When is a Christmas record not a Christmas record? When the person making it says so, apparently.
Sting told us last weekend that his new album is a “winter” album, not a specifically Christmas album. And in fact you won’t hear any "Jingle Bells" or "Little Towns of Bethlehem" or anything like that on his If On A Winter’s Night. But Tori Amos’s Midwinter Graces is an even more curious “seasonal” record. (This, of course, will be no surprise to her fans, who expect to be surprised each time she puts out a new album.)
I’m a little disappointed that I knew what this record was before I first heard it – it would’ve been fun to have listened to it without knowing anything about it in advance, because I wonder how long it would’ve taken me to “get it.” Here is an album that uses “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” “Silent Night,” “We Three Kings” and other holiday chestnuts the way a hip-hop producer uses old soul records – as source material, and as a building block for something original. Sometimes it’s obvious what tune she’s basing her song on: “Emmanuel” begins with the familiar old melody and first verse, so you know exactly where she’s taking off from when she does, in fact, take off into original material. But “Candle: Coventry Carol” doesn’t reveal its source until halfway through, when Tori finally sings the well-known “Lully, Lullay, thou little tiny child.”
There are originals, too, notably the beautiful “Winter’s Carol,” full of imagery of the cycle of seasons and the renewal of the Earth, which is after all what the original Solstice holidays were all about.
Now, if I could just figure out what Dylan is doing with his Christmas record…
Do you have a favorite holiday album, perhaps from an unexpected artist or band?