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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]
BRAP buh BRAP buh BRAP, buh BRAP brapBRAAAAAAAAAAP
[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.

What?

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

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