Every year, normally through the first three weeks of December, the Albion Christmas Band undertakes a festive tour; every year it pulls in the crowds with a vibrant and intelligent fresh mix of seasonally-themed material; and some years it releases a new album to coincide with the tour. Which I review for this site… Except that this year I didn't get round to allocating myself time for this pleasurable activity until the Christmas week itself. Mea culpa - but it probably wouldn't have mattered either in terms of drawing the fans to the shows or of pre-Christmas sales, since it's another joyful and thoughtful celebration of the season of such proven quality that purchase will doubtless be judged mandatory.
Certainly, each successive ACB album reminds me of how inexhaustible the treasure trove of seasonal music, and also that less is more in terms of musical arrangement. A special virtue of the ACB is the sheer simplicity and musical relevance of their settings - who needs lavish scoring and multiple choirs when just a couple of guitars, melodeon and bass give all the backing you need for a voice or two?… The ACB lineup is Kellie While, Simon Nicol, Simon Care and Ashley Hutchings - unchanged since the time of their last studio album, 2011's A Sound In The Frosty Air. It's a tried-and-tested team, and there's a distinctive and familiar comfort-and-joy quality to the ease with which they perform a wide range of seasonal material displaying a gamut of human emotion from wistful and melancholy to gently humorous. The Gower Wassail is complemented by less-often-heard traditional fare like the Hampshire Mummers' Carol and the Northamptonshire carol In Bethlehem City, while morris tradition is represented by a Headington Medley (introduced by a reminiscence of William Kimber) and an unexpected rendition of Fairytale Of New York. Contemporary song is brought on board with Kellie's fine account of Thea Gilmore's December In New York and one of those lightweight fun Hutchings/Nicol ditties, Ghost Story, while the recitation of part of an Edward Thomas poem conjoins with Mike Harding's narrative chestnut Christmas Eve 1914. This year their guest musician is Ruth Angell, who joins the foursome on violin for a number of tracks;- her contributions include the carol See, Amid The Winter Snow and a couple of co-writes with Hutchings (There's A Light Shining Over Bethlehem and Christmas Bells Begin To Chime, the latter featuring her own vocal).
Magic Touch comes in an attractively designed package resembling an advent calendar. And like its predecessors, it cannot disappoint, for it finds the ACB brand-name continuing to remind audiences of the simpler pleasures of a traditional Christmas. And its musical values aren't just for Christmas, of course; they provide lasting pleasure for the listener.
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