Release Date: Nov 10, 2009
Record label: Universal Republic
Genre(s): Rock, Alternative
Whenever an artist releases a Christmas album, it is understandably received with more than a bit of trepidation. Will it be a diluted version of that artist’s talent buried under tinsel and sentimentality? Will a rock star suddenly sound like a Jesus freak in the spirit of the holiday season? Those fears—and more—were certainly in effect upon first listen to Tori Amos’ Midwinter Graces. Imagine, then, the surprise to find that a holiday album is Amos’ best work in years.
Asticker on the CD case advises that this is Amos's first "seasonal" album – presumably, the piano-based gothic sprite doesn't make conventional old Christmas albums. Midwinter Graces is surprisingly straightforward, however: some new songs, some traditional carols (adapted by Amos, who has excised some of the Christianity from the lyrics and added words of her own, as on A Silent Night With You) and a minimum of eccentricity. Accordingly, it's her most touching album in years: centre stage is given to her voice and the simple arrangements, which feature harpsichord and flugelhorn (Pink and Glitter, a blaring big-band number with vamped-up vocals, comes as a bit of a shock, albeit a pleasant one).
Christmas albums are tricky business. Many artists seem attracted to the Christmas song for some reason, but few albums (compilations or otherwise) are anything more than curiosities. These are impulse purchases, things you think sound interesting but will probably listen to only once before realizing you don't really want to hear The Flaming Lips singing a holiday tune or Twisted Sister rocking around the Christmas tree or Bob Dylan croaking out "Silver Bells" while you enjoy your holiday ham.
Holiday albums are generally dismissed quite quickly. Even if one is to yield a holiday radio staple on a par with the Waitresses’ ‘Christmas Wrapping’ or Wham!’s ‘Last Christmas,’ (and let's face it, when did one do that?) it’s to be assumed that the rest of the album is little more than a cash cow. So much the worse in a year that has seen the release of Bob Dylan’s laughable Christmas in the Heart; all other artists are doomed to have mention of their seasonal project immediately succeeded by, 'Hey, have you heard about the Bob Dylan Christmas album?' If you doubt the veracity of this fact, try referencing any holiday music by a contemporary artist in conversation.
She may be the daughter of a reverend, but Tori Amos never seemed the likeliest candidate for a Christmas album; she might sing about "God", but her music always seemed secular and never seasonal, but in a year that brought holiday albums by Bob Dylan and Sting, it makes perfect sense that Tori should deliver one, too. Amos' entry, Midwinter Graces, may be as unlikely as Dylan's, but it's closer in tenor to Sting's: it's deliberately reserved and chilly, capturing the wintriness of the season while studiously avoiding the joy. Tori reworks many familiar carols, tweaking lyrics and pushing them together into a medley, so they sound quite similar to the newly written tunes that comprise the rest of the record.
Famously idiosyncratic songwriter continues mid-career slump with album of holiday songs Given that holiday-themed releases are just a step above albums of pop standards on the continuum slumping toward creative irrelevancy, Midwinter Graces presents a career crossroads for Tori Amos. Having long wandered between pagan and Christian themes, here Amos attempts to combine the familiar spirit of well-known Christmas carols with Winter Solstice mysticism but eventually sinks into the same sentimentality and overproduction that often mars her more conventional projects. Struggling to stick to the script, her rendition of “Star of Wonder” starts off shrouded in a haze of pattering hand drums and darkly snaking strings but eventually gets lost in an overstated chorus.