Imagine the surprise to find that a holiday album is Amos' best work in years.
Title: Midwinter Graces
Label: Universal Republic
US Release Date: 2009-11-10
UK Release Date: 2009-11-09
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. For some reason, it took a holiday album for her to transcend the pitfalls that have marked her last few albums -- releasing over-long albums with uneven song quality and splotchy production has been a familiar refrain with critics and fans of her work alike. But Midwinter Graces is 12 tracks long, a perfect length, and most of the production is spot-on. Gone is the dreaded AutoTune that botched some of the songs on Amos' last original album, Abnormally Attracted to Sin. Gone, for the most part, are the overly-layered backing vocals that cluttered the sonic landscapes of many a song on Amos' past four releases.
As for the Jesus Freak bit, that's an especially intriguing question given Amos' career-long unraveling of Christianity. Refreshingly, she opted to remove most of the Jesus references even from the traditional carols on the album, and the five originals are served well by staying secular (aside from the decidedly pagan "Winter's Carol"). While this is a holiday album that's hard not to love, it is also very much a Tori Amos album. Take, for instance, the album opener "What Child, Nowell". In typical Amos fashion, carols' histories were researched and a song combining "What Child Is This?" and "The First Noel" (as it was spelled originally) was born. This song also features Amos' first use of the harpsichord in quite some time, and fans should rejoice over that, whatever their opinion of the chorus's sleigh bells.
The other traditional carols face similar reimagining at Amos's hands. "Star of Wonder" is a Middle Eastern-inflected "We Three Kings" with a soaring chorus. In fact, the only clunker is "Harps of Gold", namely based on "Hark! the Herald Angels Sing". It is definitely a cringe-able offense that Amos chose to have her nine-year-old daughter sing on "Holly, Ivy, and Rose", but that moment is fortunately brief and actually cute.
Midwinter Graces also contains five originals. While "A Silent Night With You" is far from Amos' best work, the others more than make up for it. Take, for example, the all-out big band "Pink and Glitter". It's a spot-on retro hit that will charm both young listeners and those old enough to remember big band's first pass through pop culture. Other songs, like "Snow Angel", are more typical of Amos's standards: "Snow angel, snow angel, snow angel / She'll make her way / And she'll stay for a time, for a time."
Enough praise, however, cannot be heaped on the Amos original "Winter's Carol". Featuring her trademark piano, poetic lyrics, and expressive vocals, this song is a masterpiece among her oeuvre, especially when considering only her post-2002 work. Though Amos invites another relative -- her niece -- onto guest vocals, her niece can sing, and her voice sounds fantastic harmonizing with Amos's. "Winter's Carol" is the penultimate song on the album, and it bleeds into the lovely original closer "Our New Year". In this song, Amos seemingly picks up where "Toast", a 2005 song dedicated to her departed brother, left off. The gently building symphonic arrangements (skillfully done by John Philip Shenale, who deserves special recognition for the whole album) complement Amos's lament "You're not here / You're not there", turning Christmas into a typically Tori Amos bittersweet affair.
Ultimately, only the biggest Scrooge or Amos cynic could fail to be moved by such an album, which is hopefully a harbinger of all things musical to come from Amos.