Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Great Advances in Christmas Music Technology
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Deck the Halls
Mannheim Steamroller

Chip Davis was a junior high school music teacher, turned advertising jingle writer, turned inventor of the "C.P. McCall" character (of "Convoy") fame, when he decided to record himself playing classical music on one of those "synthesizers" that were so newfangled in 1974. He created his own record label and a fictitious name for his "band" -- "Mannheim Steamroller" -- and spent the 70s selling his "Fresh Aire" albums to stereophiles who appreciated his recordings because they were crisp and clean and unsullied by any human emotion.

But Davis will always be remembered for a technical innovation he developed in the early 1980s. Before Davis came along, synthesizers were played with the hands -- usually in the form of a piano-style keyboard. Davis was the first to design a synthesizer that operated in the form of a woodwind. Indeed, it was a very peculiar woodwind.

More specifically, he developed the technology to turn the human fart into synthesized sound.

Naturally, the first album to use this musical farting technology was a Christmas album, 1984's "Mannheim Steamroller Christmas." And as you no doubt recall, the hit Christmas song that year was Davis's stirring recording of "Deck the Halls." The stunning sound of electrolyzed flatulence trumpeted through every Montgomery Ward's in America.

Surely you remember it:

BRAAAAAP bruh brap buh brap buh BRAP brap...
[thunderous tympani]
[thunderous tympani, cue disco beat]

Aw, it's no use. There's no way to convey the glorious sound of the electrorectophone, as his technology was called. (And I'm sure as hell not linking to it.) Man had converted farts into music, and America wiped away tears of joy.

For over a decade, America's desire for the new electrorectophonic music proved to be insatiable: Christmas in the Aire (1985), Somebody Aire Out the Bathroom (1988), Music From A Christmas Tamale Dinner (1993), Nothing You Haven't Heard Already (1995), and the so-called "cry for help" album, Just Hand Ten Dollars to the Clerk and Shoot Yourself in the Head (1997). Eventually, the Mannheim Steamroller Christmas albums stopped coming. Technology had moved on: the electrorectophone was eclipsed by a new technology developed by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which allowed them to play the electric guitar by farting.

But for a brief two decades, Chip Davis sat atop the world every Christmas. And when he played, we all felt the mighty wind.

 10:01 AM

Monday, December 05, 2005

War of the Dian[e/a]s
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

The best Christmas album of last year--hell, of the last several years--is Dianne Reeves' "Christmas Time Is Here" on the Blue Note label. Dianne Reeves is a jazz vocalist of staggering talent, the winner of three straight Grammy awards leading into this album, and she really makes the music shine. Her voice is glorious, her technique impeccable, her style playful and powerful.

You should go buy it right this very instant. Don't worry, the blog will be here when you get back. In fact, don't wait for Amazon. Go buy it at a regular store.


Couldn't find it anywhere?

The clerks kept directing you to that display of 800 copies of Diana Krall's new Christmas album?

That's what has me so pissed off.

Diana Krall is a well-regarded jazz vocalist in her own right, winner of two Grammys and a few Junos (from her native Canada), and she has a new Christmas album out. You already know this. It's getting the hard sell in all the record stores. It's the one with the leggy blonde chick on the cover lounging seductively on a chaise, and the leggy blonde chick on the back in a hotel hallway, either on her way to a holiday quickie or from one. (As if a picture were a good reason to buy a sound recording.) She's that type perfectly described by Woody Allen in his short story "The Whore of Mensa" -- the kind of slutty that is perfectly attuned to the NPR set. Because of all this highbrow softcore, you can buy the album by the boxful at Best Buy. It's being sold with a hundred times the advertising and sales "presence" that Dianne Reeves' album was. I recommend it for all my readers who need ballast, or something to prop up a table leg.

Because that's the only real use for that piece of Christmas crap. It's the perfect album for low expectations--slickly produced, inoffensive, and well-known. It lays you down and gently massages you with warm cheese. It's unlikely to draw comment at Christmas parties. It's a Thomas Kincaid painting: pretty but unprovocative, skilled but uninspired, filled with sentiment calculated to satisfy her wide and well-heeled fan base.

But let me be clear: Diana Krall hates the baby Jesus. In the words of Bill Hicks, she is a demon let loose on the earth to lower the standards.

