In one respect, Tori Amos releasing a holiday album makes perfect sense. The holidays are infused with religion, and the singer-songwriter references religion as much as poets reference autumn leaves. However, Amos isn’t exactly channeling a gospel choir when she talks about religion or spirituality. This is, after all, the woman who wrote, “God sometimes you just don’t come through / Do you need a woman to look after you?” A fantastic song, but not something you put on while trimming the tree.
Unsurprisingly, Amos hasn’t released a Christmas album. She has dubbed it a solstice album, which means it encompasses songs from different belief systems and cultures, as well as a few original tracks. The result, Midwinter Graces, is a pleasant and often gorgeous effort. A decade ago I would’ve said that anything less than brilliant was a step down for Amos, but seeing as every release since 2002′s Scarlet’s Walk has been more miss than hit, Midwinter Grace is a welcome surprise.
Opening with “What Child, Nowell”, Amos sets the tone for the collection of 12 tracks with an accessible sound that still retains some of her idiosyncrasies. In the first few moments, she sings “angels” as “ayungels” as only she can, and the traditional song gains a fresh sound with inclusion of some harpsichord. Traditional bells accompany the “Nowell, Nowell, Nowell” chorus, and while the arrangement borders on trite (as Christmas bells often do), it works.
“Winter’s Carol”, the album’s best track, is one of five Amos originals and sounds like a nice bridge between some of her earlier work and her current sound. Amos serves as her own call and response as she trades off lines with herself and excellent string accompaniment builds anticipation when the chorus nears. It holds up as a strong Amos song and an exciting holiday cut. The only flaw to be found in “Winter’s Carol” is that her voice sounds unforgivably Auto Tuned. It’s a problem with her vocals on most of the album, and in this instance it doesn’t ruin the song.
Realistically, a “solstice” album might not be inviting with Amos’ trademark guttural sounds popping up on “Emmanuel”, but on what’s her strongest release since in eight years, a little less shellac would be welcome. On the traditional track “Candle: Coventry Carol”, she sounds less polished. Don’t think this is the raw Amos of Boys for Pele with painful yelps, but listen to the way her voice isn’t flawless in the opening refrain of “candle, candle” and you get a glimpse of her real voice. Another less polished moment comes in the next track, “Holly, Ivy and Rose”, on which Amos duets with her daughter Natashya. Natashya’s vocals are endearingly flat (but not bad), they don’t dominate the song, and it’s not a sappy let’s-roast-marshmallows number. It’s an earnest performance between a mother and daughter.
The low point comes when Amos falls prey to Top 40, which has often been her weakness. The arrangement for “Harps of Gold” resembles a watered down, Rock Band production of “Solsbury Hill” and her voice manages to sound cutesier and more precious than her daughter’s. You get the feeling she was aiming for some level of schmaltz with the track, and she achieved it. In fact, it’s hard to be offended by it, especially on a holiday release, but it sticks out as too safe on an album that isn’t a cookie cutter batch of carols. For proof, skip ahead to “Pink and Glitter”, which sticks out as a bizarre venture into big band territory. It’s startling to hear blaring horns three-quarters into the album, and it’s simply a fine song that probably should’ve closed the album or been left off completely, but at least it’s risky.
“Our New Year” ends Midwinter Grace, and it’s another dramatic but noteworthy entry into Amos’ catalog. It wouldn’t sound out of place on a non-holiday release. The final moments of Amos repeating “you’re not there”-while the string section works itself into a frenzy before dropping off so that only Amos and her piano are left-are poignant and emotional. Ending on a song that looks forward to the New Year and balances hope with hesitation (“Glasses raised, we all say cheers / could this be the one? / This could be the one / Could this be the one? / Our new year”) is typical bittersweet Amos.
Earlier this year I complained that Amos needed an editor on her latest release, but here she seems to have broken out of the rut. A few production missteps aside, she stayed on target to craft an impressive holiday-inspired album that you can comfortably play for the whole family without choking on a saccharine sentiment. That surprising fact might make Midwinter Graces one of Amos’ most shocking releases ever.