November 3, 2006

Sarah McLachlan: Wintersong

A completely welcome surprise in my mailbox yesterday was a new Christmas album from silver-throated Canadian songstress Sarah McLachlan: Wintersong (Arista Records). I didn’t even know she had anything new coming out, so I was excited to pop this baby in the player and hear what Sarah has to offer us this Advent season (even though we just started November).

Does this foray into seasonal bliss sound like it may be a bad idea for McLachlan? As one reviewer wrote, “An album like this could cement [her] as a middle-of-the-road crooner ready for the Andy Williams Christmas Show, but there’s more beneath the surface of Wintersong than just Christmas chestnuts, over-roasting on an open fire.” I completely agree, and absolutely love the elegant, ethereal collection that she has created here with longtime producer Pierre Marchand.

I know that your sentiments on Christmas music can diverge in two very different ways. I have to admit, there are days when I’ll be moseying along in Macy’s and “Here Comes Santa Claus” will come on and I will want to run for shelter. Now that it’s November, I’ll have to make a mental note to avoid the mall as much as possible until January for that very reason.

But there are so many Christmas songs that are quiet and lovely and meaningful, that make me feel like all can be right with this world. Sarah picks those songs. She picks the ones that underscore the stillness, the mystery, and some original compositions with an air of bittersweetness. There is not a single track on here that I want to skip, no gaudy garish upbeat tracks with cracking whips and ho-ho-ho’s that seem out of character to the collection.

First and foremost you must listen to her wrenchingly sad and flawlessly beautiful cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River” (oh, and I’ve decided to plunge into Joni Mitchell, but that’s another post). It could be one of my favorite songs of the year. If a note can break your heart, they way she tackles the line about “I would teach my feet to fly . . . away” could do it for me.

The album opens with a fairly straightforward cover of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by Lennon (complete with a chorus of children in the background), and sandwiched in between her lovely arrangements of old standards is a brand-new song that she penned, the title track “Wintersong.” Also a longtime five-star favorite of mine, “Song For A Winter’s Night” (written by Gordon Lightfoot) has previously only been available on her B-Sides, Rarities, & Other Stuff album, and is a wistful & welcome addition to this album.

The songs have a uniqueness in the production and the arrangements that are distinctly McLachlan. Whether it is her new melody to the verses in the minor keys of “Greensleeves/What Child Is This” or the bright banjo plucking (a la Sufjan) in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” she adds a distinct fingerprint to each song. The album closes with a melancholy and simple version of Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmastime Is Here” (with Diana Krall accompanying Sarah on piano). You can almost see the snowflakes falling.

There is a spare, glistening beauty to this effort, and I can seriously see myself listening to every Christmas for years to come.

River (Joni Mitchell cover) – Sarah McLachlan

Stream other new songs at her MySpace, or watch some video on Amazon.

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  • Song for a Winter’s Night has been one of my favorite songs for well over 8 years now since I first heard it on the Miracle of 34th St. soundtrack. I can’t wait to buy the album…but as to not overplay it before Christmas I’ll wait till later this month.

    Anonymous — November 3, 2006 @ 11:52 am

  • I found your blog earlier this week and was impressed with all of the Pearl Jam (my absolute favorite band) posts, but now you have covered my other favorite. I was so excited when I heard about Wintersong and anxiously awaited its release. Song for a Winter’s Night has been one of my favorites since B-Sides came out and I was happy to see it was included. It is sure to be a favorite for many Christmases to come!

    Dee — November 3, 2006 @ 12:15 pm

  • McLachlan’s version of River is beautiful. Thanks for posting. I heard this was coming out a while ago but I didn’t have high hopes. I should have had more faith in her song selections. I definitely need to check out this album

    Michael — November 3, 2006 @ 3:38 pm

  • The download limit has been reached. Could you repost? Thanks!

    Anonymous — November 3, 2006 @ 5:18 pm

  • Glad to hear you’ve decided to “plunge into” Joni Mitchell. Only one of the most important songwriters of her generation. Hearing Sarah McLachlan, or anyone else for that matter, cover one of Joni’s songs makes me appreciate the originals all over again.

    Not that Ms. McLachlan doesn’t do a kickass job.

    Sybil — November 4, 2006 @ 5:42 am

  • I know this will sound lame, but the Ally McBeal (sp?) Christmas CD is pretty good and it includes the best cover of River that I have heard and its done by Robert Downey, Jr. I guess all that hard livin’ gives him a good place to start from emotion-wise. Really an unexpected gem. As for this, and coming from a Sarah fan, its less than stellar. But that is her fault for always using that Merchand guy as her producer. Familiarity breeds crappy, over-processed music.

    Ben — November 5, 2006 @ 4:40 am

  • Am enjoying this blog enormously but wish any mention of Christmas could be witheld until at least the first of December.

    Have always fouund Joni Mitchell’s music difficult and resent the feeling that I have that this is somehow a failure on my part. This version of River is rather lovely though and made me think of Amsterdam at Christmas-time. Drat – today here in Britain I’m supposed to be thinking of the ‘the only man to enter the houses of parliament with honest intentions’ as the poster in every worth-its-anarchist-salt squat used to say of Guy Fawkes.

    Anyhow thank you.

    Richard — November 5, 2006 @ 9:53 am

  • Thanks for this, I didn’t know she had a new album coming out either. River sounds great!

    emmett — November 7, 2006 @ 6:19 am

  • thanks so so very much for this – look forward to you featuring more tracks of this album as Christmas draws closer :)

    supergurg — November 10, 2006 @ 1:39 am

  • I just found your blog today and I’m glad I did! I’m loving most of what you post which further extents my playlist which had already baffled my housemates. ;)

    How did you receive her CD in the mail? Bloggers often mention how they receive a new release of sorts in the mail and, well, I’m really curious!

    Bronwyn — November 21, 2006 @ 2:18 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
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