Delightful Seasonal offering from the Guv’nor – Ashley Hutchings – guaranteed to stop Christmas from misfiring
Release Date: 20th November 2020
Label: Talking Elephant Records
As COVID continues to wreak its trail of havoc across our increasingly desolate land, the last thing I expected was that Christmas would come early this year. It has, in the form of this delightful offering from Ashley Hutchings – the Guv’nor – and his collaborators Becky Mills and Blair Dunlop.
For the past twenty-something years, The Albion Christmas Show has been a major feature of many peoples’ pre-Christmas rituals (mine included) but, for reasons we all understand, that won’t be the case this year. But despair not; A Midwinter Miscellany offers welcome cheering consolation that will, without doubt, prevent the Christmas of many a devotee of good music from misfiring.
Recorded during lockdown at Ashley’s home in Derbyshire, A Midwinter Miscellany is a lovely album. Vividly evocative, it oozes peace, contentment, restfulness and warmth. It’s the perfect Christmas dressing, to sit alongside the Christmas tree and the blazing fire and it will be seeing heavy rotation at our house during the coming festive season.
The album is a true collaboration and whilst Ashley sits at the heart of the operation (he is composer or co-composer of six of the album’s thirteen tracks) the album is brought fully to life by the contributions of Becky and Blair. Blair Dunlop probably requires little introduction to At The Barrier regulars. He’s Ashley’s son and they’ve worked regularly together on a number of projects and he’s released four highly acclaimed solo albums, most recently 2018’s Notes From An Island. He’s a talented songwriter and guitarist and he’s blessed with a pretty marvelous singing voice. Becky Mills has also collaborated with Ashley on several projects, including Ashley’s Shakespeare To Sonnets and Fairport Beginnings shows and on the 2008 Paradise and Thorns album. She’s a terrific singer with a voice that pleasingly hints at her North Yorkshire origins, an excellent guitarist and a truly magnificent songwriter.
To anyone who has come across any of Ashley’s many previous ‘themed’ productions – from Rattlebone and Ploughjack onwards – the format of A Midwinter Miscellany will be familiar ground. It’s an entertaining mélange of songs and spoken word which all come together to paint a vivid picture of the winter season. We’ve got quotes and extracts from poems and prose by Christopher Smart, George Elliot, Kenneth Grahame, William Makepeace Thackeray, Angela Carter and GK Chesterton, as well as Ashley’s own work, some put to music and some spoken. There’s also a generous dollop of new music from the three collaborators; all great songs and all tastefully and sympathetically delivered.
We kick off with an Ashley recitation of Smart’s Crocus Poem, which leads into Becky’s first song, Crocuses. The subject of desolation and loss, followed by the emergence of new life is one that recurs throughout the album and the song, a gentle acoustic piece, sets the winter mood.
One of the album’s outstanding features is the way that new songs have been interpreted to make them sound like long-established and well-loved traditional songs, and Raggle-Taggle Lad is a great example of this, as is closing track Christmas Wreath.
Her Name Was Mary, a song by Ashley and Blair, is truly outstanding. Its lyric, about the nature and purpose of the Guiding Star is intriguing and Blair’s delivery really draws the listener in. For Animals Carol, Becky takes words from Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows and adds her own tune to construct a wonderful song that she sings beautifully. Ashley continues the animal theme with Hibernation, a charming poem that expresses envy of the ability of small animals to defeat the tribulations of winter by sleeping through the whole thing. It even manages to rhyme “party or six” with “go to the flicks!” Wonderful!
Three Angels is a 1950s song that has been expanded by Ashley: it’s cheerful, Christmassy and great fun. Becky’s Sweet November was specially commissioned for the album and features wonderfully interweaving guitars and vocals from Becky and Blair.
Mahogany Tree is another of the album’s outstanding songs. A Thackeray poem, set to music by Blair’s mother, Judy Dunlop, it’s presented here as a duet between mother and son with Blair playing a wonderfully sympathetic guitar part that provides the perfect foundation for Judy’s passionate vocal. Not to be outdone, Ashley then chips in with Silence Of Snow, perhaps the most evocative song on an album that bursts with winter images. I’m not a particular lover of snow, but the words made even a humbug like me nostalgic for the silence and whiteness of a snowy night and for the childhood thrill that we’ve all experienced when we wake up to a snow-covered landscape.
And we’re still not done. Ancient Midwinter Customs, an Angela Carter piece, read aloud by Ashley, includes some wonderful descriptions of the ‘Bleak Midwinter’ and explores pagan winter rituals and The Christ Child Lay on Mary’s Knee, sung and played by Becky is simply beautiful.
As you’ll have gathered, I love this album, and I believe that many others will too. I’ll be placing it alongside the other albums that constitute my regular Christmas soundtrack (A Christmas Present From The Albion Band and john Kirkpatrick’s Carolling & Crumpets to name but two) – that’s all the ingredients I’ll be needing to reclaim my Christmas. Compliments of the Season, one and all!
Watch the video for Sweet November from the album Here: