Album: Tori Amos, Midwinter Graces (Universal/Island)

For a festive album with a difference, it's time to vote Tori

Sunday 20 December 2009 01:00

Irrational explanations for the universe are not only tempting to the feeble of mind.

They're difficult to shake off for even the most intelligent among us, if the irrationalists catch you at a young enough age. Myra Ellen "Tori" Amos was brought up the daughter of a Methodist minister, and although she's spent much of her artistic life being critical of the Christian church, she's never quite shaken the Jesus thing.

It was only a matter of time, then, before she succumbed and did what all Christians eventually do, and made a Christmas album. Of course, this being Tori Amos, it isn't quite as straightforward as that.

Midwinter Graces flits back and forth between traditional yuletide tunes and Amos's own compositions, but the former are riddled with her own lyrical addenda, and the latter are heavy with references to carols, invariably twisted to secular – and subtly sexual – ends. On her own "A Silent Night with You", for example, one verse begins "Joy to the world, your arms kept me warm night after night in such a cold world..."

Even when she is singing a "straight" rendition of a Christmas chestnut, there's always an underlying feeling that every syllable is laden with intrigue and layered with hidden meaning. Then again, some of them don't need any twisting, being perfectly twisted already: take the infanticidal gore of the 16th-century "Coventry Carol" ("Herod the King, in his raging/ Charged he hath this day/ His men of might, in his own sight/ All the children young to slay"), for one.

Stylistically, with all the tootling flutes, arpeggiating harpsichords and sonorous electric violins, it's reminiscent of folk-rock bands circa the cusp of the 1970s (Fairport Convention, Pentangle, Steeleye Span), a musical genre which runs "1960s girl group" and "1970s glam rock" a close third in the Christmassy association stakes.

But Amos can't sit still for long and, on "Pink and Glitter", she effectively adopts the persona of a purring 1940s jazz siren to decry the commercialisation of Christmas ("Our joy is not about a product...")

Ultimately, you wouldn't feel awkward sticking Midwinter Graces on when granny comes to dinner. For all her quirks, Amos plays it safe, and doesn't drop the baby.

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