Talking Elephant 2020
Burning bright in the bleak midwinter, Tyger and his coterie restore the true spirit of Yuletide.
Having almost singlehandedly created English folk-rock, Ashley Hutchings retreated from the genre’s forefront in recent years, yet he’s so inextricably blended into its background that any of the endeavors the veteran’s involved in – let alone his own projects – gets the firmest of footings, although there’s always an element of surprise, too, which is why this album should feel special. Whereas lesser mortals tend to turn Christmastime into showing off and exposing the glitter side of the holiday, Ashley, his family and friends don’t shy away from digging deep to reveal the period’s spiritual starkness and sonic frost that will chill, rather than thrill like “Morris On” and Hutchings’ other dance-based records. Still, the artfully patinated originals and contextualized classic poems, plus a sole trad tune, are emotionally rich, if deceptively dry, and captivating.
Solid without relying on rock arrangements, such pieces as “Crocuses” – preceded by Christopher Smart’s stanzas that Hutchings delivers as spoken word, as he does further on down the line with verses from George Eliot alongside his own rhymes and reasons – and “Sweet November” evoke eternal bliss and seasonal anxiety, with acoustic strum caressing Becky Mills’ smoky voice to create a candlelit environment. She can sound desperate on “Raggle Taggle Lad” but Ashley’s bass and his son Blair Dunlop’s guitar give this solemn song a delicate groove and a transparent shroud, and their wife and mother shapes the album’s centerpiece, “Mahogany Tree” – one providing the record with a cover artwork – the smoldering ballad which must move the hardest of hearts.
Its follow-up “Silence Of Snow” has electric charge to challenge the number’s calm because, of course, limiting his efforts to folk never was the venerated artist’s forte. As a result, the Blair-sung, sparse “Her Name Was Mary” is drawing on vaudevillian romanticism and “The Christ Child Lay On Mary’s Lap” on G. K. Chesterton, while Mills’ “Animal’s Carol” that so perfectly fits the record’s theme is cut from “The Wind in the Willows” and set to a mesmeric melody. Becky’s duet with Ashley on the perennial “Three Angels” may transport the listener to a glowing hearth, and that’s where the scintillating “Christmas Wreath” will be placed to sign off and wish everyone the night of warmth and affection.
Naturally rustic and gorgeous on its own terms, here’s the work which is bound to stand the test of time and defy any fashion.