When making a Christmas album you're instantly treading on thin ice. There have been great examples in the past - Phil Spector's festive collection being a timeless classic, and more recently The Raveonettes' 'Wishing You A Rave Christmas' EP completely nailed it, but for the most part these releases regurgitate old songs and old ideas purely for the sake of shifting units, but it's surprising how many people will buy an album that they're only likely to play a couple of times, if that. "Alternative" bands getting in on the act can be even worse, with most pushing out cover versions or sickly throwaway rubbish. Smoke Fairies have always been a classy act though, and they're not highly acclaimed for no reason, so for them to decide on such a project means they have to (and are likely to) get it right.
Originally released a year ago but getting a wider reissue now, 'Wild Winter' doesn't fall into any of the traps that the rest fail (often deliberately to try and be "ironic) to negotiate. This quote sums up their approach: "the last thing we wanted to do was make a classic, jolly, celebratory album that can only be played once a year". First track 'Christmas Without A Kiss' sounds like it could be cheesy, but its a dark, fuzz-laden affair with a dense atmosphere and echoes of PJ Harvey as it bursts open halfway through. The production is big, but not overblown like so many festive tunes, and it very much sets the tone. 'Steal Softly Through Snow' is a touch lighter and draws upon the folk influence that some of the duo's early recordings used, but it's another that succeeds in not bowing down to tradition. And you'd never guess it was a Captain Beefheart cover... Like much of this record, lyrically it only touches on Christmas, being more a wintry song than something pinned to a specific date.
They keep things fresh by changing style slightly on more than one occasion. '3 Kings' neatly writes about the fabled men of the nativity story in an indirect way and is a more uptempo, alt-rock style number, and 'Bad Good' is similar in style and allows for some nice electric guitar work which perhaps makes it one of the most instant tunes here. The title-track is maybe the most experimental of all, starting out with a brooding, electronic, post-punk sound before switching to a more melodic chorus and then picking up the pace and evolving into sparkling, modern-sounding and luscious indie-rock. It's certainly a highlight. The trick to the success of this entire project is that it's so considered and each song is written and recorded without the merest hint of novelty.
The slower tracks like 'Give And Receive' are densely-produced but the result is potent not stodgy, as there's plenty of room for the songs to breathe and those harmonies to shine through. Talking of which, their voices are put to great use on the wonderfully melodic and spacious 'Circles In The Snow'. Piano and eerie strings lead the haunting 'Snowglobe Blizzard' which again touches on folk yet does so in a magical way that makes it surprisingly compelling. Smoke Fairies also tackle The Handsome Family's 'So Much Wine' and make it their own. At the risk of upsetting some of that band's devotees, it's perhaps better than the original thanks to a Velvets-esque drone and stately production. Emotional, grandiose closer 'All Up In The Air' again showcases the vocal talent and perfect arrangements that pepper 'Wild Winter'. There genuinely aren't many festive songs or LPs that you'd listen to at any other time of year, but thanks to Smoke Fairies, the world now has one more, and it's a blinder.
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