Dan Blakeslee is an American folk singer who, along with his band the Calabash Club, have a style that is hard to pin down. So much so, it’s best summarised in a way most folk music can be: it demands a live performance. Listening to this album it’s hard not to picture a bar full of patrons, loving the atmosphere, each other’s company, and the feeling of a holiday about to be enjoyed.
It’s no criticism to say that although powerful and at times almost raw, this whole album feels safe; it’s a bunch of Christmas songs, what else did you expect? Each track is presented without irony, a feat Blakeslee manages to (just about) pull off due to his belief in the work he’s creating, carried through a sincerity in performance that’s deeply touching.
His voice has a lightness and purity that lifts each refrain and line, sometimes in a way it doesn’t quite deserve. There’s no whiff of the highstreet or mass marketing, this feels like the kind of love for Christmas we’re used to from a school carol night, but presented by a talented musician and grown man. Despite that lack of commercialisation, this is an album that would sound great if cycled into a store’s Christmas playlist. It’s accessible, yet distinct enough to bring a smile to even the most casual listener.
Six of the tracks here are takes on old Christmas classics. We all have favourite versions of these; how – in our heads – they should sound. It’s high praise indeed to say that not one jars or feels like an insult to some a dearly loved festive favourite. Of these, the spin on ‘We Three Kings’ is stupendous, like waves rolling in, each line builds more before retreating back, inching forward until we are immersed in a refreshing, joyus take on a classic.
The other seven are original recordings. Though no doubt heartfelt and likely to get your toes tapping, you’ll likely not be singing any of them once the album has finished, or really even thinking about them at all. They range from pretty good (‘Mister Candy Cane’) to barely this side of cringe inducing (‘To Be an Elf’).
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The one exception to this is ‘Let’s Start Again’. This is, hands down, an absolute belter of a song. It feels as though the whole album is leading to this track, a massive pay-off and triumphant crescendo. Sadly, here comes a massive ‘but’. Halfway through we hear recordings of what sound like celebrations or cheers that continue to the end of the song. This may have been a fault in the review copy, but it’s distracting, distorted, and has no place being where it is.
This is the kind of album we need more of. It’s great to have a legitimate artist embrace their love of something that can be as twee as Christmas and create an unabashed and unapologetic celebration of the holiday. If you’re looking for a Christmas album which lacks cynicism and may even come as a welcome relief to the playlist you’ve been dusting off for the past decade, this might be it.