Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Over the time that we have been practicing together my law partner and I have had a tradition of going out and buying a stack of Christmas albums every year. We split them up, and make copies, and swap them, and this keeps our holiday music rotation comparatively fresh. Our taste differs somewhat-- I favor jazz, Kate likes choral stuff-- but mixing it up is also a good way to prevent the heavy rotation of carols and songs about reindeer from getting stale, and in this, as in most things, our points of agreement are greater than our differences. A side we've agreed on over the years is The Roches, "We Three Kings", which is pretty, and silly and fun-- all good things, and all things that Christmas should be. I don't know what Kate's take will be on the most notable Christmas album released this year, but I drove around last night doing some Christmas shopping listening to "Christmas in the Heart" and I find that it possesses many of the same qualities.

Of course, Dylan doesn't sing as pretty, but he compensates for this with background singers who do, and a solid band. The album has inspired a sleigh full of puns (A Hard Reindeer's Gonna Fall; Sleigh Lady Sleigh....) and a similar number of bemused reviews, but in the final analysis it is quite a charming set. The problem with most Christmas albums is that they go past cheesy and into smarmy without stopping to enjoy the moment. Frankly, Barbra Streisand (to pick another famous Jew with a Christmas album) singing this stuff and piped into a mall ratchets up my anxiety level to the point where I can feel my blood pressure making my face a cheery holiday red. Listening to Bob sing "Adeste Fideles" made me smile, and reflect for a moment about the fact that this really is a kind of folk music. It is music that I've sung, and I've almost certainly sounded closer to Dylan singing it than I have to Andy Williams. Elvis, (to pick another rock'n'roll icon with a Christmas album) never sounded more sincere than Dylan does on this material.

Yes, Dylan's voice is challenging. When wasn't it? In this case, however, that challenging voice serves the music well. As we listen to him rheum through "O Little Town of Bethlehem" straining at every note we find ourselves actually listening to the song, wondering how he'll manage to sidle up to the next note. He forces us to pay attention, in other words, to a song that we can barely hear otherwise. These are songs that have been worn so smooth from annual repetition that we seldom actually listen to them now, but they can still reward attentive listening, and they do so here. Dylan's "I'll Be Home For Christmas" -- which in other hands can be a cloying annoyance-- sounds genuinely longing here, and Sammy Cahn's "The Christmas Blues" which is one of the few songs here that hasn't been beaten to death elsewhere, is a great choice, a reminder of how deftly Dylan has always handled the blues.

One of the pleasures of Dylan's radio show has been contemplating his record collection (actually, I guess, Eddie Gorodetsky's record collection). One of the pleasures of "Christmas in the Heart" is contemplating the young Bobby Zimmerman in his father's Hibbing hardware store with these songs playing in the background, just as they are playing in the background everywhere today. "These songs are part of my life, just like folk songs," Dylan told an interviewer, "You have to play them straight too."

A couple of years back, when Dylan was coming to town Captain X proposed that we take in the show. "It'll either be terrible or it'll be great," he said, "And either way it'll be great." It was plain great, as it happened, and I approached "Christmas in the Heart" in the same spirit, knowing that I'd like it if it was terrible or if it was great. I'm pleased to report that it is plain great.

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