The Rosebuds – Christmas Tree Island

I’ve sort of made a habit of turning people on to The Rosebuds. It’s a pretty easy task to accomplish. The band’s music is so well crafted, so warm and inviting, so unabashedly, humanly honest and vulnerable and ultimately celebratory that it usually only takes a song or two before my intended target is quizzing me about the band, jonesing to hear more. And just like that, The Rosebuds become instant old friends to another new fan.

Since their last proper album, 2011’s Loud Planes Fly Low, which more or less chronicled the breakup of the marriage of group founders Ivan Howard and Kelly Crisp in a bittersweet song cycle, the North Carolina-born combo has released a series of thematic digital recordings – most recently a couple of Halloween songs (with accompanying videos), preceded by a song-for-song remake of Sade’s Love Deluxe album and, last November, an album of original Christmas songs titled Christmas Tree Island. All of which sort of bear the surface marks of downtime larks, fun projects to undertake while the group contemplates its future. They also all sound to me like the primary work of Howard, with minimal input from Crisp. I could be wrong about that, but she seems barely present in these songs. The two are now separated geographically as well, with Kelly in Brooklyn and Ivan out west (Ivan also just released a funk-style single under the name Howard Ivans), but who knows – I couldn’t find any credits.

The Halloween tunes and Sade thing don’t really do that much for me, personally. But in the spirit of the season, I wanted to sing the praises of that Christmas album, which bears many of the positive attributes of the band’s five Merge albums. And after all, on a sonic level, The Rosebuds’ appealing brand of hummable indie-pop occasionally sounds mere steps away from the realm of jingle-jangle yuletide caroling anyway.

But this is not some cheesy, stereotypical holiday schmaltz revue. These 13 songs largely eschew well-worn clichés or the jokey novelty angle, instead offering glimpses of the season through the eyes and hearts of people we all can relate to. The details of the scenes are familiar, often nostalgically so. “So all night long we dig to find/ Up in the attic where all the boxes hide/ The lights and cheer for another year/ And the kids are jumping from the arms of the chairs,” sings Howard with not a hint of mockery or irony in “When It’s Cold,” a bouncy number that could have easily snuggled its way onto any of The Rosebuds’ best albums. The way he alights into the chorus – “So let’s go out into the ice and snow and wait on the roof until away we go (oh oh oh oh oh!)” – it feels as though the song is pulling you skyward inside a flock of familiar contentment.

Many of the songs feature smooth alto saxophone, which helps paint the background for the metropolitan romance of “Xmas in New York”: “Let’s spend Christmas in New York, along the snowy streets/ And hide from all the noise, and both our families.” Howard’s increasing influence from classic soul music permeates the album, both musically and in his tender voice, most notably on the stirring “Lonely Light,” where the singer describes going through the Christmas motions while longing for the companionship of his wife or lover, who is gone this year for what must be the first time, having either left him voluntarily or passed away. “Baby I’ll be fine, I found the wrapping paper/ And I think you would smile at how I tied those ribbons together,” he sings in a voice that bleeds wistful despair. “Here we are, two hearts apart, I’m holding back the years…You and I, it’s all that I know.”

My favorite on Christmas Tree Island is “Melt Our Way Out.” It’s not that it’s the most vivid or moving song, lyrically, but it has that trait I love of so many Rosebuds songs, in that it involves two friends – maybe more than friends, or maybe too young for that – plotting an escape, however temporary, from the mundane realities of their lives, into a world of magic and wonder, just outside the door, out in the woods, out in a world where we can just be ourselves. “And I’ll be waiting here, where the embers cheer, and if the fire goes out we can laugh ‘cause we just won’t need it.” The chord progressions and Ivan’s determined, romantic voice send it into a truly sublime space.

Most Christmas albums by modern pop artists range from lame-to-terrible in terms of lasting quality. Christmas Tree Island is a rare exception, an original work where Christmas merely is the setting for songs that, more times than not, rank among the band’s best. Being that it’s only a digital download (oh, how I hate that crap), it’s not something you can really leave for your honey under the tree this year. But you should have it playing on the ol’ iPod in the background. I think it’ll make your Christmas a little bit merrier, and chances are you’ll have a few new Rosebuds fans on your hands by the time it’s over.

The Rosebuds
Christmas Tree Island