Bob Dylan’s Christmas Revisited

One of the special treats for dedicated Bob Dylan fans this year was the publication of Ray Padgett’s book Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members. It contains 40 interviews with musicians who have played live with Dylan from his earliest days right up to (nearly) the present day.

And just a few days ago, Ray delivered another treat, that being an interview with Randy Crenshaw, one of the backing singers who sang on Bob Dylan’s Christmas in the Heart album in 2009. Read it all at Ray Padgett’s substack page.

As detailed there, Randy and the rest of his male quartet for the occasion arrived and participated in a single day of recording, during which they completed “I’ll Be Home For Christmas,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Must Be Santa,” “The First Noel,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” These songs were all recorded live in the studio: everyone all together playing and singing at once. This was enough to blow the singers’ minds, as it is naturally almost never done that way in the modern era, and let alone with such an ensemble. There was Dylan’s regular touring band, a gaggle of special musicians, the four male singers and three unrelated female singers. And in the middle of the room there was Bob Dylan himself, commanding a boombox with various versions of his Christmas favorites for everyone to listen to. Then he’d invite everyone to join in as he launched into one. The singers, accustomed to having arrangements to follow, were flummoxed, but somehow between themselves they worked things out on the fly and came up with parts to sing in appropriate places. (It was something of a Christmas miracle, albeit in Los Angeles in the month of May.)

Hearing that things were this spontaneous surprised me personally, to be honest, because—other than Bob’s own vocals—Christmas in the Heart always sounded pretty slick to me. It certainly succeeds in evoking the classic stylings of many popular old Christmas records. I imagined that more thought and preparation had gone into achieving that. Randy Crenshaw does note that Dylan’s own band was very on the ball and knew what he wanted, so we might presume they had run through some of the material with Bob on previous occasions. But hats off to the backing singers, because they truly delivered performances that sound just right, under quite extraordinary circumstances. (And, true to form, Bob Dylan was disinclined to even listen to the takes; unless there’d been an explosion during the taping, he was happy to move right on to the next tune.)

Back when this album was originally released, I wrote a novella-length review: “Follow the Light: The Heart in Bob Dylan’s Christmas.” The gist of it was my exploration of why this album was the best blending of the secular with the religious songs of Christmas that I’d ever heard. (And I stand by that.) My conclusion as to why that was came down largely to the opening track, Gene Autry’s “Here Comes Santa Claus.” I had never even noticed the religious content in this Santa song before (and indeed, some versions leave it out). Dylan’s version, however, emphasizes it in a way that makes it impossible to miss. His performance ends this way:

Peace on Earth will come to all
If we just follow the light
So fill your hearts with Christmas cheer
’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight

[slower and with emphasis] Peace on Earth will come to all
If we just follow the light
Let’s give thanks to the Lord above
’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight

Let’s give thanks to the Lord above
’Cos Santa Claus comes tonight

So, on the opening song of the album, this has the effect of putting Santa in his place. It effectively reorders Christmas, announcing that Santa Claus, the tinsel, the lights, the presents, the reindeer and the rest of that silly, fun stuff are all things that we can and should thank God for. So now, the secular songs of Christmas that follow don’t seem so much to be shoving Jesus out of the way. They are just part of the joy that God gives us, and it’s OK to enjoy them, right alongside hymns like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” Usually, singers will record either secular or religious Christmas albums, or separate the two in the sequencing of the songs. Bob Dylan, I do believe, blends both in a way that makes them complementary and seemingly of one spirit.

And thanks to Randy Crenshaw’s testimony we now know he did it all live in the studio, by the seat of his pants, with just a break for Subway sandwiches in between.

It truly is a wonderful world. God bless us, every one.

A Merry Little Christmas with Hugh Martin and Mark Steyn

The Cinch Review

Hugh Martin Mark Steyn Christmas

I’m cognizant that it could be considered a little odd to pen an appreciation of an appreciation, but here I do so anyway (just in case, I suppose, someone might appreciate it).

