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The Singing Saw At Christmastime

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Album Review

Julian Koster, the quirky frontman of the Music Tapes, Neutral Milk Hotel member, and go-to singing sawman for the Elephant 6 collective in general, steps out on his own here with a holiday album that makes a stunning showcase for his prodigious saw-playing talents. Or rather — as his whimsical liner notes would have it — his talent for encouraging saws to sing, which they actually do all by themselves. ("Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," the only selection hear to feature a sound — copious clanging bells — other than saws, purports to be a field recording from a traditional Christmas Eve saw gathering.) The saws here, singing both alone and in gloriously harmonized duos and groups, offer up renditions of a dozen well-known Christmas songs and carols, and the results are entirely magical; at once wonderfully eerie and strangely comforting. Rendered in the high, lonesome, otherworldly wobble of the saws' voices, even the most frolicsome of holiday tunes ("Frosty the Snowman," "Jingle Bells") become haunting and solemn, but Koster wisely devotes much of the album to the season's more poignant, plaintive melodies ("Silent Night," "O Little Town of Bethlehem") which here feel utterly serene and angelic. As evocative as it is impressive, The Singing Saw at Christmastime is a refreshingly different and eminently listenable offering that should easily become a yuletide favorite. ~ K. Ross Hoffman, Rovi

Customer Reviews

Simply Amazing

No other album has touched me so deeply.

amazing.

bizzare and wonderful, i love the sharp eerie clarity of the singing saw and the nostalgic feeling you get when listening to this. it's for those of you who want a new way to listen to christmas music without being stilted and hoaky.

Have yourself an ethereal Christmas

The singing saw (or as it’s commonly known, the musical saw) is thought to date back to the late 1800s, though it really came into its own in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Early saw players used standard issue hand saws, but over the years specialized compounds, thinner steel and varying lengths were used to produce a saw that excelled at producing music in lieu of cutting wood. The saw is played with its handle between the player’s legs and the blade bent into an ‘S’. The sawyer bows the flat middle part of the ‘S’ to produce an ethereal vibration whose harmonics and sustain can make a single saw sound like several. For those who’ve never heard a singing saw, close relations in sound are the Theramin, an electronic instrument that’s been featured in many films (Spellbound, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Ed Wood), and the electro-theremin, most famously used on the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.” Like these electronic instruments, the musical saw produces an other-worldly sound whose pitch is wavery and laden with overtones. Julian Koster, whose saw graced the works of Neutral Milk Hotel, has sharpened his axe, uh, saw, on a dozen Christmas and wintertime classics. Koster performs these as instrumentals, allowing the saws to sing on their own. The result is an unearthly tonal chorus that’s simultaneously beautiful and unnerving. Jolly holiday favorites “Frosty the Snowman,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” and “Jingle Bells” can’t quite dash along, given the slow speed with which one can change notes on a saw. The more somber tunes are stretched and thickened with tonal ambience. This isn’t the rocking good cheer of A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector, and it won’t inspire the dance moves of a Jackson 5 Christmas, but it will add unusual and thoughtful moments to your Christmas mix. It’s also the perfect album to play when the eggnog is all gone. 3-1/2 stars, if allowed fractional ratings. [©2009 hyperbolium dot com]

Biography

Genre: Holiday

Years Active: '90s, '00s

Julian Koster's ubiquitous presence on a ton of well-regarded musical projects has led to his name being synonymous with "indie rock journeyman" in D.I.Y. musician circles. As an underground multi-instrumental creative force, Koster has few peers -- keyboards, banjo, singing saw...you name it, Koster has probably cut a track with it. Beginning in high school, Koster's musical trajectory was decidedly experimental and explorative. At age sixteen he issued his first "music tape," the sprawling Second...
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The Singing Saw At Christmastime, Julian Koster
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