When you interview musicians about their record catalogue, they almost never mention their Christmas albums. Sometimes you can even catch them referring to their "fifth album" when their holiday project would make six. It's as if Christmas collections don't really count—not commercially (because they're usually done quickly and on the cheap with the expectation that they'll be slow but steady sellers) and not artistically (because what critic is going to be Grinch enough to complain about your version of "Silent Night"?).
A lot of artists take advantage of this to just go through the motions, cranking out another lackluster run-through of the usual carols, salted with one or two new songs. But some see it as a chance to try something weird without much accountability, like a quarterback who has noticed the defense has jumped offside and decides he might as well heave up a Hail Mary pass—after all, what's the worst that could happen?
Sometimes it leads to a touchdown. Aaron Neville, for example, decided his 1993 release, Aaron Neville's Soulful Christmas, didn't really count, so he discarded his usual MOR slickness and released the funkiest, rootsiest, best solo album of his career. Emmylou Harris decided her 1980 release, Light of the Stable, didn't really count, so she cut it during her risky, stripped-down bluegrass sessions for Roses in the Snow, creating an even better record than the one it piggy-backed. Brian Wilson decided his 1964 release, The Beach Boys' Christmas Album, didn't really count, so he hired the Four Freshmen's arranger Dick Reynolds to prepare big-band charts for six brilliant songs unlike anything else in the band's catalogue.
Few artists have departed as dramatically from their usual sound for a holiday disc as Bob Dylan does on this year's Christmas in the Heart. Setting aside his ever-shifting allegiances to Judaism, Christianity and agnosticism, for this album he has converted from raw-edged blues and hillbilly music to polished pop, tackling the best-known Christmas carols with seven smooth-crooning backup singers. This will seem strange only if you're not a regular listener of his wonderful Theme Time Radio show on XM (now Sirius) Radio. On that program he not only plays songs by Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Conway Twitty and Hollywood Elvis but also gushes over them. He loves this stuff—and why not? Some terrific music has been recorded with the Jordanaires, the Vikki Carr Singers and the Hi-Los. (Some terrible records, too, but how's that different from punk or hip-hop?)
Dylan has dabbled in this approach before. His 1978 live album, Bob Dylan at Budokan, featured a lush pop sound, including a violin, flute and three cooing female singers. Some of the criticism then, as now, rejected the whole mainstream-pop genre out of hand, but a more thoughtful criticism might have pointed out that, as much as Dylan admires this music, and justifiably so, he simply doesn't have the skill set it requires.
On Christmas in the Heart, as Dylan croaks and wheezes his way through everything from "Here Comes Santa Claus" to "O Come All Ye Faithful," you can hear what he's going for—the sound of the Christmas records he genuinely loves—but he's just not getting there. Except for the Charles Brown-like version of "The Christmas Blues" and the David Hidalgo-dominated version of "Must Be Santa," this is an album that's more fun to talk about than listen to. Just because you love something doesn't mean you have the tools to replicate it. Dylan is an inspired singer in his own way, just as Jerry Lee Lewis is an inspired pianist, but that doesn't mean Lewis should imitate Duke Ellington or Gil Evans any more than Dylan should imitate Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole.
Speaking of Evans, if he had made a Christmas album, it might have sounded a lot like Carla's Christmas Carols, another of this year's odd holiday efforts. Carla Bley's skills are exactly the same as Evans'—her jazz arrangements have the same proportions of grandeur, playfulness, modernism and originality as did Evans' arrangements for Miles Davis. In tackling these nine traditional carols plus two originals and Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song," keyboardist Bley joins her musical/personal partner, bassist Steve Swallow, and the Partyka Brass Quintet, showcasing trumpeters Tobias Weidinger and Alex Schlosser as Evans once showcased Davis.
Just as Evans and Davis used the familiar melodies from Porgy and Bess to give casual listeners something to hang onto in their dizzying jazz improvisations, Bley does the same with such holiday tunes as "Jingle Bells" and "O Holy Night." Even as Bley, Swallow and the five horn players follow new lines through the chord changes, an echo of the original melody is always present, and a rich fund of feeling flourishes in that gap between theme and variation.
Tennessee's John Cowan is best known for his tenure in the New Grass Revival, and he could have turned his Christmas album, Comfort & Joy, into the expected progressive-string-band project, much like Jerry Douglas's exquisite new release, Jerry Christmas. Cowan, however, was an R&B singer before Sam Bush lured him into the bluegrass world, and Cowan doesn't get enough chances to practice his first love. So, knowing that holiday records don't really count, he gives almost every song on Comfort & Joy an R&B vocal. Yes, his regular string band provides most of the instrumental backing, but the bandleader belts out these traditional and modern carols with a soul-music rasp.
Comfort begins with Smokey Robinson's "Christmas Everyday," and Cowan captures the high-tenor giddiness of the composer's original, though Robinson never sang with fiddle, mandolin and dance-floor snare shots, as Cowan does here. He sings "I'll Be Home for Christmas" as a slow blues, the way Elvis Presley did on his 1957 Christmas Album, and Cowan's version of "Ave Maria" echoes Aaron Neville's famous rendition, but with Nashville mandolin replacing New Orleans piano. "Good News" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain" dig into the roots of R&B by replicating the arrangements of black gospel quartets such as the Fairfield Four. Best of all is the ferociously funky version of Jesse Winchester's "Let's Make a Baby King," which builds to a climax with Cowan, Bonnie Bramlett and Mike Farris trying to out-shout one another in their joyful testifying. It's proof enough of the good things that can happen when an artist says, "What the hell, it's just a Christmas album—I'll do whatever I want."