The multifaceted writer Mark Steyn recently reposted on his website an audio tribute he made to the late songwriter Hugh Martin (who died in 2011). Martin is the composer of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” surely one of the most poignant popular songs of Christmas. That was written for the 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis, starring Judy Garland, and for which Martin also wrote “The Boy Next Door” and “The Trolley Song.” Continue reading “A Merry Little Christmas with Hugh Martin and Mark Steyn”

Three Must-Have Christmas Albums

The Cinch Review

‘Tis the season to remember three of our very favorite Christmas albums, all of which have been reviewed at greater length in these pages in the past. So, in capsule form here and now:

Christmas in the Heart ~ Bob Dylan

Christmas In The Heart by Bob Dylan

Many groaned when they heard Bob Dylan had recorded a Christmas record, and many still think that he himself groans his way through it, but they’re the ones missing out. Immaculately produced in what might initially seem a cheesy fashion but actually features exceedingly smart and classic stylings, it sets the smooth instrumental and vocal backing against Dylan’s hoarse singing, and brings to mind nothing so much as Louis Armstrong in the latter part of his career doing “What a Wonderful World.” The voice is so lived in, the owner of it has seemingly seen it all, and yet at the end of it all can guilelessly sing lines like: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” It counts so very much coming from that place. And, as expounded on at (likely) painful length in my original review, Dylan’s Christmas album manages to blend the secular and religious songs of Christmas together in a startlingly effective way, finding a spirit that unites them. It’ll surely make you laugh and at times it ought well make you cry. You must have it.

Via Amazon. Via Amazon UK. Via iTunes.

(And Dylan’s proceeds in perpetuity go to providing food to the needy.)

A Jolly Christmas ~ Frank Sinatra

A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra

Set down right amidst the high water mark of Frank Sinatra’s career and talent in the mid-1950s, this sensitively-made long playing record, arranged by Gordon Jenkins, provides posterity with essential Sinatra readings of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Jingle Bells, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and others. Essential because Sinatra remains the greatest male popular singer to ever lift a microphone to his lips, and he is heard here as the great musician that he was and not the caricature too often present in the popular consciousness. And, as expounded on at (possibly) painful length in my original review, this Christmas album by Sinatra is one particularly apt for listening to when one is alone during the holiday season: not necessarily lonely, but simply by oneself. It’ll take you places. You must have it.

Via Amazon. Via Amazon UK. Via iTunes.

Baby It’s Cold Outside ~ Cerys Matthews

Baby It's Cold Outside Christmas Classics Cerys Matthews

Knew very little about Welsh chanteuse Cerys Matthews when we first encountered this album (the most recently-released on our list) but have become consummate fans since, finding that her work over many years combines remarkable spirit, talent and taste in an especially uplifting fashion. Here, in recordings that possess that spark of genuine live performance, she and her merry band perform such traditional chestnuts as “We Three Kings Of Orient Are” and “Ding Dong Merrily On High” and seem effortlessly to conjure what must have been their original joy and mystery. Indeed, as expounded on at (relatively) brief length in my original review, as well-worn a song as “Go Tell It On The Mountain” is performed here “as if it was composed yesterday, with a fairly overflowing spirit of gladness and urgency. That’s no small thing.” And truly, Christmas is not a small thing, after all. That’s what this album will remind you of, and it will get you singing along too. You must have it.

Via Earthquake. Via Amazon. Via Amazon UK. Via iTunes.

Bonuses!

Under-promise and over-deliver, that’s always our motto here, so here’s two more essential Christmas picks:

Christmas with the Louvin Brothers ~ The Louvin Brothers

The aforementioned Bob Dylan once picked this as possibly his favorite Christmas album, with good reason, as the Louvin’s transcendent harmonies can transport you to a higher place from which you may return with reluctance. Originally it contained only hymns, but the modern edition includes two secular Christmas tunes as well. Ira Louvin was a troubled man, but it sure seems at least he knew where he should be looking for the light.

Via Amazon. Via Amazon UK. Via iTunes.

