Sean Smith sets himself up for a clear challenge with a Christmas album -- it's not only one of the most crowded fields in general (and that's just counting solo acoustic performers on many different instruments) but there's one inevitable figure he can't escape fully from: John Fahey, whose work helped create the space for performers like Smith to thrive and whose own Christmas albums, however generally formal in comparison to his more experimental approaches, remain among the best holiday efforts, period. Smith's approach on the baldly titled Christmas is to wisely and immediately aim for his own path; there's a rough resonance that starts things off with "The First Noel" that's much different from the elegantly descending introduction Fahey started The New Possibility with. With that as a signpost, Smith's exploration of numerous standards often -- not always, but often enough -- conjures up an air suspended between tradition and, almost, isolation. There's something suggestively forlorn in the long pauses on "Good King Wenceslas," the slow, deliberate stateliness of "Joy to the World" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing," the quieter beginning to "O Come All Ye Faithful" before picking up the speed toward the end of the performance. No extended medleys or fantasias appear on the disc, and a number of tracks barely break two minutes or even one, including his own two original pieces, self-described improvisations both entitled "Christmas Morning," one a slow, reflective performance, the other a sprightly romp that adds sudden light to the album. Perhaps one of the most inspired of his interpretations is "Little Drummer Boy," darker notes setting the necessary rhythmic heft for the song, but his take on Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown Christmas masterpiece "Christmas Time Is Here" is equally moving, bright tones and slower pacing bringing out both the song's elegant beauty and perfect, fragile melancholia. It's a lovely microcosm for the warm yet still shadowed feeling of the album, one where the cover photo of Smith in a church suggests he could be playing for the lonely soul in the pews, searching for holiday cheer while the cold remains outside.
AllMusic Review by Ned Raggett