How Like a Winter

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How Like a Winter is apparently the closest Monk will ever come to recording a Christmas album. The record finds frontman Ric Hordinski applying his distinctive guitar to the task of encapsulating the year's most celebrated season in intricate, three-dimensional instrumentals, much as he did for Over the Rhine's wonderfully melancholy The Darkest Night of the Year. If it weren't for the winter-themed song titles, the gorgeous red-and-green cover art by photographer Michael Wilson, and the two traditional carols ("Greensleeves" and "Coventry Carol"), you might never suspect that Hordinski was yueling around. And yet, those titles -- "The Bells," "After the Lightness Comes," "Snow Lion" -- reveal the source of the composer's inspiration, illuminating the winding soundscapes like a soft-glowing Advent candle. The record contains some of Monk's most melodic instrumental work, and the arrangements are unusually complex and inventive. Hordinski reveals the enormous range of his talent through countless, seamless mood shifts. He finds the colder side of the season with exotic Middle Eastern flourishes in the Yeats homage "What Rough Beast," finds the world's classiest use of sleigh bells (simulated with jingling tambourines) in "Winter Waltz," and immaculately renders a Bach chorale number on classical guitar. Gently festive and refreshingly attentive to the season's spiritual core, How Like a Winter is a perfect antidote for the candy-cane overload of jolly Christmas ditties.