A Christmas Gift for You ~ Phil Spector (and various)

Is there anyone in the world who hasn’t heard these great tunes, by the Ronettes, Darlene Love and the Crystals? Yet their very ubiquity might make us take them for granted. They evoke Christmas as intensely as a deep snowfall on the evening of December 24th. The producer of all of these amazing sides, Phil Spector, is spending this Christmas in jail, and likely the balance of his life, but it’s worth remembering that there were moments in which he followed his better angels and made music as beautiful and as cheering as this.

Via Amazon. Via Amazon UK. Via iTunes.

So maybe we should all try to follow our better angels. Merry Christmas.

“Forever Young” in Kohl’s Commercial (Bob Dylan)

The Cinch Review

Forever Young Bob Dylan Kohl's commercial

Yesterday I griped cantankerously about BobDylan.com daring to make some kind of video for his song “Like a Rolling Stone.” Today I’ve become aware of further new visuals for a Bob Dylan song, courtesy of the U.S. discount department store chain known as Kohl’s.

There are some differences. It is not one of Bob Dylan’s versions of the song, but instead a simple cover version by a female singer with a guitar. And it is about thirty-three seconds long. As commercials go, it is tasteful, not pushing the sale of anything in particular but just trying to create a general good feeling. One may understandably recoil from being manipulated, but Lord knows there are worse ways of being manipulated. You can watch it below, embedded via YouTube.

As you would see if you watched it, it portrays a young couple who are carefully decorating an apartment for Christmas. But it is not their own apartment, as we realize when they quickly exit and an elderly lady arrives home. She opens the door to her abode to see the lights and the tree and all the Christmas trimmings, and she is seen to choke up and get teary-eyed, as the young couple peek out of their own doorway, smiling.

All very feel-good and touching, and an astute use of the Bob Dylan tune. However—curmudgeonly Scrooge that it may prove me to be—I cannot help thinking that the real reason the old lady is beginning to cry is that the overriding thought in her head is the following: “Taking down all of this damn junk is going to kill me.”

Merry Christmas. (And it ain’t even Thanksgiving yet.)

Cerys Matthews – Baby, It’s Cold Outside (Christmas Classics)

Cerys Matthews Baby It's Cold Outside Christmas review

Review of Baby It's Cold Outside: Christmas Classics from Cerys Matthews

Before this Christmas season draws to an official close (there are twelve days of Christmas, y’know), I thought it worth noting one new addition to the already-gargantuan and ever-increasing library of Christmas albums. (I love great Christmas music and am known to listen to it in July.) It is a record titled Baby, It’s Cold Outside by a lady singer named Cerys Matthews, who emanates from the nation of Wales. She is little known west of the Atlantic Ocean, though she’s had quite an interesting and eclectic career, leading a rock/pop band by the name of Catatonia during the nineties, later going to live and work in Nashville for a few years and producing more folky/countrified kind of work, and in more recent times recording and releasing her renditions of traditional Welsh songs (and this album features one titled “Y Darlun”).

With a title like Baby, It’s Cold Outside, one might well assume that this was a swinging Dino kind of Xmas record, but that track is very much the exception, and in more ways than one; in fact, it’s probably best to circle back to it at the end of this little review. In actuality, this is an album of traditional and predominantly religious Christmas carols, performed in a sparse, folk-like context, albeit pretty far from any idea of folk purism. The central success of the album is in enlivening and refreshing these old tunes, like “Good King Wenceslas” and “We Three Kings Of Orient Are,” with live-in-the-studio performances that are just off-center enough to be interesting to the ear (with the odd exotic instrument thrown in), and which at the same time communicate an infectious sense of joy and mystery. Even “Jingle Bells,” which to me is probably the most annoying song to have to hear again and again during the holiday season, is performed winsomely enough here with banjo and sleigh-bells to raise a fresh smile. Similarly, “Go Tell It On the Mountains”—surely about as hackneyed a folk-hymn as one could name—is performed here as if it was composed yesterday, with a fairly overflowing spirit of gladness and urgency. That’s no small thing.

