Catching Up with The Long Play: “Cold Dark Night”

Listening to Cold Dark Night— the first-ever holiday-themed Sam Phillips recording, and the second EP release in her Long Play subscription service– I am reminded, perhaps unsurprisingly, of both Over the Rhine Christmas recordings. Unsurprising, but not unimpressive; the difference between those two holiday albums is substantial, and for the brooding, Advent melancholy of Darkest Night of the Year and the relatively brighter, candy-coated festivity of Snow Angels to both be invoked in a six-song set is a testament to just how much creative and emotional ground Phillips is covering with these short records. Artistically, she’s firing on all cylinders, it would seem, as this holiday recording is generally of the same high quality as the Hypnotists in Paris EP, and a surprisingly seamless fit into Phillips’ canon more broadly.

As far as that go, let me say from the outset that I’m a little surprised by the profoundly Christological focus of this set– or, at least, to how explicit it is. Phillips’ albums are always rich in mystery and ruminations on grace, but this is the most direct she has been in her use of religious imagery and language since her Leslie days. Four of the songs here are traditional hymns, each one of them lingering on the manger scene, and the opening reading of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” recorded with the Section Quartet and recalling some of the more ponderous moments on Hypnotists, makes it clear that Phillips views the incarnation as a darkly mysterious, sobering affair. That spirit carries over into the first of two originals, the title song, which is immediately a Phillips classic in my book; it’s a raw and energetic thing that’s written in the form of an old spiritual, but given a dash of electricity and a thumping backbeat courtesy of Jay Bellerose. I’m somewhat inclined to say it my favorite Long Play song yet– though admittedly, I’ve only made it through two of the five EPs at this point.

The other original song, “It Doesn’t Feel Like Christmas,” veers toward the opposite end of the spectrum, recalling the more playful and anthemic moments of the Over the Rhine Snow Angels disc– I’m thinking of “Here it Is,” in particular– while both lightening the mood and illuminating the song’s themes of newness and redemption (laced with some melancholy too, of course).

The remaining three hymns fall somewhere between the poles established on the first three songs. There’s a rather playful, even whimsical take on “Away in the Manger,” and also a fairly faithful version of “O Holy Night.” The latter is really lovely; the former, I think, is probably the closest thing here to a throwaway, though it’s worth hearing if for no other reason than to hear Sam herself take to the drumkit and do what sounds like a mighty good impression of Bellerose’s trademark thump.

But the album’s centerpiece, and by far its longest cut (four and a half minutes, with none of the other tracks even hitting the three mark), is a brooding, ominous rendition of “Silent Night,” which seems to take the view that the night in question was less a cause for holiday frivolity than a dark marvel. Joe Henry is on board for a duet, and I savor the rare opportunity to hear him singing something sort of like a standard; I’ve always thought he was basically a crooner at heart, and this kind of singing suits him well. The highlight of the song though is a violent storm of drums and strings, the EP’s true pinnacle.

All to say: Holiday albums that spare neither style nor substance are in short supply, but Phillips has pulled off a very nice one, and only took six songs to do it in. That this festive offering might make its way into listening rotation slightly less often than her other recordings is understandable, I suppose, but I’d also argue that it makes sense to listen to year-round, and that it certainly seems to be a weighty addition to the Long Play endeavor, an investment that has already paid huge dividends.

So, then: Magic for Everybody some time next week, and until then, further enjoyment of the first two. Thus far, the music has been so good that I’m finding it easy to resist the temptation to skip ahead; I’m simply savoring what I’ve already got.


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6 responses to “Catching Up with The Long Play: “Cold Dark Night””

  1. Tom McBride says :

    Very nice review, Josh. I’m inclined to agree that this EP will probably get the fewest listens because of it’s holiday theme, but the songs, for the most part, are as strong as anything else released in The Long Play. Sam certainly did a fine job of producing herself on Don’t Do Anything, but I wonder if in the future she might consider handing the reigns over to someone like Joe Henry or possibly Daniel Lanois for an album. It would be interesting to see what would come of such collaborations.

  2. Josh Hurst says :

    I have wondered about that as well, Tom; I know that Sam and JH are close friends and suspect that they would both relish the opportunity to work together in that capacity, though I don’t mean to speak for them, of course. I wonder if maybe Sam is enjoying having such a great degree of control– after so many years working with T-Bone, I mean– and simply isn’t ready to give it up just yet.

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