Tori Amos – Midwinter Graces (2009)

I just listened to Tori Amos’s 2009 “seasonal” album Midwinter Graces for the first time. Not surprisingly, it’s not overly “church-y,” which is consistent with the “reacting against her religious background” aesthetic of some of her earlier songs. What she mainly does is take segments of existing, “traditional” Christmas carols (various combinations of words, tunes, rhythms, chords, etc.) and folds them into “arty” songs that are thus perhaps each around 60% original and reflective of her view of the season as being most usefully seen as not being particularly “Christian” OR “secular.” It reminds me a little of Jane Siberry’s live, 1997 album Child: Music for the Christmas Season.

Amos often somewhat modifies a carol’s familiar words to de-emphasize its religious tone (although she also retains certain Latin words), and in some cases she combines aspects of two carols with her own ideas. Flowers, stars, candles, harps, and angels thus become relatively “generic” (both in her adaptations and in her original “Snow Angel”), and she transforms the idea of a “silent night” into an original love song: “A Silent Night with You.” I found her combination of “Lo, How a Rose” and “The Holly and the Ivy” (“Holly, Ivy and Rose”) to be the most effective.

Almost all of the instrumentation is for orchestra and/or piano (or the occasional synthesizer or harpsichord), sometimes with a modest amount of percussion. Thus, the ninth track (the original “Pink and Glitter”) is fairly jarring when it suddenly introduces a kind of Sarah Vaughan, big-band jazz sound, which then abates for the following adaptation of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and the two, concluding, original Tori Amos songs: “Winter’s Carol” (very Kate Bush-like, and with its words from the 1864 fairy tale “The Light Princess”) and “Our New Year.”

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Peter Gabriel – New Blood (2011)

Peter Gabriel’s New Blood (2011) is a fascinating album, comprising orchestral arrangements (by John Metcalfe) of some of Gabriel’s best album tracks from 1977 to 2002: such as, “The Rhythm of the Heat,” “San Jacinto,” “The Intruder,” “Wallflower,” “Digging in the Dirt,” and “Darkness.” Disc 1 has vocal versions, and the Special Edition’s Disc 2 mostly has instrumental versions that don’t include approximations of the vocals. Those renditions are thus “karaoke” songs (the “empty orchestra” being literally orchestra, in this case), presumably for people–like me–who know most of these songs really well.

There are NO versions of such more obvious Gabriel hits as “Games without Frontiers,” “Biko,” “Shock the Monkey,” “Sledgehammer,” “Big Time,” “Steam,” or “Come Talk to Me,” but it does include four songs from the 1986 hit album So: “Red Rain,” “In Your Eyes, “Mercy Street,” and “Don’t Give Up”–the vocal version featuring Norwegian musician Ane Brun providing a guest vocal quite unlike Kate Bush’s original. It also has two songs from the 2000 soundtrack OVO – The Millennium Show (“Downside Up,” featuring his daughter Melanie Gabriel, and “The Nest That Sailed the Sky”), plus (after a five-minute ambient noise track) a “bonus track” of “Solsbury Hill.”

The Special Edition disc also has “Blood of Eden” (in a vocal version) and there were two additional digital-download-only songs. I think “Here Comes the Flood” would also have worked pretty well, but I suppose there are already quite a few alternate versions of that song.