29 December 2009

In Defense of Blu-ray

A Case for Blu-ray
By Kristin Battestella

Overall, I think I’m pretty split on the powers of blu-ray. On one hand, it’s still dang expensive and sensitive, and the BD live interactive features are sometimes more trouble than they’re worth. However, the new video format gives action movies visual depth, packs everything you need on less discs, and makes classic pictures look twenty years younger. Here’s a list of old films revitalized by blu-ray and new pictures providing testimony.

The Wizard of Oz (70th Anniversary Edition) [Blu-ray]The Wizard of Oz – Well, that’s a horse of a different color, literally! The sound is exceptional, the black and white is defined all over the gray spectrum, the Emerald City is emerald, and the poisoned poppies are red is red. Even if you’ve never cared for this 1939 children’s classic, you can see this Judy Garland staple as if for the first time. You can see the putrid green of the Wicked Witch of the West and find every detail in the makeup of The Scarecrow, Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion. As I kid, I thought the Collector’s VHS was dynamite, but then you could barely see the flying monkeys. On blu-ray however, those monkeys look damn good. With such vivid color and lifelike fantasy, Dorothy’s quest doesn’t seem so juvenile and preposterous at all.

Star Trek (Three-Disc Edition) [Blu-ray] 
Star Trek (2009) – I think I’m the only person in the world who isn’t in love with J.J. Abrams update of this classic series. As a one-off Academy tale, I might enjoy it; but having Old Spock come back in time to tell Young Spock he’s now in an alternative reality? Yes, they’ve safely placed their reboot in this sanctioned new canon, but they miss out on some of the human story at the expensive of being new, young, and hip. How could you not have an old Spock talking to the young Sarek? Okay, I’m done ranting, because the action here shares the spirit of the Original Series while updated the franchise with all the modern visual delights. The spaceships and planets look enchanting, the warp speed is instantaneous, and the bridge of the new Enterprise looks sweet. Are the effects enough to charm audiences? Apparently so.

The Dark Knight (+ BD Live) [Blu-ray]The Dark Knight – As the title suggests, this sequel to Batman Begins is a dark and melancholy picture. Christian Bale gets downright depressing as Bruce Wayne, and Maggie Gyllenhaal gives a sad send off to his lost love Rachel. Thankfully, blu-ray lets us see all the depth and dimension in all the nighttime and dark action sequences. The action is fast, furious, complex visually and mentally; and we can see it all without squinting. We see the black be clad Batman and the swish of his cape. Though Heath Ledger won the Oscar for his demented and psychological portrayal of The Joker, Aaron Eckhart’s fallen white knight Harvey Dent was more charming for me. Of course, his beautifully grotesque and deformed half as Two-Face looks dynamite, too. 

Gone with the Wind (70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition) [Blu-ray]

Gone with the Wind – The subtitles don’t match the dialogue and the white text is tough to see against Scarlett’s white prayer gown, but otherwise I can say nothing bad about the 70th anniversary blu-ray release of this perennial classic. After decades of a choppy, flat, jumpy VHS-heavens to Betsy this looks marvelous. The colors are so vivid-every single one in the rainbow. The depth of light and shadow in indoor scenes and outdoor spectaculars is a treat to the human eye. The sound isn’t as voluminous as I might have preferred for such sweeping scores and Civil War destruction, but the most troublesome thing about this set is finding the four hours to watch undeterred. Yes, it’s overlong, full screen, the men are over the top-but one look into Vivien Leigh’s hypnotic eyes and you’re sold. The blu-ray set also caters to the obsessive fan’s delight, including a CD of the score, copies of memos from David O’Selznik, a hardback book, art prints, limited edition numbers, and almost another four hours of extras all in a sweet red velvet box. Whew!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (+ BD-Live) [Blu-ray]Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince – This latest adaptation of the famous boy wizard books is not an introductory piece-you have to really know and love all things Potter to appreciate the depth and hinted subplots here. It’s been a few months since I saw Order of the Phoenix and I was a little lost! Dumbledore finally gets his day, but is that where this movie is supposed to be? Or is it with all the budding romances, Malfoy and the Death Eaters, or the mysteries of Tom Riddle and the Half Blood Prince? Returning director David Yates never seems to make up his mind, and once again, the cast is not used to its full potential. I swear Maggie Smith, David Thewlis, Robbie Coltrane, Helena Bonham Carter, and Alan Rickman each only have two scenes. If you have such clout, well by golly show it! I complain yes, but these uneven story quibbles almost don’t matter compared to the dynamite look of the Half Blood Prince. The Quidditch looks real here, the dark clouds, evil swirls, and a half empty Hogwarts look like photographs not digital effects. Us muggles can believe in the magical underside of London when it looks this good. We’re past the cute and youthful awe trickery of magic here-its specialties are an understood given now. Blu-ray makes the world of Harry Potter seem not like fantasy, but reality.