Dianne Reeves loves the baby Jesus. She makes good art for Him. She recorded a Christmas album that is actually moving, if you can believe it.

There's a significant argument to be made for never buying any Christmas music, especially not Christmas music that aims to be tender and gentle and moving. (See my former post about how much of that music sucks so hard.) But if you don't have an absolute rule against it, do yourself a favor and buy the album -- off Amazon, if you must. And you must, if you wish to avoid that leggy harpie.

Christmas is a time of sentiment, a time when people lower their guard, and for that reason some people lower their standards. I hold exactly the opposite view. Mediocre music hurts more at Christmastime, precisely because I have lowered my guard but not my standards. Maybe someday I'll learn better, but I hope not.

 5:29 PM

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Great WTF? Moments in Christmas Music #2
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Donna and Blitzen
Badly Drawn Boy

The terrible Christmas song has become a recurring theme in modern books and movies set at Christmastime -- for instance, I've already talked about how the charming Love Actually features a terrible Christmas song and an artist who becomes popular by his willingness to admit how bad it really is, and how the joke took a turn for the meta-ironic when the terrible song was actually released for actual consumption by the public.

A slightly different take comes in the film About a Boy, based on Nick Hornby's novel. Hugh Grant plays a thirtysomething who has lingered in adolescence thanks to a trust fund created by the profits from his father's successful Christmas song -- a tune which he absolutely despises. When the film was put in production, therefore, someone had to write that infuriating song. That task fell to Damon Gough, better known as the "band" Badly Drawn Boy, who wrote nearly all the music for the soundtrack (and released it as a hit album) at the personal invitation of Nick Hornby. He wrote a Christmas song that seems to lumber along whenever the characters sing it, and (like the film Lili Marleen) you truly come to appreciate Grant's disdain for the song.

But when Badly Drawn Boy performs the song over the credits, it's a real winner. It's called "Donna and Blitzen" -- har har -- and though its lyrics are somewhat opaque, it appears to be a relationship song where the protagonist admits his current failures but promises a bright future that he compares to the glory of reindeer flying. Of course, I think it's probably a warning sign in any relationship when your boyfriend says that he'll stop being a louse when reindeer fly, but somehow BDB makes it work.

So the question, then, is this: was Damon Gough successful? He made a "good" Christmas song, which is a real cause to celebrate, but his assignment was to write a terrible Christmas song (albeit one that has endured). Did he "fail"? And moreover, hundreds of artists have written terrible Christmas songs without that being their explicit assignment. Does his "failure" indicate that he's a much better artist than they are? Or is it unfair to boost his song by external factors, like the fact that it was supposed to be bad?

 7:11 PM

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Great WTF? Moments in Christmas Music
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Frosty the Snowman
Fiona Apple

There are a few great indie rock Christmas compilations (Yuletunes, Maybe this Christmas), and there are an awful lot of tired, pathetic indie rock Christmas compilations (too numerous to name, but certainly including "Maybe this Christmas Tree"). Sony's 2003 "Christmas Calling" easily falls into the latter category, because it has only two redeeming qualities -- Tenacious D's "Sh*t I Want" and Fiona Apple's "Frosty the Snowman." Yet even then, the latter is only "redeeming" because it is one of the great "What the F---?" moments in recent Christmas music.

Fiona Apple, as you will recall, was one of the reigning queens of teen angst. She wrote her 1995 debut album Tidal when she was sixteen, and her subject matter was primarily her violent rape, her parents' divorce, and the fact that guys are jerks. Incongruously, for a teenaged girl who appeared to weigh about 70 pounds, she had a smoky lounge-singer voice and a slow swing style that made the whole thing sound more mature than it really was. She then followed up with her 1999 album, which was equally overserious, but which carried the exasperating title When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He'll Win the Whole Thing 'Fore He Enters the Ring There's No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and if You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and if You Fall It Won't Matter, 'Cuz You'll Know That You're Right. Her style had changed to match producer Jon Brion's quirky and twee preferences -- lots of carillon for instance -- and she started indulging that strange tremor in her voice that blows past "vibrato" on its way to a "warble."

