In the spirit of Christmas, I just posted this review on the Sputnik Music website a few minutes ago.
There's something about Medieval and Renaissance music that feels naturally connected to Christmas. It's probably the combination of the flutes and recorders, the gentle acoustic strings, and the tambourines and bells. Whatever the reason, it's definitely true that Christmas songs and albums seem to come more organically to folk rock bands such as Jethro Tull, Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention, who already have one foot in the Renaissance world, than they do to most of their harder-rocking brethren. So sooner or later, it was inevitable that Blackmore's Night, a band that was conceived specifically to pay homage to the Renaissance era, would try their hand at a Christmas album.
Blackmore's Night, for the uninitiated, came into being when British guitar legend Ritchie Blackmore, known for his work in such bands as Deep Purple and Rainbow, met former radio deejay Candice Night, and they discovered that they had a mutual affection for the days of knights and fair maidens. They released their first album, Shadow of the Moon, in 1997, and have since gone on to create ten studio albums and various live and compilation albums, all to a greater or lesser degree heavily influenced by music of the Renaissance period. Winter Carols, their sixth studio album, was released in 2006.
So how did they do? Pretty damned well, in my opinion. I rated the album 3.5 out of 5 stars, which according to the big book of Sputnik means "Great". And although David Letterman is no longer on the air (and to be honest, I wasn't that into him when he was), here is my Top Ten list of the Top Ten Reasons for why I gave Winter Carols a "Great" rating:
1. I love Christmas music. Always have and always will. I have an extensive collection of Christmas albums, and inevitably, I play some more than others. This is one I make sure I listen to every holiday season.
2. The clear, beautiful voice of Candice Night. I just can never say enough about her vocals. Yes, her voice is powerful, but it's also exquisitely lovely and precise. Even during live performances, she tends to be note perfect, so naturally her recorded work is always spot on, and oh so appealing.
3. The magical instrumentation of Ritchie Blackmore. He plays a variety of (mostly acoustic) stringed instruments on this album, including guitar, mandola, nyckelharpa and hurdy-gurdy, and he even provides some of the percussion. Here's a guy who is a genuine rock guitar god who obviously loves to demonstrate that he's as proficient on quieter acoustic numbers as he is playing heavy rock riffs.
4. Night and Blackmore have a fine backing band on this album, including both Pat Regan and Bard David of Larchmont (aka David Baronowsky) on keyboards, Sir Robert of Normandy (Robert Curiano) on bass, the Sisters of the Moon, Lady Madeline (Madeline Posner) and Lady Nancy (Nancy Posner) on harmony vocals, Sarah Steiding on violin, Anton Fig (who used to play in David Letterman's band, see, I knew we'd make a David Letterman connection somewhere) on drums, Albert Dannemann on bagpipes (God, I love bagpipes!), and Dannemann, Ian Robertson and Jim Mannguard on backing vocals.
5. Beautiful cover artwork by Karsten Topelmann. The picture is an adaptation of a snow-covered street in Rothenburg ob dur Tauber, Germany, and you can practically feel the warmth of the fireplaces emanating from die Häuser idyllisch (that's "the picturesque houses" in English. I think. Hope you're impressed, because it took me twenty minutes to look that up).
6. Being old school (or at least middle school, since I replaced most of my original vinyl), I tend to own most of my albums on CD, keeping only the ones I like best on my iPod. For Winter's Carols, I've currently got eight of the 12 songs from the original CD release on it. Two-thirds likes isn't too shabby.
7. A nifty original Christmas song in "Christmas Eve". It's nothing too fancy, just a catchy little ditty, but as a lover of Christmas music, I can tell you that I love it when someone adds a decent new song to the twenty or so classics that get played repeatedly every year. And unlike, say, that wretched country song about buying Mama some shoes so she'll look pretty when she meets Jesus, this one is actually respectable. Plus, as an added bonus, they throw in "Winter (basse dance)", one of those graceful little instrumental originals that Blackmore's Night seems to tack on to each of their albums.
8. A slow, poignant cover of "Emmanuel" with a quiet, elegant vocal by Night, who also adds some shawm (a medieval woodwind instrument) to the mix, plus some dandy acoustic stylings by Blackmore.
9. A few unusual covers, including "Ding Dong Merrily on High", a traditional song that isn't one of those twenty or so usual Christmas songs that I mentioned earlier, and a medley of "Lord of the Dance", which you usually only hear on albums of Celtic music (even though it's based on an American Shaker hymn) and "Simple Gifts", which is an old Shaker dance song. And finally, the tenth reason why I rated Winter Carols a three-and-a-half out five:
10. I love eggnog. OK, I admit it. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the album. But you can't have a Top Ten list with only nine points, so cut me some slack here.
Anyway, if you hate Christmas music, this album obviously won't do anything for you. However, if you love Christmas melodies like I do, and you also tend to enjoy folksy, Celticy, Renaissancy types of music, you should really add this to the mix of stuff you listen to while putting up your tree and hanging up your stockings. Just ask David Letterman!
Rating: 3.5/5 stars