Various Artists, Jul i Folkton (Amigo, 2005)

There comes a time every year when anyone with a recording history seems compelled to go into the studio to record an album of Christmas songs, old ones or newly written. The results vary. Sometimes we get brilliant innovative albums like The St. Agnes Fountain's efforts; sometimes the product is barely listenable -- and I will not name anyone.

Whoever came up with the idea behind Jul i Folkton (Christmas in a Folk Style) must be praised. It seems so simple, yet it works so well. Gather a number of Sweden's best singers and musicians within the folk and roots field and let them tackle, in small groups, some of our best loved Christmas hymns and songs. No rocking backgrounds, no jingle bells nor songs about Santa Claus or reindeer -- after all they are relative newcomers to Christmas -- just the songs and tunes beautifully performed, nothing else.

So here you have Lena Willermark, Ale Möller, Sofia Karlsson (the new cover girl of the Swedish folk scene), the ever-present Roger Tallroth, Sofia Sandén from Ranarim, jazz/rock-singers Sara Isaksson and Rebecca Törnqvist, Louise Hoffsten (Sweden's foremost blues lady), and almost a dozen more -- but never more than three or four on each track.

Just a word of warning: This is a very Swedish album, with all songs in our native language, and very few songs that have reached international recognition. The only song that everyone would know is "Stilla Natt" (Silent Night), performed here as a solo instrumental piece by Ale Möller.

However, if you are into Scandinavian music, it is a treat. Let me give you a small sample of what is on offer.

"Gläns över sjö och strand" is a song every Swedish child learns in school. It is a celebration of the star that led the three Wise Men. Sofia Karlsson uses a lesser known but very fitting tune, against a soft background of cittern, guitar and stand-up bass.

The 13 December celebration of St. Lucia combines the legend of the Italian saint and some older Swedish customs. It also includes customs originally connected to Boxing Day, especially those regarding a saint and stable boy called Staffan. There are a great number of songs belonging to this celebration, and every school in Sweden puts on a Lucia show this day. Jul i Folkton gives you a number of these songs. Sara Isaksson sings "Lucia-sång", one of the traditional ones, and Sofia Karlsson gives us "Så mörk är natten i midvintertid" ("The Night Is Dark in Mid-winter"), a newer song well known to all Swedish children. Then there is Esbjörn Hazelius's performance of "Vittskövlevisan" ("The Song from Vittskövle", a village in the south of Sweden), a not-so-well-known Staffan song.

"Frid på jord" (Peace on Earth) is a song I had never heard before, and I am glad they included it. It's a lovely song from the religious tradition, peformed here a capella by a female quartet, with Sofia Karlsson, Sofia Sandén, Malin Foxdal and Sara Isaksson.

The producer Göran Petersson has taken the liberty of including three different recordings of "Det är en ros utsprungen" ("A rose is newly sprung"). The record starts with Louise Hoffsten singing it to Ale Möller's backing; later on we have Lisa Rydberg performing it solo on fiddle; and the last track but one is a trio, Rebecka Törnqvist, Sara Isaksson and Sofia Karlsson, singing it mostly a capella, with Peter Asplund on trumpet providing an outtro.

Well, I could go on forever. This is a traditional Swedish Christmas at its best, far from the commercial Disney-esque celebration Christmas has turned into all over the world. So, never mind the language, take a step back in time and enjoy it.

[Lars Nilsson]