There’s just too much jollity in Christmas music, isn’t there?
Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas’, Shakin’ Stevens’ ‘Merry Christmas, Everyone’ and Wizard’s ‘I Wish it Could be Christmas Every Day’: they’re all so annoyingly…happy. Even Christmas songs about war (‘Stop the Cavalry’), family break up (‘Fairytale of New York’) and famine (‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’) are both/either uplifting and/or imbued with a sense of fun.
Thank goodness then, for Smoke Fairies whose Wild Winter (2014) is a breath of gloomy fresh air amidst the general festive frolics. A Christmas album by a band who readily admit they don’t like Christmas music is a tempting prospect – if only because the contradiction sparks curiosity. But for those who are familiar with the duo, Katherine Blamire and Jessica Davies, a Smoke Fairies Christmas album becomes less of a tempting prospect – more of a must-have.
Their smoky, husky vocal harmonies have a magical quality – even on an average day. And their tender, understated music, a Gothic mix of shoegaze and folk, will always be spell binding. Such a combination of sounds automatically lends itself to winter; the Smoke Fairies’ back catalogue is the ideal accompaniment to long nights, huddled beside a warm fire, hidden, securely from the elements. But in Wild Winter that serving suggestion is more explicit.
As with Thea Gilmore’s Strange Communion, the Smoke Fairies record is not so much a Christmas album as a winter album. Of course, there are Christmas themed moments; one of the album’s full throttle moments, the chugging, rhythmic ‘Bad Good’ – complete with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’-ish guitars – is a childlike credo for the Santa Claus faithful (“I don’t want to go to bed/want to see what’s in the sled”). And other songs, the brooding ‘Give and Receive’ for example, point towards the nativity story (“I heard a rumour that a child was going to save us”) while the album’s opening moments (‘Christmas without a Kiss’) are a distortion heavy take on the ‘Lonely This Christmas’ theme:
It’s another silent night:
no warmth to light this fire.
No one’s going to give to me
the one thing I desire.
Much of the rest of the album, though, is devoted to the season, rather than the Season. The album’s title track, for example moves along with an icy breeze, recalling more than a hint of the rhythms of Joy Division. Meanwhile ‘Snow Globe Blizzard’ begins with creepy glockenspiel, ghostly vocal harmonies and a sombre piano before a viola joins in to complete the chilling instrumental.
And while ‘Circles in the Snow’ name checks the festive season, it’s the wintery feeling which dominates: a sense of waiting for the daylight hours to grow, the chill to fade and for something brighter and new to come along. There are memories of past happinesses and frustration that, instead of enjoying a fire “warming up our went home…I’m always walking circles in the snow”.
There are two covered songs here: The Handsome Family’s ‘So Much Wine’ and, more noteably, Captain Beefheart’s ‘Steal Softly Thru Snow’. Where the original, taken from Beefheart’s gleefully bizarre Trout Mask Replica (a record it’s nigh on impossible to listen to in a single sitting), is typically disjointed, all angular rhythms, chaotic key changes and piercing guitar sounds, Smoke Fairies’ version smooths the rough edges out into something more digestible. Exactly what Don Van Vliet would make of it is anybody’s guess.
Despite Captain Beefheart’s tune being carefully smoothed out by the calm harmonies of Blamire and Davies, Smoke Fairies’ interpretation of ‘Steal Softly…’ is impressively faithful to the original. Even the tiniest of riffs and phrases appear in the new version, something other cover versioneers might have discarded.
Wild Winter is a fantastic album. So fantastic it seems a shame that its appeal can only properly last in the few weeks leading up to Christmas. Nevertheless, as with Strange Communion, it will remain one of those treats to which we can return each December. A beautiful, beautiful thing.
Smoke Fairies’ Wild Winter is available through Rough Trade.
[First published 18/12/14]