Monday, December 3, 2012

"Tinsel and Lights" by Tracey Thorn - The Complete Package


I literally just banged my head on both sides because I just cannot believe what I am hearing. It is 12:10am and I am up trying to catch up on, well, everything. Email, bills, posting for my website, CDs I’ve purchased weeks ago but haven’t listened to yet. After getting my family holiday card safely ordered via Shutterfly (had to take advantage of that “40% off by Sunday” e-coupon!) I decided to get a jump on making the Holiday Music Mix for the inevitable Christmas gathering at Chez Hutcherson, since there were veiled rumblings about the quality and tenor of my “Thanksgiving Mix” just a mere 11 days ago.  So I clicked on iTunes and realized I hadn’t listened to Tracey Thorn’s (of Everything But The Girl fame) “Tinsel And Lights” yet, even though I made an effort to special order it - both the CD and the vinyl directly from her U.S. label, Merge Records, as she no longer records for a major anymore.

I should note now that there are some singers whose voices just do it for me (Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Karen Carpenter, to name a few) - Ms. Thorn is among them and has been ever since I sat in a restaurant on Larchmont Avenue having dinner with friends in the early 90s and heard “Protection” over the restaurant’s sound system. I don’t remember the restaurant’s name or even which friends, but oh, do I remember that song and that voice. Thorn’s ability to evoke simultaneously strength, courage and vulnerability with her voice (and let’s not forget to factor in that gorgeous range and timbre) made me feel like my chest had been cracked open and my heart made to beat outside of it. From that night, I bought as much Everything But The Girl I could find (some singles I found on Napster - this was the 90s, mind you - and spent whole days downloading just one or two rare songs). Although not every track from Thorn and partner Ben Watt was perfect (even though much of their dance music remains sublime to this day - though best known in the U.S. for the “Missing” remix from their “Amplified Heart” CD, the “Temperamental” CD is THE ONE. “Lullaby of Clubland” or “Hatfield 1980”? FORGET IT.), Thorn’s voice always captivated me, bathing me continually in astonishment and awe. “Why is this woman not the most popular singer in the world?” I often wondered. Is it because she’s a Brit and never got enough traction on the U.S. pop charts? But there are/were other Brits who had HUGE pop success stateside in the 80s and 90s, and I find myself buying Japanese imports of Swing Out Sister or Lisa Stansfield CDs to keep up with them… so maybe it’s an age thing? A chick thing?  I don’t know, but I am so glad I stick with singers I love and don’t care where or how I have to find their new music because it’s ALWAYS worth it.
Caution: I Can Sing Your Heart Out

Which brings me back to why I was BANGING MY HEAD ten minutes ago. I was listening to “Tinsel and Lights” and my mind was just exploding. Even though it’s a “holiday” CD, it’s easily one of the best CD’s I’ve heard this year, regardless of genre. I mean, it’s right up there with Fiona Apple’s “The Idler Wheel…” masterpiece. (Yes, MASTERPIECE. Listen to “Hot Knife”, “Valentine,” “Werewolf” and then every other track and tell me I’m wrong. Hash arrests be damned, she backed that beauty up big time in concert, too.) Not only are the original Christmas songs gorgeously written and arranged, they sound traditional yet current at the same time. I’m too hyped up to even find the CD to see who produced it, but if it’s not her or Ben Watt, it’s some other musical genius. The first track, “Joy,” immediately takes you there - it feels cold, snowy, yet warm - like white lights seen through inclement weather. The simple piano and her voice blend so well it sounds like one instrument. The next track, “Hard Candy Christmas,” is equally amazing and already one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs. This tune manages to be delightfully sardonic, sad, hopeful and mischevious all at the same time. “Hard Candy” nails perfectly what it feels like to be single during the holidays - so much so it seemed like I stepped into a time machine because I felt every second of it, even though that’s not my life anymore. That’s how good and special this song is.  My favorite lyric? “Maybe I’ll sleep real late / maybe I’ll lose some weight / maybe I’ll clear my junk / maybe I’ll just get drunk on apple wine / Me? I’ll be just fine…” And it keeps going on like that. Awesome.

So okay, I’m two songs in and I’m grooving. Thinking I’ll find a way to include both on my mix for the fam, separate them with some Tony Bennett and Donny Hathaway, etc. but definitely get both of them in there. Only problem is, the CD just keeps GETTING BETTER. I could go on about every song, her vocals, the beauty, purity and warmth of approach, but it’s only getting later and the kids have school tomorrow, so I’ll just hit on my absolute favorites. “Maybe This Christmas” - country-style feel, mid-tempo - lyrics about reconnecting with loved ones - a stunner. And then there’s her cover of my all-time favorite popular Christmas song, “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (as opposed to my all-time favorite traditional one, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”). Anyway, up until 40 minutes ago, my favorite version of "Have Yourself" was by Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders. Tracey Thorn took it to the place Chrissie took it to (aching, melancholy, saturnine-yet-sanguine), paused for a second, dusted off her Jet Pack and then ROCKETED into the stratosphere with the song. And again, this is with a very simple-yet-creative arrangement of piano and strings that lets her subtle, plaintive, evocative vocals hang the shining star upon the highest bow. When she goes into the second verse, her emotional commitment to the lyrics and meaning of the song even cause her to choke up and drop a word.  Wisely, she uses this take and CRICK CRACK there goes my heart out of my chest again. And if you know the history of this song, you know the original lyrics are “Through the years, we will all be together/ if the fates allow / until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” instead of the “less depressing” “Hang a shining star upon the highest bow” version that has supplanted the original in most remakes. Well, Thorn honors the song by singing the lyrics both ways, wisely placing the original ones last for maximum impact. I could keep going on about her version of this song, but I suppose I should move it along if I don’t want to go into a drop sleep behind the wheel of the mini-van tomorrow.

So, briefly - the other two pieces of EXCELLENCE on this incredibly cohesive, well-planned and sequenced CD of holiday music: Thorn’s immaculate, inventive cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” Joni Mitchell, another of my favorite musicians, (I mean, who can write a song like Joni?) KILLS “River” and kind of can’t be paralleled (even though Corinne Bailey Rae’s 2007 cover with Herbie Hancock is definitely on the right side of sublime) so what Thorn does is sing the whole thing backed by, like, French Horns. JUST French horns! And it’s GORGEOUS and it WORKS and it makes it its own thing totally. (*NOTE: I just looked at the liner notes to confirm what I thought I heard and actually, there’s tubas, cornets and trombones mixed in, too - but it is just brass she sings with. Which takes some BRASS.)

The last song I’ll palaver about - though penultimate track “Taking Down The Tree” featuring Green Gartside is the biznass, too - is my other favorite new classic, “Sister Winter.” Written by Sufjan Stevens, I’m not sure if it’s new for this CD or a cover, but regardless, it’s responsible for the HEAD BANGING I mentioned at the beginning of whatever you want to call this piece of writing is. There’s a lot more production on this track than most - very current-sounding, in the Goyte family of sonic experimentation, but so seamlessly employed on this Christmas song, I almost couldn’t take it. But I’m so glad I did. And if my family rags on me for having every other song on this year’s Xmas Mix be from “Tinsel And Lights,” I’ll happily take the shots, because I'll know I’m the one giving them the ultimate gift by sharing Ms. Thorn’s incomparable one.