31 December, 2010

Recycled: My Worst Films of the Year 2010

[Author's Note: There are times I go on a bit when I comment on someone else's blog, but waste not, want not. This was original posted to the BBC's Kermode Uncut blog. Mark Kermode is one of the UK's top film critics, he has a weekly BBC Podcast with seasoned radio presenter Simon Mayo. Kermode is sometimes referred to as (academically) Dr. K. In his video blog, he refers to Let Me In: "The most utterly redundant remake of the year, I've already Let the Right One In, why would I let you in?"]

I loved Dr K's remark about having already Let The Right One In, but it perhaps presages the remake's possible sequels, Let Me In Too, and Look Who's Letting Me In Now.

While I ordinarily would simply thank Dr K for taking the bullets for the rest of us, even the dullest of cinematic spidey senses would have warned us off these. I did consider seeing the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, knowing it would be a car wreck, but with that compulsion that makes you glance at the accident on the other carriageway as you drive by. Luckily I was unable to fit in a viewing before feedback from Dr K and others quashed that masochistic urge (the "original" is my favorite horror film).

I also find it much easier to make a bottom five list than a top five. If I really enjoy and love a group of movies, I find ranking them pointless. A worst list is easier because gauging a level of hatred is more straightforward.

The Road - I know it was extremely well made, acted, directed, etc. (not to mention stupefyingly worthy). But I just couldn't get past how utterly stupid its unspecified disaster and its aftermath seemed to be. What could possibly destroy almost all nature whilst leaving man alive? Did it also destroy all the outlet stores which would have provided an unending supply of fresh clothes for the surviving population rather than forcing them to wear homeless chic? Did it involve monsters (there's a mysteriously dead forest with trees knocked over and a boat that has somehow been put on dry land)? How boring does a film have to be for me to spend my time thinking of such questions? Mad Max Beyond Thunderingly Dull.

The Other Guys - I've actually enjoyed some of Will Ferrell's movies but I completely understand if you don't, and I'm not ever going to argue the pretty weak points. The films where his schtick works for me are the one's where he plays an over the top, arrogant caricature, usually abetted by the great John C. Reilly. Here he plays a low status schlubb (it's more of Steve Carell character), and it just doesn't work, and nothing else does either. Dr. K was very generous about Mark Wahlberg's comic potential, and I agree it's there, but it's as much on display here as it was in I (heart) Huckabees (which is saying so little, an electron microscope might be handy).

44 Inch Chest - Great cast squandered in lifeless predictable exercise of east end gangster talky artiness, Revolver for the middle aged. Stagey is the key word as the performances might have been electrifying if performed live on a stage in a way that might have lifted the material, but instead dull dull dull dull dull, had me pining for Harold Pinter's turn in the film version of Mojo, and that's not a good thing.

Alice in Wonderland - Great casting and art direction, no script or direction, and a fundamental ignorance of the source material (hint: the title is a lie, and the poem about the gruesome creature is the Jabberwocky, not the Jabberwock creature itself). Helena Bonham Carter furthers her resume/CV in hair acting (I see that she wears a hat in The King's Speech, so I'm hopeful).

Robin Hood - I was going to give this a miss (the Trailer had me imagining Gerald Butler intoning This Is Sherwood!), but something Billy Bragg said in his interview with Dr K and Simon made me briefly think it might be interesting. It was that Bragg had had a conversation about Forest Rights with Crowe implying some of that had possibly been integrated into the film. As a New Forest resident where these ancient rights are still practiced (and enshrined in modern law from the 1870's), I was intrigued enough to ignore my misgivings. I'm not blaming anyone for my bad decision to follow this tenuous thread, I'm making this comment long enough without delineating what a mess the movie is. It is enough to hate this film for making the Kevin Costner version look good.