A full-length example—although it’s a more modern song than most of the others—is the rendition of “Little Donkey,” which can be heard via SoundCloud below. Although this tune can be dismissed as a “children’s song” (as if children’s songs aren’t crucial both to Christmas and to the universe-at-large) I think the performance here evokes the genuine poignancy at the heart of it. It is sung and played with great love and care, as if it all really matters. (Someday we’ll find out if it does.) Coconut shells are the featured exotic instrument. Cerys Matthews’ vocal on this track is at a whisper level.

In the end, it is a Cerys Matthews album, and so her singing is the key color on the canvas. When I first heard her sing (not in the context of this album) I frankly didn’t like her style very much at all. Then, I happened across her in a different setting, and thought, well, that’s kinda something. Having now heard a lot more of what she’s done, including this current record, I would have to say that I’ve come to believe she’s a singer of quite remarkable nuance and range, although she comes across with deceptive simplicity. For one thing, she genuinely knows how to use a microphone. It was Sinatra who described the microphone as “the singer’s instrument,” and even in his day he mourned those singers who didn’t use it for all it was worth. Today, you only have to turn on one of those ubiquitous talent shows to see how many singers believe that they should basically plant the microphone on their lips and yell. And why not, when they get rewarded with huge applause for doing so? Matthews clearly understands how her use of the microphone helps manage the dynamics of the performance and the expression of the song. And when we’re talking about dynamics, the concept of restraint (or lack thereof) inevitably comes up. Matthews, as with the finest singers, seems to know as a matter of instinct and taste when and what to hold back, and when (which ought rightly to be rare) to let loose. She also seems wise about turning technical weaknesses of her voice to her advantage when it comes to emotional expressiveness. The variety of vocal tones and textures she applies just on this album are pretty impressive on their own merit. And, in the end, after all, she is Welsh; therefore a very special blessing of God is upon her vocal cords, and I think that she cannot be said in her use of them to squander that particular element.




And so, back around to the title track. It was in 1999, while Matthews was still the lead singer for the rock/pop band Catatonia, that fellow Welsh citizen and pop-music legend Tom Jones connected with her to record the old Frank Loesser classic, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” for a new Tom Jones album and as a Christmas single in Britain. They did the complete treatment, a total throwback, with the right kind of band. No great effort for ol’ Tom Jones, a truly old-school professional vocalist, you might well say, but how did the rock & roll chick figure into it? Well, she acquitted herself with aplomb. It was a relatively minor hit in the U.K. at the time, but, as with the best of these Christmas things, it has stuck around and people remember it year by year. Cerys Matthews had apparently planned to build a follow-up Christmas album around it herself, but the project has waited all the way until now. What she delivered in 2012 is of a rather dramatically different spirit to that track, although it could be said that the concepts of joy and of fun are common denominators. The song has been sung by many greats over the years, but rarely if ever has it been done with the kind of chemistry that Tom and Cerys put forth, especially in their live performances, one of which is embedded below via YouTube. Matthews hams up her half of the vocal to the nth degree, but that doesn’t prevent her from bringing it all home in the end.

As for the album as a whole, a record that evokes the joys and the mysteries of the true story of Christmas as charmingly as this one does deserves to be remembered for many Christmases to come.

Rating: Nine and a half out of ten lead pipes.

9 1/2 out of 10 lead pipes

Baby It’s Cold Outside is available via Earthquake

Or via Amazon.com

Or via Amazon UK

    Merry Christmas, You Beasts

    The Cinch Review

    Below, a photo of our little mutt, Billie, posing cooperatively and carefully amidst some very breakable Christmas ornaments (recycled from a previous Christmas photo session, in case anyone remembers).

    Merry Christmas from a friendly beast

    There were reports in the media earlier this year regarding a new book from Pope Benedict, the current commander-in-chief at the Vatican, titled “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.” It was said that he had debunked some traditional notions regarding Christmas. One of those had to do with the specific year in which Jesus was born, to the effect that it was likely not in the year 1 AD, but rather in the year 5 or 6 BC. This fact is really nothing new (although it must have caused no end of confusion for calendar-makers back then: “Well, is he here yet or isn’t he here yet? We can’t cancel another print run!”)

    The other reported-debunking was more controversial, however. It was widely broadcast just as in the following story: Continue reading “Merry Christmas, You Beasts”