Christmas, at heart, is an appropriated holiday. To celebrate Christ's debut, The Nativity (originally subtitled "A Star Is Born"), ancient Christians rewrote the pagan classic Celebration of the Solstice. More recently, the free market has given it a multi-media makeover. December 25 now climaxes a one-month bacchanal -- of profit, surplus and advertising -- that attracts everyone except Commies and anchorites.
Thus, it's no surprise that Funny Girl-cum-diva Barbra Streisand, history's third most famous Jew (far behind the aforementioned Jesus but close on the heels of Moses), records Christmas albums. Descendants of the 12tribes might object to the absence of "O Chanukah!" or "Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel" in her songbook, but pragmatists like this reviewer understand that, these days, selling crap is strictly non-denominational.
Babs' 1967 Christmas album modernized the business of holiday music. The album went platinum five times over and has reentered the charts every December since its arrival. It got the songs off the streets, out of carolers' mouths, and behind cash registers -- where they belong. But over the last 34 years, the diversity of Yuletide recordings has grown astronomically. Like Moses, Streisand has been overshadowed by those who expanded on her good news.
A Christmas Album distinguished itself by being radically palatable. More often than not, tremendously successful albums are those that least offend the most people. Consequently, Kenny G has supplanted Streisand as the Mistress of Insipidity. His Miracles is the best-selling holiday album ever. But Babs has been taking notes.
On Christmas Memories, she avoids other contemporaries' pratfalls of personality, the ones that have doomed them to obscurity. For instance, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" -- once a tribute to the boys abroad in WWII, this song now begs to be sung as a cuckold's plaint. Like the Old Testament's Bathsheeba, lonely wives are invariably fodder for libidinous icons. And Santa, unlike David before him but quite like pornography's storied mailmen, makes house calls. Clarence Carter sang this truth on his bygone "Back Door Santa" (I make my runs about the break of day/ I make all the little girls happy/ when the boys are out to play/ ho ho ho.) But "bygone" is not for Babs. She eschews the revolutionary spunk she showed in The Way We Were and sings saccharine as ever, thus avoiding any Uriah-worthy indignity. Unlike Clarence, it's perfect for a department store PA.
In '67 Streisand sang Gounod's version of "Ave Maria"; this time she tackles Schubert's. The old Austrian's melody is, of course, sublime. But aided by an overproduced orchestra, she cools the fervor and mellows the ecstasy. Like hot chocolate, hold the marshmallow. If The Staple Singers' had her instincts -- and minimized the soul -- perhaps their 1969 "Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas?" would still be in print.
And when Streisand remembers the less fortunate on "Grown-Up Christmas List," she does so with platitudes (every man would have a friend/ and right would always win). Stan Rogers conjured sad thoughts on his "First Christmas (Away From Home)" by evoking shelters and retirement homes (In the morning, they get prayers/ then it's crafts and tea downstairs/ Then another meal back in his little room). When was the last time you heard that song?
December is a dark month. In cold climes, it brings sickness to the weak. Beyond the tropics, it brings long nights to the lonely. Babs, too, knows this. Like Chanukah or a solstice festival, Christmas Memories celebrates the light. Nothing says "a light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not yet overcome it" quite like a Malibu recording studio in July. Or like Sony finishing its fiscal quarter a few million more sales into the black.
-- Peter Jacoby
For those who have grown a bit weary of traditional Christmas fare, yet have no desire to throw out the baby with the baptismal water, this disc offers a refreshing alternative.
Since the winter of 1992, rock-influenced art musician Phil Kline and his friends have been "electric caroling" through the streets of Greenwich Village with a parade of boom boxes. (To learn more, or to possibly join them this Christmas, check out
www.mindspring.com/~boombox.) The resultant sound sculpture, far more beautiful than you might expect, is here captured in all its ambient glory.
Unsilent Night opens with a tinkling, bell-like array of sounds, sometimes minimalist in their repetition, and positively angelic in impact. A seamless transition into the nine-minute "The Milky Way," in which bells have a more dissonant but no less entrancing effect, is followed by tracks that include sonically altered caroling and Gregorian chant.
You might not expect ethereal sounds from a man who co-founded the art-punk band the Del-Byzanteens, and pens compositions with titles like "The Garden of Divorce " and "Into the Fire," but Kline's electronic tinkering produces surprisingly reverent results. His music is quite holy in its own way -- Satan worshippers will have to turn elsewhere for their pleasure. Unsilent Night warrants switching off the cell phone, turning out the lights, and lying on the floor in total immersion. Highly recommended.