Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Review of Cara Dillon's "Upon a Winter's Night"

I posted this review earlier this morning on the Sputnik Music website. To those who regularly read my reviews on this blog, a quick note -- I usually post these on Sputnik first, then edit them, copy them and re-post them here. Unfortunately, Sputnik has developed (another) weird quirk, which is that over the last month or do, question marks get translated on the site as double quote marks. Until tonight, I've been forgetting to fix them when I post the reviews here. So if you've been wondering about weird double quotation marks at the end of sentences that are obviously intended to be questions, sorry about that. Luckily for our friend Sia, I remembered to fix it here.

Review Summary: This is a lovely and simple album of Christmas carols with a Celtic feel, highlighted by Cara Dillon's exquisite voice.

Christmas albums get released for a variety of reasons. Of those released over the last few years, many, doubtlessly, were produced simply to make money. Others seem to come from different places. The new Gwen Stefani album, which I reviewed a week or so ago, feels like it was put out as a celebration of Stefani's relationship with country singer Blake Shelton. The new Sia album seems to have been a challenge in craftsmanship -- Sia has made her reputation as a songwriter, and this LP seems like it was made in large part as a test of her skills as a songsmith - could she create an entire album of memorable original holiday music? (The answer is, probably not.) As for the new Cheap Trick Christmas LP, I have no idea -- I just haven't had the courage to check that one out.

Irish folksinger Cara Dillon is a different kind of artist. She's virtually unknown in the U.S. outside of the Irish American community, and even in her native UK and Ireland (she's from County Londonderry in Northern Ireland), her success has been moderate -- she's made it as high on the charts as #6 in the UK for her 2014 album A Thousand Hearts, while in Ireland, her 2003 album Sweet Liberty was her biggest seller, reaching an unassuming #34. To the extent that she is known, it's mostly for traditional Celtic folk music, and for one other thing as well -- the sheer beauty of her voice. And as an artist of more humble accomplishments than pop stars such as Stefani and Sia, it makes sense that her Christmas album, Upon a Winter's Night (2016) was created from more modest motivations. In this case, the LP feels like a simple celebration of Christmas and family. It was forged in its entirety in collaboration with her husband, Sam Lakeman; one of her children, 10-year-old Noah, has a partial writing credit on the title track; and there's even a gorgeous a capella version of "Oh Holy Night" sung in harmony with her sister, folk singer Mary Dillon. 

This is a very quiet album, and in many ways a simple one. There are eleven tracks -- eight are arrangements of traditional carols and three are new originals. Highlights include her reworked version of "The Holly and the Ivy" (which, like many old carols, has more than one version -- this one features the traditional lyrics sung to a different tune, then shifts to the more familiar version for its brief instrumental outro); a slow and pretty version of "The Wexford Carol"; a traditional carol I'd never heard before, sung entirely in Gaelic, called "Rug Muire Mac Do Dhia"; and a straightforward version of "Oh Come, Oh Come, Emanuel" for just piano and voice.

Of the three originals, "Upon a Winter's Night" is an upbeat and joyful number driven largely by the Irish fiddle; "Standing By My Christmas Tree" is a love song with a vaguely country feel to it; and "Mother Mary", which ends the LP, is a soft (if somewhat repetitive) lullaby sung from the perspective of Mary singing to the infant Jesus. There's also a bouncy instrumental called "The Huntsman", which is highlighted by a call and response between the piano, the accordion, and sometimes the fiddle.

Upon a Winter's Night isn't flashy at all. It's a straightforward collection of Christmas-themed songs that seem to come straight from the heart of the Dillon family. It will appeal to fans of artists such as Loreena McKennitt, Cherish the Ladies and even Celtic Woman. If you need a break from flashing lights, jam-packed shopping malls and crass commercialization, you might find some respite here.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars