REVIEW: Christmas Cactus

Nashville singer/songwriter Issac Gill breaks his five-year musical silence with a remarkable, intimate Christmas EP.

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It’s been a while since we’ve heard from Isaac Gill. Despite sporadically playing shows and teasing a never-launched Kickstarter in spring 2015, Gill hasn’t released any new music since his 2012 crowdfunded debut record, Meanwhile. It may seem strange for a musician to come out of a recording hiatus with a holiday EP, but Gill more than proves that his unique approach to songwriting is a perfect fit for the season.

Thanks to Vince Guaraldi and Charlie Brown, bossa nova is a staple of contemporary Christmas music, which is fortunate for Gill, who has been interweaving jazz with reverb-laden indie folk since his debut. This style blooms to a magnificent flourish in lead single, “It Never Snows on Christmas Day,” which poises itself to become a new Christmas classic. While the lyrics stand in stark contrast to many holiday stalwarts, it is as delightfully wistful and magical as the white-crested mainstream favorites nonetheless.

While the instrumental interludes aren’t much to speak of on their own, their role in setting the overall mood and tone of the EP is essential. And, it should be noted, that a somber undercurrent runs through even the lightest tracks — and this is a very good thing. I’ve written elsewhere about how I’ve been frustrated by the general lack of sobriety and hyper-sentimentality in Christmas music (if you haven’t read the post of which I speak, you can do so here). I’m exceedingly pleased to report that Gill masterfully strikes the balance between nostalgia, lament, and hope in these seven tracks.

The EP’s literal and thematic centerpiece, “Christmas Cactus,” rides on idiosyncratic metaphors — as to be expected from Gill — for Christ’s death, resurrection, and restorative work. It appropriately ends with hosanna’s and hallelujah’s that feel sincerely reverent, keeping in mind the suffering Jesus was destined to endure from birth.

The third original song from the tracklist is “New Years Day Carol,” an autobiographical retelling of Gill’s family holiday traditions. As he relives specific memories of food and drink with since-passed family members, he sings “We are together again/Even if only in my mind/We are together again/Just one more time.” It’s an intimate portrayal of heartache that rings especially true during an emotionally conflicting time of year such as Christmas.

Christmas Cactus is an EP well worth the wait. Not only does it finally treat listeners once again to Isaac Gill’s whimsical-yet-earnest lyricism and eclectic musicianship, but it also delivers a batch of Christmas originals that deserve a place right alongside the classics.

9.5/10

This EP can be streamed and purchased on Bandcamp below. During the Christmas 2017 season, all proceeds from this release will go to the Heimerdinger Foundation — a Nashville nonprofit that provides cancer patients with nutritious meals during their treatment. More info can be found at http://www.heimerdingerfoundation.com

 

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