So also, feel free to read our lengthy praise of both The Searchers and the original Planet of the Apes for more A plus blu-ray action. Of course, these are but a few of the treats available on blu-ray. As more affordable releases come out, blu-ray and digital copy will replace good old DVDs, just as VHS is now a thing of the past. Yes, the format is still touchy and delicate, as well as pricey in players and discs. For classics and action or effects laden pictures, however, blu-ray is decidedly spectacular and worth every penny for your favorites.

23 December 2009

Casting Crowns' Peace on Earth

Peace on Earth Packed with Sentiment and Revelry.
By Kristin Battestella

I’d heard of Casting Crowns and their chart-topping rise on the Contemporary Christian Music scene over the past few years; so in this year’s Christmas music escapades, I picked up their 2008 holiday CD Peace on Earth. Listeners yearning for a more soulful and spiritual Christmas sound will definitely find it here.

I must confess, I’m not a major fan of the Contemporary Christian stylings or its heavier Christian Rock subset. I suppose I’m old fashioned in that I like my hymns to be hymns and my rock to be well, rock. It’s horrible to say, but Casting Crowns also doesn’t look like a Rad! Rock! BadAss! Group, and some harder listeners might not like them solely because of it. But of course, the pendulum swings the other way, too. Someone who looks like Marilyn Manson but sings about Jesus just seems amiss in the mainstream mind. I have been to some Christian concerts where the swaying and lighters and heavy guitars mixed with alter calls just seems too bizarre and exclusive to be genuine. Perhaps some Christian Rock bands are better than others are, for most of Peace on Earth isn’t on the bizarre end of the blend.

Peace on EarthCasting Crowns waists no time with I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day, and for my money this hit single might be the best track here. This old poetic carol isn’t recorded enough, and band helmsman Mark Hall adds a heavy spin here. This is a beautiful ode with December charm, but it’s not without its dark and thinking, depressing lyrics and low notes. Usually a little somber itself, Oh Come All Ye Faithful has a fine harmony, blending the ladies of Casting Crowns with some old fashioned guitar work. It’s an odd choice to make this carol almost a duet version; but it also makes its new, unique, and special. I think some folks forget this one nowadays, and I sincerely protest, since it’s my favorite!

Sometimes Joy To The World isn’t played as joyous as it could be. Christmas is meant to be a happy occasion, and the rendition here reminds us of the joy of Undeserved Grace indeed. Personally, I don’t care for some of the updated ad-libbing and rock out endings that come with a lot of upbeat modern Christian music-if a carol has stood for three hundred years, it probably doesn’t need your new vibe to appeal to younger audiences. Nevertheless, Casting Crowns is happy about their Savior-reminding us we should be, too.

While You Were Sleeping, however, takes the opposite stance. Instead of praising Bethlehem with the traditional carols, Hall effectively rips the town a new one for its ignorance of Christ’s humble birth. When the song turns its criticism to modern America, it’s a little too political yes, but scarily accurate in highlighting the new millennium’s favoritism of a secular Christmas. Harsh words, but it’s also a veiled nudge at the plight of many a Christian then and now. Peter denied, Thomas doubted, and as John says, ‘the world knew him not.’ More than anything, this song reminds me of Jesus’ own words of being ready and always on the watch for his return ‘lest he find you sleeping’. Maybe I’m getting a little preachy here, but often I, too, must yell at myself to ‘wake up’.

