Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Classic Christmas Album Even A Grinch Can Enjoy: Loreena McKennitt's A Midwinter Night's Dream!

The Good: Great voice, Good mix of songs, Nice instrumentals, Generalized holiday spirit/feel
The Bad: Sounds a lot like all of McKennitt's other works, Could be longer.
The Basics: Finally presenting an album where she produces her vocals to the forefront, Loreena McKennitt impresses with her Christmas album A Midwinter Night's Dream!

For those who might not follow my reviews, Christmas albums often suffer at my hands. I am, to say the least, not a fan. There are virtually no new, decent, takes on old, classic Christmas songs by new artists these days. Instead, the Christmas album becomes an inexpensive way to release an album and guarantee performers a little extra holiday loot by cashing in on the season. It has been a long time since there has been a truly inspired holiday album that I have heard.

The artist who gets a free pass from that generalized criticism of holiday albums is Loreena McKennitt. McKennitt releases all types of classical-sounding albums and a Christmas album of hers is more in keeping with the style and tenor of her music than most musical artists who release Christmas albums. So when my mother brought home A Midwinter Night's Dream, I was not inherently biased against it and the more I have listened to it, the more I have come to appreciate it. For those looking for a good, classic-sounding Christmas album, this is a great way to go. For those looking for a more generic and universally friendly "holiday" album, this is fine . . . so long as one ignores almost all of the lyrics. McKennitt creates a pretty ideal Christmas album as opposed to a more p.c.-friendly "holiday" album, though her sound is likely to be appreciated by anyone.

With thirteen tracks, clocking out at a disappointingly anemic 54:19, A Midwinter Night's Dream represents a combination of traditional musical and lyrical frameworks and Loreena McKennitt's arrangement sensibilities. What I mean is that McKennitt wrote none of the lyrics and little of the score to the music on this album. Instead, she adapts the classical scores and lyrics to modern instruments and produces the album to be a decent mix of old and new. This is not to say that McKennitt is not presenting something artistic on this album. Quite the opposite, McKennitt provides lead vocals on all songs, plays an instrument on all tracks but one and produced the album. While she only plays the harp, keyboards, piano and accordion on this album, it is hard to say that she is not busy or artistic! This represents, despite the limitations imposed by the classic, established songs and lyrics, the musical vision of Loreena McKennitt.

In fact, if there is any real strong drawback to A Midwinter Night's Dream as far as artistic vision it is in that this is very clearly McKennitt's vision. This album sounds remarkably like every other album of McKennitt's. More than just presenting the same soprano vocals against deep bass chords and mixing harps and electric guitars, this means that a number of the songs that McKennitt arranged on this album sound like songs from her other albums. In fact, even those who only know McKennitt from her hit "The Mummer's Dance" will find "Noel Nouvelet!" instrumentally familiar because of that.

For those unfamiliar with the works of Loreena McKennitt, this is a wonderful and safe way to get into the artist as many of the songs on this album are straightforward classic Christmas songs that are recognizable to anyone. Classics like "Good King Wenceslas," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" and "Emmanuel" are along side less familiar (to many) songs like "The Holly & The Ivy" and "Gloucestershire Wassail." As well, McKennitt provides three instrumental tracks with "Un Flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle," "Brenton Carol," and "In The Bleak Midwinter."

As mentioned, the arrangements are distinctly Loreena McKennitt. Like most of her albums, most of the songs are slow, have a melancholy affect to them - especially in the vocals - and mix classical instruments like the mandolin and harp with modern instruments like the electric guitar to provide a new medieval chic. If one were to imagine Christmas at a Renaissance Festival, this album would most assuredly be the soundtrack to it. McKennitt is well-versed in the classics and this is a soft, non-intrusive Christmas album that is - at the same time - enjoyable to listen to.

Take, for example, McKennitt's version of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." Without changing any of the traditional lyrics to this son, McKennitt makes the song sound new again. This is the only track she does not play an instrument in, but her vocals act as an instrument. Her soprano voice rings out in countermelody to the deep percussion. This track has an eclectic mix of instruments that creates a brooding, almost dangerous, sound with its use of violins, guitars, guitar synthesizer, acoustic bass, cello, tabla, shawm and multiple forms of percussion. McKennitt takes a pretty classic European Christmas song and makes it sound Middle Eastern or Indian!

This mix of classic and contemporary sounds has its drawbacks. "Snow" sounds like virtually any Celine Dion track (in fact, it sounds a lot in its opening orchestration like "My Heart Will Go On") and the short instrumentals often blend with the tracks next to them. After eight listens to this album, I still could not tell you what the final track sounds like as it basically loops perfectly for "Emmanuel" to "The Holly & The Ivy."

A Midwinter Night's Dream is soft and almost universally slow. Even songs like "Good King Wenceslas" are more subdued than boisterous under McKennitt's musical attentions. This is a very mellow album and it is easy to listen to it and want to do nothing more than curl up in front of a fire and listen to McKennitt's sweet, sensual voice traverse the scales. As well, it is a good album of Christmas songs to have on during a gathering; it is both non-intrusive and an intriguing musical conversation piece for those who need one.

The best song is McKennitt's rich take on "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," the low point (and it is not much of one) is the fairly forgettable "Gloucestershire Wassail."

For other Christmas albums, please check out my reviews of:
To Drive The Cold Winter Away - Loreena McKennitt
Joy: A Holiday Celebration - Jewel
These Are Special Times – Celine Dion
A New Thought For Christmas – Melissa Etheridge


For other album and singles reviews, please visit my index page!

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

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