Bob Dylan’s “Christmas in the Heart” (2009) – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

Throughout Christmas in the Heart, Bob Dylan and his band are clearly enjoying themselves, embracing the timelessness of the Christmas music genre.  More specifically, Dylan and company are transporting themselves and their listeners back to a simpler time of deceptively simple songs and sentiments.

Still, not every nostalgia-inducing feature is practiced or purposeful.  For instance, that’s not static you hear on your compact disc or mp3 copy — that’s just Dylan’s voice.

Over the fifteen songs that comprise this new album, Dylan moves fluidly between the religious and the imaginative, from solemn, sacred hymns describing the birth of Jesus Christ to classic tunes about jolly old Saint Nicholas himself, Santa Claus.

Interestingly, this is the first time Dylan has included more than thirteen tracks on a studio release since 1970’s Self Portrait, the runner up being 1992’s Good As I Been To You, clocking in at thirteen tracks.  Granted, these are not the most positive comparisons in his considerable catalog, but fortunately, the comparisons end at the track count.

Christmas in the Heart is a unified collection of songs that are unlike anything Dylan has recorded before, and yet they somehow fit perfectly with the material he has released in the past decade or so.  Ever since the two albums of covers he released in 1992 and 1993, Dylan has seemingly been drawn to the sounds and styles of the past.  2001’s Love and Theft saw a wide variety of styles, and the songs on both Modern Times (2006) and this year’s Together Through Life have progressively relied on mid-20th century styles and arrangements.

In many ways, this is the most logical time for Dylan to contribute to the very American tradition of popular Christmas music.

Bob Dylan's "Christmas in the Heart" (2009)

Bob Dylan's "Christmas in the Heart" (2009)

I will admit that, upon a first listen, I was unimpressed.  Bob Dylan fanatic that I am, the deterioration of his voice initially alienated me and I felt distanced from these classic compositions, most of which I had heard before in at least one or more arrangements.

“The Christmas Blues” is perhaps the most Dylan-esque of the tracks, especially when considering the predominance of recent Dylan tunes with blues structures, the harmonica solo, and the more serious, even downtrodden tone.  In this song, his vocals are stretched and utilized to heartfelt effect.

As I listened a second and third time, the subtlety of these tracks began to set in.  The lead guitar in “Do You Hear What I Hear?” that more than adequately takes the place of the typical “answer” vocal components, the choral background singers with spot-on, traditional harmonies, and the variations in Dylan’s vocals — the rough edges in “Little Drummer Boy” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the softened edges in “Christmas Island” — all contribute to what is largely a relaxing and entertaining record.

Is there a better description for a Christmas album?

What strikes me about Christmas in the Heart is the proof which it provides for the argument that this time of year is a special season, one which captivates the hearts and souls of men and women and inspires us to be better people.  Certainly, if Bob Dylan put this much effort into not only a holiday album, but also a specifically Christmas-themed release, then there must be something to be said about the power of music influenced by the Christmas spirit.

Dylan, known for turning around and surprising even his most loyal fanbase, has done it again.  It may not be as revolutionary as going electric, or as polarizing as songwriting from an explicitly born-again Christian perspective, but it is at least as dramatic a development in his career.  Rarely has Dylan prepared such well-known cover songs for a studio release, much less songs with such a concrete set of lyrics and straightforward message.

If nothing else, this album will provide some interesting fodder for the ongoing “Is he Christian?/Is he Jewish?” debate that continues to rage on…

For me, Christmas in the Heart is a clear reminder of the universal qualities of the Christmas spirit.  It is an album that further diversifies Dylan’s hand in American popular music, and likewise carries the torch for another generation to hear and appreciate a style that originated almost six decades ago.

All in all, Christmas in the Heart would make for a strong addition to any pop/rock music fan’s Christmas album collection.

“Jingle Bell Rock” (Bobby Helms Christmas Cover)

By Jim Fusco:

Part 4 of this four part Laptop Sessions extravaganza comes to you with another Christmas song!

This classic tune by Bobby Helms has been covered by almost every artist since the song came out. But, I figured the Laptop Sessions could use a jolt of a song everyone knows and can sing to.  But, you rarely hear an acoustic cover version of “Jingle Bell Rock”, though.  Most of the time, you’ll hear a country artist sing it or someone will try to turn it into a slow, crooning song.  Not me, though- I stay pretty true to the original song.  But, who says that you can’t rock out on acoustic guitar?  Of course, I’m using my nylon-stringed (or “gut” stringed) classical guitar that I bought while on vacation in Italy with one of my dearest friends.  I don’t think many people would associate a classical guitar with “Jingle Bell Rock”, but I like to make my acoustic cover videos have an intimate setting.  It allows me to sing at a nicer volume without having to worry about getting drowned out by my steel-stringed acoustic guitar.