The traditional reverence returns for Silent Night, and this quiet and beautifully delivered standard is a delight no matter how you do it. Unfortunately, it does seem a little lost between Casting Crowns’ original songs and makes the album feel somewhat uneven. God Is With Us is also slow and reverent, but it’s decidedly modern. Can you pull off an album of mixed leads and mixed styles such as Peace on Earth? God is With Us and While You Were Sleeping have touches of why I don’t like much Contemporary Christian music. You get the feeling Mark Hall sings raspy and rockish because he can’t really sing anything heavier. Then again, Megan Garrett and Melodee Devevo sing shrill and high, therefore they must be good. These extremes perhaps do well for Casting Crowns because fans can choose which lead they prefer. However, mainstream music aficionados might scoff, thinking that these folks can’t sing and that we have to be nice because they are singing from the heart about God. Yes, Casting Crowns gets you on the ‘it’s the thought that counts’ and the guilty religion card, but here it’s the lyrics not the delivery that win out. The spiritual words should be received, even if the musical delivery isn’t what you’d prefer. If Britney Spears could really sing, why does she do all those dang quivers and over dubbing echoes? At least there’s spiritual substance here.

Away In A Manger is pretty enough, but again the mixed leads, hip ad-libs, and guitar work seem amiss. You can’t go and change the tune the kids are singing. It’s not really a nice listen when you expect a song to sound one way and hear it another. Thankfully, Christmas Offering combines the soft reverence with Casting Crowns statement making style. The arrangement fits all the voices, the lyrics tell the Nativity tale and instruct us 2,000 year removed folks in how we can still take part in its Miracle. By default, Peace on Earth probably strives for too much to be Casting Crowns’ best album. However, the skill and reverence is there for the contemporary fans.

Sweet Little Jesus Boy is a little too much like Away in the Manger and While You Were Sleeping, but better the focus is on the Christ child on a Christmas album, don’t you think? I like many of the old traditions that were adopted into our current Christmas celebrations-the Christmas tree, Nutcrackers, Yule logs. Unfortunately, I’m coming to despise the current bend toward a secular and commercial Christmas season. People don’t mind deluding themselves and their kids with Santa and expensive but meaningless gadgets and gifts. But oh me oh my the moment someone puts a little religion into December 25 everyone groans and rolls their eyes. I feel like a prude for my recent animosity towards Kris Kringle-as well as my split decision on most of the Contemporary Christian movement-but what’s wrong with Casting Crowns having their swaying, feel good Christian Christmas music? Absolutely nothing!

When I read up on Casting Crowns, I was a little surprised to see a house violinist in the band, but Melodee Devevo has her spotlight with the instrumental O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. After all the statements and politics on Peace on Earth, the lack of vocals here is a refreshing conclusion to the set. The somber, beautiful strings speak for themselves and harken back to a magical medieval Christmas time where music was a rare treat of sound and soul.

As much as I prefer a traditional, religious Christmas, there are songs here that seem purely Christian and not necessarily Christmas carols. It’s great to have a truly spiritual album, but there’s not a lot here for a party sing along or a light holiday drive. Nay, some fine traditional carols are absent from this set in favor of original, statement making material. Peace on Earth makes you stop and listen. It’s celebratory, yes, but also incredibly serious-too serious for a passive December soul. Fans of Contemporary Christian Music or Spiritual Rock no doubt know and love this album, but mainstream Christmas music fans should skip this if they don’t like a taste of Christ in Christmas. Folks looking for a generic album of secular standards won’t find any here. You have plenty of ‘PC’ songs and practices; let the reverent families and friends have Peace on Earth.

15 December 2009

Little Women (1933) and Little Women (1949)

Little Women and, Well, Little Women
By Kristin Battestella

Last December, I took in a critical of analysis of Gillian Armstrong’s very fine 1994 adaptation of Little Women. But just when you thought I couldn’t whip up any more traditional Christmas sentimentality, this December I’m taking a chilly winter’s night in with not just one Little Women, but both the 1933 and 1949 film versions. Hold on to your hoop skirts!

Although family audiences and even confident men can enjoy Little Women, women young and old especially adore this 19th century coming of age tearjerker. For every girl’s fancy, there’s a March sister playing and growing up through the seasons in Concord. Looking for Love Meg, tomboy writer Josephine, shy piano player Beth, and materialistic Amy cherish their Marmee while they befriend wealthy next-door neighbor Theodore Laurence and wait for their Father’s return from the Civil War. What’s not to love?

