December 20, 2007

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Jars of Clay, Christmas Songs
Nettwerk Records, Sept. 11
In interviews, Christian alt-rockers Jars of Clay have readily acknowledged suppressing the urge to buttonhole heathens and get them all up into the Lord. Fittingly, they sound as though they’d been contractually obligated to produce a Christmas album and bummed out about it, going by opening original instrumental “The Gift of Saint Cecilia,” a shy, faraway shout-out to things like Figurine and The National. “Wonderful Christmastime,” the Paul McCartney phone-in from millennia ago, is a techno chintz-fest to start, then moves into low-energy Keane, the spectrum for which singer Dan Haseltine was born.

Nice melodies are found in many places, none more thoughtful and sweet than in “Love Came Down at Christmas,” an ’80s chill-rock overhaul of an Irish traditional. There’s evidence that the band took this as a serious project rather than a novelty one-off; they obviously dug into their reserve stock of riffs. Indie weirdness gets its due in the remake of the Charlie Brown theme “Christmastime is Here,” spaghetti-Western guitar stubbornly plunking away like a dull headache through the tune’s entire length. Overall this plays more like a conventional artist release; despite any protestation they might voice toward the contrary these guys were really into doing this. A — E. W. S.