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Music Review | ‘Tinsel and Lights’ blends Christmas with indie pop

Tracey Thorn gives her signature sound seasonal flair

Published: Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, November 14, 2012 07:11

Most holiday music is known for its conventional use of sounds: Bells, whistles, choirs that could rival heavenly cherubs, a bit of jazz and maybe even a crooner or two are to be expected. But this holiday season, English pop veteran Tracey Thorn presents listeners with a contemporary sound that has the potential to delight young adult listeners without compromising the traditional spirit of the holiday season.

With a voice reminiscent of another English singer, Annie Lennox, Thorn rose from her small−town life in Hertfordshire, England to modest fame in the indie pop world as a member of Everything but the Girl (commonly referred to as ETBG), a band consisting of Thorn and her husband, DJ and musician Ben Watt. ETBG released original work from 1984 to 1999. Thorn and Watt consider the group on extended hiatus while they focus on other projects, such as Thorn’s successful collaboration with the alternative hip hop band Massive Attack on their hit single, “Protection” (1994).

In late October, Thorn released “Tinsel and Lights,” marking her foray into holiday music. The album is secular in nature, with a total of 12 songs focusing on non−religious symbols and pastimes of the Christmas season. Though Thorn gently croons the traditional Christmas tune “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the rest of the album is comprised of beautiful, soft rock covers of songs such as The White Stripes’ “In the Cold, Cold Night” (2008) and “Hard Candy Christmas,” a track from the musical “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (1982). Thorn seals the deal with two original songs, “Joy” and “Tinsel and Lights.”

While the album offers a diverse selection of songs that could seem unsuitable for the holiday genre, it still manages to sound like a traditional Christmas album. Although it is a patchwork of the contemporary and the classic, the crude and the gentle, “Tinsel and Lights” is a mix many Christmas lovers will find appropriate for the holiday season.

The album opens with “Joy,” which features the simplicity of a soft piano and acoustic guitar that accompany the singer’s call for a widespread appreciation of the blossoming winter season. Electronic ambiance in the background polishes the song into a perfectly typical Thorn tune, resulting in a call for Christmas joy that even the biggest Scrooge could not deny. The lyrics of “Joy” reflect on symbols that appear throughout the album, including the sparkling silver tinsel on Christmas trees, “the holly on the door” and “the candles in the gloom.” All of these images represent the feeling of transformation that exists in situations like the start of a season, or during the first moments of an album.

The album’s title track recalls a traditional Irish drinking song whose lyrics reflect on both a time of youthful merrymaking and the solemn realism of growing old over many Christmases. Thorn reflects on joyous feelings of the past that have been tainted by a life of disappointment. The lyrics conclude the tale by suggesting that Thorn’s December cheer will be rekindled by the kiss of a lover.

Thorn did not go wrong with her choice of cover songs on the album. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is performed within the bounds of the Christmas norms, while “Snow in Sun” serves as both a stylistic translation from boy band to indie pop as well as an ode to 1980s British band Scritti Politti. The cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” gives the album greater depth through its escapist overtones that contrast nicely with the holiday cheer of the rest of the songs.

Overall, ETBG fans will not be disappointed by the group’s songstress’ solo effort, even if the album does not provide anything particularly unique. With “Tinsel and Lights,” what you see is what you get: Tracey Thorn performing her quintessential style of indie pop. To a general audience, “Tinsel and Lights” is a reminder that while there may be heartbreak and imperfections that lie within the cold winter months, it is still possible to have yourself a merry little Christmas.

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