Little Women (1933)The 1933 first talkie edition from director George Cukor (My Fair Lady, A Star is Born, Gaslight) adapts Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 by adding several expository scenes and transitions at the opening of the film. Of course, there’s also plenty of Christmas enchantment to be had in this heartwarming tale of family loves and loss during the Civil War. The music and old-fashioned December traditions scattered throughout the film will remind the young at heart and sentimental how things used to be. There’s seriously cold weather, the joy of sausage for Christmas Day dinner, and plenty of wartime generosity to warm any grinch.

Naturally, the black and white cinematography doesn’t allow for the bright styles of other Little Women pictures, but the snowy locations and onscreen holiday music make up for the monochromatic silver screen. The costumes by Academy Award winner Walter Plunkett (An American in Paris, How the West Was Won) are the poor man’s hoops skirts we expect, and the Victorian set decoration looks wonderfully authentic. Ironically, Plunkett would also have costuming credit on the 1949 version, along with more credit to screenwriters Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman (Magnificent Obsession). The couple won the Adapted Screenplay Oscar here, and this 1933 version also saw nominations for Best Picture and Director.

Why is it that in Little Women films, the stars always end up being the ladies who play Jo and Amy? An older Katharine Hepburn made to look younger and a blonde Joan Bennett (We’re No Angels, Dark Shadows) too old to play the littlest March sister battle it out in proper over the top thirties fashion. Hepburn is clearly having a good time with this much beloved character. She gives all of herself in the outspoken, yet classy tomboy fashion old school fans have come to expect from the future star of classics such as The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby. Of course, the budding icon would win her first of four Best Actress Oscars for the more mature Morning Glory, also released in 1933. It’s not so much the peculiar ages and casting of Hepburn, but that she has the wonderful range for the part.

Bennett, of course, was pregnant and in her early twenties while playing the school aged Amy. Her acting family pedigree, however, strengthens her high-class portrayal of the youngest, most uppity March girl who covets the finest things and wishes her family returned to wealth and good standing. Spring Byington (December Bride, You Can’t Take it With You) is ever charming as the good hearted Marmee, and Edna May Oliver (Drums Along the Mohawk) is delightfully crotchety as Old Aunt March. Jean Parker (The Gunfighter) and Frances Dee (Of Human Bondage- but perhaps better known as Mrs. Joel McCrea) are also wonderfully marshmallow as Meg and Beth, respectively; but the first and third girls are always overshadowed by their star sisters.

Little WomenThe 1949 color extravaganza is no different in its star treatment of Jo and Amy, casting the 32 year old June Allyson (The Glenn Miller Story, Executive Suite) and a be-blonded Elizabeth Taylor (A Place in the Sun, Cleopatra, Butterfield 8)-who’s now the number three March sister instead of the youngest. Wouldn’t you change your literary classic to make room for Elizabeth Taylor?

Traditionally a blonde herself, Allyson dons Jo’s dark hair and spunky style. Despite her being way too old for the part, we can’t help but like feisty little June and her button nose-especially in the famous scene were Jo has sold her hair. Her spontaneity is a treat, too. Unlike other Amys past and future, Elizabeth Taylor is also charming. She’s prim and uppity yes, but somehow likeable in her expressions. Like the rest of the cast, she’s enjoying herself. A very young Janet Leigh (Psycho, Touch of Evil) also looks delightful as Meg, and Margaret O’Brien (Meet Me in St. Louis) is adorable as the now youngest, but still tragic Beth.

Where Douglass Montgomery is a little bland in our 1933 edition, Peter Lawford (It Happened in Brooklyn, Easter Parade) makes his presence known here as Laurie. Well and sure, he’s a fine actor and all of that, but it’s a little more of his Kennedy and Rat Pack connections that have us noting each of his scenes with ‘It’s Peter Lawford!’ Oscar Winner Mary Astor (The Maltese Falcon, The Great Lie) is also perfect as Marmee.

Charming as our prior adaptation is, there’s a little more Christmas here in all its Technicolor glory. The poor, homemade but splendid Victoria d├ęcor, the joy of a dollar to spend on presents-and all they could get for their dollars! The onscreen caroling is also delightful, along with snowy escapades, good deeds, and bundles of petticoats. Little Women looks heartwarming despite the March family’s seeming depravity, and this 1949 take won the Color Art and Set Decoration Oscar. In sharing an almost identical script and screenplay, there shouldn’t be that many differences amid these two Little Women takes-but oh, there are. Some of the scenes are in a different order, and there’s no European travels here. Yet, somehow, the 1949 version is longer. Nevertheless, it’s also great fun to hear some of the exact same lines delivered by a different cast. Teachers of the novel or literary fans might enjoy a back-to-back viewing for classroom study or comparison. I don’t know that I could choose between these two versions of Little Women. Some of the 1933 tale is a little more over the top, but it has Katharine Hepburn! Then, again 1949 looks so good. Both features are certainly family friendly to young audiences and classic film fans.

