“A Light Goes On”
Various artists, conceived and curated by Sam Billen
The holidays are the season of giving, and Lawrence-based Sam Billen has really one-upped Santa and himself this year. Building on his tradition of releasing free Christmas music for some time now, Billen is currently offering his most ambitious gift yet: “A Light Goes On,” nearly an hour of holiday music, available for free download at alightgoeson.org with richly realized artwork, videos and even high-quality WAV files for the audiophile.
Billen writes on the project’s website that he intentionally tried to match artists unknown to one another, in the hopes of creating “a spontaneous, unique collaboration of talents.” Judging from the variety and overall level of musicianship, he achieved his goals.
The songs include originals, classics and covers of a couple of established songsmiths, such as Ghosty’s take on Vic Godard’s “Holiday Hymn” and Beau Jennings’ version of Woody Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre.” On the latter, the connection to Christmas certainly qualifies as unconventional — it’s about the tragic death of 73 people in a stampede that happened on Christmas Eve. It’s still a pretty cover, with an intimate vocal drenched in echo-y atmosphere over a gentle acoustic guitar.
Billen’s own almost-titular track “A Light Went On,” recalling his childhood holiday memories, is the most accomplished bit of musicianship and production in the compilation. Its simple and urgent instrumentation invokes what Arcade Fire might sound like going Christmas (though without that band’s endearing pretentiousness).
Also memorable are a minimalist reworking of French composer Erik Satie’s “Prière” from Japanese duo Tenniscoats and Timbre’s harp-inflected “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel.” Katlyn Conroy and Austen Malone deliver a “Baby It’s Cold Outside” that sounds like it’s recorded in a single (impressive) take, and Sam’s brother Dan Billen channels McCartney uncannily with his own reminiscing “Sled Rides.”
“Light” shines brightest on its website, where the tracks come alive with individualized artwork or videos — most effectively with Matt White’s vintage-look movies that accompany John Atkinson’s “Someone Came in the Night.”
“A Light Goes On” will resonate deepest with young parents (or those who wish they were still excited about Christmas Eve). It would take a hell of a grinch to raise a complaint about this collection.