When it comes to 2009's crop of holiday music, Bob Dylan's Christmas in the Heart (Columbia) is obviously the biggest — and some would say weirdest — news. The album has already generated more mixed reviews and controversy than probably any such album in history. How much you enjoy it or hate it, however, will be determined almost entirely on what you think of Dylan as an artist, how much you actually know about him and his history, and how you perceive him as an entertainer (or, in his own words, as "a song-and-dance man"). He's done little that's not noteworthy in my book, so I, of course, think it's pretty terrific. But to clear up a few misconceptions before we discuss the actual music: He did not do this for the money (all his royalties are going to feed the hungry) and, no, it's not a "joke," at least not in the traditional sense. Dylan has been nothing if not a music historian his entire career, but even more so in recent — modern? — times, given his radio show, autobiography and latest music. Eclectic cover material is nothing new to him either, dating back to Self Portrait and 1973's much-maligned Dylan album, but it's been especially prevalent during the last decade or so, as he's contributed numerous such recordings to soundtracks and tribute albums. Ever heard his version of Warren Smith's "Red Cadillac and a Black Mustache" from the all-star Sun Records tribute album a few years back? His cover of Dean Martin's "Return to Me" on The Sopranos soundtrack? Or his take on the doo-wop classic, "You Belong to Me" (for Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers), which Bob is knowledgeable enough to know was also a hit standard for Teresa Brewer and the aforementioned Dino?
The truth here is that Dylan grew up surrounded by Christmas music every December, as did most Americans in those days (and before anyone brings up religion and culture, it needs to be noted that some of the world's most famous and best Christmas music originated with Jews, be it Irving Berlin, Mel Tormé or even Phil Spector; hell, there's yet another new Neil Diamond yuletide compilation in the stores this season, while everyone knows that Babs Streisand has recorded some awesome musical tributes to Jesus over the years). So in the same way that Dylan is so obviously American through and through that he tours with his Oscar and plays every single show with it placed on the amplifier behind him (an interviewer once asked him if he really cared that he'd won an Academy Award, to which he responded: "Of course! Wouldn't you?"), Bob obviously loves and was influenced by a lot of this music ... and knows that the lyrics are as responsible for the way the world views Christmas — that is, its imagery, customs and characters — as Dickens or "The Night Before Christmas" were.
Of the 15 tracks he recorded, 11 are American classics, several of them — such as "Little Drummer Boy" — were even hits on the radio when Dylan was a kid. The other four are traditional carols that he's undoubtedly familiar with via versions by American artists, be they Frank Sinatra or Mahalia Jackson, just as he surely remembers and loves the American tunes that he does here from the last century, by such musical heroes as Bing Crosby (who was referenced on Dylan's Love and Theft album), Elvis Presley, Gene Autry, Dino, Ella Fitzgerald and countless others.
There is that whole issue of the voice, which is what most of the reviews have concentrated on. It's certainly an acquired taste; you either get it or you don't. One probably imagines blindly that a vocalist like Dylan should never croon "Do You Hear What I Hear?" or "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" — but neither rendition is at all bad, and they're even actually kinda touching. There are parts of "Little Drummer Boy," where he harmonizes with the choir, that are actually quite beautiful. And when he verbally croaks (literally) on other parts of the album, a true fan might simply think, "Well, that's Bob!" and be kinda touched by that as well. He's never been a traditional "singer," but he's almost always been able to "sell" a song. You might even liken it to if, say, Tom Waits made a Christmas album or maybe even one of Louis Armstrong's holiday collections. In other words, he's a stylist and he's, of course, funny even if this isn't a "joke" (his listing of Santa's reindeers on "Must Be Santa," featuring Los Lobos' Dave Hidalgo on accordion, includes such nontraditional names as Nixon, Bush, Kennedy and Reagan on a version that sounds like the Mitch Miller Singers at a crazy Mexican wedding).
What almost no one mentions about this album, though, is its great production, once again by Dylan under his "Jack Frost" pseudonym. Musically, it sounds just like those albums baby boomers of a certain age certainly, but I'd imagine most Americans in general, grew up hearing every year around this time, right down to the female backing singers. You could almost substitute Bob's voice with Andy Williams'; that's how authentic it sounds. Bottom line: You may very well hate this album, especially if you're not a fan of Christmas music or Bob Dylan. But if you are a fan, you may think that — even though it's one of the most inconsequential albums of Dylan's career — it's still pretty damn good ... and a total hoot on top of it all.
