What struck me especially when I listened to this CD for the first time was how immediately accessible it was and that may in part be due to the familiarity of the Christmas content, but the marriage of Amos with this niche musical genre works surprisingly well. Some critics of Amos describe her music as pretentious, I think it's more that her voice carries a righteous quality to it, which can be mistaken for pretension, but that's the beauty of this unlikely collaboration...the best Christmas record is all about embellishment and grandeur as well as degrees of subtlety, and requires a special kind of vocalist to triumph in the delivery of such big themes. Tori Amos is one of those singer-songwriters and consequently `Midwinter Graces' feels like a natural and effortless union. It also harkens back to an instrumental-style that I thought Amos had all but abandoned on recent albums.
The challenge of re-working traditional Christmas carols has produced magical results for Amos. There are few other artists who could change the lyrical content to put their own unique stamp on the material, while still maintaining the integrity and unique appeal of the original work. Had Amos simply covered the songs without changing a single lyric this album would not be half as entertaining, but what she's managed to achieve by often re-working the verses while retaining the original chorus, is to create something totally modern that nonetheless captures in entirety, the essence of these long-time established classics.
Piano work drives this album. Personally I think the piano is one of the best instruments at conveying a wintry-quality and Amos is a goddess in that area, as we all know, so the result is a collection of songs that sparkle with wintry appeal. But there are many more examples of instruments utilized to perfect effect, evoking a mood that is perfectly suited to the subject matter.
My favourite tracks on the album-
Track 2- `Star of Wonder' - So traditional and yet so Amos. Genius. (9/10)
Track 4- `Candle: Coventry Carol' - This song completely transports the listener into another era- it bespeaks of all the immortal associations we have with Christmas- tradition, reflection, a certain sadness. The best song on the album in my opinion. (10/10)
Track 5- `Holy, Ivy and Rose' - Felt I had to mention this track for the inclusion of Amos' daughter Natashya Hawley on answering vocals. The counterpoint of their voices works perfectly. Very festive. (8/10)
Track 11- `Winter's Carol' - Lots of piano work, hauntingly Kate Bush esque. This stood out for me in the story-telling stakes, I felt like I was being taken on a journey. Which is what Christmas is all about I reckon. (9/10)
I don't know whether `Pink and Glitter' and `Our New Year', which Amazon mention in the description, are the only tracks that represent completely new material by Amos for this album, but these were two of my least favourite tracks- `Pink and Glitter' is the album's big-band showpiece, but it doesn't quite deliver the knockout chorus you feel it deserves. Where as I found `Our New Year' to be a weak closing song- despite the up-tempo strings section, it doesn't manage to distinguish itself among the other classics on the album, so not a spectacular note to end on, but oh well, without any doubt it's still a gem of an album.