I may still have my old VHS, but DVD editions and video on demand options are available for both Little Women and, hee, Little Women. The sets are a little slim on features, but a digitally restored and preserved film copy is plenty enough. Now, I certainly don’t consider myself the sentimental and super girlie type, but one knows a fine character drama when one sees it. Alcott’s true to her time story of sisters growing to womanhood is still a dang fine tale. Naturally, it makes not one, but three exceptional holiday films. Fans of the novel can certainly enjoy the old school films here, and families can enjoy Little Women at Christmas or throughout the year.

14 December 2009

The Christmas Song

The Christmas Song a Timeless Set from Nat King Cole
By Kristin Battestella

My grandmother was very peculiar even as grandmothers go. Having said that, she still gave me many a fine record over the years-and a lot of them I still listen to today. Gifted in unopened cellophane, my The Christmas Song LP by Nat King Cole doesn’t sound as scratchy and flat as some of my other over-played records. Nevertheless, every Christmas Nat gets plenty of spin time at my house!

Well, here it is. You know those chestnuts roasting, Jack Frost nipping, Merry Christmas to one or ninety-two sentiments I mean. The original, definitive The Christmas Song by good old Nat is actually a 1961 rerecord of his earlier renditions, but who’s complaining? Regardless of the racial divides of mid-century America, Nat King Cole was at the forefront of traditional music during his day. This timeless ode to a fireside Christmas is the proof; it sounds like it was laid down yesterday. Nat’s voice rings true fifty years on. Several CD reissues of The Christmas Song also include alternative takes on this titular track and duet versions with Nat’s equally talented daughter Natalie Cole.

Nat keeps things secular with a lively rendition of Deck The Halls next. I know that nowadays it must be tough to sing this festive tune with kids-I told my nieces ‘don we now our gay apparel’ meant ‘put on your happy gear’. Despite the change in definitions, Nat gives us all the ‘falalala’ we need and then some. His joyous singing spreads holiday cheer and puts a smile on your face. Likewise, his O Come All Ye Faithful is big and happy, passing on the joy of adoring Christ rather than being a little medieval melancholy or depressing as some slower versions can be. Nat King Cole also mixes in some of the traditional Latin Adeste Fideles, which seems to be rare among more recent Christmas albums.

Nat also serves up more Old World roots with O Tannenbaum. The German lyrics shake things up a bit, but the famous melody and Cole’s easy baritone style keeps the song’s universal spirit. We do have a few secular or generic holiday songs from Nat, but even his non-Carols carry traditional reverence and style. Unlike other albums of the day with an exclusive Side B of religious tunes, The Christmas Song puts the Christmas miracle first. Strangely, I haven’t heard O Little Town of Bethlehem that much this year. Nat’s soft rendition reminds us of the solemn beauty here. His mix of secular and carols showcases a touch of Christmas across the cultures and around the globe.

I have numerous other renditions of I Saw Three Ships in my Christmas playlists. However, when I think of the jubilant, short, and sweet melody its Nat’s voice I hear. We teach the kids about Rudolph and Frosty and counting down the holidays in busy memorization songs, but here’s a darling little spiritual ditty kids can drive you nuts singing!
Here O Holy Night is not as big a showstopper as some renditions are, with booming orchestra and lofty echoes. Nevertheless, Nat gets all the notes just right, keeping the soft somberness of this carol at the forefront. The Christmas Song ends Side A with some fine, reverent baritone notes. By contrast, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing begins Side B with some fun, spiritual joy. Many pop singers seem to slow down this Charles Wesley carol, but Nat keeps it at the sing a long, smiling pace.

