Consider Loreena McKennitt's latest album to be a natural expansion of her exquisite Yuletide EP, "A Winter Garden."
In fact, McKennitt includes four of those five songs on the sumptuously melancholy Christmas album "A Midwinter Night's Dream." These medieval ballads and traditional carols are soaked in an ambience of nighttime woods, embroidered tapestries, wassail and Christmas mass in a shadowy cathedral. No syrupy shopping carols -- this is Christmas music from an earlier age.
It opens with a swell of piano and quivering strings, as McKennitt murmurs, "The holly and the ivy/when they are full grown/of all the trees in the wood/the holly bears the crown... the rising of the sun/the running of the deer/the playing of the organ/sweet singing in the choir...."
It's a suitable introduction to the album -- quiet, soft, and redolent with medieval Christianity alongside the forest's powerful vibrancy. And it quickly segues into the stately fiddle-riddled dance of "Un Flambeau Jeannette Isabelle," the languid hymn "The Seven Rejoices Of Mary" and the swaying "Noël Nouvelet!"
Then she heads into more familiar traditional fare -- the sprightly "Good King Wenceslas," the gentle lullably "Coventry Carol" with its tale of King Herod's baby massacre, and staccato rhythms of "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." After that it's a mixture of well-known and more obscure -- a pair mellow haunting instrumentals, a bittersweet ballad a trembling string rendition of the traditional "Emmanuel," and even a hearty wassailing song.
Along with Sufjan Stevens' Christmas EPs, "A Midwinter Night's Dream" is one of the few Christmas albums that breaks the mold -- no "Jingle Bells," no "Let It Snow," no sentimental carols performed exactly the same as hundreds of other renditions. In other words, no painfully commercial carols meant for radioplay.
Instead, McKennitt seems content to transport listeners back to tapestry-draped castles, dark nights filled with laughter and food, snowy forests and candelit stone churches. Her songs are crammed with stately sweet violins, plucked lute and some rhythmic little hand drums, as well as a sinuous flute that gives it a slightly Middle-Eastern flavor in "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen."
The crowning touch is McKennitt's strong, sweetly rich voice, which always sounds like she's restraining herself from REALLY blowing you away. Her voice slips easily into all the traditional carols, with their subjects ranging a saintly king's mission of mercy to Christina Rossetti's haunting poem of adoring the Christ child ("Cherubim and seraphim/Thronged the air/But his mother only/In her maiden bliss/Worshipped the Beloved/With a kiss...").
"A Midwinter Night's Dream" is a haunting, richly realized Christmas album with a melancholy edge and truly exquisite traditional carols. A must-listen in any Christmas season.