Kimmie Rhodes may be best known for her album of duets with Willie Nelson, Picture In A Frame, and it was Nelson who provided the inspiration for this album of mostly original Christmas songs when, years ago, she watched him opening packages of platinum records for various covers of his seasonal favourite "Pretty Paper".
She decided there and then to write a "holiday song" every year, and Miracles On Christmas Day is the result, a charming collection containing more great new Christmas songs than I've heard on one album since Low's wonderful 1999 offering, Christmas.
Part of its appeal resides in Rhodes' voice, soft as a snowflake on a child's face; there's a touch of Emmylou Harris in its purity, but Harris's austere clarity is replaced by a more forgiving timbre here, entirely in keeping with the album's general theme of kindness and charity. But equally important are the arrangements within which it's set: compared to the usual bluster and fake bonhomie routinely ladled over Christmas albums, these settings of folksy textures are imaginatively devised to bring the best out of the songs. There may be sleigh bells and twinkly glockenspiels dotted here and there, but rather than used as crass foreground signals of enforced jollity, they're woven into the arrangements in such a way that you may not notice them at first, so comfortably do they sit amongst the drone of hurdy-gurdy and patina of subtle percussive textures on songs like "Sleep Baby Sleep" and "The Toymaker's Hands".
The imaginative subtlety of the instrumentation is most obvious on two of the cover versions. Set to the "Greensleeves" melody, "What Child Is This" features a lengthy intro of warm-timbred cello, flute and guitar, before Rhodes' voice soars angelically against the glacial tones of theremin and glass harmonica. The latter instrument also appears on an entrancing arrangement of the lilting East European "Carol Of The Bells", underscoring her multi-tracked harmonies alongside chimes and strings.
But it's Rhodes' own material that is the star here, from the languid blues croon and clarinet of "Little Touch Of Christmas", to the philanthropic spirit hymned in "The Christmas Star" and "Miracles On Christmas Day" itself, with its message that "Giving hands reach out to make a miracle on Christmas Day". And in at least a couple of cases, she has succeeded in writing songs that deserve to become standard parts of the seasonal repertoire. "One More White Christmas" has an exquisite, yearning melody, and her understated delivery has an inbuilt hush about it that imparts its own warmth and sense of calm, while "Angel Unawares" takes a downbeat milieu of hard-up barflies and homeless bums, and deftly draws from it a heartwarming, Capra-esque lesson about unprompted kindnesses: "Once I read it in the good book/Give every stranger's face a good look/You never know when you might meet an angel unawares". It's enough to bring James Stewart back from the brink of suicide.
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