegrass classic with ease.

“Christmas Lullaby” is just that, a string and piano led lullaby that celebrates the heartbeat of the holiday while the band closes things out with the seasonal classic, “Auld Lang Syne.” Of course, their rendition of the classic is given a brilliant facelift, the melody intact and gently played through while ambient structures roll around it, lending the track the same ethereal intensity that the album began with, coming full circle.

There are two great things that Smalltown Poets accomplish with this latest release. The first is to offer up yet another stellar Christmas offering, putting a unique spin on songs old and new and planting themselves firmly in Christmases to come. The second thing they manage to do is to create a longing within listeners, a longing for more music from this talented, longtime quintet. Maybe we can put in a good word with Old Saint Nick…

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