A Cradle In Bethlehem is another more recent, but not oft recorded tune that Nat swiftly delivers. The soft notes and Nativity tale are accentuated when needed but also expertly left to the lovely lyrics, too. This is indeed a lullaby. But of course, If anyone ever had the right style and voice for Away In A Manger, then it must be Nat King Cole. It is a little bit too much of the same having both these infant hymns together, but it’s also perfect for a soft, quiet December evening.
Joy To The World returns The Christmas Song to an upbeat tone. As much as we like it when Nat broods soft and low, you can’t help but get into the Christmas spirit with happy renditions like this. The First Noel, however, is another lofty and reverent set that again reminds us of the true meaning of Christmas.

Caroling, Caroling is another tune that always brings Nat to my mind before all others. You can hear his shiny, seemingly perpetual smile in this happy, jiffy delivery. Despite the quick pacing, there are still enough notes for Nat King Cole to strut his vocal stuff. Lastly, Silent Night serves up the same vocal charm in smooth, somber, slow notes. Though The Christmas Song begins with its share of happy and secular tunes, the spiritual reverence from Nat shines through again at the album’s end.

The Christmas SongIn recent decades, there have been several CD issues of The Christmas Song, but many of these sets appear out of print. Thankfully, all of Nat’s holiday favorites have joined the new millennium as individual downloads and the like. A new set called The Christmas Song with the tracks here and more was also released earlier this year. Fans young and old across the cultural divides should never get tired of Nat King Cole, and especially so at Christmas. Just because you don’t have the record is no excuse!

12 December 2009

Christmas Widgets!

And in the spirit of some holiday fun and games, here's a few Christmas widgets to add to our toys collection. Enjoy!

08 December 2009

Christmas with the Rat Pack

Christmas with the Rat Pack A Swinging Good Time
By Kristin Battestella

Christmas With The Rat PackI’m not talking about all this newfangled Clooney and Pitt suavity, no! Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis Jr. shine again in the 2002 compilation Christmas with the Rat Pack. With a blend of swing, secular staples, and traditional tunes, young and old can enjoy this jazzy Christmas of yesteryear.

What better place to start than Dean Martin’s winter classic I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm? While not completely synonymous with Christmas itself, this cuddly tune sets the swanky fireside mood of the album. Then again, “Oh by gosh by golly…” Yes, it’s the time of the year to hear Frank’s Mistletoe and Holly. Even if you don’t always care for Sinatra or his music, this tune is now in our traditional Christmas lexicon and adds some humor to our silly notions of Kris Kringle, excessive foods, and of course, presents!

Now, I like Sammy Davis, Jr. all well and good- especially in Robin and the Seven Hoods-but his music gets the short end of the stick here. The previously unreleased Christmastime All Over the World is one of three Sammy vocals lost between his more famous pals. A Shame really, Sammy swinging and spreading solid cheer here. Unfortunately, Frank’s first carol The First Noel seems a little flat and more melancholy then usual. I don’t think we’re used to hearing Sinatra sing on such a slow and down arrangement, and the style of this hymn doesn’t really fit him.

Baby, It's Cold Outside is one of those songs that everybody kind of knows the words to, but can still sing along in the spirit of good holiday fun. Audiences who also aren’t major fans of Martin or old school styles can also enjoy the breeze and wit here. There’s drinks, cigarettes, records, and overnight winter scandals, oh my! Also swinging is Sinatra’s I Believe. It’s barely a Christmas tune but for a few lines; but it’s easy, breezy joy is perfect for Frank. Any fan of The Chairman can back this one.

Dino slows things down next with the Christmas city classic Silver Bells. Even though we’re getting into the traditional December mood with these next few tracks, Martin still adds his hip spin here. Slowed down, yes, but still somehow swinging! Unfortunately, Sammy’s next contribution is a sub par rendition of The Christmas Song. It’s seems slow, too long-winded, and poorly orchestrated against the Nat King Cole original. Even so, it’s still great background party music.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is a little better from Frank Sinatra, but it still seems like he’s trying to hold himself from busting out into his happenin’ self. I’ve no doubt he has the talent to belt these carols proper, and I don’t understand some of his restraint. 18 of the 21 songs on Christmas with the Rat Pack are secular or barely Christmas related-but only good Catholic Sinatra sings the three true carols. The lighthearted fun returns with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Maybe kids today recall other quick and silly renditions, but I suspect the young at heart recall Dino’s version with the fondest memories. His ‘Rudy’ keeps what could be a juvenile track all in good fun. As I listen, I always want to add the ‘like Monopoly!’ quip-and it doesn’t seem out of place.

