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Album review: Holiday album showcases Lea’s musicianship

When Gaelynn Lea looks back at her 2016, it may just be that she’s the only one in the world who thinks, “Hmm, now that was a pretty good year.”

While 2016 for most was a nonstop horror show of death, destruction and political upheaval, Lea at least got to see her music career take off. After winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, she began touring heavily across the country and played lots of big shows in big places. Right now, she’s on the road with Low in the U.K., supporting the band on their holiday tour. Not too shabby.

Lea also released two discs, this year. The first, “The Songs We Sing Along the Way,” was an EP that featured the composition that won her the NPR contest (“Someday We’ll Linger in the Sun”) alongside five other tracks that showcased Lea’s looped-fiddle-with-occasional-vocal style. The latest, the recently released “Deepest Darkness, Brightest Dawn,” is a long-player featuring holiday music. While Lea’s modus operandi has not changed from one collection to the next at all, there’s a different feel to the two releases, and it may even be that Lea’s strengths are better displayed on her latest project.

“Deepest Darkness, Brightest Dawn” is a 14-song album that is mainly made up of Lea’s violin, with her voice appearing only briefly here and there. The record as a whole feels unified, almost as if it’s one long Christmas medley that Lea sings over when the spirit strikes her. Again, as with her last release, Lea sticks mainly to playing the violin with a loop pedal, which allows her to layer herself multiple times over for an effect that exists in a liminal space between ethereal beauty and experimental music. It’s a thin line, but there are times when these songs go from something resembling standard orchestral music to a more nontraditional place where people like Philip Glass reside.

It’s in the looping, in the way Lea builds up the foundations of each track and then adds her Celtic-influenced melodic playing over the top of it all. Opener “Angels We Have Heard on High” barely resembles the song people are used to hearing — Lea stretches and kneads the melody and the rhythm into something warm and pulsating — but she retains the mood of the tune.

Something like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is more recognizable, although it becomes a sort of jig a third of the way through with the addition of a thumping drum. Near the end, the main melody remains, but it is joined by other violins that seem to swoop in and out of the song like blackbirds briefly alighting on snow-covered branches before moving on.

On each track, Lea makes her violin sing in traditional and nontraditional ways. It’s always gorgeous though. Her pitch is great, and her vibrato is, too. She’s able to loop seamlessly for optimum spell-casting. When she sings — which is rare — it’s almost jarring. Sometimes, as on “Love Came Down at Christmas / It’s in Every One of Us,” her voice enters partway into the track, almost as if she decided on the spot to sing a bit.

As usual, Lea’s vocals sound great and uniquely her own. Her singing is a match for her violin playing in the way it trembles and lilts. It’s right on the money, but it also has plenty of character that keeps it sounding sincere and unabashedly human.

Really, “Deepest Darkness, Brightest Dawn” is a lovely piece of ambient Christmas music that shares a lot in common with traditional orchestra holiday music while also being its own entity. It feels like the perfect album to zone out to while you put on a fire and sip something hot. Indeed, Gaelynn Lea’s Christmas album might be the ultimate soundtrack for getting cozy this winter.

Tony Bennett reviews music for the News Tribune. He can be reached at tonybennettreviews@gmail.com.

Artist: Gaelynn Lea

Album: “Deepest Darkness, Brightest Dawn”

Recorded by Jake Larson at Sacred Heart Music Center, Duluth

Website: violinscratches.com

Personnel: Gaelynn Lea (violin, vocals), Al Church (guitar, keyboards, percussion, vocals)

Upcoming show: Tuesday at Bulldog Pizza, 101 Mount Royal Shopping Circle, Duluth

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