As the season of goodwill and institutionalised retail therapy looms close, I went and got my obligatory Christmas album - this year, it''s ''Strange Communion'' by Thea Gilmore. It''s my 5th. album by her - she''s my favourite English singer-songwriter; and with this album,...
As the season of goodwill and institutionalised retail therapy looms close, I went and got my obligatory Christmas album - this year, it''s ''Strange Communion'' by Thea Gilmore. It''s my 5th. album by her - she''s my favourite English singer-songwriter; and with this album, Thea presents us with a personal (and somewhat ambivalent) perspective of Christmas (alt-Christmas?).
On most songs, Thea is in good voice (exceptionally good on some); and her own lyrics remain well-crafted with ingenuity (and also, I think less impenetrable as some have been on earlier albums). This album is less ''acoustic'' than ''Liejacker'' - with keyboards, electric guitars and drums/percussion being played more frequently; also, there''s some fine cello playing on a few tracks.
The album contains 5 songs (all written/co-written by Thea) in her ''classic'' style: 4 slow tempo numbers - ''Thea Gilmore''s Midwinter Toast'' (the song that comes closest to a traditional Christmas song), ''Drunken Angel'' and ''December In New York'' (both are beautiful songs of typically austere elegance), and ''Old December''; plus an up-tempo rocker - ''Cold Coming'' (featuring electric slide).
Then there are the remaining songs - most of which are less characteristic of Thea''s style of music; a few comments about these :
SOL INVICTUS (a cappella) (Thea Gilmore arr. Jennifer John) - An atmospheric slow tempo song with pagan undertones. Whilst not as repetitive as a chant, rhythmically there are some similarities. Its real high point is the stunning and dramatic choral arrangement.
THAT''LL BE CHRISTMAS (Thea Gilmore & Nigel Stonier) - The song has entertaining lyrics with more than a hint of cynicism; it also has a catchy (but rather cheesy) pop-singalong feel to it. It''s repeated at the end of the album, but with a different instrumental arrangement and mix.
LISTEN, THE SNOW IS FALLING (Yoko Ono) - Thea occasionally switches her vocal style to a spine-tingling ''edgy-breathy'' delivery but, with this song, she almost whispers the lyrics. Sung in the same key throughout with predominantly synth-driven accompaniment. I think the song itself is unremarkable (but not unpleasant).
THE ST STEPHENS DAY MURDERS (Elvis Costello & Paddy Moloney) - Up-tempo song with some wry humour. A duet with Mark Radcliffe, whose vigorous singing tends to overshadow Thea''s own vocals. I''d describe the song''s style as a combination of Irish folk and English ''pub-rock'' - fiddle, whistle and recorder accentuate the Irish flavour. It''s not my cuppa - although I''d probably find it more agreeable in a live setting, having consumed copious amounts of alcohol beforehand.
BOOK OF CHRISTMAS (Nigel Stonier, excerpt Louis Macneice) - Spoken word songs don''t do a great deal for me, no matter how good the lyrics might be - in this case, an excerpt from ''Autumn Journal'' by the Irish poet Louis Macneice. The accompanying synthesized sounds (crackles and all) plus harmonium add some further interest for the listener.
The standout tracks for me are : Sol Invictus, Thea Gilmore''s Midwinter Toast, Cold Coming, Drunken Angel and December in New York.
Whilst my reservations about some of the songs reflect my own personal tastes, I would still urge fans to check out all of the samples before buying (but the ''Book of Christmas'' sample is not representative of the song, because it doesn''t feature Thea''s recitation). Some of the songs are as good as anything Thea has done in the past but, in my opinion, there are a few others which are questionable choices. I would not recommend this album to anyone looking for a more conventional, easy listening Christmas album - Thea Gilmore''s albums have always veered towards edginess, and this album is no exception.