Tracey Thorn: 'Secular Carols' For The Holidays

Nov 30, 2012
Originally published on November 30, 2012 12:24 pm

Tracey Thorn's interpretation of "Maybe This Christmas," by the Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith, is typical of her new holiday album, Tinsel and Lights: It's simply arranged, emphasizing Thorn's lovely, delicate voice and bolstered by a firm intelligence; it avoids the fatty treacle that weighs down lots of Christmas albums. Tinsel and Lights mixes familiar songs with new ones, such as the title song written by Thorn.

Perhaps Thorn's bravest gesture is to cover Joni Mitchell's "River," from the latter's 1971 masterpiece Blue. "River," with its glancing initial reference to Christmas before gliding into yearning melancholy, fits with Thorn's stated desire to make an album that consists largely of what she describes as "secular carols." "River" is so closely associated with Mitchell's performance of it that a lesser singer might get lost in it. Not Thorn.

Tracey Thorn adds to the Christmas canon on Tinsel and Lights with a gorgeous new song she's written called "Joy." Mixing childhood memories with the mature optimism of a clear-eyed adult, Thorn truly captures a kind of quiet but intense, sincere joy that's unlike the vast majority of contemporary Christmas songs, which often opt for mere sentimentality or irony.

A couple years ago, Thorn's Love and Its Opposite was one of my 10 best albums of the year. This holiday collection is inevitably more uneven — eclecticism can only go so far with a bit of dried-out blues-rock written by Jack White, for example. But most of the time, Thorn's mixture of the eerie ethereal and hard-headed directness combines to form a Christmas album you'll want to pull out every year — and sometimes, I bet, even in warmer weather.

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Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

It's that time of year when collections of Christmas music are being released and rock critic Ken Tucker has come up with a new favorite. It's from Tracey Thorn, best known as half the British duo Everything but the Girl. Thorn's been pursuing a solo career over the past few years. Her new album, "Tinsel and Lights," is a collection of cover songs and two originals. Here's Ken's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAYBE THIS CHRISTMAS")

TRACEY THORN: (Singing) Maybe this Christmas will mean something more. Maybe this year love will appear deeper than ever before. And maybe forgiveness will ask us to call someone we love, someone we've lost for reasons we can't quite recall. Ooh, maybe this Christmas.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: That's Tracey Thorn interpreting "Maybe This Christmas" by the Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith. It's typical of this collection in the sense of being simply arranged, emphasizing Thorn's lovely, delicate voice, bolstered by a firm intelligence that avoids the fatty treacle that weighs down lots of Christmas albums. "Tinsel and Lights" mixes familiar songs with new ones, such as the title song written by Thorn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TINSEL AND LIGHTS")

THORN: (Singing) We walk down the street as the snow started falling, stamping our feet, all the taxicabs crawling. You said I'm so cold I can't remember my name. And I said the same.

TUCKER: Perhaps Thorn's bravest gesture is to cover Joni Mitchell's "River," from the latter's 1971 masterpiece "Blue." "River," with its glancing initial reference to Christmas before gliding into yearning melancholy, fits with Thorn's stated desire to make an album that consists largely of what she refers to as secular carols. "River" is so closely associated with Mitchell's performance of it that a lesser singer might get lost in it. Not Thorn.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIVER")

THORN: (Singing) It's coming on Christmas. They're cutting down trees. They're putting up reindeer, singing songs of joy and peace. I wish I had a river I could skate away on. But it don't snow here. It just stays pretty green. I'm going to make a lot of money. Then I'm going to quit this crazy scene. I wish I had a river I could skate away on. I wish I had a river so long, I would teach my feet to fly. I wish I had a river I could skate away on.

Tracey Thorn adds to the Christmas canon on this album with a gorgeous new song she's written called "Joy." Mixing childhood memories with the mature optimism of a clear-eyed adult, Thorn truly captures a kind of quiet but intense, sincere joy that's unlike the vast majority of contemporary Christmas songs, which often opt for mere sentimentality or irony.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOY")

THORN: (Singing) When someone very dear calls you with the words everything's all clear, that's what you want to hear but you know it might be different in the New Year. That's why, that's why we hang the lights so high. Joy. Joy. Joy. Joy. You loved it as a kid and now you need it more than you ever did. It's because of the dark. We see your beauty in the spark. That's why, that's why the carols make you cry. Joy...

TUCKER: A couple years ago, Thorn's album "Love and Its Opposite" was one of my 10 best albums of the year. This holiday collection is inevitably more uneven - eclecticism can only go so far with a bit of dried-out blues-rock written by Jack White, for example. But most of the time Thorn's mixture of the eerie ethereal and hard-headed directness combines to form a Christmas album you'll want to pull out every year, and sometimes even in warmer weather, I'd bet.

DAVIES: Ken Tucker is editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly. He reviewed Tracey Thorn's new Christmas album, "Tinsel and Lights."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")

THORN: (Singing) Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light. From now on our troubles will be out of sight. Through the years we all will be together if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bough. And have yourself a merry little Christmas now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.