02 December 2011

Kate Smith Christmas Vinyl Delights

A Pseudo Double Dose of Heavenly Kate Smith Christmas Vinyl
By Kristin Battestella

This time of year, I am of course, trigger needle happy over good old fashioned and flat sounding Christmas records.  In seeking angelic sounds of the season-either spiritual, swinging, or secular- one is hard pressed to find a better vocalist than the iconic, full of notes and range Kate Smith.  Her Christmas with Kate Smith LP is packed with holiday treats so good they did it twice, with a Picwick Records release Kate Smith O Come All Ye Faithful following in merry suit.

Deck the Halls opens Christmas with Kate Smith with a happy, fast, zestful, and fun rendition.  It’s big, boastful, and great to sing along to- but this particular tune lets introductory fun trump Kate’s voice, which is capable of much, much more. Her White Christmas, however, is damn near better than Bing’s original! And I know that is seriously saying something! Oh, the way those big notes are somberly lingered upon- yet Irving Berlin’s essential still moves in a melodic and swinging, effortless style.  Kate perfectly delivers with a catchy, deliciously snowy forties sound with just a hint of December brooding.  Christmas with Kate Smith is worth the record hunt for this track alone!

Instead of separating the carols and secular tunes between the A and B sides as was often the vinyl custom, the sounds of the season are mixed here with slightly more religious than pop. Hark the Herald Angels Sing keeps the old school reverence just by simply being sung in the proper way like a carol should be sung.  I know that is a bit of a cryptic description, but you know a carol done right when you hear it.  There is a bit too much choir instead of full on Kate, but The First Noel is lovely as well. Even with the alternating choir vocals, Kate Smith belts this one like nobody’s business. You’ve no doubt she is completely in the spirit of the season as the big notes linger, and thus, you can’t help but be moved, too. When you hear songs like this, it really makes you wonder why our contemporary focus is on such silly things like Santa, reindeer, and snowmen before the crèche.

The religious revelry continues with O Come All Ye Faithful, the titular track of the Pickwick reissue, remember. Kate Smith slows the carol down for extra holiday humility, allowing time for the hefty breaths and true meaning to have the spotlight.  There’s a great subtle use of underlying church bells, too, that sets the whole thing off.  Fortunately, the casual fun returns for Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  Although this a familiar song, Kate rises and falls in unexpected locations, making this take on such an oft done secular staple catchy and anew sixty years later!  This arriving Claus is almost danceable and jive worthy for the adults instead of just a warning sing along for the kids.  The only trouble is that it’s too short. The whole Christmas with Kate Smith album feels too dang short!

Side B continues the levity with a spirited Joy to the World rendition.  Yes, it is holiday hip and festive finery. However, we aren’t rushed here, as is often the case with this carol: too fast or so fast, you feel like you can’t enjoy it.  Kate Smith sings more verses and takes all the notes to their proper heights.  Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, by contrast, returns to that lovely mellow meaning of Christmas again.  I say mellow, which we tend to use in negative terms today, but I mean mellow as in just heavy with great holiday heart and moodiness.  We feel like we are at the midnight candlelight service as Kate keeps the notes low and reverent.

God Rest Ye Gentleman continues the medieval tones with more slow and catchy spiritualness.  I confess, it does seem strange to here a woman sing this generally male handled carol. We expect it to be too low perhaps for a lady’s range.  Kate, however, is able to get sweet and slow whilst also trumpeting the great Gregorian-esque choir.  Likewise, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear carries the proper church sounding arrangement, but it is too dang short! Hardly anybody delivers this carol anymore, much less delivers it right, but it feels like the verses are cut quick here and it’s such a pity.  Silent Night, thankfully, is perfectly timed, totally reverent, and thus still exceptional. Kate takes all the notes as only she can, and the choir is again carrying that evening spirituality as if we were there 2,000 odd years ago.  I don’t know that I’ve heard a better rendition of Silent Night. Ever.  

I’m not really sure why the utmost perfection of Silent Night doesn’t conclude Christmas with Kate Smith, but Jingle Bells returns to the happy fun magic for the finale. With such swinging high notes, you might not even know this is a holiday song. This feels like just a zestful snowy date the way Kate handles all the fun and takes the album out on a high note- literally.  You might not know it by glancing at the opening and closing tracks, but Christmas with Kate Smith is indeed more religious in between.  When listening to the LP, however, it doesn’t feel like this is the album’s fifties fault or Christian crutch. Rather, it stirs up the mistake on us for getting away from spiritual meanings in December and instead replacing them with the need to shop, shop, shop. If you’re looking for a divinely forties sounding Christmas, you can easily fall in love with this little album in whatever format you can find.

Of course, sometime after 1959 when the first release of Christmas with Kate Smith came about, a Pickwick reissue billed Kate Smith O Come All Ye Faithful was released.  It’s so tough to play catch up now and try to find the details of who re-released what and when or who copied and remastered what and where.  Not only is a lot of the information simply unavailable, but it is such a tragedy that a lot of Kate Smith material has only briefly seen the light of digital day- if at all. Even then in the days of vinyl yore, O Come All Ye Faithful offers all of the same tunes from Christmas with Kate Smith and adds only three new if charming tracks.   

He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands and a wonderfully not What Child is This Greensleeves are tacked on to O Come All Ye Faithful after Santa Claus is Coming to Town to conclude Side A.  Though not necessarily a Christmas staple, He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands is a fun sing along for the kids in keeping with the religious themes of the set, even if it is a little too kiddie and kind of fast rock out amid an otherwise somber album.  It is also a bit strange then, that Greensleeves is the original medieval lyrics.  Though I would indeed love to hear Kate do What Child is This, this often unheard traditional is great. The moody lovelorn tale seems just meant for Kate’s long-winded and quivering delivery.  Again, not really sure if a 16th century ode with naughty lady innuendo is more appropriate than a Victorian birth tune, but hey, we’re lucky to have Kate’s Greensleeves at all! For Side 2, Moonlight in Vermont has somehow been stuck in between God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.  I can’t recall having ever heard it before this album, but it is a lovely swinging ballad seemingly perfectly designed for Kate.  Again, whether its idyllic country and nature vibes are totally Christmas is subjective to say the least, but it sounds enchanting!
Though these additions are lovely, and either album fits the bill of a sweet, sweet Kate Christmas if you can find them, a lot of sweetness is still missing from what is essentially two of the same album.  Where is Kate’s glorious rendition of O Holy Night?  Often found in other classic seasonal compilations, Smith is one of a fortunate few who can hit those high notes- and yet it appears unfindable on a Kate Smith album.  Likewise, where is the enchanting Christmas Eve in My Home Town?  Again, I have this glorious wartime holiday tune on another combo Christmas vinyl set- and only two of the tracks I’ve discussed here have survived on The Kate Smith Christmas Album CD and download currently available.  Where does all this heavenly music go?  

We all know and love Kate Smith thanks to God Bless America, but it is such a pity to lose such a wonderful Christmas voice.  Serious restoration for the likes of Christmas with Kate Smith  or Kate Smith O Come All Ye Faithful is a must!  Family audiences, Non-secular song collectors, and classic Christmas music listeners shouldn’t have to hunt and pick over the individual MP3 downloads to find such delightful holiday sounds.  So dust off the vinyl this season, hang onto those Christmas cassettes, and cling to any Christmas with Kate Smith or Kate Smith O Come All Ye Faithful ye yuletide self can find. 

No comments: