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Ronan Keating's second album of 2009 sees the Boyzone vocalist covering a selection of his favourite festive-flavoured songs, each special to the artist. In his words, this collection conjures some of his "favourite Christmas memories".
While Keating - a solid singer, with a warmth and richness to his voice that conveys a sincerity often absent in his pop peers - doesn't quite make the covers his own, the picks are much more interesting than most records of a similar pop-does-Santa slant. This, you feel, is not simply a seasonal money spinner. The variety of tracks is such that it could only have come together with Keating taking a very active, personal role in its compiling.
A pair of new Keating originals - Scars and It's Only Christmas - are unlikely to become festive favourites in the vein of some of his other numbers here, most obviously the traditional picks. But they suit the mood of the album well. While this is a celebratory affair, of sorts, it's also shot through with melancholy. Christmas, after all, arrives at one of the bleakest times of year, and some of these songs would be well matched with imagery of snow-blasted scenery and lonely souls left in the cold while those on the other side of iced-over windowpanes exchange gifts beside a roaring fire.
The title track is an auspicious opener. Penned by American singer Sara Bareilles and with subtle but effective backing vocals from Tracy Ackerman, its slightness - little more than piano and occasional flourishes of strings - sets a tone somewhat removed from expectations. Understated, elegant and underpinned by a real yearning in Keating's vocal, it's a fine first effort on a set that rarely misfires.
Ultimately, Winter Songs succeeds through never overdoing things - where some would pump their covers full of pomp and ceremony, of a sort perceived to suit the season in question, Keating and his collaborators exercise appealing restraint. Joni Mitchell's River is tackled with care, its delicateness recognised and never threatened, Jingle Bells echoes intact but not emphasised above all else. Little Drummer Boy drags its heels a little, but the vocal interplay between Keating and the late Stephen Gately is excellent, as you'd expect from singers who'd worked alongside each other for several years.
An unassuming festive collection, Winter Songs' gentle modesty might well make it the best example of its kind in 2009.