Yes, some of the traditional tunes are not in the style or arrangement for Sinatra, but there’s no denying him for The Christmas Waltz. Maybe you don’t know the song by its proper title, but we all recognize Frank’s ‘song of mine in three quarter time’ and it has become a big a part of the contemporary Christmas. Where Frank sounds a little obligated in his carols, he gives his genuine voice and holiday blessings here. Adding to the winter bachelor fun is Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Now, there are literally hundreds of versions of this song to pick from, but Dean Martin’s easy delivery makes it seem this song was for him. We can joke about his drunken antidotes, but we shouldn’t forget Martin was also a charismatic and talented comedian, actor, and singer who knows how to put some spirit and holiday mood in a tune.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas might be Frank Sinatra’s best track on Christmas with the Rat Pack. It’s in the perfect melancholy style and arrangement. Though a little easier and happier than Judy Garland’s original, the Chairman knows how to bring a tear to even the toughest guido’s eye. By contrast, the Peace on Earth/Silent Night medley serves up a little reverence from Dino this time. Now, it took me several hours of online research before I finally discovered that this mix stems from of all things, Lady and the Tramp! It’s been so long since I’ve seen it, that I couldn’t even remember it opened the movie! Martin takes Sonny Burke and Peggy Lee’s idyllic and Christian lullaby and mixes in his own beautiful melodies and perfectly soft notes. By golly, instead of being so obscure, everyone should be putting this on his or her Christmas albums!

I actually feel bad for good old Sammy. His Jingle Bells is too loose, fast, and out our place between Dean Martin’s traditional sounds. Some of Christmas with the Rat Pack does seem ill placed or poorly chosen tracks. Truly, I don’t know why the producers included these three songs, as they are not the best of Sammy’s stuff. Was it all about marketing and demographics and trying to sell out on the Rat Pack’s name? Where then are Peter Lawford, Joey Bishop, or the associated ladies like Shirley MacLaine and Angie Dickinson? Surely, there are renditions of them laughing it up with gang? Heck, why not have Bing Crosby songs, cashing in on his loose association with the packers at hand? But no, that would have been too traditional and vanilla. Sammy Davis Jr. converted to Judaism anyway, so I wonder what he’d think about being on a Christmas album in the new millennium?

But of course, no holiday album is complete without White Christmas, and Dean Martin delivers it on Christmas with the Rat Pack. Not as tearful as the Bing Crosby original, but not quite the bluesy Elvis take either; Dino keeps us in the old-fashioned sentimental mood. Instead of the hectic hysteria of Christmas, Dean reminds us the best part of the season is sitting with a cup of eggnog in a comfy chair watching the snowfall. Sniff!

The traditional hymns and the other Sinatra tracks here stem from A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra and The Sinatra Christmas Album issues. Those albums are of course split with a secular Side A and religious Side B, and Frank takes on It Came Upon a Midnight Clear as our third carol here. Again, the stilted reverence seems a little forced amid the other easy and hip secular tunes, but Sinatra does have the voice, doesn’t he? Likewise, Dean’s Winter Wonderland has us kicking back and thinking of the good old days again. Secular yes, but it’s the good, mid century Americana secular. Not to be out done, Frank returns to form for I'll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams). His slow stylings perfectly linger over every bittersweet note here.

Of course, Christmas with the Rat Pack returns to its hip and happening note with A Marshmallow World and a live Auld Lang Syne. Frank and Dino team up for some loose fun that’s perfect for a drunken swingers winter night. It’s not a serious candlelit church service by any means, but Christmas with the Rat Pack goes out with a lovely toast and holiday hurrah. Originally released with a mixed track listing between our swinging trio, my media player divides Christmas with the Rat Pack between them. It’s nice if you prefer one of our boys to the other, and at a careful listen, the original track listing can seem uneven, too. Then again, the blend is also great for the soundtrack behind your swanky holiday party. There’s certainly a few gems here to choose from. Most of the Martin songs also appear on the newly released My Kind of Christmas CD, and many of the tracks are available for individual downloads on Amazon and such.

If you’re looking for a truly reverent Christmas album, you should probably look elsewhere. Christmas with the Rat Pack is a fun collection blending old hip-ness and Christmas traditions for the easy listening December office or the mature, swinging holiday party. Any fan of the swanky sixties, Sinatra, Martin, or Davis can enjoy this compilation all winter long.