Lorna is a six-piece band hailing from Nottingham, UK. The band consists of Sharon Cohen-Rolfe (Vocals, Keys, Percussion), Matthew Harrison (Flute, Guitar, Percussion), Mark Rolfe (Vocals, Clarinet, Guitar, Percussion), Andrew Bullock (Vocals, Guitar, Banjo), Rein Ove Sikveland (Viola), and Madeline Leverton (Violin). Lorna has released their holiday album The Stars of Winnetka, which is a re-release of prior tracks along with extras that were made available in this deluxe edition. Since the album was originally released as a digital only album in 2013 on Words on Music, this deluxe edition is the first time it was made available in a physical copy, which is limited to only 100 copies. The Stars of Winnetka is composed of reinterpretations of holiday songs along with beautifully pensive originals.
The album beings with a Lorna original entitled “The First Person to Arrive.” It’s a song filled with bright guitar picked over shivering bells. Cohen and Cohen-Rolfe sing a gorgeous duet here, intimate, and subtle. Beautiful strings fill in the moments between vocals. Woodwinds also join the mix, creating warm tones alongside the stings. Cohen and Cohen-Rolfe sing
Ask me to enter quietly
from sacred dusty roads
travelers from afar
sing songs from times gone by
snow begins to fall
I discover who you are
The song feels personal, warm, and inviting. “Hannukah” is another original song on the album which includes special guest Marc Ostemeier (Should) on guitar. The arrangement is dreamy and carefully composed with an almost Low feel to it but with far more instrumentation. Cohen and Cohen-Rolfe sing “Christmas was coming/and so was Hanukah/You are the answer/the city lights go on/I wanted this Christmas to be Hannakah”. Winter winds blow in the background of the music while woodwinds and guitars complement the vocals.
“Kuskova” begins with bright organ and then the entire band bursts into the speakers. This is Lorna strutting their dreampop sensibilities and it’s perfection. The string work in this track is exceptional, really accenting the bass and percussion throughout the beautiful bridge. Also, the tones and textures that populate the composition throughout really create a sonic floor that undergirds the more intricate instrumentation. “Little Donkey” is Lorna’s take on a British children’s song. It most certainly has a traditional feel but with a Lorna flair with subtle sonic touches, bells, and sparse percussion and bass. “Shalom Chavarim” (Peace to Friends) is a Hebrew hymn which has an acoustic introduction with Cohen-Rolfe’s angelic voice singing in Hebrew. Tambourine and woodwind instruments join in with spare drum work. The traditional elements in this track are beautiful and easily recognizable.
“Building Beautiful Buildings (The Excited Reindeer Mix)” is a mid-tempo piece that was once a slowcore piece from one of their original albums. Along with the tempo change, it has been sprinkled with bells and has a time-keeping piano in the mix. Again, Cohen-Rolfe brings this otherworldly vocal to the mix. Spacey synths also dot the composition with vibrating, almost ghostlike sounds to compliment the woodwind parts. “Snowsong (2010)” is another song from a former album and rather than speed up the tempo, Lorna strips it down to piano and changes the lead vocalist from Rolfe to Cohen-Rolfe. There is a deep sense of longing here with Rolfe answering back Cohen-Rolfe’s verses. “Snowlights” has an ambient fuzzed out drone in it with light percussion and shimmering work on the cymbals. This track was written by Rolfe with Jason Gough of Coastal in mind. It is a steady, plodding piece that showcases Cohen-Rolfe’s ambient side within the framework of Lorna’s more structured pieces. Sikveland’s viola work is also quite beautiful here, sitting in the seams of the soundscapes alongside work on the clarinet, which I’m figuring is Rolfe’s part. The original release ends with “Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming” and it has a choral feel, with bass, viola, clarinet, and flute taking the soprano-alto-tenor-bass parts of a choir arrangement. Hand bells give the piece a very seasonal flavor. Cohen-Rolfe sings both the alto and soprano, Rolfe the tenor portion, and Bullock on bass.
“Like John Candy” has a jazzy, swing feel to it in that twee-pop style. Drums and bass drive the arrangement with Rolfe-Cohen’s voice singing oh so wistfully as she demonstrates her ability at pop sensibility. Once the chorus hits, there is a Sufjan Stevens vibe here with that full choral vocal over intricate pop. Further, the guitar work here is splendid with wonderful tone choices. “Like Alistair Sim” begins with a hum that goes in and out of the speaks as if to circle your head. The guitar work is bright and compliments Rolfe and Cohen-Rolfe’s dual vocals. The build in the mix of instruments is careful and slow until the drums bring a release that moves the band into a steady structured pace. “Snowfall 2” begins with Rolfe singing with a guitar. He is eventually joined by Cohen-Rolfe, some textured sound, organ, and strings. This song reminds me a bit of Club 8 or, perhaps, Viva Voce. It is simple dreampop but at the same time has intricacies that make the arrangement far more complex than it initially sounds. Little touches in between phrasings and off kilter bass work as strings playfully dance really bring this track to life. Flute joins in eventually and adds another layer as the track beings to head towards its conclusion.
“Snow in Bethlehem” is a mid-tempo bass and drum driven piece. I cannot lavish enough praise on Lorna’s ability to utilize textures and tones in the backgrounds of their arrangements. On the surface, their writing always seems simple until you really listen and follow the individual, deep pieces in the track. Just gorgeous gems float around behind the percussion, bass, guitar, and strings. There is even a moment of spoken word storytelling here. “Christmas Vacation – the First Person to Arrive” begins with the theme song to the movie Christmas Vacation. It’s an acoustic pairing with their “The First Person to Arrive” song from the beginning of the album. Honestly, I laughed aloud when Rolfe started singing the lyrics because I instantly recognized the movie theme. It transitions nicely to their more serious song, making it fit and a part of their own work. The final track of on the deluxe edition is “Like Alistair Sim (Silverman Remix)”. The remix has more ambient textures with bright bells or xylophone and the original vocals laying on top. This moves into a techno beat with rumbling bass and swirling percussion. Some vocals are then reversed. It’s a masterful remix and a wonderful addition to the album.
Lorna’s The Stars of Winnetka’s initial list of tracks is not new to fans of the band but every one of them should become a part of your holiday listening selections. The sparse, beautiful arrangements of this album only serve to compliment the gorgeous vocals. The newer songs are equally beautiful and timely, bringing out different elements of the band and highlighting their ability to mix dreampop sensibilities with traditional forms. If you can still get a physical copy of this album, do so. If not, download it immediately. The Stars of Winnetka is a glorious holiday album that blends slowcore, dream-pop, choral elements, and ambient sensibilities with superb results.