She then went silent for several years, and given her strange predilictions, fans could only fear the worst. The flames were fanned in 2003 as rumors spread that the reason for the delay was that Sony hated hated hated her new album. How dare they! They just hate Fiona because she's so honest and she dares to use carillons and 38/7 time signatures! Then a new Fiona Apple track was released on Sony's Christmas Calling -- four years after her last album -- and it was the absolute least Fiona Apple-like song you could imagine. She had recorded "Frosty the Snowman."

First of all, she sang "Frosty the Snowman," which is positively ludicrous for an artist more well-known for penning bitter songs to her rapist. Joni Mitchell's "River," maybe. But "Frosty the Snowman?!?" Surely the Sony Borg had brainwashed her, or were punishing her.

And then her interpretation of the song was not to "interpret" it at all -- she just stands there and happily belts out "Frosty the Snowman" like she was at a campfire sing-along. No tone of resentment at being "made" to sing such a ludicrous song.

The effect is disconcerting, to say the least. It's unreservedly cheery music from someone never known to be cheerful. It's perfectly well-done, so it seems churlish to criticize it. Yet, because there is no flourish, no soul, nothing but good cheer, you come away with the impression that any member of any medium-sized church choir in America could probably have sung it just as well -- albeit with less of that weird vibrato, and less of that lingering aftertaste of the bizarre.

Is it fair to criticize the performance because it is so unexpected from that artist? Is it fair to criticize a Christmas song because it offers nothing but the generous happiness that is supposed to be the "Christmas spirit"? Is there something wrong with me that I am shocked by the absence of irony? The core question is this: What is Christmas music?

 7:08 AM

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Best Christmas Song of All Time
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Fairytale of New York
The Pogues with Kirsty McColl

In the UK, it's a big deal what song is #1 on Christmas Day -- the BBC plays it up as a sort of contest each year, and it's often a way of measuring what the favorite Christmas music of any given year might be. Becaue the Christmas sales reflect the particularly quirky buying patterns of the holidays, the Christmas #1 allows novelty records and outsiders a once-a-year shot at fame. You may recall that this was one of the plot points of the film Love Actually -- Bill Nighy's desperate attempt to make a comeback via a turgid Christmas song, which led to an ironic bid by the "fake" song for the real BBC #1 that year. In recent years, however, non-Christmas songs have won out (such as the cover of "Mad World" used in the film Donnie Darko), which surely is some sort of reflection of the modern British character.

There's a song perfectly poised to take advantage of the new irreligiosity of Christmas, and don't think that the labels don't know it.

This year, Warner is re-releasing "Fairytale of New York" in a naked (and publicized) bid for the #1 title. On its release in 1987, the song hit #2, but no higher. It then settled into a relatively well-known position in England, as drunken Brits belted it out at office Christmas parties across the Isles. Recent polls there have even ranked it as "The #1 Christmas Song Of All Time." Surely, then, Warner's sees a good shot at easy money on back catalog property. Once again, Kirsty McColl won't be around to enjoy her success -- she died in an accident in 2000, just as her song "In These Shoes?" was enjoying stateside popularity.

The song is relatively unknown in America -- which is ironic, given that the song is set in New York City. That obscurity is changing, though. The song has been steadily gaining in popularity in recent years, for a number of reasons. It's a great song, with a catchy beat. It's fun to sing along to. And it is emphatically un-Christian, which is a big selling point in the modern world. And it is un-Christian to a degree that was previously unknown. "The Christmas Song" or "White Christmas" or any of those other sentimental favorites aren't religious, but "Fairytale of New York" knocks over the town creche while on a drunken bender.

It's a duet sung between Shane McGowan of the Pogues and Irish thunderball Kirsty McCall -- and though there have been a couple of abysmal covers in recent years, it will always be a duet between Shane McGowan and Kirsty McCall, so perfectly do they inhabit their roles. "Roles" is the right word. They're Irish lovers/spouses in the New York slums of the 1930s or 40s, who fight, who insult each other, who despair that the good times will ever come back. (Some think the song is set in the 1800s, like the Irish immigrant movie Far and Away, but there's a reference to "Sinatra.")

