Paniyolo: Christmas Album

The veritable deluge of Christmas albums that occurs every year understandably makes the erstwhile reviewer a tad resistant to the idea of reviewing one, but the one from Paniyolo (aka Takasaka Muneki) is so pretty it breaks down whatever initial opposition one might have to the project. In place of a Michael Bublé or Rod Stewart crooning the songs, we've got Muneki crafting touching instrumental renditions of pieces that are more than a little familiar but also, in some cases (e.g., “Christmas Story”), less so. And even in those cases where the melodies are well-known, Muneki's gentle touch has a way of investing them with new life. In fact, his sultry version of “The First Noel” might very well be the most affecting one you'll ever hear.

In Muneki's hands, “Silent Night” becomes a lilting waltz arranged for acoustic guitars, while “Let It Snow Let It Snow Let It Snow” is given a breezy rendering, with Muneki again using one guitar as a foundation and another as a lead to voice the melody. “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” are typically given raucous treatments, but Muneki opts to present them in a more laid-back and dreamy mode with lead playing that sometimes flirts with a jazzier style in its soloing. The album's tone is generally delicate, especially in its lullaby-like moments (e.g., the sleepy renderings of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer” and “Jingle Bells”), though “Christmas Tree Angel” livens up the set with a series of high-spirited episodes.

Home-recorded, the thirty-five-minute collection is played entirely by Muneki, who's credited with acoustic, classical, and silent guitars, except for “Mele Kalikimaka,” to which Suguru Oba contributes vibes. To say that no parental advisory warnings are needed is about as big as an understatement gets. Christmas Album is thus the perfect album to play as a low-level soundtrack to your next Yuletide gathering, when friends and family are visiting, the Christmas tree's lights are on, and the mistletoe is hung.

January 2013