Whit Hill and John Latini get in the spirit
by Sandor Slomovits
I love Christmas music the carols, the classics, even many of the novelty tunes; perhaps a surprising admission from a Jewish boy who as a child never sang them, or even heard them much.
Okay, you're waiting for the other Christmas stocking to fall, right? Here it is. I am decidedly more ambivalent about the deluge of Christmas music that floods the airwaves, earlier and earlier it seems, each year especially the new songs, many of which seem to be merely crass attempts to cash in on the Yuletide season.
Recently, though, I came across twelve new songs, one for each day of Christmas, that are not cynically pitched at the mass market though the masses should, and I hope will, discover them. The music on Whit Hill and John Latini's D-E-A-R S-A-N-T-A makes me smile, grin wickedly, and laugh out loud, and also gives my sentimental side plenty to savor. The recording has more clever lines and rhymes, more terrific singing and musicianship, than most trees have Christmas lights.
Latini's "Going with My Cousin to See Santa at the Mall" unwraps the CD. Doesn't that title conjure up a whole home video of holiday images? It has lyrics like "Every year my list was half as long as I was tall" and "They'd make the North Pole look like it was someplace you might go," all drolly delivered in Latini's gravelly Greg Brownesque bass. His "Christmas in Michigan" adds more memorable lines: "Six months till I'll fish again,/'Cause I put away my gear when ice fishing starts./I never was fond of frozen parts."
Hill's "Jasper's Worst Christmas" perfectly captures the antispirit of Christmas: "I didn't get what I wanted,/I didn't get what I wanted./Sister she got everything,/And I didn't get what I wanted." Hill sings it in a just-right mix of childish whine, nasal twang, and bluegrass high lonesome.
Her homage to the Lionel electric train is a fine sketch of the
classic toy, but it also has a broader perspective: "How I wish I lived down there,/In this town where all is fair. . . . And everything works just fine,/And everyone arrives on time." Latini has a train song too, and in contrast to Hill's, which has a solo acoustic guitar backing, his track roars like a runaway freight train.
There are sweet ballads like the jazz-inflected "Snow in the City," which Hill cowrote with husband Al, and her country-flavored "Caledonia, Christmas Day." There are dark moments too. Hill's "Mama Made Her Getaway" is sad enough for any day of the year. You won't want to hear it on Christmas, but when you do listen, it will open, and break, your heart.
Whit Hill, John Latini, and friends present the songs from D-E-A-R S-A-N-T-A at the Ark on Saturday, December 15.
[Review published December 2007]