toriamosmidwinterThe 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.Recorded mainly at the Amos family studio in Cornwall and enlisting the help of long-term collaborators Jon Evans, Mac Aladdin, arranger John Philip Shenale and everyone’s favourite session drummer Matt Chamberlain, the album following May’s Abnormally Attracted to Sin possesses many of the points one would look for in a conventional Tori album, twenty years and ten studio albums into her career. However, the resulting songs are some of her few that you could comfortably play to your grandma, perhaps her most straightforward album, both musically and lyrically. References to sprogs in mangers and bearded wise men are kept to a minimum, whilst the album remains curiously traditional, rather than deliberately unusual, as many critics seem to have expected. As a certain Jewish lad from Minnesota has shown us (thanks, Bob Dylan), anyone can produce a Christmas release, but few can do it very well. Those questioning Midwinter Graces’ depth are disregarding the long history Amos has had with seasonal themed music, whetting her appetite in church as a minister’s daughter, covering 'Little Drummer Boy' in concert, and having previously released a truly haunting version of 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas', to boot. A season bursting with religion is surely the most Amos-friendly of all, religion a lyrically well-trodden topic in her previous work (“God sometimes you just don’t come through, do you need a woman to look after you?”). This is, after all, the woman who penned 'Father Lucifer', and Little Earthquake’s 'Crucify'.Yet, this ‘solstice’ album, apparently encompassing different sets of beliefs and cultures, is undeniably accessible, at times lacking much of the Amos quirks which makes her previous work so outstanding but would have arguably been inappropriate and self-aggrandising in this particular release. The singer’s distinctiveness is discernable in many of the piano-driven orchestral arrangements, as well as the brooding opening of 'Snow Angel'. The guttural growl on the solemn Emmanuel would sit well on previous records, as well as the long, swooping notes laid over harpsichord in 'What Child, Nowell'. The covers present are heavily modified, rather than comedy karaoked, Amos’ voice well-suited to such celestial music and her arrangements leaving the traditional tunes somewhat darker. Star of Wonder is given a fittingly eastern arrangement, unrecognisable until the chorus. Holly, Ivy, Rose, a duet with daughter Natashya, could be saccharine and cliché, but somehow stays legitimate, skipping along over the waltz beat. 'Our New Year' is contrastingly un-festive, a string frenzy fading off to leave only vocals and piano, with lyrics typically bittersweet (“Glasses raised, we all say cheers... Could this be the one? Our new year.”)However, for every high-point, there is an equal low. 'Candle: Coventry Carol', one of the most obviously traditional pieces, verges on cutesy at times, 'Harps of Gold' even sounding like a weak and diluted Tori rip-off, none of which can be compared to the eyebrow-raising big band present on original track, 'Pink and Glitter'. 'A Silent Night With You' possesses the odd cringe worthy lines, albeit almost indecipherable due to the age-old and obscurely Amos pronunciation, all following rich but potentially boyband-ballad string work. It’s hardly Wham or Cliff Richard, nor Slade or the Pogues, but Midwinter Graces, for all its attributes, is still destined to be categorised and pulled out of the rack once a year.

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