Thursday, October 29, 2009

"Christmas In the Heart" and "Normal as Blueberry Pie": A Double Review

It is a bittersweet feeling when both of your favorite songwriters release covers albums on the same day. Sure, it is great to have another album, but it would be even greater to have another album of original material. This is what happened on October 13, 2009, when Bob Dylan and Nellie McKay simultaneously scheduled the release of new albums, Christmas In the Heart and Normal as Blueberry Pie, respectively. In Dylan's case, it being a covers album was much more tolerable since he had recently released an album of new material, but after release three albums, including two double albums, and an EP in a four year stretch, McKay hadn't released anything since 2007.

Both albums were centered around a theme. For Dylan, this was to be a Christmas extravaganza in order to raise money for charity. For McKay, this was a tribute to Doris Day, mostly in honor of Day's work with animals.

In terms of song selection, I think McKay has the slight advantage if only because the music is less familiar to me. Dylan stuck mostly to classics from the Christmas canon, though he chose ones which seemed to work. When the project was announced, I thought "Silver Bells" would be an okay song for his current voice, and it is. I also assumed he would cover "Here Comes Santa Claus" simply because Gene Autry had written it, and his cover is appropriately Christmasfied country swing. Dylan's three non-canonical choices, "Christmas Blues," "Must Be Santa," and "Christmas Island," are, not surprisingly, among the album's most inspired moments. "Must Be Santa" drives perhaps harder than Brave Combo's. I've always wanted to hear Bob record a polka, and after hearing Brave Combo perform this on his Theme Time Radio Hour, I've wanted this to be the polka he chose to record. "Christmas Blues" is perhaps overpraised by critics, but it does have some nice moments. "Christmas Island," a cover of the Andrews Sisters, is an even better Hawaiian song than Bing Crosby's "Mele Kalikimaka," and the Ditty Bops provide even more endearing backing than the Andrews Sisters.

Nellie McKay's album is composed entirely of covers of Doris Day songs, though some, such as "Sentimental Journey," have reputations which expand beyond Day. Coming into the album, I had only a very passing awareness of Day's later work, such as "Wonderful Guy," "Everbody Loves a Lover," "Que Sera, Sera," and "Teacher's Pet." Only one of those songs, "Wonderful Guy," appears on this collection. Because the music was so unfamiliar to me, I have found it harder to get into than I did Christmas In the Heart, which I was immediately taken with. As I've listened to the album time and again, though, I have come to love many of the songs. I can't provide comparisons with many of Day's versions, but McKay, with help of session men like Bob Dorough, gives the songs the best songs the feeling of early jazz, while the rest seem like torch ballads. The jazz, especially when it swings, works best. Songs like "Do Do Do" and "Wonderful Guy" are fun, but it really burns on "Crazy Rhythm" and "Dig It."

When it comes to album packaging, Bob has the total advantage. the album is adorned with four illustrations. The front cover pictures a 19th century Russian sleigh ride. The back cover features a somberly joyous picture of the three wise men traveling on camels. Inside, there is a Vargasesque painting of Bettie Page and a picture of worn-out street musicians in Rome. These conflicting images of Christmas suggest a coexisting of diverse viewpoints of the holiday and asan extension make the album polylithic.

McKay's album has plenty of pictures of her looking delightfully like a 1950s housewife, and then it has a lot of weird quotes. All of the quotes have to do with animal rights and vegetarianism, but some seem a little extreme, such as "You're better off eating a salad in a hummer than a burger in a prius" from Bill Maher. I get the point, but the ills of corporate farming doesn't exactly make Hummers any more palatable. How about a salad in a Prius? Without the whole mindset that led us to a nation where a car like the Hummer was able to achieve popularity, we never would have strayed away from a localized agrieconomy, so in that respect the salad in the hummer is worse. Chief Seattle tells us "the whited too shall pass," and in context he was right to say that, but to pull it out of context, McKay is simply playing to the same problematic essentializing which led to hegemony in the first place. Also, Seattle probably wouldn't be too pleased with "Black Hills of Dakota" which capitalizes on well meaning, but ultimately stereotypical, notions of the noble savage.

