In our minds, O’Hooley and Tidow are linked with Kate Rusby: we really admire what Rusby does, but her music is too glum for us to ever listen to. We saw her live once and she joked about her glumness in the run-up to announcing her next song, I Am Sad. Ho ho.
Belinda O’Hooley and Heidi Tidow are not glum, just sombre. This is best seen in their cover of the Finer/MacGowan perennial Fairytale of New York, which is slow and features mainly piano. Singing the words slowly and clearly brings out the sadness in the song. There’s none of the fun-filled debauchery suggested by Shane MacGowan.
Or take their take on Richard Thompson’s We Sing Hallelujah — they remove the kazoo solos of their live shows, which might have suggested fun, and replace it with some serious brass.
Still, some people love this sound (as Rusby proves): the Guardian calls them the English answer to Anna and Kate McGarrigle. And, signed to John Tams’ and Jim Boyes’ No Masters label, they write intelligent, political lyrics to meet No Masters’ aim of being radical and political.
This is a Christmas album, sombre though it may be. We really like the opener, a cover of Steve Ashley’s Fire and Wine, which describes Christmas as “time for fire and wine” and a chance to “sing Jack Frost Away”. Fairytale of New York is excellent: never has “You’re a bum / You’re a punk / You’re an old slut on junk / Lying there almost dead on a drip on that bed” sounded so sad or so bitter.
Winter Folk Carol is an a cappella original about being lonely and away from home, inspired by hearing Irish singers in a pub in Huddersfield. Whitethorn was written for Rachel Unthank and is about O’Hooley’s great-grandmother, pregnant 17 times and noting that stillborn baby Annie was at least spared the trauma of hunger.
We hope this review persuades you to buy the album; for the first time, we’ve persuaded ourselves that something is good by the process of writing about it (not that we’re rewriting it all now).