NOW LISTEN HEAR: Whee! Three Albums
I’ll bet you have “unusual” holiday albums at your house. Go down to the comments and let the rest of us in on them! Then, come back up here to read about these three that I like.
1. Bob Dylan- “Christmas In the Heart” (Sony, 2009)
I don’t know if this one is intended to be a joke, but it cracks me up every time I listen to it. You will know most of the fifteen (15!) songs included, if not all of them. It is chock full of contrasts, beginning with the packaging art—a classic Eastern European depiction of winter invites you to open the disc, where you are met by 1950’s Playboy Playmate Bettie Page in half of a Santa suit. Most of the instrumental and background vocal tracks are produced to mimic the smoother sounds of the early ‘60’s and create a warm, homey backdrop for Dylan’s assortment of rumbles, crow imitations, and gags (as in something is choking him). Dylan’s singing on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” is more of a threat than a promise, from a drunk uncle who lives in an old RV somewhere in New Mexico. “Must Be Santa” is the only song that breaks from the album’s reserved tone, and might feel at home on a Los Lobos album were it not for the corroded voice of the singer (note: Los Lobos member David Hidalgo plays accordion on this track and other instruments throughout the album). Stolen from an arrangement by the Brave Combo, it’s a wild ride from the get-go, and includes shoutouts to Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and “Ronald Reagan’s bullshit list”. Bob sings well on a lot of these songs, if you are willing to accept the raspy voice that old age has given him. I especially like his rendition of “Do You Hear What I Hear” for how many times he sings the word “I” and a pitch will not come out. “Hark the Herald Angels” could have been retitled “Bark At the Birds,” but is a lovely arrangement. Either he just couldn’t concentrate long enough to sing “The Christmas Song” straight, or he’s a more clever musician than I gave him credit for. The last word on the album is an “Amen” you won’t soon forget.
Let me change my original statement—this album is a collection of jokes that Bob Dylan is sharing with the rest of us. Can you say “Ho ho ho?”
2. Blind Boys of Alabama- “Go Tell It On The Mountain” (Real World Records, 2003)
Alright, which one of you kids has my hard copy of this album? I KNEW I should have made a copy.
This album won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Soul Gospel Album in 2004. The Blind Boys first sang together in the 1930’s and founding member Jimmy Carter still sings with the group at age 84. Though they never stopped performing, they’ve had two “comebacks”- one in the 1980’s and a big one right after the turn of the century, which saw them being recognized by and collaborating with Tom Waits and Peter Gabriel. The rhythm section for this wonderful record is John Modeski (organ), Duke Robillard (guitar), Danny Thompson (bass), and Michael Jerome (drums), all under-sung players that sound and feel great together. There are guest appearances from Waits, the late great Solomon Burke, Michael Franti (of Spearhead), Chrissie Hynde and Richard Thompson together on “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Meshell Ndegeocello, Aaron Neville, Mavis Staples, Shelby Lynne, George Clinton and Robert Randolph together on “Away in a Manger”, and Les McCann. Holy crap, a smorgasbord! And indeed, maybe too much food.
I feel like the Blind Boys sound so great, it’s a shame to have them in the background for most of the album. There is so much guesting going on here that sometimes it’s hard to remember whose party it is. Some guests give subpar performances (Shelby Lynne gets stuck in a key that’s too low for her to sing, Tom Waits gives too much of the Bear voice) and some don’t seem to fit quite right for me (what the hell, George Clinton and Les McCann?). But what I like on this record, I like A LOT. “Little Drummer Boy” is so pregnant with suspense. Solomon Burke is really in church on the Harry Connick song “I Pray on Christmas.” On “Born in Bethlehem” Mavis Staples is fantastic as always, and shows that a great singer can find a way around a voice that ain’t what it used to be. Here are the Blind Boys of Alabama, without guests…
3. Wynton Marsalis- “Crescent City Christmas Card” (Columbia, 1989)
I was doing so well in keeping to music of this century, but here we go back in time in more ways than one. Not only is this record now 26 years old, but in Wynton’s traditionalist fashion it relies heavily on styles from at least twenty years before that. The basic gist of this album is, take a small big band with its roots in New Orleans and add some Ellington and Coltrane. But do it really well! There’s plenty of variety here, even though it is all JAaazz. The drunken “Carol of the Bells” opens the album, followed by diva Kathleen Battle singing to an understated arrangement of “Silent Night.” Jon Hendricks, age 68 at the time of the recording, makes this one of the most fun “Sleigh Rides” ever. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” features Reginald Veal playing the melody on bass, backed by clarinets. Wynton recites “Twas the Night Before Christmas” in a “Peter and the Wolf” style arrangement that illustrates the story with music, and gives the reindeer and Santa Claus their own funky themes. The brilliant pianist Marcus Roberts is mostly in the background, but plays the most surprising stuff throughout the album.
I hope you enjoyed these little stocking stuffers. Please put your special holiday album in a comment below!
Curt Bley found his ultimate purpose in life when he saw the Beatles’ second appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. He has been playing bass since age 10 and professionally since age 14, because things were different in the era of Three Television Stations. His playing has been heard with a wide range of artists from The Fifth Dimension to Dweezil Zappa. A mostly self-taught musician, Mr. Bley is glad that his educated colleagues agree with his musical theories 95 percent of the time. He has been a mainstay on the Chicago music scene for 35 years and swears he is not done yet.