Norah Jones’s “I Dream of Christmas”—A new Christmas classic?

Norah Jones’s “I Dream of Christmas”—A new Christmas classic?

Norah Jones I Dream of Christmas, Christmas music, Holiday music

At this time of year, I have always been fascinated by the question of what draws musicians from nearly every musical genre to Christmas music. Google “Christmas music” and you’ll see literally thousands of listings, everyone from Cheech & Chong and XTC to Charles Brown and The Flaming Lips. Even The Rolling Stones have a hidden track on Their Satanic Majesties Request called, unofficially, “Cosmic Christmas”, that begins at 7:58 of “Sing This All Together (See What Happens)”.  As reasons go, you can cross money off the list right away. No one’s getting rich today like Bing Crosby once did from the biggest selling Christmas song ever, “White Christmas.” So, what would make singers, who’ve been smart careerists, even attempt to add something, anything, to such definitive renditions as Nat Cole’s “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)” or Judy Garland’s only Christmas recording, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”? And what makes metal bands continually dabble in cranked up versions of Christmas carols like “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” or “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.” And why, oh why, does nearly every indie rock musician on the planet want to do their own version of “Little Drummer Boy,” easily the most annoying Christmas tune ever!!!

(photo by Kat Irlin)

The answer is simple: there’s a lot of great material, great songwriting, in Christmas music. It’s easy to see why vocal stylists such as Frank Sinatra or Ella Fitzgerald were attracted to making such great holiday albums. Or, why on A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector, did the famed producer spend so much time and energy adapting his trademark Wall of Sound production style to The Ronettes’s covers of Walter “Jack” Rollins’s and Steve Nelson’s “Frosty the Snowman” and Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” And yet, much as I love the stuff, I’m also very aware that it can be an acquired taste. The split is about equal between the minorities inspired enough to love or hate it. To most listeners though, it’s either harmless background noise designed to put us in the Christmas spirit or an irritant in an already hectic season. Streaming services have made it even harder to escape; in shops and restaurants it’s a nearly ubiquitous presence from Thanksgiving until December 25th.

Having said all that, as a collector of Christmas vinyl, whether it’s LPs or singles, I gotta say that while covering the Christmas classics has it charms, creating a truly memorable new Christmas song is a rare and unique achievement. Part of the reason why it’s so hard to score a Christmas hit single is that the previous competition is so fierce. Irving Berlin (“White Christmas”), Johnny Marks (“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”), Chuck Berry (“Run Rudolph Run”), and Frank Loesser (“Baby It’s Cold Outside”) were all songwriting pros who turned their talents to Christmas music undoubtedly because secular Christmas music can accommodate wild imaginations. A downer like “Blue Christmas,” made famous by Elvis Presley, can become a runaway hit. Seattle garage rockers, The Sonics, had a hit with their sloppy chic “Santa Claus”, which talks about wanting “a twangy guitar” and “cute little honey.” And Elmo & Patsy’s “Grandma Got Run over by a Reindeer” …well, you get the idea. The key, of course, is that like with any good hit single—holiday or not—you still have to come up with a hook—something catchy—that pleases the ears and sticks in the memory. Rarer still is the solid, listenable Christmas album.

Fortunately, 2021 is one of those favored years, when both a striking single and a credible holiday album have appeared, each courtesy of the very gifted and talented Norah Jones, the classic triple threat, who’s equally talented on piano, vocals, and songwriting. Jones’s new I Dream of Christmas and its lead single, “Christmas Calling (Jolly Jones)”, are both keepers that should become part of the modern classic repertoire of holiday music.

Norah Jones I Dream of Christmas, Christmas music, Holiday music
(photo by Marcela Avelar)

Taking inspiration from last Christmas’s pandemic lockdown when she spent time listening to holiday albums by James Brown, Elvis Presley, and others, Jones wisely teamed with musician/producer Leon Michels for I Dream of Christmas. As an original member of the retro soul bands Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings, Lee Fields & The Expressions, and the Menahan Street Band (all of which are on Brooklyn, NY-based Daptone Records), Michels has also collaborated with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and Easy Eye Sound. The onetime founder of the now defunct Truth & Soul Records, he’s heading a new label, Big Crown Records. Given his diverse resume, Michels was a fittingly intuitive choice to shape Jones’s ideas and be a part of the band on the album by playing synths, flute, saxophone, percussion, and glockenspiel. The simple, light touch production style he brought to the project is a perfect fit for what Jones wanted to do. I Dream of Christmas was recorded by Michels and engineer Jens Jungkurth at Michels’s two recording studios, both named Diamond Mine, in Queens and Rhinebeck, NY. The project has a warm, enveloping overall sound that judiciously adds reverb and builds great depth of field by doubling and tripling Jones’s voice as she sings her own harmonies. Another advantage here is the rhythm section of drummer Brian Blade and bassist Tony Scherr, both of whom are frequent Jones collaborators who played on her 2002, six-time Grammy winning debut album, Come Away with Me, whose current sales numbers are somewhere north of a staggering 27 million copies.

Putting on the full court press with multiple videos and a live performance from the top of the Empire State Building, Jones’s heart seems to be in this project. Her vocal takes, all with her beautifully controlled vibrato, are the album’s greatest strength. While she takes “White Christmas” in an unaffected, straight-ahead fashion, and her mostly acoustic piano-and-voice take of “Blue Christmas” is fairly conventional, the addition of pedal steel guitar to “Winter Wonderland” is a nice touch. And turning Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run” into a rhumba is a slinky, sexy success.   

Of her originals, “Christmas Glow”, with its echo-y electronic rhythms and Jones on electric piano, has an appealing modern gloss. A co-write with Michels, “Christmastime” is a slow soul number with gospel overtones. But it’s the short single, “Christmas Calling (Jolly Jones)”, with Blade’s beats prominent in the mix, Jones’s voice heard as a trio and a prominent chorus hook, that should have a long life beyond the 2021 holiday. For holiday music lovers, Jones’s I Dream of Christmas is another triumph in her resilient career. 

2024 PMA Magazine. All rights reserved.

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