"The Christmas Blues," written by David Holt and Sammy Cahn and first recorded 56 years ago by Dean Martin, is the keeper, with Hal Moore and Bill Fredericks' rambunctious and hilarious 50-year-old "Must Be Santa" not far behind. Neither is over-familiar, and both play to Dylan's strengths. The other 13 songs are over-familiar, and at least a few will make even Dylan's staunchest advocates laugh when they hear them in spite of themselves. Verdict: As charming and heartbreaking as a late-night Christmas-Eve sing-along at the Midnight Mission.
In recently making headlines with anti-Obama comments more typical of Ted Nugent, the veteran pop crooner Andy Williams proved that politics does indeed make strange bedfellows. Alas, those hoping to discover rugged individualism in Williams' greatest hits will instead find very smooth sailing: Not for nothing did Rush Limbaugh turn "Born Free" into his animal-rights-update theme song. Sometimes, though, Williams' velvet pipes were just preternaturally creamy enough to make a song sound as if it were floating in from a-if not exactly the-twilight zone.
Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley have long specialized in sculpting recycled scraps of once-hip genres into new and freshly arresting shapes without sanding down the jagged edges or welding them into over-homogenized blobs. The most obvious touchstones this time are the Velvet Underground (especially the 16-minute, feedback-channeling instrumental "And the Glitter Is Gone") and Motown (especially "If It's True," which begins like the Four Tops "I Can't Help Myself"), but the thrills resulting from the blending of airy vocals with garage guitars and chintzy keyboards remain theirs alone.
Why does this all-covers album by a performer better known for her own material work when many others like it haven't? First, Cash had an iconic musician for a father who gave her a list of 100 essential country songs when she was 18 that she listened closely to for the next 35 years. Second, she married a top-flight producer for whom arranging 12 of the songs was a dream gig. Last, she has a voice so gorgeous that the big-name cameo harmonizers just get in the way.
As recounted at length in the accompanying booklet, the story behind the discovery in 2003 of the songs presented on the newly released four-disc Woody Guthrie collection My Dusty Road (Rounder) is almost as interesting as the songs themselves. Serendipitously well-preserved in the storage area of a Brooklyn apartment building, the metal masters, which Guthrie had recorded for the Stinson Company in 1944, were subsequently refurbished with state-of-the-art technology, eventually outclassing all previously known-and frustratingly lo-fi-versions of the sessions.
Of the 54 tracks thematically organized on discs titled "Woody's 'Greatest' Hits," "Woody's Roots," "Woody the Agitator," and "Woody, Cisco and Sonny" respectively, six have never been previously released, and one, "Bad Repetation" [sic], wasn't even known to exist. Would the left-wing individualism they enshrine matter much if it didn't articulate the very convictions that would one day shape the mind of the 44th president of the United States? Maybe not. But they did, so they do.