Wednesday, December 1, 2010

An Awful Holiday Album From One Of The Most Creative Artists Around: Midwinter Graces.

The Good: Great voice
The Bad: Short, Familiar, Awkward sound on some songs, Derivative instrumental accompaniment.
The Basics: Average-at-best, the c.d. and DVD combo Midwinter Graces is either too upbeat on traditional slow carols or moody and depressing with Tori Amos's original works.

When I began doing my Artist Of The Month musical explorations, one of the artists I was exceptionally excited about was Tori Amos. So now that I have hit December, my wildcard month, I was especially excited to revisit Amos and catch up on some of her newer works. This was convenient because around this time last year, she released a holiday album Midwinter Graces. Unfortunately, sheer creativity does not win out on this one. As I think about the works of Tori Amos, I am left thinking that many of her die-hard fans will be happy, but the reason most will enjoy Midwinter Graces is exactly why I did not: it is very, painfully, familiar. So, unlike Aimee Mann's One More Drifter In The Snow (click here for that review!), but very much like 20th Century Masters: The Christmas Collection - The Best Of Reba (click here), Midwinter Graces is strangely obvious, which is unexpected for an artist like Tori Amos.

Over the course of her career, Tori Amos has evolved from her initial "one woman and a piano" sound to a presentation that was more electric and actually rocking. On Midwinter Graces, she returns to her pianos for instrumental accompaniment, but actually continues the vibrancy and sense of production that reigned on her more recent albums like Strange Little Girls and American Doll Posse. The thing is, as far as the holiday album goes, this is a very tough sell for the overall sound. Only the bonus track (there is a one-disc and two-disc version of this and as I've only found the two-disc version, that is the one I'm reviewing!) "Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht! (Silent Night, Holy Night)" actually is presented in a traditional way: slow and sweet. The rest of the album sounds very modern, up-tempo and, at times, disturbing in the way Amos reinterprets the works of others.

With fourteen tracks on the extended c.d., taking up only 55:44, Midwinter Graces is a blend of traditional Christmas songs, like "Emmanuel" and "Star Of Wonder" with brand new music by Tori Amos. Amos wrote six of the tracks and she arranged all of them and inserted new lyrics into each song. As a result, it is clear she is attempting to make a holiday album that is spiritual in a vague sort of way, without being entirely secular while retaining the themes of a traditional Christmas. Amos plays three types of piano and keyboards on this album and she provides all of the primary vocals as well. She is also the sole producer of the album, so this is quite clearly her intended musical vision being presented.

That said, some of her musical interpretations are just troubling. "Harps Of Gold" sounds more like a rock and roll track and "Star Of Wonder" is presented as an up-tempo number which is so richly produced that it sounds more flashy than mystical. Indeed, the inclusion of bass and samples on songs like the usually more grand "Star Of Wonder" just make the song sound and feel cheap. Instead of telling a history of a mystical event through song, Amos's version becomes a theatrical lightshow for the ears which reminds one of Manheim Steamroller more than Tori Amos. While this is a clear evolution of where Amos was with her later albums, it does not sound good for the songs she is presenting.

Conversely, it is Amos's original tracks where she re-establishes her sound as one woman with a powerful piano. Songs like "Pink And Glitter" and "Snow Angel" are more the familiar brooding pop ballads that Amos became known worldwide for. As a result, fans of Tori Amos either way get something familiar to them: they have new ballads which remind them just why they loved Tori Amos to begin with or weird reinterpretations of classic Christmas carols with uptempo production and instrumental accompaniment which sound like her newer works.

What is fairly consistent throughout the album is Tori Amos's voice. Amos has an amazing soprano voice and on Midwinter Graces, she is melodic, with perfect pitch. When Amos sings on songs like "Jeanette, Isabella" and "A Silent Night With You," she has a passion and tone which could break the heart of the divine. But, unfortunately, as is the case on many of her albums, there are moments when she becomes whispery and soft and her instrumental accompaniment overwhelms her vocals. This is especially problematic on her original pieces, because it is clear she has something she wants to say as an artist.

Unfortunately, some of her message is very typical and familiar holiday-themed musical storysongs and, alas, Amos does not add anything truly unique or special to the overall gestalt. After all, there is something remarkably familiar about the idea of spending time together during the holidays and Amos nails that right out of the gate when she sings "The radio plays my holiday faves / It takes me back to when our love was new / Young lovers pass me by with their glow / That used to be us not so long ago / You said then / 'I just want to spend a silent night with you' / With you / A silent night with you" ("A Silent Night With You"). Still, it is hard to complain too much about that because this is the type of sentiment one looks for when one buys a holiday album.

But Amos does this particularly artlessly. It is bad enough she mirrors "All I Want For Christmas Is You" by referencing other Christmas songs in her first original song on the album, but that she uses the exact same technique in "Our New Year," when she references "Auld Lang Syne" just seems particularly sloppy and unimaginative. Again, though, fans of Tori Amos are likely to be pleased with her mopey sensibilities with her contemplative and depressing lines "Lately I'm sure it's / You there waving / In the distance / Closer / The closer I get / Disappointment / It is, yes it is / They just have the same color of your hair / You're not there" ("Our New Year"). Amos herself seems bored with the song with the sheer number of "You're not there's" the song includes!

Even so, not all of Amos's lines are a complete wash or disappointing. Instead, on some songs, she illustrates the strong sense of poetics which made her famous originally. So, she has a great sense of imagery, like "Snow Angel / She'll make her way / And she'll stay / For a Time, / For a time / In the dark of this Midwinter, / The moon slipped from night / A shadow, of a wing" ("Snow Angel"). Amos is able to evoke clear mental pictures of snowscapes - often lonely ones - and "Midwinter Graces" is moody, but beautiful at times.

However, there is not enough to save the album. Too much of it is erratic or outright unsettling and the bonus DVD which has an interview with Amos is not terribly enlightening, though Amos does manage to avoid using the term "holiday cashgrab" when discussing her intent with the album. She does not make the mistake of most artists who release a holiday album in that she does not make pedantic, obvious choices with the way she presents familiar songs. However, she goes to the other extreme, making the once-familiar songs seem utterly alien and her new songs fail to resonate overall as well.

The best song is "A Silent Night With You," the low point is "Harps Of Gold."

For other albums by strong female artists, please check out my takes on:
Tear The World Down - We Are The Fallen
Laws Of Illusion - Sarah McLachlan
One Cell In The Sea - A Fine Frenzy


For other music reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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