30 October 2009

BLOGTOBER 2009: Music Reviews (22 of 22) Bob Dylan, Christmas in the Heart

Damn straight I'm reviewing Bob Dylan's Christmas in the Heart to close out this 22 reviews in 22 weekdays during October project I set before myself.

Above, Must Be Santa Claus, and yes, that is Bob Dylan rocking out with the Polka arrangement (first done by Brave Combo). Thankfully (or unfortunately, depending on your accordion tolerance level), there are no other polka versions on this album, one is unexpected campy fun, more wouldn't be.

Given that all the songs are well known standards that just about every major commercial artist under the sun has taken a crack at, there are a few questions any performer has to ask of themselves before hitting the recording booth (unless they're just after a holiday-themed paycheck, in which case, the only question is how to promote the sucker and get prominently displayed in all the major retailers).

Those questions:

What would be unique about my performance?
Do I love and respect this material?
Will my existing fans enjoy this excursion down nostalgia lane?
Will this appeal beyond my own fan base?

As far as Dylan goes, I think only one of those questions mattered to him personally, and that is, "Do I love and respect this material?", and his answer is a pure unadulterated yes. I don't think there's ever been a more sincerely felt Christmas album released, period. There's a palpable sense that Dylan loves this music with a simple, open hearted sincerity.

As far as the other questions go, "What would be unique about my performance?", well, Dylan's vocal style, matched with these ultra traditional arrangements is definitely unique. Whether that's a plus, or a minus, is up to each listener to judge. For me, while the concept seems discordant, the results are harmonious. The super slick and old fashioned arrangements are at such odds with his gravelly and eccentric phrasing, that there's an unexpected tension brought to every line that's sung. His presence brings a new context to each of these songs, even as he presents them in the most traditional of arrangements and orchestrations.

As far as the third and fourth question, "Will my fans like it, and will I attract new fans", I think this album will be considered a failure. Dylan fans aren't likely to appreciate how sincerely he loves the kind of music that they themselves likely sneered at as teens and adults back in the 60s and 70s. Like his excursion into Gospel and Country, that Dylan is not the Dylan that most Dylan fans adore and respect. The people that would enjoy the unabashedly pre-rock era feel to the musical arrangement (and especially the back-up singers, who sound borrowed from Mitch Miller, or Lawrence Welk) will be turned off by Dylan's gravelly growl.

Personally, I like the tension between these two things, a straight up Dylan folk album has no appeal to me personally, but neither does a traditional Christmas album with a sweeter voiced singer in the lead. This jarring melding of two styles that would seem to have little in common, or little likelihood of mating easily, actually gives this album its appeal.

This album succeeds (at least to my ears), because of Dylan's sincerity. If there was a hint of ironic detachment, or if it seemed Dylan was just trying to cash in on Christmas spending, this would be a disaster. There's none of that, the title of the album is apt, Dylan loves this music, wholeheartedly, if he didn't have "Christmas in the Heart", he wouldn't have been able to pull this off. There are moments that almost sound ridiculous, but Dylan's enthusiasm saves him from sounding like a bizarre karaoke act.

I think it's that sincerity that turns off some reviewers (like the one Althouse linked when the album was released two weeks ago), but that review was a review of the concept of a Dylan Christmas album rather than the particular execution of such a project. There is no conceivable convergence of Christmas album and Bob Dylan that a reviewer like that one would have liked, so he used his review as an excuse to try out a few one-liners.

This album's not for everyone, but, it's unique, and once you get past the shock of the concept of it, I think it begins to make sense, and it has the benefit of being the product of an unaffected joy, coupled with love of the material. That kind of purity of purpose you don't come across every day when shopping for Christmas tunes. So, you could do worse, or you could dig up the original versions of these tunes if you can't get past his voice with these songs, but as a collection of traditional tunes, presented affectionately and passionately, you aren't going to do better.

1 comment:


Who You Gonna Call
Tel 44-(0)208-323 8013
Fax 44-(0)208 323 8080

Hi IP,

On behalf of Bob Dylan, many thanks for plugging “Christmas In The Heart”, the charity album benefiting Feeding America, Crisis and the World Food Programme … .. and, if your readers want good quality, non-pirated, previews, then “Must Be Santa” is available for fans and bloggers to post / host / share etc from www.myspace.com/bobdylan and a special widget is also available from www.bobdylan.com/#/christmas-in-the-heart-donate... .. for further details of the album, on-line promotions, videos and 2009 / 2010 shows, check-out www.bobdylan.com and www.youtube.com/bobdylantv... .. and keep an eye on these official sources for details of further news and preview material.

Please do visit the official web-sites of Feeding America, Crisis and the World Food Programme for information on their charitable work and on how to make donations : help to make this Christmas special for those in need.

Thanks again for your plug.