By Alyssa Palombo
After a prolific career that has seen her release 10 studio albums over a period of 17 years, pianist/composer/singer Tori Amos has finally released a Christmas album entitled Midwinter Graces. It is a healthy mix of original songs and traditional favorites—with a “Tori twist,” of course.
Of the 14 songs on the bonus track edition, five are written solely by Amos. The first of these, “A Silent Night With You,” is a sweet, tender holiday love song that describes a relationship which has seen many years go by. “Now or then, I just want to spend a silent night with you,” Amos sings over piano and strings.
The next original, “Snow Angel,” features a simple and pretty piano part, over which Amos sings of the year’s first snowfall. This stripped-down ballad does nothing to initially grab the listener’s attention, yet on closer inspection it perfectly evokes a peaceful winter night.
“Pink and Glitter,” another original, is a bold, jazzy track, complete with a full brass section. Its lyrics emphasize the importance of finding happiness independent of material possessions: “Our joy isn’t about a present/or a grown up motor toy.”
The song “Winter Carol,” which is from Amos’s in-progress musical entitled “The Light Princess,” features a haunting piano and string part, which is its best characteristic. Interestingly enough, the song, which celebrates the coming of winter, also contains several references to pagan mythology and symbolism which those familiar with Amos’s work will not be surprised to hear. “Our New Year,” the last of the original songs and one of the album’s standouts, finds Amos singing plaintively of past heartbreak, and the hope that the new year will be better: “Every corner that I turn/I’ve convinced myself one day you’ll be there/Choruses of ‘Auld Lang Syne’/Could this be the year?/Yours and mine.”
Amos’s fans are no doubt not at all surprised by the fact that she chose mostly lesser-known Christmas songs to arrange and record, adding new lyrics to almost all of them. The first track, “What Child, Nowell” finds Amos creating a hybrid of “What Child Is This” and “The First Noel,” rewriting the melodies a bit and adding some new lyrics over piano and harpsichord. “Star of Wonder,” which tells the story of the three kings that sought the Christ child, gets a Middle Eastern twist, courtesy of carefully arranged synthesizers and percussion.
“Candle: Coventry Carol” finds its haunting melody set against a backdrop of brass, drums and wind instruments, as well as the ever-present piano, and features a guest appearance by vocalist Kelsey Dobyns. “Holly, Ivy, and Rose” sees Amos team up for a duet with her nine-year old daughter, Natashya.
On “Harps of Gold,” Amos embeds the familiar Christmas theme of “Gloria in excelsis Deo” within a set of original lyrics: “I’ll show you how it’s done/You’ll smile through the pain/Sweetly singing over the plain/Gloria, Gloria in excelsis Deo.”
“Jeanette, Isabella,” is another lesser-known, yet beautiful, Christmas folk song to which Amos brings new life. The relatively simple arrangement of piano, harpsichord, acoustic guitar and light percussion sets off the gorgeous melody to great effect. “Emmanuel” gets a similar treatment, with Amos letting the dark, haunting melody do most of the song’s heavy lifting.
The two bonus tracks, “Comfort and Joy” and “Silent Night,” feature simply Amos and her hope, with Amos staying mostly on the left side of the keyboard. Her rendition of “Silent Night,” however, is beautifully simple, and brings the album to a close on a high note.
Midwinter Graces is a fresh and well-done effort which is sure to please Amos’s fans. However, those looking for a more traditional Christmas album had best look elsewhere, for if there is one thing that Tori Amos is not and has never been it’s traditional.