Angela Morley, her Orchestra and Chorus – Christmas by the Fireside 7.0

Reviewed by on 17th December, 2019

Angela Morley, her Orchestra and Chorus – Christmas by the FiresideFor decades, as late as the sixties and in some cases the seventies, the most popular radio stations in both the US and UK were dedicated to a genre that is practically unheard today – light music. With its own massive machinery of production – record companies, radio stations and star composers – it encompassed so much more than the mere throwaway elevator music or novelty records it’s often reduced to today. And it was hugely influential. Just about every Christmas album in history, and plenty of other pop music, would sound nothing like it does today if it weren’t for light music’s powerful musical and marketplace presence.

It’s everywhere. Those very clear, prominent rhythmic string sections or single, counter-melodic instruments, adding tension and colour to your Christmas arrangements, that’s pure light music. On a deeper level, so is to a large extent the very idea of having an interesting, surprising and unique musical setting for a centrally emphasised melodic line, which seems so natural to pop music today.

Arranger and band leader Angela Morley was one of the true masters of the genre. On this, her second Christmas Album, the light music is stellar, and you can feel it reverberate across Christmas music as a whole. Those falling, word painting notes that make the Doris Day version of “Snowfall” so serene? They’re borrowed straight from Angela Morley’s arrangement, which makes them even more ethereal. The idea of making Prokofieff’s “Troika” a Christmas song, as famously used in Greg Lake’s “I believe in Father Christmas”? That’s Angela Morley too. It’s fascinating to watch the master at work, taking age-old carols and overplayed standards and really trying to find their inner arrangement potential. And it’s surprisingly much more profound than you’d ever imagine it might be. It’s light music, with all the depth that term can actually mean.

This album exists in a plethora of different versions, and working out which is the definitive release is not straightforward. In the UK, where it was recorded, it was released as Christmas by the Fireside on Pye Nixa records, while in the US, it was simultaneously released as Happy Holiday – Christmas in High Fidelity and Happy Holiday – Christmas In Stereo depending on whether it was monaural or stereophonic, both on Warner Bros. The track order is the same on all versions, but I will generally link to the US-only stereo version. To compound the difficulty, the record sleeve, as well as the streaming services I link to, all use a previous, now obsolete name for the late band leader – and Spotify gets even that wrong. I am including the sleeve and links here for completeness’ sake despite this fact, at the kind advice of Angela Morley’s estate.

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How light music wrote Christmas

That this album exists in perfect hi-fi clarity, with witty contrapuntal arrangements and lovely instrumentation, is no surprise. But it take the future arranger of Scott Walker's albums to really bring a sense of wisdom to the songs as well. Some of it leans hokey, but there's a great deal of beauty to appreciate.

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