A Very Cool Christmas
Original release: October 21, 2008
“The world is your snowball just for a song
Get out, and roll it along!”
—“A Marshmallow World”
Of all the slick crooners in our yuletide wax, it was the late Dean Martin who made the biggest impression on me. He was smooth enough to admire subconsciously, but quiet enough to be unobtrusive as presents were ransacked and hugs passed down the line. But he could also be enjoyed, alone, guiding Christmas through a contemplative late-night gin.
With the sheer number of posthumous holiday packages bearing his name, it’s easy to associate Dino with blurry visions of sugarplums and spiked eggnog. But the truth is he recorded only two Christmas long-players in his lifetime, starting with the amore-themed A Winter Romance (1959) whose seasonal setting was happenstance; Dean admired the snowfall from the warmth of an active couch (“Baby, It’s Cold Outside”). In 1966 he turned in the more traditional The Dean Martin Christmas Album. Barnes & Noble has revived the latter, track list and sequence intact, as A Very Cool Christmas, a self-conscious title we can only imagine might make the King of Cool cringe, just a little.
At this point in his career, Dino had conquered all the necessary media — nightclub, stage, screen, radio, LPs, and television — with a work ethic that passed as maddening ease. That perception marks his albums as well: The casual listener might get the impression of an even more casual performer, rattling off bored takes at lightning speed, eager to retire to the nearest watering hole and hunker inside a glass of liquid magic. But Martin’s seeming detachment, which took him years to perfect, somehow imbues this material with an intimacy missing from some of the more emotive season-greeters.
When Dean wasn’t weaving his heavy-lidded murmur with the trills of his Rat Pack pals, he traveled with a female choir that did plenty of heavy lifting, a crisp, angelic gale to his frosty breath. They dutifully “ding-dong” through his “White Christmas” to mimic the pealing of holiday bells, soothe the shivering strings in his reassuring “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and provide necessary punctuation for the otherwise relaxed “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”
Most of the disc sticks to standard arrangements, all lovingly adorned with the master’s slurred warble. Naturally, there are exceptions: “Jingle Bells” dashes through the snow on a beat far jauntier than Pierpont likely intended. “Blue Christmas” owes a soft debt to Elvis Presley’s version, but Dino’s way too hip to dip so deep into the hiccough bag. But he’s not so hip he’s unwilling to revisit A Winter Romance for inspiration, pilfering “Wonderland,” “Let It Snow!,” and the Cahn/Styne chestnut “The Things We Did Last Summer,” a wistful shimmer that glides like Sonja Henie across a lake entombed in ice and enveloped by a powdery dominion Dino likens to “A Marshmallow World.”
There was nothing so marshmallow-y soft about Martin, though the warm grooves here, fleeting though they may be, are sweet and compact enough to enjoy before a roaring fire — or roaring children, depending on your household. A Very Cool Christmas, or The Dean Martin Christmas Album sans popping vinyl and snakeskin-thick cellophane, goes down smooth, a sonic martini for yuletides somber or joyful and triumphant.