There’s a communal feeling about most Christmas music. Maybe this is because we generally hear the songs in the company of others, whether it’s as we’re elbowing our way down the aisles of the department store or perhaps singing along with them in church. I think that the most special thing about Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas (Capitol Records, 1957) may well be how a very particular mood is created, quite different to that of the run-of-the-mill Christmas album. It is not so much a mood of lonesomeness (although Sinatra was well-skilled with evocation in that area) but a more nuanced and less inherently-sad sense of simply being alone at Christmas. Not miserable, and not necessarily overjoyed either, but simply contemplating and appreciating the season apart from the crowds and the relatives.
In the course of his long career Sinatra recorded plenty of Christmas music, from the sides with Axel Stordahl in the 1940s on Columbia (some very lovely stuff) to The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas on Reprise in 1968 (predictably kind of cheesy). And these Christmas tracks get repackaged and resold over and over again. However, A Jolly Christmas is, to my mind, quite distinct. In 1957 when he went in to record it (during July in Los Angeles), Sinatra was truly at the peak of his artistic powers. Not only was his vocal ability (both the quality of his voice and his sense of how to use it) the best it had ever been or would ever be, but he was also at a peak of good taste. My theory is that Sinatra always personally had good taste, but later in his career he came to believe that his potential audience did not, and he dumbed things down at times in an effort to woo them. At this time, however, in the mid-1950s, Sinatra had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, musically-speaking, and what he was capable of, and he was able to work with arrangers and musicians of great excellence and taste themselves, and together they were able to put out records of a very high standard that in turn reached an appreciative and welcoming audience. All of these factors would never come together simultaneously again, and this is why Sinatra’s albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s stand as his greatest, and indeed as some of the most perfect examples of refined popular music that exist.
To put it in context, A Jolly Christmas was bookended by A Swingin’ Affair! (a sterling Nelson Riddle set) and Come Fly With Me (a masterpiece with Billy May). And released in exactly the same month (September of 1957) was Where Are You?, one of Sinatra’s great sets of lovelorn ballads, this one arranged by Gordon Jenkins, who likewise is the arranger for A Jolly Christmas. Jenkins had his strengths and weaknesses as an arranger, but there’s no doubting that his particular style is crucial in making A Jolly Christmas the unique kind of Christmas record that it is. Continue reading A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra→
It’s a kind of marketing with which we’re becoming familiar from the Bob Dylan “camp”: rumors of a new album being recorded, followed weeks or months later by an official announcement, and then the granting of a “listening session” to certain select music journalists, with the proviso, mind you, that no notes be taken.
It’s been a highly effective way of creating a buzz (and Dylan has had two albums which entered various charts around the world at number one in the past decade). However, lest we dismiss it too cynically as a hyping mechanism, we should at least bear in mind that were one of these people at a listening session to come away saying how incredibly dull the record was (“I almost fell asleep! I just wanted to escape!”) then that would not do much for the sales prospects. You can avoid that to some degree by picking people whom you expect will enjoy the music, but there’s no guarantees.
As far as I know, only one writer who’s heard the forthcoming album has said anything about it to date, and that’s Allan Jones of the UK’s Uncut magazine. He did not fall asleep, it seems. After four or five tracks, he says, he was only thinking “how much better is this thing going to get?” Now that’s the kind of buzz you really like to have.
In terms of concrete characterizations, Jones really only says that the album has less of the “roadhouse blues” or “jazzy riverboat shuffles” that has populated the last three Dylan albums, but he alludes instead to songs like “Red River Shore” or “’Cross the Green Mountain” in terms of what the new record feels like. Those are great songs; in fact they are unforgettable classics of Dylan’s latter-day career. Again, high marks for buzz, although I do presume that Allan Jones is merely giving his honest impression rather than trying to hype anything. Continue reading World anticipates a Tempest (and also a new Bob Dylan album)→
As expounded upon before, I’m not an advocate of vinyl purely for its tactile pleasures (although I love holding a real record as much as the next guy), but for quite a few years now there’s been a trend whereby new music released on vinyl has received a kinder and more faithful mastering than that which is released on CD (or mp3), where the abuse of the process of dynamic range compression has resulted in blaring and ultimately-wearying recordings being foisted upon a largely unsuspecting public. (Also known as the Loudness War[s].) The Dylan CD releases of the past several years seem to have progressively improved in that respect. Together Through Life on CD didn’t sound quite as bad as Modern Times had, and Christmas in the Heart seemed (to me at least) better still. (By the way, with the mercury frequently hitting triple digits in many parts this summer, I am glad to suggest that putting on Christmas in the Heart makes for some pretty effective aural air-conditioning. There’s nothing like listening to Bob Dylan sing “Winter Wonderland” when it’s 104 degrees in July. Just try not to get so enchanted that you light up some logs in the fireplace.)
I don’t know how the mastering will go on the forthcoming release, but Sony/Columbia is continuing the recent pattern of offering a vinyl package that also includes the album on CD. This is a smart way of selling it, I guess, albeit that one might wish for a lower price-tag.
Amazon.com is offering Tempest for pre-order as two vinyl LPs with one CDfor (at the time of writing) $25.99. Through the BobDylan.com site, on the other hand, you can pre-order the same thing for four dollars more.
That deliciously brings to mind Bob’s couplet from his song “Po’ Boy”:
I say, “How much you want for that?” I go into the store
The man says, “Three dollars.” “All right,” I say, “Will you take four?”
Of-course, may the Good Lord hasten the way when all honest consumers will be able to obtain the recording as it was meant to be heard regardless of the medium in which they purchase it. Does that seem so much to ask?