Tracey Thorn’s voice would be sultry if it weren’t so sensitive. Thorn and Ben Watt, whose fragile tenor worked in tender contrast with his partner’s rich vocals, made up Everything but the Girl. Their sound developed from a spare chamber pop in the early 1980s, to lush arrangements of mid-career heights like Baby Don’t the Stars Shine Bright, to a revived career in 1990s electronica. But the pop craft that made them soar fell by the wayside during the electronic years, and Thorn’s solo work since then has never reached me. I didn’t think Thorn and company would ever grab me again like they did with Idlewild. But Tinsel and Lights, a mix of holiday-themed covers and originals, is a return to form.
This being Tracey Thorn, Tinsel and Lights is less a celebratory jingle jangle for Christmas but a melancholy “Joy,” the title of one of Thorn’s new originals. The holidays are not just a time of parties and presents, but a time of reflection on Christmases past. As she sings, “The carols make you cry.” Thorn doesn’t let you forget that Christmas time is the darkest of the year.
The melancholy is not only Thorn’s. Her well-chosen covers are arranged as they would have been for a prime EBTG record. “Like a Snowman,” which Stephen Merritt wrote for drag cabaret act Kiki and Herb, is one of those rare Merritt covers whose sincerity improves upon the auteur’s ironic distance. Thorn’s most ambitious coup may be the second track. “Hard Candy Christmas” suits her aesthetic so well you’d hardly guess it was originally a Dolly Parton song from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. “I’m barely getting through tomorrow/But still I won’t let sorrow/Get me way down.” One of the most dramatic recastings is also one of the most heartbreakingly gorgeous tunes on the album, Randy Newman’s “Snow.”
The arrangements are mostly spare, featuring Thorn on guitar and piano with occasional strings and tasteful accompaniment (Idlewild bassist Steve Pearce contributes to the vintage EBTG mood). Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside (whose “Sun in Snow” Thorn covers) also appears in a duet on Low’s “Taking Down the Tree.” Less successful is Jack White’s “Cold Cold Night,” set in a tame blues that doesn’t much suit her voice. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” would seem a natural for Thorn, but its perennial melancholy doesn’t rise to the heights of the less familiar material. The title original, “Tinsel and Lights,” is a mournful first-person story of a New York Christmas, a sad reminder of what one hopes will be a recovered city by the holidays.