Due to the economy, I was unable to see more bad films, so I'd like to list a few most disappointing movies:

Made in Dagenham - Formulaic cliche ridden script given the best airing possible by fine cast. To describe it as this year's Full Monty or Brassed Off, skips over the fact that it is a paint-by-numbers conflation of the two. There's the third act lurch into melodrama provided by the up to then unnecessary subplot, and the 11th hour argument between the lead couple which serves for one of those transportation related chasing reconciliation moments that have me convinced that the British can only express love through mileage. Well intentioned, good message, fitfully enjoyable, but very creaky (I pitied Rosamund Pike who manages to make her rubbish patronizing slightly posh middle class women need liberating too speech touching). I've no problem with the language, but Wooley's argument about accuracy kind of falls apart when they've invented an ensemble of sassy composite characters. Sadly, like much of this sort of output of British film industry, I enjoyed it the way you supportively enjoy your child's turn in the school play, in the knowledge that it's all a nice effort but doesn't stand adult scrutiny. Oh, bless.

Green Zone - Formulaic conspiracy thriller, might have worked if its topicality sell by hadn't expired in 2004. Rory Bremner covered all the same material before and within a year after the invasion 2003. Very well executed, just obvious and tedious, Jason Isaac's 'tache notwithstanding (perhaps he could have a tonsored acting competition with Helena B-C).

Inception - if only I had steered clear of the hype, I might have been less bored. Pretty much an excuse for an elaborate overlong multilayered action set piece, convoluted is not the same as clever. Its notions of dream world are restricted to the fantasies of city planners and Bond villians, not a hint of Dreamscape or Imaginarium in sight. I might have been able to suspend my disbelief in its easily pick apartable premises had the wafer thin characters moved me to care in any way. And even giving its due for its ambition and how well executed it is, I hated the sophomoric cheesy pseudo philosophical are they really? final shot, which could only appeal to those who thought the Matrix was deep. In fact, while I don't mind others declaring it the best movie of the year, I'd nominate that last few seconds of Inception as the Worst Movie of the Year.

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26 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Addendum: What Are You Doing New Year's Eve

I wasn't sure whether to wrap this up on Christmas, where all the proper advent calendars end, or to overdo it and hit the 12 days of Christmas, right up to Epiphany, which happens to be the birthday of two of my brothers-in-law. Travel plans allowing, I will be at the New Forest Point-to-Point race today, one of the only surviving point to point races in the world. I've decided that I can't do the proper thing, but, for once, I'm not going to over do it.

I'm leaving this thread with Mary-Margaret O'Hara's cover of the Frank Loesser song, "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

Mary-Margaret O'Hara is the younger sister of actress and comedienne (SCTV & Christopher Guest regular) Catherine O'Hara. As a singer/songwriter she released one incredible album, Miss America, in 1988. It is full of haunting tracks about emotional insecurity, and some actually sound as if they were written or performed during electroconvulsive therapy, there is something harrowing about the glimpses of rawness, and it is brave and unique in its elliptical and teasing song structures. Her high airy vocals convey a fragility, as if her identity was shredding in front of your ears. It was critically hailed, but she has not produced a full album since.

I saw her perform, headlining a special Canada Day concert, 1st July 1992 at the Hammersmith Apollo. One of the unknown support acts, Barenaked Ladies stole the show. The other support acts weren't memorable but were straight ahead rock. The audience didn't really seem ready for Mary Margaret's post Patty Smith soul bearing and downbeat sound. They responded with indifference or rudeness, and I felt quite bad for her, as a fan of her work, I just wanted those who didn't like it to piss off, and leave us for a more intimate gig. Instead I think she just cut short her set, which cast a pall over the evening.

Here's a video of a live gig of her covering Somewhere Over the Rainbow, by turns beautiful and funny:

In 1991 her only other major release, Christmas EP came out. It consisted of only 4 tracks, covers of Blue Christmas, Silent Night, and What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?, and one original: Christmas Evermore. I could only find it on a cassette in a cardboard sleeve with all four tracks on both sides. If I do this again next year, her cover of Blue Christmas is sure to be on that list, because it's one of the best versions. In the mean time, you can plan your resolutions....

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25 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Sidebar: On Some Other Channels and What We've Learned

Other Song Collectors, Things We Learned, and What I Forgot to Mention

Whilst researching some of the songs on my list (yes, I actually have a list, I'm not making this up as I go), I've stumbled across some others past and present who've done similar projects. It has been interesting to look at overlap in choices from complete strangers, selecting from the same universe of recorded pop culture.

I did find some other supposed advent calendars, The Guardian UK has one under music, but it pretty much has nothing to do with seasonal tunes, just an excuse for a string of music articles. Others from record labels along the same lines.

