The Martha Stewart
Christmas Album. Rhino Records
release R2 79989.
Somehow I didn't think it was going to be this hip. What can you say about an album that starts with Emmylou Harris, contains the Pretenders, David Bowie, and The Roches, and ends up with Judy Garland? Here are songs reverent and cynical, traditional and un-.
It seems unnecessary to say much about Greg Lake's "I Believe in Father Christmas", since it's a staple of most classic rock stations around the holidays, and most people have heard it at one time or another. Still, time and repetition can't dim the one-two punch of soaringly grand Russian ballet music yoked to Lake's Celtic-tinged melody and bitingly anti-Christian (but deeply reverent) verse. It's especially interesting to compare and contrast Lake's artful primitivism against Dan Fogleberg's "What Child is This?", sung with minimal accompaniment with full, unexpurgated, traditional lyrics, and Loreena McKennitt's Celtic Renaissance "Good King Wenceslas", again with traditional words. In both of these, the birth of Christ in Bethlehem is not seen as an isolated incident, but as a percursor to the Crucifixion and part of a greater web of belief, commemorated throughout the wheel of the year and in such humble places as a spring for drinking water.
Of course, no one can do cynical and secular better than Judy Garland, whose "Merry Little Christmas" is a paragon of world-weariness...we'll be together, someday, but we'll "have to muddle through somehow." Knowing what we do now, this is very creepy.
Eartha Kitt's "Santa Baby" is creepy too, but in a good way: in other hands, notably Madonna's, this song has the annoyingly brassy ring of other "humorous" Fifties holiday paens to greed, in the form of a gold-digger's petulant request of an especially de luxe room service. Kitt, here in her prime, sings the song with an affectless concentration that subtly undermines the humor: it might as well be a whore's forlorn fantasy as she contemplates a crack vial-strewn kitchen or a delusional psychotic tying a sweat sock to an iron bedframe in Bellevue as a come-on by a Harlem fox. Either way, it's very cool.
More blatently Afro-American is Charles Brown's engaging recording of his very own "Merry Christmas Baby", a screamingly funny song of Xmas in da hood, where Santa comes round half past three to leave his loot...which makes Mr. Brown protest he hasn't had a drink this morning, but, nonetheless he's "lit up like the Christmas tree".
Ray Charles weighs in with one of the album's low points: over-the-hill vocally and creatively at an ebb, he sounds remarkably like Tom Waits as he sings that "Christmas is really more than giving....it's all about recieving" God's gift of love. Trying very hard to sound like Satchmo's "Wonderful World", it's pious, but unmoving, like listening to an ancient wino, with ponderous repetitiveness, imparting the importance of mother love. Another not-so-magical track is the David Bowie/Bing Crosby duet "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy": Bowie, at the time at his most coke-wasted, and still learning to use his voice, sings a meaninglessly portentous descant "Every child must be made aware...every child must be made to care...to see the glory..." (of what, it's unclear) a good octave over Der Bingle's overripe rump-pum-pum-puming. Still, it's good to have, if only as a souvenir of an interesting experiment.
Speaking of "White Christmas", Melissa Manchester's loungy rendering is one of the smoothest on the album, nicely counterbalancing The Roches' a capella, "Silver Bells". Sung with a mild country swing, it's as appealing as a calico heart on construction paper. Also on the country side is Emmylou Harris's The First Noel, and the late Nicolette Larson's One Bright Star. Folk with a twist, Jane Siberry's "Are You Burning, Little Candle?" is a sweetly multifaith tune that mixes dreidles and cradles and candles in a Laurie Anderson-inspired mix that recalls her better-known "Calling All Angels".
And, yes, it does have The Pretenders's 2000 Miles, along with a small booklet with Martha's decorating and gift wrap hints, along with a craft project and a recipe for cheescake brownies.
Distributed through K Mart in 2000, it might have had less irony today. Still, I recommend it.