Thea Gilmore - Strange Communion

God only knows how she's managed it but Thea Gilmore has achieved the almost impossible and pieced together, get this, a good Christmas album. In fact, against what all sensible souls know to be overwhelming odds, her take on a foolhardy venture actually stands on its own merits as some of her most arresting work to date. If you've not latched on to what she's been doing for the past decade, then listen in: her back catalogue is worthy of your attention if literate, impassioned, ballsy songwriting warms your bones. She negotiates the backwaters of human behaviour like a woman who's lived and learnt. Oh, and bothered to pay attention during English classes. (I know! I'm so old fashioned!) Signposts? I'd say the guile and songwriting capabilities of yer Nerina Pallot but with a 'folkier' foundation, KT Tunstall/Amy McDonald if they/it wasn't so horribly workaday, or Stephen Fretwell if, well, err ... he was a woman.

It's frustrating that Gilmore's muse hasn't broken, and mended, more hearts by now. 2002's Avalanche, which got her some airplay with the single 'Juliet', was a high spot but the recent stuff has been essential too. Liejacker from 2008 should have made her a star, but guess what? If I've slipped a little of late, and only paid take-it-for-granted attention, this collection is a reminder like a kick in the head. There are some smartly selected covers, not least of which is Yoko Ono's 'Listen the Snow is Falling'. Her ribald take on Elvis Costello's 'St Stephen's Day Murders' features sparring with no other than Mark Radcliffe and is a blast. But it's the originals that thrill. Opener 'Sol Invictus', a choral piece so profoundly classic as well as classical I was knocked back when I saw 'Gilmore' in brackets next to it on the sleeve, is heart-stopping. Backed by the ever building presence of the Sense of Sound Choir it sets the Gilmore alto into beautiful and sharp relief, and stops the breath. The jaunty 'That'll be Christmas' is in danger, if it gets the attention it deserves, of falling into the 'Now ... Xmas' hopper despite its wry slant and talk of "Faith hope and gluttony."

But it's the quieter, altogether more wintry, tracks, where that voice is upfront and impossible to resist, that make the most lasting impression and confirms what I've always suspected - there are few who can match her for use of language. She breathes "Winter tells its truth to anyone who'll listen" on the haunting 'Drunken Angel'. On 'Thea Gilmore's Midwinter Toast', she sings "I don't believe in many things but here's my hymn to you all." The thin line between acknowledging the inexcusable daftness of the concept but committing to it nevertheless, just to raise the form, is executed with wit and intelligence. It will find a home, in this house at least, nestled between 'Phil Spector's 'A Christmas Gift for You' and Jane Siberry's magnficent live album 'Child'. As for the former, as Gilmore herself says, "It's gonna be a while before Phil Spector gets round to another one ..."



out of 10

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