Canadian singer songwriter Rob Fillo isn’t too concerned with giving the world a traditional Christmas offering. There are enough people filling the shelves with Michael Bublé style romps through the classics, rehashing tales of reindeer bullying, or creating the musical equivalent of a Hallmark greetings card, with their chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Fillo’s holiday season plays more like a downbeat Mark Kozolek winter, or a Five For Fighting in a dour nod to the festive period, and is all the better for it.
That’s not to say he’s completely anti-tradition – ‘Halfway Through The Dark’ features a stripped down ‘Silent Night’ which suits the performer’s rich but slightly world weary voice well enough – but his style is definitely more attuned to the slightly offbeat. Rob sounds absolutely superb throughout the EP’s opening number ‘Christmas Time Alone’ which works a mournful waltz, over which the singer croons ably about being stuck in a motel whilst the world goes on around him, and how his only friend in a strange place is “a dog in the alley to share [his] beer”. The marriage of natural vocal – with its occasionally unexpected Ed Vedder twang – and folky violin works brilliantly, and although fans of classic singer songwriter fare will certainly spot melodic similarities between this number and the Tom Waits classic ‘In The Neighbourhood’, Fillo has more than enough confidence to claim the core melody for his own. Even more downbeat, ‘Snowed Inside’ works a slow piano and strings in an epic sounding ballad format that could be a distant cousin of classic Tindersticks fare, but as before, Fillo’s vocal swells just enough to give his chosen melody its own character. During the moments he chooses to be centre stage, his vocal sounds like one you’ve known forever, and his understated style is a perfect fit for the slowly unravelling melody. By using folk tinged violin melodies to fill a huge amount of space over slowly worked piano chords, the predominantly instrumental number has a slow burning quality, but there’s something rather comforting within its soundtrack-like approach.
Best of all, the title track takes a swipe at the gulf between the religious and commercial intents of Christmas with a fantastic opening line (“I don’t know who you celebrate, Coca-Cola or Jesus Christ”) before dropping into a narrative concerning a phone call, too many gifts and a reminder to see “favourite friends”. The winter makes the protagonist tired, but he assures everyone there’s still love in his heart, and that’s more than clear thanks to a heart swelling melody where stately piano and strings build to a beautiful climax that allows Rob to reach for a few bigger notes vocally, without ever destroying the inherent fragility of the piece. Some listeners might hear a less poppy Five For Fighting around the edges of this great number, but as with the opening track, Rob’s influences colour his work brilliantly and in this case, the number’s John Ondrazik tinted arrangement provides a great backdrop for a superb voice.
Fillo’s four track festive feast straddles a comfortable line between the striking, the contemporary, and strangely familiar. His self-written pieces are strong enough to deserve a place on any alternative Christmas playlist, and ‘Christmas Time Alone’, in particular, is a perfect example of a downbeat talent that really shines. Although only a hard heart could grow tired of hearing Boney M.’s ‘Mary’s Boy Child’ with its bizarre humming interlude, Greg Lake lifting from Prokofiev, or Jona Lewie’s classic ‘Stop The Cavalry’ every December, for those looking for something different to the more traditional pop/rock Christmas fare, ‘Halfway Through The Dark’ is a full hearted – if short – release that should more than provide a welcome alternative.