Musically, both albums are great. When McKay cooks, she cooks. I would have put fewer ballads and more uptempo songs in the mix, but even the ballads are good, especially an exquisite take on "Sentimental Journey." The few mid-tempo numbers, such as "Mean to Me" and "Wonderful Guy" are also enjoyable. McKay's vocals sound great as always, but I had trouble understanding her a few times. The most common objecton to Dylan's voice is that you can't understand what he's saying. That has always bothered me as he often overpronounces, and if he doesn't its for effect, to suggest a possible double meaning in a word. Mostly, with McKay I encounter this problem during the middle breaks in "Crazy Rhythm" and "Dig It," which is unfortunate since they are my favorite numbers. Either way, the arrangments on all of the songs are amazing and breath new life into them. The playing is fantastic. While I wish that McKay's luscious piano playing adorned every track, the playing is good all around, particularly Jay Berliner's guitar playing (he sounds like he could put Django to shame) and Charles Pillow's tenor sax.

Dylan enlisted a mixed-voice choir, including the Ditty Bops to provide background vocals, David Hidalgo to play accordion and Phil Upchurch on guitar. He also uses a variety of Christmasy instruments like jingle bells and the celesta to provide the proper aura to the music. It works. It sounds like a 1950s Christmas album, which is what I grew up on this time of year. The arrangement play it straight, and so what stands out is Dylan's vocals. He really tries to sing, and while on some songs he does sound like a moaning whale, on songs like "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" he nails the song like no one before him. That song, and many others, find Dylan reverting back to lyrics which are rarely used. On "Adestes Fideles" he reaches all the way back to the Latin. On "Here Comes Santa Claus" he includes the oft-omitted third and fourth verses, and his gruffness places an extra emphasis on the lines where Santa "doesn't care if you're rich or poor. He loves you just the same." I appreciate the song much more with its anti-classicism intact. And then Dylan adds lyrics, but only on one song; with a song as fun as "Must Be Santa" its hard not to indulge in the fact that Vixen rhymes with Nixon.

Worried I'd be disappointed, I'm not. I'm not completely enamored, either, but I feel comfortable awarding each album four of five stars.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Christmas In the Heart that could have been

When Dylan's camp announced a Christmas album, I was expecting few if any originals, though I was hopeful for at least some obscure covers, and at least "Melekaliki Maka." It was revealed shortly thereafter that Christmas In the Heart was to be an album of mostly Christmas standards.

I was a tad disappointed at first, but "Christmas Island" is as good as "Melekalki Maka" and its a song I didn't know before. Dylan's vocals have made me actually pay attention to parts of songs like "Here Comes Santa Claus" that I'd always ignored before. Also, when listening to the Christmas episode of Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour, I've always thought Dylan should make a polka recording each time I heard Brave Combo's recording of "Must Be Santa," which Dylan has now covered and supposedly made a very wild video for.

Having heard several samples, it seems like Dylan has put his own spin on at least a few songs, and payed tribute where it needed payed on others, so it can't be all bad. I also understand that the fantastically creative Ditty Bops contributed the Andrews Sisters' style background vocals; hopefully this will increase their exposure. I can't imagine many Dylan fans disliking a duo who sew their own dresses out of grocery store bags, a talent which is both hot and environmentally friendly.

While I'm putting off listening to the whole album before it is officially released to the public on Tuesday, I did compile a list of Dylan's non-Christmas In the Heart Christmas songs. This should give an idea of what an album of Dylan's Christmas originals may have looked like.

1. Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie [from Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 (1991, recorded 1963)
2. Ballad of Donald White [from Best of Broadside 1962-1988, circa 1962)
3. Farewell Angelina [from Bootleg Series Vol. 1-3 (1991, recorded 1965)]
4. She Belongs to Me [from Bringing It All Back Home (1965)
5. On the Road Again [from Bringing It All Back Home (1965)]
6. Three Angels [from New Morning (1970)]
7. Arthur McBride [from Good As I Been To You (1992)]
8. Floater (Too Much To Ask) [from "Love and Theft" (2001)]
9. Can't Escape From You [from Tell Tale Signs (2008, recorded 2005)]
10. Huck's Tune [from Lucky You soundtrack (2007)]

1. "Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie"

This is actually a poem Dylan wrote, and then decided to recite one time in concert. It doesn't have that much to do with Woody Guthrie, but more to do with the regression of American culture. It is rather lengthy, but one section features Dylan calling out all the people he sees as fakes and phonies, including the people who:

"come knockin' and tappin' in Christmas wrappin',
sayin' 'ain't I pretty and ain't I cute?
Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow'
when you can't even sense if they got any insides,
these people so pretty in their ribbons and bows."

