Release Date: November 2012
Ok, I’m hyper-critical of Christmas music. It wasn’t really until the last 5 or 6 years that I’ve had any patience for it to begin with. But during that time, I’ve come to discover a deep love for select Christmas songs. I lean heavily toward religious Christmas fare and tend to prefer it with a heavy dose of introspection and even some darkness. Needless to say, the pool there is very limited.
A week or so ago, I randomly received an email from the head of the record label Velvet Blue Music suggesting that I check out this Christmas EP by a band called Bethan. After listening for a few minutes, I was hooked – then, I was delighted to learn that they are based right here in Dallas. Their online bio was pretty sparse, but I reached out to the band and traded a couple of emails with lead singer Jessi Hall to get a bit more background on who they are and where this incredible music came from.
Jessi: Bethan started as a studio project. Very pop experience… I was writing and recording with a producer in Brooklyn, Roger Greenawalt while I was still in [my previous band] Novaak. I learned a ton about writing and editing myself working with him. When Novaak was over, I wanted to finish an EP with Roger since we’d already written a number of songs that I really liked. I didn’t want to stop making music.
Since that release, I put together a band for shows… just playing the songs as recorded for about 6 months… We wanted to try tapping into different inspiration (Cole Porter, Tom Waits, Gershwin, etc), we wanted to write songs that were a bit more authentic, and we wanted to play with people that understood our priorities. So, we begged Kevin and Becki Howard to play with us (Jesse Hopkins was already playing with us) and work on a new sound… less pop, still melancholic, but with strings, piano, etc.
After playing together for some time, we discussed making a Christmas EP at band practice one night. For me personally, this is very funny because I’m not a huge fan of Christmas… We started by creating a short list of songs that we were inspired by and narrowed it down to 5. We went with all religious songs because they were the most beautiful and meaningful… Christmas is more meaningful than presents, highly produced church services, togetherness, and overeating. It’s hopeful, but not fluffy. So, we chose songs that were weighty, beautiful, and hopeful.
[You asked] about religious content: the songs are not just part of the cultural experience. They’re meaningful to us personally. All of us in the band are Christian and have played music in churches. I think recording them made them new again which was quite refreshing.
Ryan: Just to round out the thought process: As I was thinking through the songs and the context of Christmas, I’ve really been moved in recent years by looking at “Christmas songs” in terms of Advent. There’s this dark window between the Old and New Testaments and the Advent is less of this triumphant “horns and cymbals” as it is a coming up for air and finally finding hope. “O Come O Come Emmanuel” is definitely indicative of that. It captures this longing that no “love song” could ever understand. And it allows us to place ourselves into a deeper cultural context of what the Advent means. Hindsight is 20/20 and so we have the Resurrection to give context to the Advent. But if you can strip everything away that happens after Luke 2, you can really appreciate it more as what it is and what it meant.
The 5-song EP begins opens with the haunting, chamber-inspired “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”, featuring some awesome clarinet work. The rendition of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” has an interesting retro vibe about it. A few chord changes differentiate it from more familiar renditions. Track four, “In the Bleak Midwinter” is one that I’m not overly familiar with. The tight harmonies over extremely simple instrumentation create a very cozy, fire-side feel.
The group’s take on “Silent Night” is visionary. Sounding like the last hours of a parking lot carnival, the experience is a bit disorienting, ending with a bit of a creepy bossa nova tag of “Auld Lang Syne”. Hall suggests that “in a way [it] actually says a lot about how our culture approaches Christmas.”
The singer admits that “O Holy Night” (track 3) is a song that every vocalist wants to sing and for that reason they almost didn’t record it. “But, in the end, it was too beautiful not to record… and the lyrics are so pained. There is so much hope and yearning in the lyrics and melody.” It is, perhaps, my favorite song of all time, so I’m very critical toward any new rendition of it. Bethan, doesn’t take too many chances on it and offers a fairly traditional interpretation. The arrangement is a perfect compliment to Hall’s voice which oozes sincerity, surpassing many of the more bombastic versions we’ve been subjected to over the years.
While this recording may not be fitting fare for your family Christmas party, but it’s perfect for personal meditation on the truest meaning of Christmas.