By Aldus Santos
Hard truths first. The Christmas album is, tragically, a time-honored creative afterthought. Bands from the ‘60s cut yuletide singles for fan-club members; standards crooners made them no fail (it kind of came with the territory); and pop stars recorded them because, hell, why not.
But somewhere along the way they ceased being little curiosities in people’s catalogs and became viable avenues of expression because, let’s face it, the Christmas blues are a pretty potent writing prompt.
As for Lilystars Records’ holiday-themed compilation featuring its current roster, In Reverie is, simultaneously, perfectly named and also a perfect misnomer. And I say that because, in it, the sterile dream-pop aesthetics of the label is relegated to a hovering ghost, and in its place, individual character—owing in part to the acts’ separate, independent recording efforts—shines through.
Tropes abound, naturally: allusions to mistletoes, to fake plastic trees, to fireplaces. Unavoidable musical signifiers are also painfully present: xylophones, bells, faux-chorale hall-echo harmonies. But I’m no grouch, and I admit that hearing them perks the ears—and to some extent, conditions the heart—for the stories that are about to unfold.
And anyway, the thematic crutches, if you will, are executed with spirited aplomb and great restraint. Standouts in this regard include Orange & Lemons’ beautifully performed “Christmas Daydreams,” because, hey, whenever Clem Castro’s banduria makes an appearance it’s always reason to write home; The Bloomfields’ skippy, Macca-sounding “The Kids are Out,” a sweet chronicle of Pinoy Christmases; Kubra Commander’s driving “X Must,” a fun, little-drummer-boy-paced, campfire-singalong, indie-folk fest; and Dustybuns’ chorus-drenched “This Christmas Time,” which edges towards straightforward yuletide-hymn territory until it gets painful and it doesn’t.
The thing that ultimately couldn’t be mimed in efforts like this is quixotic innocence: the kind that can only come with lived-life details. It’s in Project Orange’s “1225,” with its infinitely singable melodies and playful stop-and-go cadences; in Starry Eyed Cadet’s wistful “Good Night,” with its doe-eyed sincerity and earnest delivery; and in Parasouls’ “A December Afternoon,” with its Beatlesque chromatic progression, major-to-minor heart-tugs, and perhaps most affectingly of all, its migrant-family narrative backdrop.
On the defiant side of things are The Charmes’ “Yo! Santa!,” which sounds cut from early-2000s New York-alt cloth; and The Geeks’ “Christmas Mourning,” a Grinch-like ode to flying solo during the holidays, with lazy slide guitar and theremin-sounding textures for good measure.
My absolute favorites, however, are Meagan Trees’ pop-jazz turn in “Blue for Christmas,” which finds the Dumaguete-based songwriter shed troubadour skin for something more cabaret showtune; and Dey Rose’s incredibly dense and astoundingly affecting “Feliz Navidad (I’m Falling Apart),” a fine piece of studio handiwork, but also a stunning bit of confessionalism.
What it may lack in a unifying sound In Reverie makes up for in emotional honesty. Loss and longing are at the core of its best cuts, and while a commitment to reinvention isn’t always in the offing—How do you rework Christmas-buoyed culture without falling for cheap, facetious tricks anyway?—there is, in every turn, a commitment to craft. In the end it’s not just a strong seasonal record but a strong record, period.
And that’s what themes ironically ought to be: quiet undercurrents, not flashing neon signs.