Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Thea Gilmore - Strange Communion Album Review (2009)

The dreaded Christmas album. Always risky. Never cool. Even the best barely get away with it once or never try it at all. But there is much to admire for musicians who celebrate the Christmas season, however flimsily veiled it may be as a collection of ‘winter’ songs or just a bit of ironic fun. There is a third option, however. Religion is a tricky subject but not when it’s Christmas; usually an excuse for blatant faith-driven rock and spiritual crooning. It’s accepted. And it’s even better with a slightly sceptical slant; questioning not embracing, pointing a finger at revelry with excess and without thought. There is even more to admire when someone puts pen to paper, gathers inspiration, and actually makes some new Christmas music. The genre is so saturated with cover versions that most simply recycle, very rarely creating anything new and interesting. Not so here. Seven out of the ten songs are original compositions.

Strange Communion is a well-judged juxtaposition of old and new, traditional and modern. There is light and dark (as you would expect from a Thea Gilmore album there is a little more darkness than light), serious when it needs to be and soaked in irony when the mood changes. Throughout the ten song duration, Gilmore asks more questions than gives us answers which always adds to the beguiling and compelling nature of her music. Certainly Strange Communion grabs your attention from the start. Sol Invictus (meaning ‘unconquered sun’ and referring to the Roman God whose festival is tied to the date of December 25th) is a cappella choral poetry aided superbly by the Sense of Sound Choir delivering mystical vocals. It is an atmospheric, beautiful and subdued start.

Thea Gilmore's Midwinter Toast is several songs in one. Exquisite song writing and delicate guitars centred around the lyrics: "It's been a crazy year, But through all the damage done, I have turned and I have learned, To make next year a better one". Gilmore could be speaking personally, metaphorically or about the world in general. After a poignant instrumental break, she goes on to say: "This won't be hearts and flowers, More like tears and sweat and blood. And I could bend these words for hours, Til they sound the way they should, And some will lose and some will win, That's the way it's always been…". This has overtones of conflict and injustice on a massive scale, a very clever protest song about politicians misleading the country and creating war where it doesn’t exist. Jona Lewie would be so proud. When joined by the strings, the song becomes a gorgeous airy arrangement filled with harmonies.

That’ll Be Christmas has all the makings of a great Christmas song. Name-dropping the aforementioned Jona Lewie in the first line, this is a light-hearted tale of spending time with the family, meeting up in the pub, predictable telly and sad memories. “So I’ll join the others in the bar by ten, Peace and Goodwill to men, Me missing you again…” is a great up then down chorus. Gilmore shows her skill at changing the mood in a way only Mark Everett can match: “Hot wine and a Christmas tree, The Sound Of Music and family, Faith hope and gluttony” is another killer line, summing up the uncomfortable hypocrisy of it all. Musically it fuses obvious clichés into a new originality.

The best song writing on the album arrives with Drunken Angel, open honest and heartfelt, it never hides beneath metaphor and subterfuge. This is another end-of-year song, reflective and brimming with nostalgia; and the culmination of all things alcoholic - a constant running theme across the album in which toasts are offered, glasses are raised and wine and whisky flows. The final line: “Baby sometimes the beauty in this world comes from just not knowing, feeling instead” proves yet again that Gilmore is a superb lyricist. This is quickly followed by the best of the two covers: The St Stephens Day Murders, written by Elvis Costello and featuring the vocal talents of Mark Radcliffe, is an immediate injection of energy from the piercing strings, through to the Shane MacGowen delivery. It feels like an attempt to revisit the superb Fairytale Of New York and works thanks to Radcliffe’s enthusiasm, even if his voice is not the best. Completing a strong trio, December In New York is stern, serious and deliberate. The cold piano and icicle strings compliment Gilmore’s voice perfectly. This would not be out of place on Burning Dorothy.

This solid core of songs is complimented by some interesting interludes. Cold Coming is dark, with an underlying brooding menace. This is the unofficial title track. The combination of cello, violin and viola is superb. The Yoko Ono cover Listen, The Snow Is Falling is faithful to the original with thin breathy vocals, and a brave key at times for Gilmore’s lower voice. The problem is the laboured arrangement. Likewise Book of Christmas is an odd choice; a reading from Autumn Journal by Louis MacNeice that would work much better as a simple naked monologue. Instead there is a strange musical accompaniment that gives the whole piece a quirky tongue-in-cheek slant. This takes away from what is an otherwise clever, if cynical, take on the subject. The final song Old December closes the album as subtly as it began, simple guitars revealing a vocal melody and open spaces for instrumentation including the much underused recorder.

Strange Communion is not going to shake up the world of Christmas music. And it was never going to be another Avalanche. But Thea Gilmore could have opted for the easy way. Root out some obscure and much neglected Christmas songs, include a few twists on some modern day classics and wrap the whole thing up in a folky pop sound. A kind of Loft Music for Christmas. The fact that this hasn’t happened is praise enough. It is clear that a lot of time and effort has been put into making Strange Communion something unique and personal and not just a soulless collection of reworked covers. Great input as always from Nigel Stonier and a host of other talented musicians ensure that this is another album worthy of the name Thea Gilmore.

Merry Christmas.
-- CS

No comments: