Thursday, December 21, 2017

Tomato/Tomato: “Pinecones & Cinnamon” (2017) CD Review

Christmas will be here in a few days, and there is plenty of holiday music out there to help you celebrate or cry or whatever it is you do on December 25th. One of this year’s holiday releases that is definitely worth listening to is the new disc from the husband and wife team of John and Lisa McLaggan, better known as Tomato/Tomato. I was turned on to this duo a few years ago when they released their debut full-length CD, So It Goes, an album that lifted my spirits the moment it began. So I figured their holiday CD would have much the same effect. Titled Pinecones & Cinnamon, it largely does what I was expecting and hoping it would do, delivering cheerful-sounding Christmas fare with a folk and bluegrass bent. Yet my favorite track on the disc is a more serious number, but more on that later. Joining the McLaggans on this release are G. Maxwell Zemanovic on drums; Kris Karlsson on banjo; Jon Estes on piano, organ and bass; Spencer Cullum, Jr. on pedal steel; Jeremy Fetzer on electric guitar; Ray Legere on fiddle and mandolin; Andrew Sneddon on dobro; and Lucy McLaggan on vocals. A large portion of the tracks are originals, written by John McLaggan.

They kick off the CD with “Christmas Keener,” a playful, upbeat country song about a first Christmas in a new house, and the excitement of not only owning a home but being able to decorate it for the holiday, and as a result once again feeling the kind of joy one felt in childhood. Sure, she brags a bit (“My tree’s a little greener than yours/My star is burning brighter/My snow’s a little whiter”), but who can blame her? And ultimately she invites all to join her in her celebration, if not in her house. That’s followed by “Avalanche,” a song taking place on Christmas Eve, a song dominated by memories of past years as he heads to the mall. John sings lead on this one. This song also provides the album with its title in these lines: “Hit me like an avalanche/All the Christmas days of past/Colored lights and memories/Strung around the tree/Pinecones and cinnamon/Mix it up and breathe it in.” And I love these lines: “When I heard my daughter sing ‘Silent Night’/I turned and faced the window/So she wouldn’t see me cry.”

“What’s The Big Deal About NYE” is a delightful tune with a classic-style country sound in its rhythm and in the great pedal steel. It’s a song about the pressure associated with New Year’s Eve. “What’s the big deal about New Year’s/Why make such a fuss/It’s one more night on the calendar/Most likely it’s a bust.” I appreciate the message of the song, though it does end the way you’d expect it to. She doesn’t stick to her guns, and ends up speaking in favor of New Year’ Eve by the song’s conclusion. Still, it’s a totally enjoyable song.

The album’s first cover, “Jingle Bells,” is an inherently weak song. But as far as this song goes, Tomato/Tomato delivers as good a rendition as you could ever hope to hear, with nice work on banjo by Kris Karlsson. I much prefer the following song, “The Trouble With Mittens,” an adorable and surprisingly soulful song (no, you wouldn’t expect that from the title), featuring some wonderful blending of their voices. “The trouble with mittens/Is they’re like a prison/Four fingers in a woolen cage/The trouble with mittens/Is there’s no division/So throw ‘em away.” They follow that with a cover of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton’s “I Believe In Santa Claus,” a holiday song written as a duet and so a perfect one for this duo. “I believe love should prevail at any cost.” Lucy McLaggan joins them on vocals for this one.

“Christmas Grump” is the last of the album’s original tunes, and I guess is the one most directly aimed at me. The opening lines are “This one goes out to the Scrooges/The Grinches, the whiners, the grumps/If you think that eggnog’s disgusting/Listen up, this is your song.” Yup, it’s my song, and I love it. It’s kind of a country waltz about the lesser aspects of the holiday, such as crowded parking lots, long lines, being dragged to a church, wrapping presents. I appreciate these lines: “The holidays come just once a year/And I say thank god for that/There’s such a thing as too much good cheer/People just need to relax.” And yes, I’ve been called a “Scrooge” on more than one occasion. (Give me Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day!) That’s followed by a lively version of “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” featuring Andrew Sneddon on dobro, Kris Karlsson on banjo, and Ray Legere on both fiddle and mandolin.

The album ends with my favorite track, “Silent Night/Hallelujah.” Simon & Garfunkel combined “Silent Night” with a news cast, and I always loved the effect of that juxtaposition. Tomato/Tomato combines it with one of the best songs ever written, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” It begins with “Silent Night,” the first line delivered a cappella. Their voices sound gorgeous. Tomato/Tomato takes advantage of the line “Heavenly hosts sing hallelujah,” going directly into the Leonard Cohen song from there. They do not do all of Leonard Cohen’s song, but rather the chorus, followed by the first verse and then the chorus again. Then they go back into “Silent Night,” once again delivering it a cappella, and sounding absolutely beautiful. What a wonderful way to conclude the CD.

CD Track List
  1. Christmas Keener
  2. Avalanche
  3. What’s The Big Deal About NYE
  4. Jingle Bells
  5. The Trouble With Mittens
  6. I Believe In Santa Claus
  7. Christmas Grump
  8. Go Tell It On The Mountain
  9. Silent Night/Hallelujah 
Pinecones & Cinnamon was released on November 24, 2017.

(Note: I have also posted a review of Tomato/Tomato’s 2016 release, I Go Where You Go.)

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