Al Petteway & Amy White,
Winter Tidings
(Maggie's Music, 2006)

Holiday music should be cozy but not trite or drippingly sentimental. It should evoke both the crispness of winter and the warmth of a blazing hearth. And perhaps most importantly, it should be genuinely good music, as enjoyable to listen to in June as it is in December. Just a handful of CDs fit this bill: a few Windham Hill collections, the two Loreena McKennitt winter recordings -- and this latest CD by Al Petteway and Amy White, Winter Tidings, which has been in my CD player for the last week straight, despite the fact Christmas is months away.

Not to worry: if you're still suffering from Christmas music overload from last year, of the 13 tracks that make up Winter Tidings, only "Joy to the World" is very common, and even that has been combined with a new composition by Petteway and transformed into a bright, joyous guitar piece. Other tracks are new arrangements of old carols, particularly those with secular origins. They range from the quite obscure ("Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella") to the somewhat overlooked ("The Holly & the Ivy"). But there are also a number of completely secular tracks, including two original pieces by White. The resulting blend is audibly fresh, yet rooted in traditional sounds and instruments; wintry, yet never exclusively or obtrusively Christmasy, and genuinely inviting.

As with the artists' earlier CD Land of the Sky, everything on Winter Tidings has a distinct Appalachian flavor, which is most evident on "Roving on a Winter's Night," an Appalachian song whose lyrics are based on Robert Burns' "My Love is Like a Red Red Rose." Petteway and White's version features a whole lot of banjo plucking and a lively vocal duet. About a third of the tracks contain vocals, and while Petteway and White have voices that are more pleasant than extraordinary, they do add considerably to the homey, intimate feeling of the CD. White's voice is particularly lovely on the gentle, simply arranged carol, "People Look East."

As a whole, however, it is the quality and variety of instrumentation that shines through in Winter Tidings. Mandolin, guitar, dulcimer and whistle are just a few of the instruments the artists play. There's also the easygoing and cheerful piano on "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella," the clear, synesthetically white harp on "Into the Light" and a whole bevy of acoustic instruments on the boisterous final track, "Star in the East/Born in Beth'ny," which the liner notes rightfully call "worthy of a Renaissance Fair." But my favorite track on the CD is probably "Gabriel's Message/I Wonder as I Wander," which begins with solemn church bells and moves into a fluid, slightly melancholy duet between guitar and piano.

By turns merry and contemplative, Winter Tidings captures the many faces of a winter in the countryside. It is truly lovely to listen to. There are no bad tracks, no sense of overproduction or affectation, and no tasteless sound effects. Like very few other recordings, Winter Tidings really is the perfect soundtrack to a winter evening -- or any evening you feel nostalgic for winter.

by Jennifer Mo
2 December 2006

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