It starts off with McGowan slowly singing "It was Christmas Eve in the drunk tank..." in the manner of one who still hasn't slept it off, and it's all downhill from there. He tells her that he dreamed of her while in the jailhouse, and now he has gambling winnings they can use to celebrate Christmas. But she'll have none of his sweet talk -- he promised her that New York was a wonderland. They had good times, he reminds her. The good times are over, she says. He's a bum, she's a junkie. They have nothing. "Happy Christmas your arse," she says, "I pray God it's our last."

"I could have been someone," he protests.

"But so could anyone," she blasts back. "You took my dreams away when you first met me." And this line is so bracing that you can't help but wonder what he's going to say. What can anyone say to that?

Well, of course this no-good man, says just the right thing. No-good men like him know what to say to stay in the good graces of women. Her dreams aren't gone, he says:

I kept them with me babe

I put them with my own

Can't make it all alone

I've built my dreams around you

And that's it. That's the song. He tears his heart out of his chest and gives it to her, and that's the end of the song. Once more through the chorus, "And the boys of the NYPD choir were singing 'Galway Bay,' and the bells were ringing out for Christmas Day," and you're on to the next tune, which suddenly sounds lifeless and dull compared to all this raw emotion.

In short, it's a drunken fight between down-and-outers, who are disgusted with each other and the sentiment of the holiday. Maybe that is why "Fairytale of New York" more accurately conveys sentiment than most other Christmas music. Maybe there's no better way to show the strength of something than to try to kill it and fail.

The polls are right -- even though it is the least religious and least sentimental song in all of Christmas music, it's the best Christmas song of all time. It's worth writing about in November so that you will have all of December to listen to it. Go buy it now. It's on the good Christmas compilation "The Edge of Christmas" (which now costs only $4) along with the Pogues album "If I Should Fall From Grace With God" (where it was first released), the Pogues' various best-of compilations, and Kirsty McColl's own best-of album.

 2:51 PM

Monday, November 21, 2005

Great Christmas Music #5
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Long Way Around The Sea

I have come to realize that most people have never heard of some of the Christmas songs I would put in my Top 10. A case in point is "Long Way Around The Sea," by the band Low. I cherish this song like some fans cherish their favorite team's pennant season.

Low is one of the foremost "slowcore" bands -- "slowcore" being the musical genre that proclaims that "slow is the new fast" and "quiet is the new loud," and that rebelliously aims to evoke a meditative state rather than an agitated one. (After all, there's only so much hell-raising you can do by getting faster and louder; by the time you've heard G.G. Allin and the Murder Junkies destroy the human condition with two verses and a bridge, you realize there's not much more you can do with the "punk" sound. So how do you rebel? You do a judo throw on the whole concept. You defy the audience's expectations by being slow, man, slower than slow. You want to dance? That's so over. Of course, there will inevitably be a backlash against this someday, as people get fed up with posers who try to impress people with their ability to withstand seven straight hours of depressed guys noodling around with a bass guitar and a cymbal.)

Slowcore usually sounds like lukewarm Radiohead.

Anyway, Low consists of three Mormons from Utah, which is damned uncommon in the indie music world and in the music world in general. They aren't "Mormon musicians" in the sense that they proselytize through their music;* they're just Mormons who like to rock... really slowly.

* The parallel, of course, is the difference between "Christian music" and music played by Christians. The former is a ministry, the latter is a profession, and the former always becomes the latter. Case in point: Michael W. Smith, a "Christian musician" before he became a Christian musician. Amy Grant -- "Christian musician" to Christian musician to Target spokeswoman. Jessica Simpson -- "Christian musician" to Christian musician to self-parody. Seldom does it go in reverse. Bob Dylan went Christian, then he went secular again, and was last seen in a Victoria's Secret commercial looking like Vincent Price.

Low's 1999 album "Christmas" is fantastic if you're ready for slow, intense emotion during the Christmas season. Though the album is highly regarded by the few that have ever written about it, the album actually seems to put some people off -- some because of its slow speed, but others because the Christmas theme is treated reverently. Believing that Christmas has meaning brings a band dangerously close to being a "Christian band" rather than just a Christian band, and members of Low take the Christmas story seriously. They sing about the meaning of Christmas earnestly, and as a result the music is suffused with genuine spirituality. That's a real rarity -- there are a lot of god-awful Christmas albums produced by "Christian musicians." Mostly because there are a lot of "Christian musicians" who are strong on the "Christian" and weak on the "musician," if you know what I mean and I think you do. Low manages to break out of that ghetto and make some amazing music.

