And so the Christmas releases begin. And what better way to start than with the first seasonal recording in six years from the ACB, lining up as Simon Nicol, Kellie While, Simon Care and Ashley Hutchings along with Blair Dunlop, Holly Brandon and Ruth Angell adding their own tinsel. A studio get together not on the cards, each member’s contribution was recorded their own homes and stitched together by Hutchings and Dunlop – so All Are Safely Gathered In.
A collection of Christmas and winter songs, it might seem odd to kick off with a jauntily strummed cover of Tim Hardin’s ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ were it not for the fact that Nigel Schofield has added an extra verse, sung by While, that takes in the journey to Bethlehem by Mary and her husband Joseph, who, of course, according to The Bible, was a carpenter.
Penned by Hutchings and Nicol, the melodeon lolloping ‘We Won’t Come Home Till Morning’ celebrates the joys of the traditional historical practice of wassailing, an ancient custom involving visiting cider orchards in and drinking and singing to the health of the trees, but basically, a farm labourer’s festive pub crawl. Hence lyrics about filling the hip flask, staying out until dawn and downing as much drink as possible “because that’s what throats are for”.
Sung by While and written by Hutchings and Becky Mills, the gently fingerpicked ‘Royal Are We’, which again entails the raising of glasses, has the mien of a traditional carol, celebrating the birds of winter, robins and wrens, before shifting from avians to canines with ‘Royal Dog’, a wheezingly breezy Hutchings/Nicol song that relates to the traditional Boxing Day practice of foxhunting, though, of course, the sympathies are very much with Reynardine and not the redcoats, the former naturally winning the day.
Taking a break from the music, Care delivers ‘Sam’s Christmas Pudding’, a poem by Marriott Edgar about Christmas Day in the trenches during the Spanish Peninsula War of 1812 that was popularised as a monologue by Stanley Holloway. It’s back then to another new original, this time from Hutchings and Dunlop, who sings lead with While on harmonies, with the gently swaying ‘Christmas Wreath’ about making the traditional, symbolically circular front door decoration representing eternal life, the second father-son collaboration following with the chugging guitar riff and Brandon’s fiddle accompaniment of ‘The Wind’, which, as you might surmise, is, as sung in the voice of the wind itself, about the icy winter weather and the chaos it can bring.
Written some years back by Hutchings and former Albion bandmate Ken Nicol and originally featured on 1998’s Happy Accident album, here sung by While with Care’s squeezebox and strings from Angell, ‘Coming Home To Me’ is a yearning love song with a vaguely Scottish air. The descending refrain melody borrowing from ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’, the title track, another Hutchings/Mills number, reflects on how village churches, now with better heating, are slowly regaining their position as a centre of both social (“yoga, dominos and gin… library books around the font”) and religious life.
Gently fingerpicked and sung by While, you don’t need me to tell you ‘Days Of Auld Lang Syne’ comes from the poem by Robert Burns but the setting here is an adaptation by musician and Oklahoma professor Mary Catherine Reynolds who has anglicised the little sung verses three and four and written a new, more reflective melody.
It wouldn’t be an Albions album without a dance tune, here in the form of Care’s melodeons taking the spotlight for his arrangement of ‘The Whittlesey Straw Bear Tune/Bird’s A’Building Molly Dance Tune’ from the Molly Dancing tradition of East Anglia, the former played to accompany the straw bear throughout the market town and linking back to Rattlebone & Ploughjack, a 1973 Hutchings album that included a spoken lamentation of the demise of the (now revived) custom.
All Are Safely Gathered In ends with a reminder that Handel isn’t just for Easter, While singing a strummed guitar, fiddle and melodeon courtly dance styled arrangement of ‘Joy To The World’ with the words, an interpretation of Psalm 98, by nineteenth century hymn writer Isaac Watts. Definitely an album with which to deck your seasonal musical halls.
Artists’ website: www.albionchristmas.co.uk
‘Royal Are We’: