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Christmas in the Heart

  • Bob Dylan
  • Columbia

Bob Dylan makes an album of Christmas music? Yeah, right, when reindeers fly.

Oh, but c'mon. Nothing done by the enigmatic icon should surprise us: This dude, born Robert Zimmerman, marches to his own rump-a-pum-pum. And really, Christmas in the Heart , a sincere, if craggily sung, collection of 15 seasonal classics and gems, isn't such a nutty thing - not in these weird times anyway.

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The CD arrived in the mail late last week, on a day when the entertainment media was excited by the out-of-the-blue craziness of cartoon character Marge Simpson posing for Playboy, pop star Miley Cyrus quitting her tweeting habit, and the unanticipated revelation that eighties heartthrob Rick Springfield would be baring his rear in an episode of Californication .

In comparison, Dylan isn't even the only Jew releasing a yuletide-themed album: Neil Diamond's A Cherry Cherry Christmas - groan - will also fill stockings this season.

So, Dylan's 47th album is Christmas music. Remember what former Columbia label president Bill Gallagher once said of the man: "If Bob wants a microphone on the ceiling, get the tallest goddamn ladder you can find and start climbing." Dylan does what he does (going electric at Newport in 1965 or embracing Christianity in the late seventies) and his audience deals with it.

Except for the accordion-romping Must Be Santa and frequent country-music touches, the nostalgic Christmas in the Heart isn't surprising in its song arrangements. The album's superb, tastefully wrought production, credited to Dylan's nom de studio Jack Frost, mostly sticks to friendly Eisenhower-era fashions. The legend's raspy-throated singing, however, is unavoidable. Although it's been said many times in many ways, Mel Tormé and Bob Wells's The Christmas Song has never sounded quite like this. Jazz guitarist Phil Upchurch is elegant and deft Donnie Herron is barely there on steel guitar, but Dylan's vocals are rough. Especially on the opening tracks (the jaunty Here Comes Santa Claus and the sleigh-belled Winter Wonderland ), it's tough to get past Dylan's voice. The croak contrasts starkly to the pre-rock crooning of the mixed-voice background singers, who are heavenly on The First Noel and sweet on Hark the Herald Angels Sing.

How best to describe the lead vocals? Imagine a frog with a Dylan in his throat.

Here's the thing, though: Where many Christmas albums are bland and soothingly familiar background music, Dylan's Marlboro-caked larynx pushes this material to the foreground - some might say for the worse, but there you go. The lyrics, with messages of hope and peace, are enunciated, if gruffly so. The album's title, Christmas in the Heart , refers to compassion; Dylan's royalties are earmarked for Feeding America and other hunger-relief charities.

It's a worthwhile thing the Gotta Serve Somebody singer has done here, once you get past the surprise of the idea and the man's ravaged voice.

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So, who's got a big red cherry nose? Dylan's got a big red cherry nose. Who laughs this way, "Ho, ho, ho!" Dylan laughs this way, "Ho, ho, ho!" Must be Dylan, must be Dylan, must be Dylan.

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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