Enjoy a little levity during the season of lights
by Gregg Shapiro
The product of “a shared passion for offering, hope, religion, and unification through music,” Higher & Higher (Sojourn) finds Neshama Carlebach collaborating with the Green Pastures Baptist Choir. Carlebach’s father, the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, has been described as the “father of Jewish music” and wrote eight of the nine songs on the album. The combination of the traditional-sounding contemporary Jewish music compositions with the fervor and energy of the choir succeeds in giving the material a universal quality. Whatever your affiliation, it’s almost impossible not to be moved by (and feel like testifying to) tracks such as “Esso Ennai,” “Ata,” and “Kiva Moed.”
On their eponymous self-titled JDub disc, Girls in Trouble poses the musical question, “What if the girls in the Bible started an indie rock band?,” and then proceeds to answer it over the course of 10 songs. “Haunted and moved by the sex, the violence, and the twisted HBO-worthy drama” of the Old Testament, Alicia Jo Rabins, front-woman of Girls in Trouble, transformed the tales into tunes that transcend religious identity. Standouts include “Secrets/You’re Always Watching,” “Marble Floor,” “I Was a Desert,” “Where You Go,” and the gorgeous instrumentals “I Fell Off a Camel” and “A Lion at Rest.”
Girls in Trouble aren’t the only indie rock act to turn to the pages of the Bible for inspiration. The Life of the World to Come (4AD) by The Mountain Goats has its roots in a similar place. “An immersion in biblical poetry and imagery,” the titles of the dozen songs on The Life of the World to Come are drawn from the Bible verses that served as inspiration, from both the Old and New Testament. Higher-powered highlights include “Psalms 40:2,” “Genesis 3:23,” “Genesis 30:3,” “Romans 10:9,” “1 John 4:16,” “Deuteronomy 2:10,” and “Isaiah 45:23.”
The various-artists holiday-music compilation A Blackheart Christmas (Blackheart Records) opens with queer band Girl in a Coma’s distinctive cover of “Blue Christmas.” The trio also performs a rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Blackheart matriarch Joan Jett and her band the Blackhearts do “The Little Drummer Boy,” and Blackheart bands, including The Dollyrots, The Cute Lepers, and The Vacancies, among others, contribute to the holiday spirit,
Available exclusively at Target, A Fine Frenzy’s Oh Blue Christmas (Virgin) opens with an equally distinguished rendition of the popular “Blue Christmas.” AFF’s Alison Sudol performs one of the most chilling readings of “Winter Wonderland” and then goes on to deconstruct Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson’s Peanuts holiday classic “Christmas Time Is Here.” The three remaining tracks, “Red Ribbon Foxes,” “Wish You Well,” and the bouncy “Winter White” (with its “happy goddamn new year” greeting) are Sudol originals and welcome additions to the holiday songbook.
Originally performed by Sounds of Blackness, the uplifting “Optimistic” opens The Gift of Love (Shanachie), a pleasant musical collaboration between singer/actress/disco diva Melba Moore and Phil Perry. The 11 selections strike a balance between inspirational pop classics (“I Believe,” Ashford & Simpson’s “You’re All I Need to Get By” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Weakness”) and flat-out inspirational music (“It Will Be Alright,” “Survival Kit” and “We’ll Be Together, Then”), and Moore and Perry are in possession of voices that inspire an emotional response.
Neil Diamond doesn’t abandon his roots entirely on A Cherry Cherry Christmas (Columbia). He has a rip-roaring good time with Adam Sandler’s “The Chanukah Song.” Speaking of roots, the self-referential title tune weaves lines from and names of some of Diamond’s beloved gems into the song. There is also the pleasant “Christmas Dream.” The remaining selections are culled from Diamond’s previous Christmas recordings.
In 1961, just a few years after “nice” Jewish fella Eddie Fisher (who later married and divorced Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor) had a hit with the Yiddish flavored “Oh! My Pa-pa” and around the time that Connie Francis (of Italian heritage) had a minor hit with “Tzena Tzena” from her Sings Jewish Favorites album, Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos, credited to Juan Calle and his Latin Lanzmen, arrived. Released on the highly regarded Riverside Records jazz label, it is newly reissued on CD by Idelsohn Society. “Yiddish favorites in Latin tempos,” the 11 tracks not only remind us of the Borscht belt state of mind of that time (see comedic singer Allan Sherman, who followed in 1962), but also of the Latin music craze that would come (see Herb Alpert, who also followed in 1962). Nevertheless, you will probably never listen to “Havah Negilah” (done Cha-Cha style), “Papirossen” (done mambo), or “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” (done merengue) the same way again. This presents a good opportunity to mention A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs (Nextbook/Schocken, 2009) by David Lehman (editor of The Best American Poetry series), in which the contributions of Jews to the “formation of the American songbook” is closely examined.
Kevin Keolbl puts a theatrical cabaret spin on 14 songs of the season on his disc This Is Christmas Time (LML Music). The most uncommon of the selections is “The Little Drummer Boy,” which places more than the usual emphasis on the drums, while “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” is as warm as a fireplace. Irish tenor and Riverdancer Michael Londra celebrates the season with Beyond the Star (concernusa.org), on which he applies his distinctive vocals to 10 holiday numbers.
The sanitized various artists collection A Family Christmas (Putumayo) lives up to its name with versions of instantly recognizable Christmas tunes performed by Martin Sexton, Leon Redbone, Deana Carter, Sam Bush, Kate Rusby, and The Christmas Jug Band featuring Angela Strehli and Maria Muldaur. A Christmas Story: Music from the Motion Picture (TCM/Rhino Movie Music), the never-before available soundtrack to the late Bob Clark’s contemporary 1983 holiday classic A Christmas Story, can now be yours to have and hold.
Earlier this year, Ben Folds released the University A Cappella! disc on which 16 of his songs were performed by collegiate a cappella choirs from around the country (with a couple also featuring Folds himself). Ray Davies, the legendary front-man of The Kinks, follows suit with The Kinks Choral Collection (Decca). Davies, joined by the Crouch End Festival Chorus, reimagines 15 Kinks tunes in choral settings. A testament to the material, songs such as “Days,” “Waterloo Sunset,” “You Really Got Me,” “Shangri-La,” “Celluloid Heroes,” as well as the six-song suite from Village Green Preservation Society, make the transition with ease, sounding as if they were always intended to be performed in this manner.
Gregg Shapiro is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine and a past recipient of the annual OutMusic award that recognizes contributions by non-musicians in furthering the work of LGBT performers.