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Blogcritics’ Mark Saleski weighs in on Midwinter Graces, declaring it one of the two holiday records of 2009 that are worth adding to your collection. The other? You, you guessed it: Bob Dylan’s Christmas In The Heart.
Thanks to Mark-Alexis for catching this one!
Thanks to Kevin Martin for catching MusicOMH’s review of Midinwter Graces, snuggled into their holiday album guide. While they generally have nice things to say about the release, they ultimately find it lacking a spark for repeated listens.
The Times’ short review of Midwinter Graces appeared in the December 20th edition of this venerable newspaper but reviewer Dan Cairns’ opinion is less than stellar — although he at least recognizes Tori’s tack with creating the album.
From The Sunday Times
December 20, 2009
2 stars out of 5
A Christmas album by an artist who spent much of her early career skewering institutionalised religion (and once, unforgettably, sang about pleasuring herself while her family sang hymns downstairs) was always going to be an interesting proposition; and interesting is probably the kindest thing to be said about it. Amos opts to tinker with, rather than upend, the classics — We Three Kings, Coventry Carol, The Holly and the Ivy and the like — of the canon (alongside five of her own songs), for the most part failing either to subvert them or to improve on their innate beauty. The sense, which has grown of late, that Amos lacks a self-edit button — or someone who will say to her, “Oi, Amos, no!” — is less insistent. For once, though, more recklessness might have been welcome on an album that is occasionally lovely, but turgid for all that.
Tori Amos has released a Christmas, or as she frames it a “solstice” album, entitled Midwinter Graces, and whilst the majority of people who celebrate Christmas and buy Christmas themed albums probably do so in the middle of winter, I live in Australia and was sitting outside on a park bench under a clear blue sky in sweltering heat when I first listened to this. So I suppose I wasn’t exactly in the perfect mood or mindset for reviewing a winter themed Christmas album. Nevertheless I enjoyed it.
Christmas carols, by nature, are mostly pretty schmaltzy. So it’s probably merciful that we only have to be subjected to them once a year. Even so, I think it would be a bit too harsh to relegate this album to the ranks of those that might be played in a shopping mall adorned with plastic decorations and tacky tinsel, with a fat fake-Santa and a display of little people dressed as elves frolicking through faux snow. I think Amos has done a fairly interesting job of reinterpreting these well-known traditional songs and adding five of her own originals.
There are parts of this album that are genuinely beautifully done and affecting. “Snow Angel,” for example, is one of Amos’ own compositions that is quite haunting and is complimented by a restrained string arrangement. “What Child, Nowell” risks becoming overly hackneyed and corny with its harpsichord and string section, but actually turns out quite interesting, with Amos’ plaintive voice and trademark idiosyncratic pronunciation, and a really nice piano line, which you’d expect of someone named Tori Amos.
At other times, songs succumb too much to the cheese and end up being completely cringeworthy. On “Harps of Gold” I’m not sure whether it’s amusing, horrifying, or both, to hear synthesized church bells and 80s-ish electric guitar accompanying a refrain of “gloria in excelsis deo.” I literally almost jumped/started laughing when the opening burst of big band horns started on “Pink and Glitter”. A young Tori Amos started out with a tip jar on her piano, taking requests and playing show tunes in gay bars, and “Pink and Glitter” feels like a return to that vibe — take that for what you will. The title is probably kind of a clue that this song is not exactly the epitome of subtlety and restraint, and the cheese-factor on this song is a little too much for me.
After setting herself up as one of the most talented and unique artists in pop music in the 90s, with challenging albums like “Boys for Pele” and “From The Choirgirl Hotel”, Tori Amos’ career has gone off the radar slightly following a string of disappointing recent studio albums. You should never judge a record by its cover, but needless to say the cover of Midwinter Graces didn’t exactly inspire me with confidence from the outset. I’m not sure exactly how to describe this interesting ‘artwork’, but the words ‘photoshop hell’ spring to mind.
Moving on however, despite whatever recent missteps Tori has made in terms of production and photoshop, after experiencing her live in concert a few weeks ago I am happy to report that she still totally has it live. Watching a Tori Amos show is kind of indescribable and it feels like you’re watching someone so extraordinarily talented it seems like they’re from another planet. She also has a remarkable knack for transforming some of her lackluster songs into something greater in the live arena, which I found to be the case with a few tracks from Midwinter Graces.
“Winter’s Carol” and “Our New Year”, two of Amos’ original songs, hark back to her earlier albums such as the brilliant Little Earthquakes, and finish the album on a strong note. Midwinter Graces may not have succeeded in making me completely un-Grinch-like, but I think it’s fair to say that it did succeed in leaving my lump-of-coal-for-a-heart at least lukewarm. A word that coincidentally summarizes my overall assessment of this album.
The Worcester Telegram & Gazette’s Craig S. Semon has kind things to say about Midwinter Graces in his overview of 2009 holiday albums. The couple paragraphs of the article that address the album, which interestingly fail to mention Tori’s rewriting of traditional carols and focus on the original songs, are reproduced below:
Leave it to Tori Amos to come up with a holiday album that transcends the season with “Midwinter Graces (3 stars).
The Methodist minister’s daughter-turned-ivory-tickling chanteuse is spellbinding on the elegant and intimate traditional hymns, including “What Child, Nowell” and “Silent Night, Holy Night” but it is on her originals that she truly shines. On the ’40s-style, big band romp, “Pink and Glitter,” Amos celebrates all the little girls born during the Christmas season because all the attention seems to be bestowed on a little boy born in a manger in Jerusalem.
While Christmas can be the most wonderful time of the year, Amos knows it can also be the loneliness and most painful. Amos looks for romantic reconciliation on the somber piano ballad, “A Silent Night with You,” the earthy and organic pagan opus, “Winter’s Carol” and tempestuously orchestrated, “Our New Year.”
Apparently there was an unspoken embargo on reviews of Midwinter Graces in the UK press as The Guardian, The Independent and The London Evening Standard all didn’t get around to reviewing the album until this past weekend.
None of the three reviews are particularly long — and The Evening Standard’s is just a paragraph in David Smyth’s article addressing this year’s batch of holiday records — so we’ll just plop them all up here for you at once.
Thanks to Mark-Alexis and Mike for the links!
Posted on 03 December 2009 by Lauren Mayberry
The main thing which is paradoxical about Midwinter Graces, Tori Amos’ first collection of “holiday music”, is how decidedly unparadoxical it is. For those expecting these twelve songs- festive standards as well as five original compositions- to be deliberately self-aware and tentatively obscure, this record will be a disappointment; for the rest, it is a pleasant, tinselled surprise.
Midwinter Graces is one of a slate of Christmas and seasonal albums reviewed in The Scotsman by Fiona Shepard. It’s only a paragraph-long but positive and even manages to squeeze in a Kate Bush reference!
Tori Amos wins points on her Midwinter Graces (Universal Republic, £12.72) *** for choosing the sublime Coventry Carol over the regulation Silent Night. A solemn O Come O Come Emmanuel and an appropriately pagan arrangement of The Holly and The Ivy nuzzle up beside her own seasonal compositions about harps and snow angels which float along in the vein of Kate Bush’s December Will Be Magic Again.
The Old Grey Lady’s 2009 Gift Guides are out and, as part of their guide about this year’s Holiday Music CDs, Midwinter Graces received a favorable, if short, review by Nate Chinen.