Hearing Perla Batalla's voice for the first time is an epiphany. One may go to hear the songs, but you end up feeling the joy and the pathos in the music like never before. There is a tone, a depth of emotion and a sublime expressiveness along with her transcendent voice that makes the experience unforgettable. One on hand there is that powerful vocal instrument, but on the other is her intelligence and instincts. This combination makes Perla's singing a true gift.
“We Three Kings” by Perla Batalla
By Glen Creason
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.
There is more to avoid the trap of the Aunt Ladybug’s fruitcake kind of programming in the form of four secular songs that comprise a very strong set of pillars for this musical cathedral. Eva’s “Danny Boy” is incredibly sweet, filled with childlike innocence and purity that is hard to capture under any circumstances. You won’t find a song more beloved in the English language and this performance is as good as you will hear it sung. Nuff said. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree as her mom just does her best singing ever on the remaining trio of songs. “The Water is Wide” seems tailored to the Perla Batalla voice and there is musical proof that she CAN cross over this melody with those pipes. This cut on this album is simply magnificent. The longtime Perla mentor and inspiration Leonard Cohen lends his former band-mate the majestic “Hallelujah” and she returns the favor by pouring heart and soul into a version that will be hard to top at any time of any year. Finally, the old dear chestnut “Auld Lang Syne” sadly finishes off the work which really is not for the broken of heart. Here it is a month from New Year’s Eve and I am already feeling a bit weepy.