album review: katie melua – in winter;

This review originally appeared on The Arts Desk.

Readers of a certain type of lifestyle blog will be familiar with the concept of hygge. The Danish word, which refers to a state of cosiness and good cheer in which to survive the winter months, is nothing new – but this year, it’s popping up everywhere badged as a lifestyle trend. Hygge in 2016 is grey-knit blankets that look homemade, but which retail for £100; it’s steaming, monogrammed mugs of hot chocolate and rose-gold pillows. And it’s In Winter, Katie Melua’s collaboration with the Gori Women’s Choir – basic, yes; but there’s a reason nobody can resist the tie-in candle collaboration and coffee table book.

The story goes that Melua, who was born and grew up in Georgia before moving to the UK at the age of eight, was inspired to create a winter-themed album after she discovered a recording of the 24-piece Gori Women’s Choir, based in the Georgian city of that name. It’s an album that finds as much inspiration in the frozen Soviet landscapes of Melua’s childhood as it does in the fairylit wonderland of a Western festive period, but which – thanks in part to the warmth of her choral backing, but also to a delicate, masterful hand in the production chair from Melua herself – promises to keep the listener company into December and beyond.

The “Dreams on Fire” video (above) was filmed with the Gori Women’s Choir in the newly-restored Georgian National Opera and Ballet Theatre in Tbilisi.

Melua’s vocals play no small role in the mix; the prodigy of the “Closest Thing to Crazy” years is now gentler, smoother – fit as much to reinterpret Joni Mitchell on a languid, if unnecessary, cover of “River” as to breathe otherworldly life into her sparse Georgian folk song “Tu Ase Turpa” (“If You Are So Beautiful”). Additional instruments are kept to a minimum: delicate melodies picked out on acoustic guitar (“Plane Song”, its melody adapted from a Romanian carol and its lyrics a wealth of sepia-toned childhood memories) and, of course, the multi-layered vibrato of the choir.

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The mix of old standards and new material, bookended by two familiar festive compositions (albeit, in the case of the quietly stunning choral opener “The Little Swallow”, one that only became so by virtue of the Ukrainian song’s adoption as the basis of “Carol of the Bells”) gives the whole album the feel of something that will stand the test of time. Until then, let me recommend that you sling it on in the background to accompany your wintry hibernation.

Katie Melua plays Glasgow’s Old Fruitmarket with the Gori Women’s Choir on Saturday, 3rd December. Book tickets on Ticketmaster.

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