Christmas songs served sugar free by the voice of Everything but the Girl.
Wyndham Wallace 2012
December’s normally dominated by chart artists seeking to grab a slice of Christmas pie, reflecting the corporatisation of the festive season. But now indie artists are fighting back.
Last year Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward collaborated on A Very She & Him Christmas. And this year there’s a second five-CD Christmas collection from Sufjan Stevens, reworkings of traditional songs by avant-garde jazz artist Bill Wells, and even Will Oldham’s in on the action with his Dawn McCarthy duet, Christmas Eve Can Kill You.
Now it’s Tracey Thorn’s turn. Her brief was wide – songs need only mention winter, snow or low temperatures – but this decision ensures Tinsel and Lights never resorts to overindulgent sentimentality. Instead, it’s about the atmosphere we associate with Christmas, or at least the one we recall from the days before oversaturated marketing overshadowed good will.
Whether covering Dolly Parton’s Hard Candy Christmas, here given a touching intimacy, the traditional Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which receives an understated but sophisticated string arrangement, or The White Stripes' In the Cold, Cold Night, Thorn reins things in enough to make them heartfelt and real. It’s in stark contrast to Gabrielle Aplin’s cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s The Power of Love for John Lewis’ latest TV commercial.
She also converts Joni Mitchell’s River into a chestnut-warming slice of brass band nostalgia, while Low’s Taking Down the Tree – a duet with Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside – is decorated with delicate electronic ornamentation. But the real magic lies in her own Joy, its opening lines so naked they cut to the true, modern heart of the subject: the opportunity to celebrate the people we love most.
“If someone very dear calls you with the words everything’s all clear / That’s what you want to hear,” her familiar, soothing voice sings over sparse piano accompaniment, before she punctures the sentiment with a winning burst of honesty: “But you know it might be different in the New Year.”
The true spirit of Christmas is safe in Tracey Thorn’s hands.