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Cara Dillon Cara Dillon
Album: Upon A Winter's Night
Label: Charcoal
Tracks: 11

Where are this year's seasonal offerings? Thin on the ground, certainly, for this is the first I've received! And I'm pleased to report that it's a good one, albeit not quite what one casual glance at the tracklist might betoken. Cara's poised, controlled, customarily slightly breathy voice is ideal for this material, which is a healthy mixture comprising seven traditional Christmas hymns (mostly not well-known, thus very welcome guests at the festive feast) and four original compositions (three songs and one energy-fuelled instrumental piece, a galloping jig The Huntsman).

The overall tone of the album is soft and gentle, but not necessarily meek and mild. For there's both a pleasing sense of momentum and a tasteful thoughtfulness to the simple arrangements, which in addition to husband Sam Lakeman's guitar and piano feature some excellent fiddle from Niall Murphy, plus accordion (Luke Daniels), uilleann pipes/flute/whistle (Jarlath Henderson), bouzouki (James Fagan), bass (Ben Nicholls) and guitar (John Smith) and guest vocals from Sam's dad Geoff on The Holly And The Ivy.

In contrast to the more fully-scored settings, O Come O Come Emmanuel, on which Cara is accompanied solely by Sam's piano, is altogether more pensive, as is the disc's likely highlight, a beauteous a cappella rendition by Cara, in duet with her elder sister Mary, of the little-known hymn O Holy Night, and the ensuing lovely settings of Mary Bore A Son To God (sung in Gaelic) and The Darkest Midnight. All four of these items neatly exemplify the album's ostensible manifesto, where "the story of Jesus' birth is retold with genuine wonder and celebrated with the dignity, passion and beauty it deserves".

This is a world away from the predictable sentimental tedium of modern-day crooning, screaming and commercialism, conjured by Cara and Sam's genuine affection for the season and all the joys it can bring for those not too jaded to look afresh at its meaning. The couple's original song Standing By The Christmas Tree neatly sidesteps any sentimentality in spite of its very obvious musical references, as does album closer, the self-penned lullaby Mother Mary. So if you desire to experience "the other side of Christmas" and peacefully celebrate its mystery and wonder, then look no further than this refreshingly understated, delicately beautiful offering from Cara and Sam.

David Kidman