The rest: Los Straitjackets' Yuletide Beat (YepRoc) is this year's best rock 'n' roll Christmas disc. By far. It simply repeats a formula that's been well-worn (and which they used on their first Christmas disc, 2002's 'Tis The Season for Los Straitjackets) ever since the Ventures invented it in the mid-'60s, of course. But from the moment it kicks off with the opening riffs of the Bobby Fuller Four's version of "I Fought the Law" as a way to introduce "Deck the Halls," the listener immediately knows this is definitely the Ventures reinterpreted, which is sorta like déjà vu all over again but in a good way ... which is sort of a description of the holidays in general. It takes a really fine band to succeed at it, and this one's a beauty, as the Mexican wrestler mask-wearing dudes literally pull the C-Am-F-G rock 'n' roll beauty out of some of these songs for all they're worth.
Michael McDonald is kinda "hip" again this year, thanks to recording with Grizzly Bear this past summer in a move that was apparently neither tongue-in-cheek nor "ironic." Nevertheless, his This Christmas (Razor & Tie) is exactly what you'd expect from the man. There's an interesting B.B. King-like guitar thing on his "White Christmas"; a boozy and brassy Dixieland take on "I'll Be Home for Christmas" (which doesn't really fit the song's sentiment all that well); a ukulele-driven "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas"; and a jazzy, bluesy "Come All Ye Merry Gentlemen," with a "tidings of comfort and joy" ending that seems to go on ad nauseam. None of the originals are memorable; some might even be described as grating. It's all subjective, of course, but I'd much rather listen to Dylan croak.
Much like your perspective on Dylan, what you already think of Tori Amos and Sting's most recent solo material will ultimately decide what you think of her Midwinter Graces (Universal Republic) and his If on a Winter's Night... (Deutsche Grammophon). (That's not always the case, by the way: Sheryl Crow's Christmas album blew me away last year and I'm not a fan otherwise. I've also never bought a Lee Ann Womack record, but her holiday album a few years back was beautiful.) Actually, these are more winter albums than they are holiday albums — and some of us hate winter. So consider that for what it's worth. Tori's original composition, "A Silent Night with You," is a pretty tune, and she also offers a big band-ish take on another original, "Pink & Glitter." Her "Silent Night" is even quite lovely. But both Amos and Sting sound like they wish they'd been born in another century at times on these discs; Sting especially sounds like he wants to be serenading Maid Marian, who might possibly be the only person who'd take this tripe seriously. (Note: the "Hurdy Gurdy Man" he included on this is not the Donovan classic, which is a good thing since that song had nothing to do with the holidays or the season.) Amos sometimes makes you think of Enya. In short, their view of the season — and, thus, the holidays — is a pretty damn serious and even somber affair. At least you know there's gonna be a party going on at Dylan's place!
Finally, metal leather boy Rob Halford — or Halford III, as he's dubbed here — has a solo Christmas/winter album out this year, Winter Songs (Metal God Entertainment), which just goes to show that there are obviously Christmas albums out there for damn near every kind of taste (even if this one is far more symphonic and orchestral than some metalheads might prefer). That brings us to R.E.O. Speedwagon's Not So Silent Night (Sony), which might be succinctly described as the Christmas album as an '80s FM power ballad. Different strokes, as they say.
On the local front, Suburban Sprawl has once again — for the eighth year, to be exact — released a Christmas compilation, Holiday Sampler 2009, featuring seasonal contributions from their large roster of bands, including tracks from the Hard Lessons, Computer Perfection, Prussia and label honcho Zach Curd, among numerous others. The compilation tracks are all available for download at the Suburban Sprawl website (suburbansprawlmusic.com). Christmas in Detroit is a new three-CD compilation featuring 42 seasonal tracks. Some of them are repeats from the previous two Christmas in Detroit CDs ... but 17 new tracks have been recorded by the likes of such local faves as the Hell Drivers, Stewart Francke, Jeff Daniels and Dave Edwards. Proceeds go to S.A.Y Detroit, a nonprofit organization that funds homeless projects in the area. The CD is available for $20 at ReverbNation.com as well as at various local merchants.
And the 7th annual Detroit Sounds & Spirits Old-Fashioned Holiday Spectacular at the Magic Stick (4120 Woodward Ave., Detroit) was announced just as we were going to press. Details aren't totally cemented yet, but the event is scheduled for Wednesday, Dec. 23. According to the event's Facebook post, this year's festivities will include "special guest hosts and Gangplank Recording artists Phil Hall and Kevin Oates, twin brothers of famed chart toppers Hall & Oates," as well as such other local faves as the Hard Lessons, Blanche, the Pop Project, the Javelins, Mick Bassett & the Marthas, Danny Dollrod, and many, many more.
Have a happy holiday and don't drink and drive. The life you safe might be yours and mine.
Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to mailto:[email protected]
Los Straitjackets play with El Vez and the Fabulous El-Vettes for a "Viva Christmas!" spectacular on Thursday, Dec. 10, at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-858-9333.