There’s plenty of sentiment in this eclectic collection of Christmas albums, but the artists mostly lay off the schmaltz
Kacey Musgraves: A Very Kacey Christmas ***
She & Him: Christmas Party Columbia ****
Cara Dillon: Upon A Winter’s Night ***
Emily Smith: Songs For Christmas ***
White Fall Records
Katie Melua: In Winter ***
Neil Diamond: Acoustic Christmas ***
There is no doubting the conventional stocking filler potential of Cliff Richard’s new collection of rock’n’roll covers or that Bradley Walsh big band album but, as has become Yuletide custom over the last decade or so, a number of cooler artists have embraced the Christmas album as a quirky seasonal statement, even if it tends to bring out the more conservative musical instincts even in an alternative country darling such as Kacey Musgraves.
A Very Kacey Christmas is a cosy mix of covers and originals with a deliberately retro aesthetic, from the choice of material to the arrangements, including a Luau-style Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and the bubblegum handjive of Ribbons And Bows. The cooing Quebe Sisters collude with Andrews Sisters-style backing vocals on Let It Snow, while the redoubtable Willie Nelson advises us all to chillax on A Willie Nice Christmas.
She & Him, aka actress Zooey Deschanel and M Ward, have made this retro territory their own over the last few years. Their Christmas Party is a tasteful occasion, covering girl group and easy listening standards in saturated technicolour. Like Musgraves, Deschanel has a winning, winsome tone which stays on the palatable side of sugary thanks to the loving care lavished on the music. The cute duo follow Bob Dylan’s eccentric lead on a jaunty Must Be Santa, with added mariachi vim, while Ward turns in a garage band canter through Run Run Rodolph.
There is further fragrance from folk singers Cara Dillon and Emily Smith, both moving in on Kate Rusby’s wistful Christmas territory with a clove-scented pot pourri of carols, traditional fare and a sprinkling of festive folk originals, retelling the greatest story ever told. Dillon’s Upon A Winter’s Night conjures an atmospheric Celtic Christmas, with Niall Murphy providing soulful keening fiddle on The Wexford Carol, and her partner Sam Lakeman also adding elements of English tradition to the seasonal mix.
Smith’s Songs For Christmas is equally easy on the ear without falling into bland, broad brush cliché. The sentimentality of Santa Will Find You is mitigated by some beautiful fingerstyle guitar playing, and the country-tinged harmonies of Heard From Heaven Today recall the song’s southern spiritual roots.
Katie Melua returns to her Georgian roots on In Winter via her special guests, the Gori Women’s Choir, who offer a tantalising taster of their polyphonic beauty on the opening Little Swallow, known in the west as the Carol of the Bells, and can be heard at their most tender, moving and rapturous on All-Night Vigil. If anything, the choir are underused, though Melua pulls off a couple of solo star turns with the Leonard Cohenesque moody melancholy of Plane Song and an intimate lullaby rendition of O Holy Night.
Neil Diamond kicks off his Acoustic Christmas with the self-same song, delivered with similar understatement in his increasingly gruff timbre. The picks of this carols collection are the old school barber shop accompaniment to Go Tell It On The Mountain and the hep, stripped-back spiritual Children Go Where I Send Thee. Diamond succumbs to tacky sentiment on Christmas In Killarney and embraces the Christmas TV special cheese whole-heartedly on the closing oompah Christmas Medley, but redeems himself with the sage sign-off “be kind to each other – it’s all we really have left”. Amen to that. ■
Tom Lyne: Far from Mars ***
The Canadian-born, Pathhead-based bassist Tom Lyne has come up with an intriguing solo album, couching his limber fretted and fretless electric bass playing in often lush electronic accompaniments.
The result hovers somewhere between jazz funk and The Outer Limits, and is perhaps at its strangest in the title track, with its funeral parlour organ and sampled vocalising. Lyne can sound quite retro, as in the chattering synth backdrop of Stitcher, while elsewhere are the folky, mandolin-like drift of Salthouse, the opulent synths of Dinner in Berlin and the unadorned beat ‘n’ bass strut of Grizzly Bear. And is the mellow drift of A Conversation We Had a sly riposte, perhaps, to Weather Report’s A Remark You Made? The electronic percussion can become a bit rigidly metronomic, and some tracks feel unsatisfyingly like unresolved episodes. At its best, however, Far From Mars showcases an inventive musical imagination at work.
The Cellist of Sarajevo: Chamber Music by David Wilde ****
A visit to war-torn Bosnia in the 1990s moved pianist David Wilde to such an extent he felt compelled to write music that expressed his intense emotional response. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a collection of his chamber works resulting from that visit. Red Note Ensemble are the performers, and they find in Wilde’s intense and sure-handed music a soulful sincerity and beauty. The Suite Cry, Bosnia-Herzegovina is a case in point, a four movement work that opens with the harsh, violent despair of Totentanz, and ends with the solo cello in the haunting Lament in Rondo. Delicate astringency with Bartók leanings opens the String Quartet No 1, the lighter luminosity of the third movement Scherzo lifting the spirits of the surrounding Intermezzo and Threnody. The Piano Trio maintains that sense of tenebrosity, with Wilde’s quiet expression of hope – A Prayer for Bosnia – as a short but magical coda to a thought-provoking double CD. ■