O’Hooley & Tidow – WinterFolk, Vol. 1
No Masters – 17 November 2017
There is something brave, perhaps even foolhardy, in the notion of a ‘Christmas album’. The very idea of Christmas can be a troublesome one for artists to explore. There is a wish to celebrate tradition, but in an increasingly secular world that tradition does not really exist, or rather it has been co-opted or in some cases created by the market. Our idea of a traditional family Christmas is made up of a combination of personal or family mythology, a tiny bit of diluted Christianity, Coca-Cola and a badger bouncing on a trampoline. The attempts of musicians to capture the essence of Christmas in an album-length release are often sincere but ultimately fruitless. Sometimes (and I’m looking at you here, Bob Dylan) they can be frankly embarrassing. And there are further difficulties: Christmas albums can be a massive commercial gamble. It takes some mean marketing to get people to shell out for something they can only really listen to for two weeks every year.
But, for millions of people, there is something magical about the season. What that magic consists of is elusive because it is unique to every person, or at least to every family. And the idea of family is important here: for many people, the Christmas holiday season is about enjoying things communally, about preserving personal traditions that are often esoteric in a spirit of togetherness, about creating a shared warmth at a cold time of year. And that is why the idea of a ‘winter album’ rather than a ‘Christmas album’ is appealing: it allows the artist to focus on the feelings associated with this time of year without being subject to its limiting factors. And that is exactly what Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow have achieved with WinterFolk Volume 1. This is a collection of songs – some new, some very old – that are linked by the common theme of Winter but more importantly linked by a love of the communal act of music making, and of the stories, the feelings and the memories that can be conjured up by that act.
Nowhere is this sentiment more apparent than in the Steve Ashley song Fire and Wine (from his 1974 album Stroll On), originally recorded by Anne Briggs in 1971. It is a celebration of the warmth of companionship, of bright spots in harsh landscapes, and of simple pleasures shared. And in O’Hooley and Tidow’s hands, it becomes a sparkling, stately midwinter dream. Critical to the song’s success is the way it recognises the hardship of the season – the timeless image of the hungry robin, ‘see-sawing in one half of a coconut shell’, the cruelty of December frosts – without which the warmth and festivity would mean nothing.
Fire and Wine is one of a scattering of perfectly pitched cover versions. We are also treated to a rousing, playful take on Richard Thompson’s We Sing Hallelujah, one of the greatest and most unsentimental of ‘turning of the year’ songs (as opposed to Christmas songs). It is a kind of secular carol, full of working-class existential doubt and brusque but ambiguous lyrics that don’t stop it from being perhaps the jolliest song on this album.
And then, of course, there is The Fairytale of New York, the Mount Everest of Christmas songs. Its original incarnation is rightly acknowledged as a near-perfect marriage of unique songwriting and impassioned performance, to such an extent that to attempt a new version seems like something of a fool’s errand. But O’Hooley and Tidow get around that by remaking the song very much in their own style, stretched out over a backdrop of gorgeous, minimal piano, and eschewing the song’s famous bawdiness in favour of a gentle, weary, hopeful tone, where the harsh humour of the words is hidden by a frosty twinkle.
If anything, the pair’s own compositions are even more impressive their interpretations of others’. O’Hooley was a founder member of The Unthanks (then called Rachel Unthank and the Winterset) and contributed the song Whitethorn to their second album, The Bairns. It is a masterful and heartbreaking piece of songwriting and is revisited here with an even more delicate touch than in the original. The song’s subject – O’Hooley’s Irish great-grandmother, who was forced to bury her stillborn children in unconsecrated ground – is drawn with an incredibly moving, sombre simplicity.
The Last Polar Bear is a recomposition, this time of a song co-written by O’Hooley and Tidow (from The Fragile, 2012), and is a clever, heartfelt exploration of isolation and love, and how the two can function alongside each other. The quietly majestic Calling Me hails from the same period and tackles similar themes. When the glacial piano and orchestration swells over the single word, ‘you’, cried like a plea, it brings with it the feeling that you have reached the simple, beautiful heart of the album.
Two more originals – One More Xmas and Winter Folk Carol – look at the season from unusual, difficult points of view. The first is an honest account of domestic violence and features a bittersweet flugelhorn solo from Jude Abbott of Chumbawamba. The second is a new song. It is sung largely unaccompanied and manages in just over three minutes to encompass themes as varied as immigration, loneliness and the importance of friendship and family.
Many of the songs on WinterFolk are folk songs only in the loosest sense -O’Hooley and Tidow have never been constrained by little things like the boundaries of genre. You are as likely to find traces of classical composition as the timeworn tropes of traditional song (Ben Walker’s string arrangements are outstanding), and this refreshing approach means that even the oldest songs bear the imprint of the duo’s distinctive stamp. Wexford Lullaby has its roots in the 12th century, but here, in a version that takes its cue from John Renbourn and Jackie Oates, sounds thrillingly timeless. The five-hundred-year-old Coventry Carol gets an instrumental reworking for piano and is breathtaking in its delicacy. It could almost be a piece by Debussy, Chopin or Yann Tiersen. A bilingual Stille Nacht – a nod to Tidow’s German heritage – can rarely have been performed with such grace.
The beauty and importance of this album lies partly in the fact that O’Hooley and Tidow recognise that an appreciation of this time of year – whether you want to call it Christmastime or not – is based on both personal and universal factors. There is the Christmas of public consciousness and, to borrow a phrase from that underwhelming Bob Dylan album, a Christmas in the heart. WinterFolk Volume 1 succeeds in uniting these factors while never sidestepping the important and often unsavoury social issues that come to the fore in the holiday season. Much more than just a stocking filler, this is an album of frosted beauty with a heart as warm as a coal fire.
Winterfolk Vol 1 is Out Now
Belinda and Heidi are touring Winterfolk through December.
Winterfolk Tour Dates
01 CHESTER St Mary’s Creative Space
02 HEBDEN BRIDGE Wadsworth Community Centre
08 BRISTOL FolkHouse
09 MACHYNLLETH Museum of Modern Art
10 CLYNNOG FAWR The Barn
13 ELY Maltings (guests of Boo Hewerdine’s Xmas Show)
14 NEWCASTLE Cumberland Arms
15 SHEFFIELD Greystones
16 MATLOCK Imperial Rooms
17 LEWES Union Music @ Con Club
18 LONDON Nunhead Ivy House
21 BURY The Met
22 YORK Thorganby Village Hall
23 HUDDERSFIELD Slaithwaite Civic Hall
Tickets & details ohooleyandtidow.com