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Snow on Snow
Artist: The Albion Christmas Band
Label: Talking Elephant
Time: 19 Tracks / 57 mins
The original Albion Band was a formidable collection of folk-rock talents, culled from bands like Fairport Convention, Gryphon and Steeleye Span. The Albion Christmas Band keeps the high standards of these acts, using the more consistent line-up of Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol and Kellie While from Fairport, with Simon Clare on melodeon. What sets this act apart, and is found on all three of their discs, is the unique blend of carols, traditional Morris music, spoken word and – to give a contemporary twist – songs from current songwriters, such as Jackson Brown, Clive Gregson and James Taylor.
As the name suggests, they are very English. The predominant sounds are split fairly evenly between the melodeon and guitars, the former creating a Morris-dancing mood (yes, even with jingling bells) that works particularly well on the instrumental version of “It Came upon a Midnight Clear.”
Standout tracks include “The Month of January,” which has a beautiful traditional melody, such as you might find on a Cara Dillon album. It is one of several featuring Kellie Whiles’ impressive, pure, warm vocals alongside some unhurriedly picked acoustic guitar – and in this case, some smooth fiddle work too. The transfixing “In the Bleak Midwinter” is played as a similarly relaxed ballad, with a lovely acoustic arrangement that had me at first expecting a completely instrumental treatment.
James Taylor’s “Frozen Man” is the most current song, and was inspired by the discovery of a man who died a thousand years ago, but was so well preserved that some people thought him to be the victim of a recent murder.
Among the evocative spoken-word tracks (which make up over seven minutes of the disc) is an account of the time that the Thames froze over, becoming a skating rink by day and party venue by night. There is some thoughtful continuity, where the track ends with the words, “and the people danced,” leading straight into the dance music (and recorder solo) of “Humours upon the Ice,” which recounts the same event.
There are just a couple of low points. The über-apocryphal “Cherry Tree Carol” laughs at all reason as it recounts a tale of Mary (“the queen of Galilee”) asking Joseph (“meek and mild”) for some cherries. There are many versions of the song, but this one comes with schoolboy rhymes and a weak edit of the lyrical options. The opening “Seven Joys of Mary” similarly eschews theology, but these po-faced complaints might be expecting too much of ancient folk songs!
This collection shares the same musical blend as the previous two discs, but just pips them for quality, thanks to a bit more of While’s appealing singing and a little more range in the instrumentation. Snow on Snow really is a feast of festive folk.