"We Three Kings" by Perla Batalla, Eva Batalla-Mann and Claud Mann
I must preface this by saying I am a Christmas music crab-ass who has searched since 1977 for the perfect Yule mix. I am sick unto death of re-hashes of “the Christmas Song,” “Jingle @#*&g? Bells” and “Have Yourself a…” no no I just can’t go on. Some songs MUST be left alone because they are the personal property of one singer or artist. No one but Nat King Cole should sing “Christmas Song,” even Mel Torme who wrote it and only Peggy Lee can do “Christmas Waltz.” Same for Judy Garland: that song I mentioned before and “White Christmas” shall be the private property of Der Bingle. I can’t imagine anyone working as hard as Mister Dynamite on “Christmas in the Ghetto” and certainly Frank Sinatra peaked not on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” but on a radio performance of a swinging “Away in the Manger” where he refers to the savior as “that little cat Jesus.” Now, that’s good Christmas music!
Each year a new artist takes a crack at the little cat’s birth and despite their big talents they often flop due to tame choices. Even the deep deliciousness of Aaron Neville’s pipes can be made bland by too tried and true. There are the gold plated classics like John Fahey’s “New Possibility,” Emmylou Harris’ “Light of the Stable,” Saint Tony Bennett’s anything, the Roches “We Three Kings”or even my white-bearded brother Burl Ives who just rocks that “Holly Jolly Christmas.” And yes, I admit it, “Andy Williams Christmas,” its like wearing warm polyester again on a cold winter’s morning. These are the evergreens that never really get tired. Then there are more esoteric choices including the Bonanza Cast singing “We Wish You…etc.,” Cary Grant cooing “Christmas Lullaby,” Dale Watson’s wondrous “Christmas in Vegas” and the sweet evil of “Back Door Santa” by my man Clarence Carter.
All this brings me to the arrival in my mailbox of another “We Three Kings” this one by Perla Batalla with some help from her handsome hubby and talented teen daughter. This is not one of those holiday CDs you put into your computer and drag a single song to the old Imusic Xmas play list. You will want to import the whole disc and visit it often through December and beyond. The closest Ms. Batalla comes to forbidden territory is to poach on the Harry Simeone Chorale’s sacred “Drummer Boy” but Perla deftly sidesteps the minefield of sameness by transforming the wee percussionist and his story into a mixture of Spanish and ethereal English, turning it into a nice narrative where you don’t count the drumbeats until it is over. The title track, “We Three Kings” is impressively expansive and the melody is opened up to make the journey feel real and regal in auditory space. It helps that the voice is strong enough to take the ride from the Orient to Bethlehem leaving no notes behind. The oft heard “Joy to the World” is also sculpted around the surprisingly perfect “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” making for a treat as fine as fudge and divinity. The suddenly underrated “Christmastime Is Here” a la Charlie Brown with rarely heard lyrics and “Mary Had a Baby” are given a family harmony that really elevates their meaning along with showcasing the amazing voice of the then tweener Eva Batalla-Mann. We know Perla is one of the best in the land but is her kid going to get musically taller than her? “Noche de Paz” or “Silent Night” is an unexploded bomb of arcanery but Perla manages to pull it off, making it a lullaby, like the comfort of memories of the best Christmas morning ever.