If you've enjoyed what I've done you may want to check these out.

In no particular order:

Steve Carey's 2008 25 Songs of Christmas

John Gushue's My Musical Advent Calendar for 2009

Steve's 25 Days of Christmas Music 2001-2009

I've also picked up some facts whilst writing this thread over the last four weeks. What we've learned:

  1. Brave Combo were David Byrne's wedding band.
  2. Thurl Ravenscroft was the voice of Tony the Tiger for over 50 years.
  3. Chuck Jones and Theodore Geissel worked together on WWII Army educational cartoons called Private Snafu years before they reteamed on The Grinch...
  4. George Harrison made a Christmas single Ding Dong Ding Dong
  5. Tom Waits birthday is December the 7th.
  6. Charlie Grima of Wizzard is alive and well and is teaching percussion to visually impaired children and students, and his acting career has seen him alongside Robert DeNiro and Jerry Lewis (although not at the same time, that would have been King of Comedy).
  7. Ozzy Osbourne guested in the Bob Rivers video for his repurposed version of Iron Man: I am Santa Claus.
  8. Even Paul McCartney is openly embarrassed about Wonderful Christmas.
  9. According to the Bobs, we light the eight Hannukah candles to commemorate the suffering of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.
  10. Robert Earl Keen's trailer trash saga Merry Christmas from the Family was such a hit he wrote both a book and a sequel song.
  11. Advent doesn't necessarily start on December 1st, it starts on the fourth Sunday before December 25th, which could be the Sunday from November 27th to December 3rd.
  12. The I Wanna Jagwa sketch was not by Stan Freberg as I mistakenly thought, but Eddie Lawrence a stand up slightly better known for his Old Philosopher character.
  13. Pia Zadora and her husband bought and demolished the old Hollywood landmark Pickfair, the house of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, despite their promise to restore it.
  14. College age students in the 1960's paid half the fare for standby plane tickets that FBI Agents did.
  15. Thundercats look particularly loving whilst having group sex with droids.
  16. Frank Zappa and Paul Henreid's love child looks like Leon Redbone.
  17. The answer to the musical question, What do you get a Wookie for Christmas, When He Already Has a Comb? -- a Brazilian.
  18. The moustachioed singing ghost bust in the Disneyland Haunted House ride is not based on Walt Disney, but similarly tonsored singer and voice artist Thurl Ravenscroft.
Things I should have mentioned:

The Cardigans did the best cover of Iron Man.

Last year, Billy Bragg and 'er out of Florence and the Machine did this cover of Fairytale of New York:

I like it, but I'm a bit disappointed that Florence didn't give it the kind of brawling welly she put into A Kiss in a Fist, she mumble/sings insults at Billy. Billy is too nice a bloke, Shane woulda had her for breakfast.

The Dandy Warhols and Will Ferrell John C Reilly covered The Little Drummer Boy, the latter doing an almost beat for beat reenactment of the Bowie Bing sketch (stay with it, it gets better).

Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy with Will Ferrell & John C. Reilly from Will Ferrell

Perhaps we could use this as incontrovertible proof that Will Ferrell is only funny in the presence of John C Reilly. Filmmakers take note.

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Advent Calendar in Song: Christmas Wrapping

The Waitresses - Christmas Wrapping

Like all the best presents, this is a whole lot of things wrapped up in one, it's a novelty song, it's a Christmas song, it's a pop song tinged with occasional rock bass and the pre-hip-hop white rap that justifies the cute pun title. But the reason I give it pride of place is that it tells a story, quirky, humorous, in two converging time lines, and lightly romantic.

More important than the supposed birth of the saviour of mankind, or the consumerist event that briefly falsely bolsters the economy, or an excuse for over indulgent family dining and gifting, since 2005 this day has celebrated the continuing regeneration of our favorite Gallifreyan. In honor of today's Dr Who Christmas special, the first under the steward and penman-ship of Steven Moffat and the doctorship of Matt Smith, a link to the best, apart from the original Radiophonic theme, Dr Who song I've ever heard:

Chameleon Circuit - An Awful Lot of Running

For good measure, an another Dr Who song, with a toy like plinky plonk sound and twee vocal, it has the sound of a school nativity play I'd like to see, and a video which answers the question what would a supermarket trolley be like if it was possessed by the spirit of a dalek?