2. "Ballad of Donald White"

One of Dylan's early topical songs, "Donald White" is set on Christmas. The song is written from White's point of view, a petty criminal who liked jail so much he didn't want to leave. Life on the outside left him feeling alienated and depressed, and so to make sure he had the comforting routine of prison life, he murdered a man on Christmas Eve. Christmas can be a lonely season for those with no one to connect to, and Dylan plays on that in the songs. The detail of Christmas Eve may be factual, but Dylan's topical songs were never noted for sticking to the facts.

3. "Farewell Angelina"

This song was an early exercise in surrealism, and was recorded most famously by Joan Baez. One of the lines is "King Kong, little elves -- on the rooftops they dance." Well, there are elves....

4. "She Belongs to Me"

This song may have been written for Joan Baez. Part of the song reads like a shopping list of presents Dylan meant to give Baez -- "For Halloween buy her a trumpet, / and for Christmas get her a drum" -- but then decided to leave on the curb outside of the gate in "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" a few albums later.

5. "On the Road Again"

Not the Willie Nelson song about traveling, Dylan's "On the Road Again" is a hilarious tale of being in love with a girl who is in the crazy house. It also has some of Bob's most "dylanesque" vocals. In addition to noticing things like relatives walking around in Napoleon Bonaparte's mask, when Bob visits the girl, he "ask[s], 'who's there in the fire place?' and [she] tells him Santa Claus."

6. "Three Angels"

New Morning is a summer album, and in this song, which is really more like a poem spoken over music, Dylan evokes the feeling of a small town's rundown mainstreet where the dingy Christmas decorations are still there from the year before. It is the most depressing song on the album by far (though, to be fair, it may be Dylan's happiest album). Dylan imagines the three angels sitting atop telephone poles to be sentient beings, and then wonders if they'd even care that no one seems to notice them.

7. "Arthur McBride"

Technically, this isn't a Dylan original, but it is closer to what I initially expected on Christmas In the Heart. "Arthur McBride" is a folk song about a British army recruiter who attempts to intimidate two young Irish boys into enlisting on Christmas morning. When they not only refuse, but tell him they think the king only wants the Irish to serve as lambs to the slaughter, the enlisting officer tries to attack them, but they end up beating the shit out of him instead. A nice song about a cheerful Christmas morning.

8. "Floater"

In the 2000s, Dylan had several original songs with Christmas in them, so it shouldn't have come as a total surprise that he wanted to record a whole Christmas album. This is the first of the decade. In Floater, Dylan includes the verse:

"My grandfather was a duck trapper;
he could do it with just drag nets and ropes.
My grandmother could sew new dresses out of old cloth.
I don't know if they had any dreams or hopes.
I had them once though I suppose
to go along with all the rain dancin' and the Christmas carols on all the Christmas eves;
I left all my dreams and hopes
buried under tobacco leaves."

Well, eventually Dylan's dreams end up as compost in the fields of the South, but at least when he did have them it was during a happy time like Christmas. Overall, the feeling is too resigned to be bittersweet; instead, it's almost wistful.

9. "Can't Escape From You"

This recent song is about a woman Dylan wants to get away from but doesn't seem able to live without for long. During one of the many parts of the song where he insults her to no end, he informs her that:

"You've wasted all your power.
You threw out the Christmas pie.
Now you're withering like a flower;
you'll play the fool and die."

Well, either Christmas pie is a song of power or else Dylan needed both a. something to rhyme with "die" and b. something else to fill out the meter.

10. "Huck's Tune"

In perhaps Dylan's most definite statement on the holidays, he has this charming nugget to share: "All the merry elves / can go hang themselves." Yikes!

As a bonus, the album could include the liner notes to John Wesley Harding, which feature a perverse, post-modern recounting of the nativity, blended with the last supper, with Frank(ie Lee) in the role of the Christ manchild and Terry Chute in the role of Dylan's unethical ubermanager Albert Grossman, if he happened to be hanging around Bethlehem at the time.

Ultimately, if Dylan had written Christmas In the Heart, it seems that it would have been a much more dour affair. As it is, it sounds like it will be at least mildly enjoyable as a whole, and some songs will leave you grinning from ear to ear.