Arriving just in time, as the clocks go back and the temperature falls, is Tracey Thorn's Christmas album.
The clear highlight is `Joy'. Written by Tracey, it is a beautifully poetic and nuanced ballad about how as adults we see Christmas in a new light - as something fragile, a special time with family and friends that brings back memories of Christmas' past and raises fears for what future years may bring. "You loved it as a kid and now you need it more than you ever did" is just one line of many the strikes a chord. The piano backing slowly expands to include percussion, backing vocals and (for the first of many occasions on the album) a kind of warm 'glow'.
Tracey's only other self-penned song on this album is the title track `Tinsel and Lights', which also reflects on how Christmas changes in meaning as we get older. The lyrics are about looking back on a previous Christmas, half with happiness and half with the bittersweet realisation that it may not have been so perfect after all.
`Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas', the only traditional Christmas song on the album, is wonderfully realised. Played straight, with lush orchestral arrangement, it showcases Tracey's unique vocals. Lyrically, it's very much in keeping with the more modern songs selected for this album. By the time she gets to the "..until then, we'll have to muddle through somehow" line, it's difficult not to shed a tear or two.
The version here of Randy Newman's `Snow' is one of the best things Tracey's done - simple, desolate and achingly sad.
It is be no means an electronic album but `Taking Down The Tree' - a cover of a song by Low and now a duet with Green Gartside - successfully introduces subtle electronica elements and beats. Green's voice sounds very much as it did during his Scritti Politti days: beguiling, pure and yet now somehow like welcoming back an old friend. There's also something a little late-ABBA in the production on this track. 'Sister Winter' and 'Snow in Sun' are also have a light sprinkling of electronic elements.
There's not one bad track here. `Hard Candy Christmas' and `Maybe This Christmas', in particular, utilise Tracey's ability to tell a story to full effect.
The album cover is terrific and its use of a homely, traditionally styled Christmas decoration absolutely fits the mood.
This is a delightful album that successfully takes a slightly worn out concept (`The Christmas Album') and sprinkles it with magic. Tracey and producer Ewan Pearson have found a perfect sound that is at heart acoustic but with added warmth, rhythm and the occasional subtle beat. Loved it!Read more ›
Its that time of year and for the next two months we will be inundated with a plethora of artists chancing their luck with a Christmas album. Sorting out the wheat from the chaff is not always difficult since some artists present their Turkeys ready stuffed. Bob Dylan's Christmas album for instance was so bad it was almost good. Tracey Thorn alternatively has one steady advantage over many artists, she has a rich and and poignant voice infused with a frisson of aching regret which she has used to splendid advantage with bands as diverse as Everything but the Girl and guesting with Bristol trip hop specialists Massive Attack. Some would argue that this whole production could be deemed out of character for the "Bedsit Disco Queen" and NME has harshly argued about this album that if "your planning microwaved turkey dinner for one this year, there's probably no better soundtrack". But let us cast away doubt and blow an emphatic Humbug to those indie scrooges.
Certainly it would be a safe option to record a "standard" Xmas fare but thankfully this is not a Michael Buble style Sinatra inspired cover fest. Indeed the only real "standard" on "Tinsel and Lights" is her cover of "Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas. She is up against stiff competition here since James Taylor did a lovely cool jazzy version of this a while back and Tori Amos produced a lush escalating piano ballad. Thorn's versions ranks all these, she may "be muddling through somehow" but she is doing an excellent job of it accompanied by a rich orchestral arrangements you can almost hear the snow falling. Her own opening composition "Joy" is a tender ballad and in a fair world would become a Christmas classic, her voice is as pure and tender as ever on this track. In the same vein her sparkling version of Dolly Parton's "Hard Candy Christmas" an often overlooked gem is simply scintillating and enough to melt the ice of the coldest heart. It is a brave attempt to spruce up Jack White's "Cold Cold Night" as a festive classic but its the one song her that slightly sours the mulled wine. Never-mind she quickly makes amends with a heartfelt version of Randy Newman's brilliant "Snow" and also a lovely version of Joni Mitchell's "River". Its safe to say that no one will ever top the original of this no matter how many try (K.D. Lang, James Taylor, Sarah McLachlan et al). Yet Thorn does a very good version with a nice brass band accompaniment in the background adding to the yuletide ambience. Perhaps the best cover on "Tinsel and Lights" comes from the pen of that Christmas specialist and the the most interesting American musician on the planet Sufjan Stevens. The great man is due to release yet another mammoth Christmas set in the form of the 4 volume "Silver and Gold" but of his previous recorded Christmas output the gentle grower "Sister Winter" is one of the absolute best and Thorn does a brilliant version. All this and duet with Scritti Politti's resident Gramsci inspired Marxist Green Gartside on a cover of Low's "Taking down the tree" (if you dont have it seek out Low's Christmas album); what more could you ask for? There will be Christmas albums aplenty in due course but its nice to start with one that raises the bar higher than the norm.Read more ›
Halloween is over, miserable November is beginning,and here to brighten things up is an early festive album offering. In general Christmas themed albums can be pretty dire, with artists trotting out their own versions of standard seasonal classics that we have all heard hundreds of times before and adding little extra value, often being sentimental with far too many sleigh bells in the mix. This album takes a different route, with 2 classy original compositions by Tracey Thorn;the album opener,Joy,looks at Christmas's past as a time of reflection,and is a fantastic new song up there with the best;while title track Tinsel and Lights is an affectionate reflection on a New York Christmas and gets a topical reference in on climate change " The winters got warmer then last year's got colder" and the final line "I fell in love with Christmas again" could be the tag line for this whole album. The other 10 tracks are classy covers very carefully selected, many are relatively obscure, coming from a wide range of backgrounds. 2 songs have a lush orchestral arrangement, with the only real standard , Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, and a very tasteful version of Joni Mitchell's River is a particular highlight and favourite of mine. Elsewhere source material varies widely from Randy Newman's Snow, through Jack White's In the Cold Cold Night, to Sufjan Stevens Sister Winter. Tracey's vocals are clear, strong , and well to the fore, and the production is generally simple and straightforward, well done without too much embelishment. Green Gartside (ex Scritti Politti) contributes one good song, Snow in the Sun,and features on special guest vocals on Taking Down the Tree to good effect, and is continuing his productive collaborative parterships after recently contributing to the Nick Drake tribute concerts. This is definitely up there as one of the best seasonal albums of the last 5 years, along with Thea Gilmore's Strange Communion. Still plenty of shopping days left before Christmas, so if you are looking for a new quality seasonal album that has something a bit different to offer then this should be the one to go for.Read more ›