Dalek Chorus - Jesus Licks

Not to the put the cat amongst the pigeons, or partridges, but a non-musical offering, which should be the 1st of 12. Well, it is, but I'm not going to follow it up personally. This is the late great Peter Cook's A Life in Pieces, which sadly was only shown once, it is a series of 12 5 minute interviews with one of Cook's greatest creations Arthur Streeb-Greebling, each featuring a different well known gift for each of the days of Christmas. The interviewer is Ludovic Kennedy who was a proper serious interviewer / broadcaster. You should be able to find the rest on YouTube properly, but here's number one, A Partridge In A Pear Tree.

Finally, a last fun song, which I only stumbled across whilst researching this thread, just about all I can offer for Christmas, is my heritage anyway....

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24 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Christians and the Pagans

Dar Williams is a great storyteller. Many of her songs sparkle with wit, insight and humanity. The miniature passion play of alienation and loneliness in Mortal City, the heartbreaking failing relationship of February, and the hippie stoner farce of The Pointless, Yet Poignant, Crisis of a Co-Ed are prime examples of her talent.

Christians and The Pagans appears on Williams' album Mortal City, but it also earned itself an appearance as an EP subsequently released for the holidays. The song is a great vignette of familial tolerance and tension. A family is brought together by the holidays religious, seasonal and ancient. A mother must cope with her niece's affirmation of being a witch. The son innocently winds up the adults with questions about comparative religion. The niece expresses her joyful practice of wicca and her wonder in all things. Christine O'Donnell was clearly not at this party.

I find the line about pumpkin pie both funny and strangely touching, perhaps as it gives a hopeful note of progress and tolerance. The sentiments of the uncle reflecting on his familial bond, strikes the right balance, and is all the more affecting for it. This is a sweet, humorous reflection on the season optimistically creating common ground for our clashing multi-cultures.

So, on the eve of the holiday that we'll all enjoy despite our different faiths (or principled abstentions from faith), be mindful of the families, biological, extended, and chosen that bring us all together.

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23 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: A Charlie Brown Christmas

I started out this Advent Calendar in Song with the Linus and Lucy dance from A Charlie Brown Christmas, yesterday I held the battle of the Christmas Cartoons, and of course this one is the best there ever has been or will be. It lightheartedly discusses the commercialized holiday, and seasonal alienation. Its unprecedented use of a jazz score, real children actors and no laugh track actually freaked out the TV execs who thought it was a disaster that would die gracefully after its first viewing. Instead it was greeted by acclaim, awards, and the annual devotion of its viewers.

The Vincent Guaraldi Jazz soundtrack was a triumphant landmark. It deftly conveys the joys of skating and Snoopy dancing, whilst also delineating the existential gloom that surrounds Charlie Brown as he trudges determined through the snow on his way to his next defeat. The special only has one original non instrumental song, Christmas Time Is Here: its cheerful lyrics and somber music, the antithesis of a Smith's song.

As a cultural Jew and a religious atheist (I occasionally indulge in poetic notions of the spiritual agnostic), the dogma, puritanism, and historical atrocities of Christianity have always been off putting. Oddly many of my closest friends have either dabbled with, or fully answered religious callings, two went to seminary, another considered a monastic order. My Best Man for my wedding is a Methodist Minister. Maybe they're the reason I don't hedge my bets, they might have some pull if I turn out to be wrong (of course, if they're wrong, they're no worse for it). Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ and The Linus Speech are the only things that have come close to helping me understand Christianity, and why anyone would buy into it, when they could otherwise just choose to be a good person.

Sadly, this, and the cartoons I wrote about yesterday, have never been inducted into the UK's repertoire of Christmas viewing, which for animation relies mostly on Raymond Brigg's surreal and slightly psychedelic The Snowman, with its soundtrack via castrati. Charlie Brown is a marker on my Christmas cultural landscape that I sorely miss.

Here's former Windham Hill pianist George Winston's take on the Vince Guaraldi.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good grief!

