The Eastern Sea celebrate the season with the Christmas album, "First Christmas."

Photo of The Eastern Sea

The Eastern Sea's Matt Hines was annoyed when he entered a Walmart before Thanksgiving and heard Christmas music. Then he had moment of recognition: "Ah man, that's us too." Hines is prone to that sort of intense musical self-scrutiny, and the ironic recognition came because the Austin-based indie rock band had just released a Christmas album, First Christmas. The machinery involved in getting it to market, garnering publicity and setting up holiday shows like their appearance Tuesday at The Circle Bar meant sharing in the chain store's sin and talking up Christmas before the Thanksgiving turkey had got in the oven.

Earlier this year, the band released its debut album, Plague, which underwent a lengthy, challenging recording process. First Christmas, by contrast was a snap. They went in the studio between short summertime tours and knocked it out in 10 relatively angst-free days. Historically, bands cutting Christmas music in the dead of summer have decorated a tree or strung up lights to try to set a mood, but The Eastern Sea passed. "It was something we talked about, but to be honest, I'm not a very flashy person and I'm not really into aesthetics," Hines says. "So I wasn't going to go out of my way to do it, and I don't think anybody else cared to either." Instead, the band members immersed themselves in Christmas music, listening to nothing but Christmas music for two to three weeks before the session. 

The project came about organically, a natural extension of Hines' practice for the last few years of recording Christmas songs at home on his computer and posting them for friends on Facebook. The choices on First Christmas range from seasonal hymns to the grandfathered-in "My Favorite Things" to the novelty "Christmas, Don't Be Late" by Alvin and the Chipmunks. In all cases including the latter, the band takes the holiday and song seriously enough, giving the recordings a genuine and personal quality.

"Christmas music is not musically challenging, and that drew me to that," Hines says. "It's a pass for credible musicians to make tongue-in-cheek music, and challenge their audience to look at them in a more varied way. It's important that my audience to think I have a sense of humor and think the band is good. 'Sentimentality' is a really key word in the process of making what we made. When I was arranging these tunes, it was a goal of mine to put sentimentality almost like an asymptote - you always get close to this line but you never go into it because if you go into it, you get Michael Bublé, right?" 

Honesty can often be mistaken for sentimentality, as if experiencing a strong emotion in conjunction with the holiday is inherently suspect. Hines has made his peace with the tension between rock 'n' roll's tendency toward a cool, vaguely distant stance and Christmas music's less reserved impulse toward connections. "There is a certain amount of coolness you still have to protect," he says. "But a lot of the falsity, the pretense, is stripped away: 'I'm going to sing a three-part harmony on "O, Holy Night" and I don't care what I sound like. I want it to be beautiful. I don't care if it sounds like my band or the thing that I've been doing. It doesn't have to agree with everything I've been doing. It just has to exist for that moment for a second and make people who love that song go, 'Oh, this is beautiful.'"

He also recognizes that Christmas music has a commercial dimension, and that First Christmas can be fairly seen as a placeholder between Plague and the next Eastern Sea album, likely due out next summer. At the same time, the songs are very powerful in their way. "Christmas music may be the strongest rhetoric for Christian theology that exists in our popular culture" Hines says. "I take the content of what I'm singing on these traditional songs very seriously because it speaks to something that needs to be understood. Christmas needs to be understood. It's bad for you to misunderstand Christmas songs. If you don't put some energy into these songs that built up our canon of popular culture thought about what is Christmas, you'll be worse off for it. That's why I wrote a song called, 'This is Christmas,' because that's the whole idea of the record - to give a dose of what this all means."

First Christmas is part of a gift package of holiday CDs that one lucky My Spilt Milk reader will win. The package will include The Polyphonic Spree's Holidaydream, Holidays Rule, Tracey Thorn's Tinsel and LightsA Charlie Brown Christmas and more. To enter to win, subscribe on the home page to "Condensed Milk," My Spilt Milk's weekly email newsletter. If you're already a subscriber, you're already entered. Contest closes December 20 at 7 p.m. CST.