Tinsel and Lights
Holiday albums come cheap. From Sinatra to the Chipmunks, Mariah Carey to Scotty McReery, Christmas records have been a quick and cost-efficient way for artists to put a little something extra under their trees without spending too much effort. The classics — Elvis’, Phil Spector’s — mess around with convention and expectations. If they’re good enough, like Elvis’ and Spector’s records, they can be played in July and not sound out of season.
Tracey Thorn’s contribution to the genre falls somewhere between the great ones and those multi-artist benefit compilations that have a song or two you don’t mind hearing a couple of times during the holidays. More of a winter-themed album than a Christmas record, ‘Tinsel and Lights’ takes a cozy coffeehouse tone, all acoustic strums and lightly brushed drums. It’s more hot-chocolate-in-front-of-the-fireplace than snowball-fight-in-a-blizzard. And it’s all anchored by Thorn’s warm, rich voice, which is capable of thawing even the biggest chill. For years, Thorn provided the human element to Everything but the Girl’s electronic rattles and hums. Surrounded by a stripped-down band (including husband and Everything but the Girl partner Ben Watt) on ‘Tinsel and Lights,’ she’s as inviting as a raging fire on a cold night.
There’s only one song (‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’) among the dozen tracks that will probably show up on another holiday album this year. The others, including two originals, come from such disparate sources as Stephin Merritt (‘Like a Snowman’), Randy Newman (‘Snow’), Low (‘Taking Down the Tree’) and Sufjan Stevens (‘Sister Winter’).
The best cuts celebrate the season by looking back as well as forward. There’s hope springing from the past in the opening ‘Joy’ and in the title track, both written by Thorn. She sneaks under the gorgeous melody propping ‘Hard Candy Christmas,’ undercutting Dolly Parton’s original sorta-sappy version found on ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ soundtrack. And a cover of the White Stripes’ sly ‘In the Cold, Cold Night’ makes it in on general frostiness. The electronic and orchestral decorations found on a few songs can get a bit fussy, but for the most part Thorn holds back and chills out, settling in for a quiet winter storm.