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Minnesota Music Review: Ingeborg von Agassiz-Coventry Carols

Album cover for Ingeborg von Agassiz's Coventry Carols featuring a black and white angel singing on a black background

Not everybody hears jingle bells over the holidays - especially during these pandemic times - but the music played in grocery stores and programmed on all-Christmas radio stations focuses almost exclusively on joy to the world.

It’s like the Ghost of Christmas Past doesn’t exist.

Duluth-based electrofolk artist Ingeborg von Agassiz, a stage name taken by Emma Rustan, explores the dark side of the holidays on her second full-length album Coventry Carols, released last month on streaming services everywhere. Written, recorded and performed solo, the 10-track record takes a gentle journey through the cold winter season that feels honest, real and everything but jolly.

It’s a holiday album they won’t play at Bentleyville but might be a hit in Whoville.

Coventry Carols is a quiet, poetic album that gets its energy from abandoned churches, flickering candles and distant stars in the winter sky. The songs feel like long lost ornaments discovered amid the ash of a December chimney sweep.

In the opening track, “Advent Hymn,” von Agassiz sings over acoustic guitar about emerging from a “long, cold silence” and a “hard summer” as she drives into the unknown. The music swells with a small, choir-backed chorus: “Oh, I just wait. Oh, can’t escape. Oh, pretty lights. In the dark.” It’s a melancholy song that somehow manages to be hopeful.

“Christmas in the Dark” explores more isolation themes. Awash in synthesizers and soft programmed beats, von Agassiz tells us: “In the deep of night, it will be alright, just to be alone through this long, long night in a quiet home.”

It’s easy to hear these songs as Christmas carols for the pandemic-trapped faithful.

Still the record is filled with subtle nods to the kind of holiday music we all know. Through the wonder of electronics, angels harmonize in the background and a lone drum delivers a slow steady heartbeat in “St. Children’s Choir.” But this isn’t a song about a heroic drummer boy; this is a song for the young “forgotten ones of this world lost.”

Elsewhere, a church organ solo closes out “I Want More for Christmas.” Sound twinkles behind “We are not Tired” like a table-top music box spinning a tiny, snow-covered evergreen. Ebenezer Scrooge even gets a soul searching.

The only traditional holiday song on the record is “Jolly Old St. Nicholas.” The song gets a slow, haunting arrangement with multi-tracked “ohs” and “ahhs” swirling around the sweet singing narrator who admits Santa “knows what’s best.”

“So Many Silent Nights,” borrows the tender, peaceful tone of the 19th Century German Christmas carol referenced in its title, but delivers a bleak, despondent message: “It seems eternal darkness has come to take me down. I’m looking for a star where there’s no star to be found,” sings von Agassiz.

In less capable hands, the record could feel cynical or hopeless. It’s not. Coventry Tales is filled with the eternal history and mystery of the season, themes largely missing or corrupted in contemporary Christmas music. It’s clear von Agassiz treasures the holidays, just not the kind you see in a Macy’s catalogue.

The final song, the wonderful piano ballad “Snow Globe City,” provides hope, peace and even a bit of revelry amidst a soft humming choir. Sometimes it's best to shake things up.

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