It starts off with an upbeat song called "Just Like Christmas," which sounds like a bunch of depressed Mormons doing their best to try to do a "happy" Christmas record, which it pretty much is. Strangely, it works -- the tension makes the song much more interesting than if anyone else had tried it. Another high point is "If You Were Born Today," which frankly advises Christ that he would be dead by age eight in the modern world. Again, when they do it, it works. Their version of "The Little Drummer Boy" is bizarre and wonderful, and raised more than a few eyebrows when it was featured in a Gap ad in 2000. It takes you a very long time to realize that the song is indeed "The Little Drummer Boy" and not something else entirely.

But the shining star of the album is "Long Way Around The Sea," a somber and sparse retelling of the Wise Men story in Matthew 2. Most of the song is nothing more than "Take the long way around the sea," sung over and over again in a slow incantation. It powerfully evokes the journey to Bethlehem and their arduous return by a different road to avoid Herod. And given Mormon theology regarding Lehi's travel across the seas to the New World, and Christ's subsequent visit there, I suspect that the imagery takes on a more distinctly Mormon bent than any other Christmas song I have heard.

At any rate, it's an incredibly moving song, and I halfway pray that it remains relatively undiscovered. I have only heard one "cover" of it, and that was on one of Pedro the Lion's Christmas 45s. (He's another Christian artist who isn't a "Christian musician," and he trends toward emo and slowcore of his own, so it's a good fit. It just isn't as well-done.)

Few Christmas albums succeed when the artist tries to slow down the music and get "serious." When one takes away the fast rhythm, usually all that is left is the blazing ego of the performer or the poor songwriting that infects most Christmas music. It gives Christmas a bad reputation for mawkish, false emotion, which in turn conveys the idea that Christmas is a childish holiday.

But when Low peels away the fast rhythm and the peppy lyrics, you see them more clearly, and it's worth seeing. All that remains are three musicians earnestly presenting songs about faith. It's "childishness," yes, but of the sort that confounds the wise.

 6:00 PM

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Sort of Christmas Music That Invites Debate
(click here for introduction, and here for a word on copyright)

Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto
James Brown

People of good will (and good taste) cannot disagree that James Brown's 1968 album A Soulful Christmas is one of the best Christmas albums of all time. Nor can they disagree that "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto" is a great Christmas song.

Not to be dogmatic or anything. It's just a fact. And if you don't think it's a great Christmas song, I will fight you. That's no lie. [/gratuitous Anchorman reference]

To be sure, it's one of the best "socially conscious" Christmas songs, the top of a short list that probably includes John & Yoko's "Happy Christmas" and not much else worth mentioning. And for a "socially conscious" song, it's not even controversial (like "Happy Christmas" is); James Brown simply begs Santa Claus not to forget the kids in the ghetto, because he remembers being a kid and wondering if Santa Claus would come. No one disputes that poverty is a bad thing. That's not the "debate" that I was referring to in the title.

No -- here's the problem. Even though it is a great Christmas song, it is not a great James Brown song, and that uncovers one of the fundamental problems of Christmas music.

At his best -- especially in this era -- James Brown could rock so hard that paper ignited, women spontaneously combusted and the only hope of stopping the inferno was the three or four quarts of sweat pouring off his body. He never rocked a Christmas song that hard. But when James Brown's a little "off," he's still a damn sight better than some other pros ever get. "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" is a good example. Despite being released and re-released as a single, it was never a "hit" -- the only James Brown Christmas song to break the Top 40 was "Santa Claus Is Here To Stay," which is slow, forgettable and common, a big lump of oatmeal in the form of a song. (Even so, it is better than the oatmeal made by most other artists, which proves the point again.) "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" definitely isn't in the top fifty best James Brown songs, not in my opinion or anyone else's.

But by Christmas music standards, it's fantastic.

So what do we make of that? Do we lower our standards for Christmastime? And is it proper to alter those standards based on the artist? Is it fair to criticize James Brown because his voluminous Christmas output was not among his best work (yet not among his worst)?

All I know is this: when I hear "Santa Claus Go Straight To The Ghetto," I want to punch Mannheim Steamroller in the face. And that can't be all bad.

 9:50 AM

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