wears the trousers magazine

thea gilmore: strange communion (2009)
November 10, 2009, 8:43 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: ,


Thea Gilmore
Strange Communion •••
Fruitcake / Fullfill

Is absolutely nothing sacred? As each year passes it feels increasingly as though there is nobody out there who is totally immune from making a Christmas album. But while we inwardly quake at the thought of what mind-blowing aberrations 2010 might bring (Björk’s Baubles? Deck The Halls With PJ Harvey?), we must first digest this year’s two most unpredictable entries, which just happen to lend themselves to obvious comparison. Having long been touted as a British female Dylan, it’s a particularly wry twist of fate that Thea Gilmore releases her version of a festive album within a few weeks of her songwriting icon’s first seasonal foray, Christmas In The Heart. But while the majority of Dylan’s attempt comes across as a somewhat gauche and overly sentimental throwback to a bygone era, much of Gilmore’s sounds a lot like, well, pretty much anything from her last two albums.

With the exception of a few tracks, Strange Communion doesn’t seem particularly Christmassy, or even wintry, but it feels as comfy as a pair of slippers and refreshingly devoid of stale old chestnuts, something that His Bobness had in spades. Of the ten tracks, eight were penned by Thea and/or her husband and long-time producer Nigel Stonier, and the remaining two are covers of lesser known recordings by Yoko Ono (‘Listen, The Snow Is Falling’) and Elvis Costello (‘The St Stephens Day Murders’). Consequently, what we get is a very personal reflection on the festive season, exemplified best on the tellingly titled ‘Thea Gilmore’s Midwinter Toast’. Starting out plaintive and honest, Semay Wu’s cello accenting the melancholic twinge in Gilmore’s vocal and acting contrapuntally to the faint, synthesised choral backing that emerges later, it’s part love letter to her fans, part affirmation of her faith in the power of song.

Having given us a whopping nine studio albums in 11 years, it’s forgivable that Gilmore hasn’t shown the same amount of artistic progression between releases as some of her peers, but Strange Communion shows this fact up more than any other. So while ‘Cold Coming’ sounds uncannily like a leftover from Harpo’s Ghost given extra bells (no whistles), both ‘Drunken Angel’ and ‘Old December’ echo the weary ruminations of last year’s Liejacker. That’s not to say that Gilmore doesn’t stretch herself at all here; she does, in good and bad ways. By recruiting BBC Radio 2 DJ Mark Radcliffe to be her male vocal foil on ‘The St Stephens Day Murders’, Gilmore turns a very silly song even sillier. Even looking favourably on Radcliffe’s dominating gusto, the delivery so acutely recalls the infallible Pogues and Kirsty MacColl duet, ‘Fairytale Of New York’, that its ramshackle nature feels a little forced.

Ever the outsider, you get the sense that Gilmore has an indefinite struggle with the idea of Christmas. On album opener ‘Sol Invictus’ (Latin: ‘the unconquered Sun’), beautifully recorded with a cappella choir Sense Of Sound, she sounds much more at home with the straightforward Pagan sentiments of the lyric than when rolling her words around to avoid overt Christian terminology. Likewise, the spoken-word ‘Book Of Christmas’ sounds awkward on paper, but the heavily politicised lyric, courtesy of Irish poet Louis MacNeice’s ‘Autumn Journal’, is so very Thea that she pulls it off. It helps that Nigel Stonier’s electric piano and harmonium backdrop on this song is probably Strange Communion at its most musically interesting, with all its shades of Moon Palace-era Lisa Germano. For pure evocative songwriting, though, a timely re-recording of ‘December In New York’ from the long out of print As If EP is the album’s main draw, achieving a difficult balance between stark and poetic over a simple circular melody.

Of course, what the vast majority of people seem to want at Christmas is a feelgood pop singalong, and Gilmore bravely steps up to the plate with ‘That’ll Be Christmas’, Strange Communion’s only real attempt at the money shot. Drawing on various Christmas staples – mulled wine, ‘The Sound Of Music’, Jona Lewie, mistletoe – Gilmore cleverly crafts her words to take a sideways swipe at Christmas while simultaneously celebrating it, a two-handed approach that probably captures how a lot of us feel about the whole ordeal. In fact, it’s this attitude that really serves to sum up Strange Communion as an entity, a Christmas album for people who don’t really like Christmas, or at least who view it with a healthy dose of cynicism. Even pseudo-Scrooges need music, and this modestly ambitious and solid collection caters to them perfectly.

Alan Pedder
UK release date: 02/11/09; www.myspace.com/theagilmore


1 Comment so far
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what???2 monks on the cover??

Comment by Ma

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