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Loreena McKennitt: 'A Midwinter Night's Dream'

A Collection of Celtic-Influenced Christmas and Winter Songs

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Loreena McKennitt: 'A Midwinter Night's Dream'
© Quinlan Road Records
I honestly didn't really expect to like Loreena McKennitt's A Midwinter Night's Dream when I first caught wind of the project, which incorporates a few songs from McKennitt's 1995 EP, To Drive the Cold Winter Away (remastered, of course), and several new songs. I don't generally care much for Christmas music, and I worried that it might become a bit too precious under McKennitt's signature free-spirited Celtic sound, but I was dead wrong. Upon first listen, I found myself captivated, and couldn't stop listening.

From the Common to the Obscure - A Mix of Christmas Songs

Before I even popped A Midwinter Night's Dream in, I did a quick overview of the songs that McKennitt chose to include. Though all of the press materials insisted that McKennitt chose many obscure Christmas carols, I recognized most of those on the list: "The Holly and the Ivy," "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," "Good King Wenceslas," "Noel Nouvelet (a traditional French carol)," "The Coventry Carol," and others. Many of these are actually somewhat obscure, but I recognized them by name with no trouble - it seems that I may be over-educated when it comes to Christmas carols. So, I remained unimpressed and a little bit pessimistic. I mean, what could possibly be done to "God Rest Ye Merry" that hasn't been done before? Well... as it turns out, you'd be surprised.

Unique Incorporations of Multi-Genre Sounds

Let's just talk for a second about what Loreena McKennitt has done with "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen," because it's a good example of the sort of steps she takes to make the songs her own. The song kicks off with a wordless, North African-style male chant. Then it breaks into an almost flamenco-esque rhythm, and McKennitt's own soaring soprano comes in with the song itself. And then in comes a hurdy-gurdy, a low bowed instrument (a cello, I think), some whistles and lots of soft drums. It's like a pre-Christian celtic band performing in the Alhambra, accompanied by a couple of local singers and a Dickensian caroler, and it works! Most songs on the CD take on a similar fusion sound, but each with different influences, and a few of the songs are simple, clear-cut examples of a single style - "Gloucestershire Wassail," for example, is a straight-up a capella wassailing song. Somehow, all of the songs, regardless of their influences, tie together in a strangely addictive way.

The Winter Spirit

Part of the appeal of this CD is that it's not only a celebration of Christmas songs, but of winter songs in general. McKennitt seems intent on exploring not just the Christian mysticism that goes along with Christmas, but the pre-Christian pagan Yuletide traditions that influenced early Christians. Though I'm not a religious or particularly spiritual person, I find the inclusiveness of the song selections very encouraging, and the latent spirituality of the lyrics and sounds doesn't annoy me at all - in fact, it's such a refreshing change from typical terrible canned Christmas music that even terminal Grinches may find that it puts them in a Christmas-y mood.

'A Midwinter Night's Dream' was released in October of 2008 by Quinlan Road Records. Playing time: 54.3 minutes
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