wears the trousers magazine


tori amos: midwinter graces (2009)
October 27, 2009, 9:40 am
Filed under: album, review | Tags: , , ,

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Tori Amos
Midwinter Graces ••••
Island

If your immediate thought upon seeing the cover of Midwinter Graces is that Tori Amos might finally have Ascended up her own creative rectum, relax, hold your fire. The photo may have been digitally manipulated to within an inch of all-encompassing soullessness but the heart has not been cut out of her chest, and this is nowhere near the animatronic disaster the sleeve would suggest. First things first: Midwinter Graces is not a Christmas album. It doesn’t mention Christmas once, at least not explicitly by name. Instead it’s a veneration of the winter solstice, which, in the Wiccan tradition, celebrates the rebirth of the Sun, not the birth of the Son, and signifies a return to light after the longest day of the year has elapsed. In a neat/unfortunate parallel, whereas Amos’s recent albums have seemed eternally lengthy, Midwinter Graces nips guilelessly in and out, never outstaying its welcome, and consequently leaves a rosy glow.

Amos has spent a lifetime exploring the perceived divisions between the sacred and the profane, the Christian and the Pagan, or to put it in her terms, “marrying the Marys”. On Midwinter Graces, she takes this preoccupation to its logical (and perhaps most literal) conclusion, stripping back carols commonly regarded as Christian to their pre-evangelised forms, and working in some naturalistically rooted observations of her own. She’s always been a master at the ‘stealth verse’ – remember ‘A Sorta Fairytale’? – so it’s great to hear her injecting a truly alternative perspective into a certifiable classic like ‘Emmanuel’. Indeed, none of the traditional numbers go unmarked by Amos’s red pen. She thinks nothing of editing a lyric or verse here and there to suit her thematic needs, and it’s this return to some of the fearlessness of old that impresses most. And, unlike some of her recent material, there’s never the sense that the message is taking precedent over the music. Only ‘Harps Of Gold’ feels forced in that respect, shoehorning in the chorus of ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ among nondescript original verses and glossing over the gap with a radio-friendly melody she could have composed in her sleep.

Much more successful is her inventive concatenation of well known carols ‘What Child Is This?’ and ‘The First Noel’ into album opener ‘What Child, Nowell’ (the altered spelling supposedly an ancient artefact). Here she uses harpsichord, sleigh bells and a modest John Philip Shenale orchestral score to sweep seamlessly between the verses of one song to the chorus of the other, as if they were always meant to be a whole. It’s a trick she repeats, though taking a slightly more Burroughsian approach, on ‘Holly, Ivy & Rose’, which excises lyrics from various versions of ‘The Holly & The Ivy’ and 15th century carol ‘Lo, How A Rose E’er Blooming’ and mixes them up. ‘Jeanette, Isabella’, an adaptation of a 16th century French carol, and ‘Star Of Wonder’ (aka ‘We Three Kings’) are substantially rewritten too, the latter being a brilliantly effective melodic and lyrical reinvention that owes much to Shenale’s Eastern-influenced string arrangement.

Seasonal albums are traditionally associated with strong family values, and it seems that solstice albums are no different (it’s not for nothing that Northern Europeans often call the solstice modrenacht, or Mother-Night). Not only does Amos duet with her niece Kelsey Dobyns on a slightly modified, medieval-tinged and brass-laden version of ‘Candle: Conventry Carol’, but her 9 year old daughter Natashya makes an unexpected cameo on ‘Holly, Ivy & Rose’. Amazingly, neither feels misjudged or amateurish. Clearly, Amos has taught her brood well. Of the Amos originals, the big band number ‘Pink & Glitter’ appears to dispense some motherly advice (“You’re surrounded by an army of two who adore you”) as an ode to letting little girls be little girls, while the comparatively unassuming but melodically pretty ‘Snow Angel’ lends a welcome touch of mystery and magic to the childhood experience of winter. Older members of the family also get a look in on the lovers’ ballad ‘A Silent Night With You’ and on the closing ‘Our New Year’, a bittersweet reflection on those who are sadly absent from the table come the festivities of December 31st, with more than a passing nod to Amos’s own brother Michael, similarly commemorated in ‘Toast’ from 2005’s The Beekeeper.

As accomplished as these Amos originals are, it’s her ‘Winter’s Carol’ that really gets the senses tingling. Here she mixes different strands of Pagan beliefs, illustrating an entanglement between the Holly King and the “summer queen” that, regardless of terminology, adheres to the usual changing of the seasons construct. But instead of the ceremonial battle often acted out in Pagan communities, Amos’s queen kisses goodbye to her wintry beau, their twice yearly evening of communion over, inevitably, all too soon. It’s an interesting twist, but that’s not all that makes the song remarkable. Over a tense backdrop of strings and tumbling piano, Amos alternates between a serenely collected vocal and an unhinged, witchy tone, making full use of the horizontal space in a way that will no doubt get the deluded Kate Bush copyist crowd braying louder than ever. Let them gnash their teeth; this is borderline genius.

Still, it can’t really be said that Midwinter Graces is a return to form for Amos. Not because it isn’t a great piece of work, but because her talent never really went away. It just got buried in filler. What this album does return to is a sense of cohesion, which, for an artist as idiosyncratic as Amos, is key to maintaining integrity. This being a festive release, it might not be enough to win back some of her eroding fanbase, but if Amos employs a similar approach to her next ‘proper’ studio album, that is, using a broad palette of instruments but not swamping the piano, the winter of their discontent could be over.

