My first Christmas review of the year, it seems to have become de rigueur now that at some point the great and good of the contemporary British folk scene should release an album of festive material. Kate Rusby’s third is due shortly, last year it was Cara Dillon’s turn and now Belinda and Heidi get in on the act. However, being who they are, this isn’t your usual tidings of comfort and joy as they turn a musical eye on the darker corners of the yuletide season. Case in point being a rework of ‘One More Xmas’ from their 2010 album Silent June which offsets a poignant reminiscence of childhood and memories of mum with scenes of domestic abuse, the new version featuring string arrangement for cello and violin with Chumbawamba’s Jude Abbott on swelling flugelhorn solo.
On a similarly poignant, sung unaccompanied, the self-penned ‘Winter Folk Carol’ serves reminder of the need to connect with others, especially at Christmas, and to remember those displaced by war, homelessness, family issues, debt and bereavement as the sing “may there always be a hand to hold”.
A mix of originals, traditional and covers, there’s a couple of other revisits to past work. ‘The Last Polar Bear’ originally appeared on 2012’s The Fragile, restyled here with a more stately, contemplative arrangement anchored by Jo Silverston’s cello and reworked lyrics focusing on loss and loneliness, Likewise, ‘Calling Me’ is another from that same album and also concerns being alone with its hints of death in “Mother Nature’s fingers reaching for my own.”
The starkly sung, cello drone ‘Whitehorn’ goes further back to when O’Hooley was part of Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, the song written for the 2007 album The Bairns and being based on the true story of her Irish great grandmother, the title referring to the tree under which her stillborn babies, being denied a Catholic burial, were laid to rest.
Originally performed by Belinda on her 2013 Lullabies tour with Jackie Oates, the unaccompanied ‘Wexford Lullaby’, written by John Renbourn, is based on the 12th century ‘Wexford Carol’. There’s also two actual traditional carols, first up being a magnificent classical instrumental reading of the 16th Century ‘The Coventry Carol’, recorded in one take with O’Hooley playing the Steinway grand piano at the Museum of Art in Machynlleth. The other, drawing on the duo’s German and Irish heritage and sung in both German and English, is a haunting take on the evergreen ‘Stille Nacht’, dedicated to those babies under the whitehorn. It also rounds off the album with a brief reprise, recorded as they warmed up, Heidi distantly humming the refrain and Belinda tracing out a minimal piano accompaniment.
As mentioned, there’s also covers, the album opening with Steve Ashley’s suitably invitation to break out the ‘Fire & Wine’ with the heralding of winter, while, a staple of the duo’s WinterFolk shows, opening a cappella, Richard Thompson’s ‘We Sing Hallelujah’ strikes a jubilant and joyous complete with tumbling brass from Abbott.
The final number is their arrangement of the song voted Britain’s all time Christmas favourite, ‘Fairytale Of New York’. Previously covered by the likes of Christy Moore, Ronan Keating and Maire Brennan, Razorlight, Amy Macdonald, Damien Dempsey and Sinead O’Connor, The Wurzels and, god help us, Tony Hadley, none sound remotely like this, slow seven-minute version with its strings accompanied waltz on which they do, as the press release puts it, wraps fairy lights around the words.
They’re out on this year’s WinterFolk tour from the start of December and I’d imagine pretty much everything here will feature prominently in the set. If you can’t make a gig, treat yourself to an early present and grab mince pie, a glass of mulled wine and settle back with a copy of the CD.
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‘Fairytale Of New York’ – live: