By Jon Bream
Going to Bob Dylan for a Christmas CD is like going to White Castle for a chicken sandwich.
That’s not because Dylan was raised in a Jewish family. (Some of the best-selling Christmas albums have been recorded by stars of Jewish heritage, including Kenny G, Neil Diamond and Barry Manilow, and the biggest holiday song of all time, “White Christmas,” was written by Irving Berlin, who was Jewish.)
It’s because Dylan isn’t regarded as an important interpretive singer (except of his own songs) and, frankly, his increasingly guttural, harsh voice is an acquired taste these days.
In concert of late, Dylan has sounded as if he doesn’t bother to warm up his nicotine-stained voice. It usually takes him a half-dozen songs to get the phlegm out, and then it’s a question of how parched does he sound tonight. Similar issues plague “Christmas in the Heart,” his first Christmas collection, which was released this week.
At times, it’s painful to listen to, especially when he’s singing loud and forcefully, as he does on several tracks. Some of the sustained notes make it sound like he’s gargling while singing.
On the other hand, the quieter, more intimate songs – “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Silver Bells,” “The First Noel,” “The Christmas Song” and “The Christmas Blues” – will please Dylan fans. Sure, his voice is gravelly but so was Louis Armstrong’s. And Dylan aficionados love their Bob.
This 15-song holiday package contains no Dylan compositions. His arrangements of the familiar yule tunes (he produced under his longtime but apropos pseudonym Jack Frost) generally aren’t adventurous or even original. The female backup vocals sound like something from a Bing Crosby or Nat King Cole December disc.
The most interesting approaches are a lazily jazzy “Christmas Song,” the jaunty Tex-Mex polka of “Must Be Santa” and the Hawaiian-flavored “Christmas Island,” which is as cheesy as the classic pinup photo of Santa’s buxom helper (the fabulous Bettie Page) that graces the liner notes of this CD. By contrast, the cover painting of a two-horse open sleigh suggests a Norman Rockwell piece for Saturday Evening Post.
Is Dylan serious about his Christmas collection? He’s serious enough to donate royalties from U.S. sales to feedingamerica.org.