Alan Pedder
UK release date: 16/11/09; www.myspace.com/toriamos


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21 Comments so far
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Absolutely brilliant review – first I’ve seen that actually explains the backstory behind all the chosen carols.

The album’s pretty good too; though it’s hard to say where it’ll eventually stand in her canon, it’s certainly nice to have something other than a double album.

Comment by Richaod

Beautiful review here – j’adore the ironic metaphor of “winter…discontent” in the last lines! Although I never properly disengaged myself from Tori (I still buy all her releases and go to at least one concert each tour), the one-two-punch of TBK, ADP, and AATS certainly left much derision and confusion. There are wondrous songs in each of the aforementioned albums, but the cohesiveness is weighted by either: a) overproduction b) overreaching concepts or c) unrelated “b-side” like tracks thrown into the mix. The same cannot be said for “Midwinter Graces”: each song seems appropriate and on the production front an Amos studio LP hasn’t sounded as good since SLG. Too bad this quality seems reserved only for the work of others reinterpreted by le Tori.

Comment by Elliot

great review! this album has far exceeded my expectations.

Comment by maegan

Wow, what an excellent and well-considered review! I can’t wait to hear this one.

Comment by Adriana

Sold! I want to be left with a rosy glow :)

Comment by Esther Yoxall

Great review! I learned a few things about the carols.

Comment by Jay Thomas

The album is simply amazing- I’m sure I’ll be listening to it year-round. It’s just getting better with each listen.

Comment by ACW

This is the best review I’ve read for this record so far, including the one I penned myself earlier today. I would agree that this is, all around, the best record Tori Amos has made in a very long time. I didn’t initially realize that “Winter Carol” was an original composition. It is instantly classic; not an easy feat, considering the rich history of Winter Holiday music. It feels experimental in the most positive sense, that is, that one can hear Amos challenging herself without coopting who she is as a musician and composer and that it embraces both her personal and musical pasts and looks towards a bright future. Cheers to the future!

Comment by N. Chaplin

Thank you for such a wonderful review. I feel so blessed to get 2 releases from Tori Amos this year! But what do you mean by “her eroding fanbase”? I have only seen it grow and I have been seeing her (at least 3 times on every tour…sometimes as many as 8 times) since Little Earthquakes, and I haven’t seen anyone go anywhere. I am really looking forward to this new offering and the readers of this review can tell that you listened to it more than once, and we appreciate that!

Comment by MelindaLu

What a lucid and eloquent review! Congrats Alan on such a good piece!

Comment by Kelly

Sorry Alan, but this review smacks of fanboyism, and therefore I don’t think will do much to persuade the Tori doubters. I use to quite like her, but with every release over the last few years she’s just got more and more self-indulgent, and her last album didn’t have a single good song on it. It’s exactly things like releasing an album about winter mysticism that pushes away any remnants of a mainstream audience she might have once had.

Comment by Bryn

Ah, but have you actually listened to it yet? I honestly thought Midwinter Graces would be terrible, but was pleasantly surprised, and every listen has revealed new things to admire about it. So I stand by what I said.

Comment by Wears The Trousers magazine

‘Abnormally Attracted to Sin’ ‘didn’t have a single good song on it”? I call bullshit on that comment!

Comment by Aaron

Yes!! I too, call bullshit on the comment abt ‘Abnormally Attracted To Sin’ not having a decent track on the record. 2 whomever originally said this, I ask.. ” How many times did u listen to the record, (or the albums name sake track?/mind u…) b4 coming 2 this conclusion.”? your commentary leads me 2 believe tht u briefly skimmed / listened, b4 actually realising it,(the album) had a quality all its own. Of course i’d have to agree tht the quality i speak of could only b gained by listening to it more than 1X & rather in a set of times-over&over. But ‘mainstream’ acclaim/review is ignorant in the sense of judging a thing by it’s cover & so ur take on AATS is purely evident by ur lack of research & listening skills; commonley referred to as a mainstream typical… usTrue Tori fans shouldn’t expect anything else from these britney.spears’esqe types… they only hear what evry1 else hears / or wants to hear…& tht’s commonley dominated by who is who on the music charts, in the news or by what is played on their FM tuners over&over. Mainstream yuppies such as the lad tht saw no decency on AATS- are becoming deaf on whatever makes the most $ or the headlines.

Comment by Carrie

WTF ? what kind of openingl line is “Tori Amos may have finally ascended thru her rectum? this is wrong on so many levels!

Comment by Carrie

Oh Carrie. The operative word is ‘creative’ here. I in no way meant her physical form!

Comment by Wears The Trousers magazine

[…] far as music this week, for me, it’s all about Tori Amos‘ Midwinter Graces , but I may be […]

Pingback by Release Day 11/10/09 « My list of Coolness Blog

[…] Amos will promote the release of her new album Midwinter Graces [review] with a free show at the 350-capacity Jazz Café in Camden Town, London, on December 2. This is […]

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I tried to post a comment earlier. Did it get deleted?

Comment by Aaron

[…] What we said then: “[Tori] Amos has spent a lifetime exploring the perceived divisions between the sacred and the profane, the Christian and the Pagan, or to put it in her terms, “marrying the Marys”. On Midwinter Graces, she takes this preoccupation to its logical (and perhaps most literal) conclusion, stripping back carols commonly regarded as Christian to their pre-evangelised forms, and working in some naturalistically rooted observations of her own… She thinks nothing of editing a lyric or verse here and there to suit her thematic needs, and it’s this return to some of the fearlessness of old that impresses most. And, unlike some of her recent material, there’s never the sense that the message is taking precedent over the music.” •••• Alan Pedder […]

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