As far as Christmas songs go, you can’t get more popular than “Jingle Bell Rock”.  Sure, some Christmas songs may be AS popular as this classic Bobby Helms tune, but this song is instantly recognizable.  Well, that’s kind of a given, seeing that you’ll probably hear it about a hundred times each Christmas.  A few years back, my free internet radio station, WCJM Internet Radio, did a Christmas show where we wanted to find out what the best original Christmas song was.  I chose the term “original song” because so many classic standards like Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town are simply untouchable.  We at WCJM Internet Radio wanted to find out which Christmas song other than those standards was the best.  And, whatever song won would be “retired” as a classic itself.  Well, “Jingle Bell Rock” was very close to the top of the list.  Oh, you didn’t think I would just give the list of the Best Original Christmas Songs away here on the music blog, right?  You’re going to have to head over to WCJM Radio by clicking here to find out for yourself!  Remember, all WCJM Internet Radio programs are absolutely free to listen to online.  They’re hilarious and I know you’ll become an instant fan.

So, sit back and sing along to this Bobby Helms Christmas cover song music video- it’s another step on my journey to make your holiday season great!

“Tin Man” (America Cover)

By Jeff Copperthite:

Thank you for coming by to check out today’s edition of The Laptop Sessions! I am pleased to bring another great cover song video to you today. And it’s a band we have happily covered before (this is my 3rd personally).

Going back to another America song, and another Dewey Bunnell written song, I bring you “Tin Man” from their album “Holiday”. This song was extremely popular (though not quite as much as “A Horse With No Name”) and it helped the album reach gold status. I love the catchy guitar riff and the simple, yet effective vocals to the song.

My fingers are in such pain after doing this song. The main progression is Gmaj7 and Cmaj7, and I decided I wanted to use the exact chord fingerings that Dewey uses. I’m happy it came out well, but i’m sure you’ll notice me having fun with the Gmaj7 chord. That particular fingering can give me some problems, but in this take I did a pretty good job with it.

I hope you enjoy today’s session, and come back tomorrow for another Original song from the one, the only, Jim Fusco! (EDIT: Sorry, was quite sleepy yesterday)

Editor’s Note: Unfortunately, Jeff’s acoustic cover song music videos are no longer on YouTube, but we decided to keep his cover song blog posts up.  We figured these music blog entries would be good for posterity’s sake and because Jeff always gave such insightful posts each Session.  We hope to see Jeff’s impressive catalog of acoustic rock songs here on the Laptop Sessions cover songs and original music blog again in the future.  But, for now, please make sure to check-out hundreds of other acoustic cover songs from all of your favorite bands here on the Laptop Sessions music blog!

“Last Christmas” (Wham! Cover)

By Jim Fusco:

Welcome to your Tuesday edition of the Laptop Sessions!  I love feeling productive, and even though I have a TON of work to do over the next few days (that is, AFTER a full day of work, in addition) I’ve been getting a lot done, so I’m in a good mood.  I hope to completely clear my “after-work” schedule after this week so I can focus on having some Christmas fun!

Tonight, I kick off my Christmas song selection for this year with “Last Christmas” by the band Wham!  No, I wasn’t excited there at the end of that sentence- the band’s name actually has an exclamation point in it!  (For the record, in that last sentence, I really DID want to use an exclaimation point! 🙂 )

I heard this song on XM Radio a couple years ago and remembered this tune.  Of course, you’ll hear the terrible 80s sound that goes along with it, but I kinda like that sound…probably because it’s the sounds that were popular when I was very young.

Keeping with my success of the Beach Boys’ “I’m So Lonely” video, I think this video may become pretty popular.  Why?  Because the Laptop Sessions has three goals: to do songs in the RIGHT KEY, to put an end to bad YouTube videos forever, and to strip down songs to their core and turn them into acoustic performances.  In cases like this and “I’m So Lonely”, I took out the cheesy, dated production and performed the song in its purest form.  I think people that have previously written this song off will come to like it after my performance!

This is the first in a series of Christmas songs to come this year, mixed in with my normal acoustic covers.  I can’t believe we’re in the last month of our “session a day” project.  I sincerely hope that Chris can contact some sort of news outlet (or the Guinness book) to report on this amazing accomplishment.  I’m certain that it’s unprecedented!

Enjoy tonight’s video, as Christmas time is in full swing.  Again, I hope I can start enjoying it more in a few days, and I’m sure my post length will reflect that when things slow down and I have more time to myself.  Okay, off to bed now.  Stay tuned for a great Chris Moore original song tomorrow and I’ll see you back here on Friday!