december 2009

Dean Martin
Released: 2006

Tacking country chanteuse Martin McBride's flirty vocal onto Dean Martin's original version of "Baby, It's Cold Outside" makes for a saucy seasonal duet, but Dino Vino needs no help making Christmas music memorable in all departments. He does just fine settling in with a comely partner against an intemperate clime in a breezy reading of "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm," his carefree reading framed by the lush, humming strings and perky woodwinds of Gus Levene's orchestra; and reflecting dreamily on an enduring love with an assist from Levene's full-bodied string section and a soothing female chorus on a quintessential swooner, "A Winter Romance." From his Reprise years, he gets winningly playful on a gently swaying treatment of the Carl Sigman-Peter DeRose beauty, "A Marshmallow World," Dino eating up the colorful "yum-yummy world" an "whipped cream day" described in the lyrics, so much so you can hear him smiling as he sings, and you can sense the fun he's having slurring the lyrics for a suggestive effect when he sings, "...take a walk with your fa-vo-rite girl." Even when exploring a melancholy lyric such as those provided by Sammy Cahn and David Holt in "The Christmas Blues," he doesn't get as down as the song title might suggest, but does use the occasion as a showcase for a lowdown swaggering vocal set against Levene's brass-heavy arrangement. He has great sport hanging with "poor Rudy" in a swinging treatment of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and, again from the Reprise years, ditching the frolic for a touching, deeply reverential version of "Silent Night," with a vocal approach as subdued and probing as he ever brought to his better non-Christmas ballads and blues, really a marvel of subtle, nuanced feeling. The tracks are evenly split between Capitol and Reprise recordings, the former produced by Lee Gillette (who was also behind the board for Jo Stafford's exquisite 1964 Yuletide offering, The Joyful Season: The Voices of Jo Stafford) and arranged by Gus Levene, the latter by first-generation rockabillies turned popmeisters Jimmy Bowen (producer, who did estimable work with Sinatra as well and later transformed modern country music during his tenure as president of MCA Nashville) and Bill Justis (arranger, he of the classic 1957 rock 'n' roll instrumental, "Raunchy"). Gillette and Levene preferred cushiony, swoon-inducing orchestral settings for Dino; Bowen and Justis, despite the romantic strings on many cuts, were a bit harder edged sonically, oftimes employing what sounds like a small combo with a pronounced propulsive attack. Regardless, the outcome is consistently first-rate, and for that all due credit goes to Dean Martin for his commitment to the songs and his winning display of heart and wit. He's reputed not to have put a lot of effort into his recording career, but on these Christmas songs he is fully engaged artistically. What better present could he have left us? —David McGee 

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