...or so I'm ready to argue as a 30 year devotee of this sorely under appreciated genre. So, in an effort to do my part, each week I'll be making recommendations of soundtracks current and vintage, make a fuss over long awaited soundtrack scores finally getting a well deserved release, and in general, make some noise about this often overlooked category. Beyond my long experience as a listener and as a pianist and songwriter, both of which I've put to use in writing a quarterly soundtrack column for the Chicago Tribune, I can only offer my recommendations. You'll discern my taste soon enough and upfront I'd like to make it clear that I'll focus most heavily on SCORE soundtracks. In the end, all criticism is subjective but if I can point a listener toward a little heard soundtrack or strongly advise you to either ORDER IMMEDIATELY or SKIP ALTOGETHER, all the better.
These two holiday CDs obviously aren’t soundtracks but these two singing gay icons – both longtime faves of mine – have certainly lent their voices to enough songs to fill dozens of soundtracks. And these are what I’ve been listening to this season so here goes:
Bette Midler has been making the rounds of the daytime talk shows promoting “Cool Yule,” her first ever Christmas album. Everywhere she’s gone, it seems, the first question has been “Why is a Jew making a Christmas album?” to which Midler has the stock answer, “Well, there are not too many Jewish holiday songs you know. Just two, in fact” and tee hee hee. Every once in a while Bette also mentions that after all Irving Berlin, also a Jew, wrote “White Christmas,” perhaps the holiday’s biggest classic.
Why, I ask, does Midler have to defend recording a Christmas album? Didn’t Diva Number One, Barbra Streisand, do the same thing in 1966 with nary a peep? As it should be – songs should be available to whomever wants to record them and any artist of the caliber of a Midler or Streisand should be encouraged to record a Christmas album not made to defend it – what could be more American? As for Midler, for my money, she should have gone the Christmas route decades ago. The biggest surprise is that she has waited until now to do one.
She did record “Somewhere In My Memory” for Home Alone back in 1990 and included an earlier version of “White Christmas” on her Rosemary Clooney tribute CD a few years back, but surprisingly, this is the first all holiday affair she’s done. “Cool Yule” is a lot of fun, has some nice big band arrangements and includes some nice new lyrics on Midler’s personal chestnut, “From A Distance.” The requisite ballad classics are here but I love best the duet with Johnny Mathis, the peppy title track, the little known but beautiful “Merry Christmas” and especially Midler’s inclusion of the haunting “O Come Emanuel.” Though this set doesn’t have the intense depth of Midler at her height or even other Christmas albums, its varied lineup assures it a rotation spot for at least the next few holidays.
I’ve got it in my player right next to Streisand’s “Christmas Memories,” which was released in 2001. Streisand’s found her usual line-up of emotionally satisfying songs, even going so far as stretching the holiday theme to include Sondheim’s “I Remember.” The album also includes the gorgeous “Christmas Love Song,” the pop inspired “It Must Have Been the Mistletoe” and the heartbreaking “Closer.” There are also several holiday classics but no duets (though a bootleg version combining Donna Summer’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” with Babs’ is worth tracking down). Though there are playful cuts, this is a much more serious approach to the holiday season. The arrangements and the songs, matching Streisand’s commitment, are much more intense than Midler’s, which sounds effortless in comparison.
The artwork for both projects really defines what’s going on with them musically. In Midler’s, she’s dressed in a 60s inspired white lab coat looking thing, red pumps and one of her famous red hats trimmed with green mistletoe. Streisand wears velvet and is curled up on the sofa and one can imagine the crackling fireplace just out of frame. Both set each other off perfectly. Now if only they’d record a duet. Wouldn’t that be a great Christmas – and Hanukah – present for the world?