Bob Dylan – Christmas In The Heart (2009): On Second Thought

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As a middle-aged childless American, I celebrate Christmas with my own time-tested traditions. That typically involves a day of nothing but drinking bourbon-tainted egg nog, while watching the John Waters’ classic Female Trouble, while wearing my ‘Christmas underwear’ and little else.

Another part of my tradition, at least since 2009, is repeatedly playing Bob Dylan’s Christmas In The Heart. Yes, I know Dylan is Jewish, but I’m sure you can name more than a few great Christmas songs penned by Jewish composers.

Dylan’s album, produced under the pseudonym Jack Frost, features his long-time touring outfit (led by bassist Tony Garnier), and incorporating David Hidalgo, the multi-instrumentalist from Los Lobos. Dylan picked mostly well-known traditional songs, and a few lesser-heard gems, but does a masterful job casting his band. Additionally, Bob Dylan proves his worth as a great arranger. For the most part, the results are stellar and always memorable.

The lead-off track, “Here Comes Santa Claus,” is downright jaunty. It is given a light shuffle by the band and Dylan’s vocals are among his best. Gene Autry would giggle in delight, if he could hear it. “Winter Wonderland” starts off with a female chorus, which sounds like a throwback to the ’50s. Supported by dreamy pedal steel guitar by Donnie Heron and David Hidalgo’s violin, The song feels like it’s straight from a hipster Christmas movie.

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” features another throwback arrangement, but Bob Dylan’s vocal is — well, comical. I don’t think that was his intent. By the time I get to the 10th track, “Must Be Santa,” the bourbon — ah, eggnog — has kicked in and I’m dancing around the room to the violin, guitar, and bass-driven Christmas ditty. The inclusion of the choir here works extremely well. Maybe the boys were drinking when they recorded this!

“Silver Bells” slow things a bit, but is no less effective. “Christmas Island” employs the female choir but, alas, with less than effective results. Again, this one seems like part of a soundtrack, but I think it would work better on a Pee Wee Herman film. “The Christmas Song” is much more effectively rendered, with an earnest delivery by Dylan over top of a tremolo guitar, pedal steel and subtle brush work by drummer George Recile.

How would have thought Bob Dylan could deliver a Christmas classic? Probably not Columbia Records executives, who likely imbibed their own portion of nog after they heard what Dylan was planning on releasing. But, it worked — becoming a brand-new tradition.

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