The amount of decent Christmas songs can really be counted on one hand. The Pogues‘ Fairytale Of New York, naturally. Greg Lake‘s I Believe In Father Christmas possibly. And, if you’re feeling sentimental, John Lennon‘s Happy Christmas (War Is Over) could be acceptable.
Yet years after year of Slade, Wizzard and Paul McCartney have left the Christmas song with an unenviable reputation of cheese. So, the thought of a Christmas album, something which only Phil Spector has ever managed to pull off, should fill most people with horror.
The McGarrigle Christmas Hour is not your normal Christmas record however. Kate and Anna McGarrigle, mother and aunt respectively of Rufus and Martha Wainwright, have gathered together their family and friends and recorded a selection of traditional songs, cover versions and their own compositions to provide perfect listening over the festive season.
Although the album is credited to the McGarrigle sisters, this is a real ensemble piece. Rufus and Martha will attract most attention obviously, but Emmylou Harris and Beth Orton also put in appearances, as do Lily Lanken (Anna’s daughter and back up vocalist to Martha) and Teddy Thompson (son of Richard & Linda, and recording artist in his own right).
After just one listen to this album you’ll want to fly over to Montreal to spend Christmas with the McGarrigles. There’s something so warm and welcoming about this music, so joyous, that it’ll make the most cynical of soul want to hang out the tinsel and sing along with the opening Seven Joys Of Mary.
Although that opening track is a traditional choral number, the most rewarding moments come when each individual is given chance to shine. Emmylou Harris sings a perfect O Little Town Of Bethleham, backed by a beautifully seasonal brass section (why can’t all carol singers sound like this?). Even better is the delightfully jazzy What Are You Doing New Years Eve, enlivened by a typically wry vocal from Rufus.
Martha’s tracks are also superb. A cover version of Jackson Browne‘s Rebel Jesus sees some heartwarming harmonies with cousin Lily Lanken, while Merry Christmas And A Happy New Year could easily slot onto her debut album, it’s that good.
The highlight of the album though has to be Counting Stars, a Tom Waits-style spoken word piece telling the tale of a feckless father who “got in damn trouble again” and ends up alone in a bar, fighting with the locals on Christmas Day. Although Kate’s ex-husband Loudon Wainwright doesn’t appear on the album, his influence hangs heavy over this particular track.
Spotlight On Christmas sees Rufus proving that a commercial Christmas song can be written without sounding annoying after December 27th, and Il Est Ne sees the women of the family duet quite beautifully in French. It’ll make you want to gaze out the window and wish for snow when you hear it.
So if you’re looking for some musical accompaniment to put up your Christmas tree to this year, then say no to Noddy and instead let this immensely talented family be your guides through the festive season.