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22 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Battle of the Cartoons

The Grinch vs Rudolph vs Year Without a Santa Claus

Today we're waging a war with the ammunition of sentimentality and cuteness, the annual battle for our hearts and minds to decide which vision of the festive season chimes closely with our own. These are the cartoons first foisted upon the Baby Boomers in the 1960's and '70's, and which inexorably have had staying power in the holiday viewing rotation, partially due to the hand me down nostalgia of that most self-referential of generations. Your preferences between these jungian archetypes will say as much about you as any Rorschach inkblot (especially if your inkblot is the one that attacks Daffy in Duck Amuck).

How The Grinch Stole Christmas has the incredible collaboration between the dean of forced rhymery of all time(ery), Dr Seuss, and one of the geniuses from the Looney Tunes stable, Chuck Jones. The voice talent is a double act of narration from Boris Karloff and songs from Thurl Ravenscroft. They adapt the Dr Seuss book with a rube goldbergesque slapstick straight out of any Road Runner vs. Wile E. Coyote tale.

First we should give some time to the unsung (or at least uncredited) singer of the Grinch, Thurl Ravenscroft. Ravenscroft's voice is so deeply ingrained in cartoon DNA, he was the voice of Tony the Tiger for over fifty years and he is even to be heard (and seen) on rides in Disneyland (particularly the Haunted House).

You're a mean one Mr Grinch - Thurl Ravenscroft

I'll draw your attention back to the lovely WFMU, who dedicated a day to Thurl as part of their most recent 365 days project: 365 Days #184 - Thurl Ravenscroft Festival. It's a bit sad that he was mistakenly left out of the credits leaving some to think that the song was sung by the estimable narrator, Boris Karloff. The song itself is a complete grotesque joy of Grinch baiting invective, and a perfect preparation for spending holiday with relatives who will get on your nerves. Thurl only gets this song and its frequent reprises, the only other song is the bizarre Whoville Christmas Carol that consists of gibberish and some bland sobriquets around the title Welcome Christmas, it's like a training video for Walmart Greeters.

The Grinch is for people who identify with sourpusses and are content with the simplest of plots. Grinch hates Christmas, plans to steal Christmas, has road to Whoville/Damascus moment, gives Christmas back. Christmas in Whoville is nearly devoid of religion and stealing it involves co-opting their overindulgent feasting, decorating and gifts. I'm pleased by the non-denominational approach, but there are irksome metaphysical questions left unanswered, are these the same Who's that Horton heard? Does that apply the same physical restrictions of scale to the Grinch? The citizens of Whoville are capable of storing their vast civilization in a small space, do they possess Gallifreyan or Kryptonian technology?

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer has a huge head start in the music arena, it's built around the hit Johnny Marks song, and is filled with other great seasonal favorites written by him. Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree even gets a sneak peek as incidental music in one scene. Burl Ives puts in his bit as a narrating snowman, whose persona is clearly modelled on him, this serves as an excuse for him to croon Silver and Gold and A Holly Jolly Christmas.

A Holly Jolly Christmas

Sadly, a favorite bit that I think I remember, wasn't even actually in the show. While Rudolph's stop motion Santa was probably one of the first of his kind, he had a close relative in the seasonal Norelco ad, in which a Santa rode a triple bladed electric razor head through a wintry landscape. I don't know if they ever even sponsored Rudolph, but somehow, and this is not a trick of my memory now, at the time I thought it was the same Santa.

Norelco Santa

Where the Grinch is a sociopath, Rudolph is merely intensely neurotic. Due to the poor quality of Santa's breeding program, this is what happens when you restrict your stock to eight, Rudolph has his unfortunate mutation, which his father, Donner, tries to hide. Rudolph is left with feelings of inadequacy, and so he leaves home, an outcast. His journey has him encounter kindred spirits including an elf who only wants to be a dentist.

We're a Couple of Misfits

Their journey brings them to the Island of Misfit Toys, whose origins are never properly explained, did Santa have a Dr Moreau moment? The Misfit toys are deeply conflicted, here they sing about Christmas being the Most Wonderful Day of the Year, when clearly it is the day they feel most unfulfilled and persecuted.

The Most Wonderful Day of the Year

Of course Santa saves the day by patronizing Rudolph mercilessly to restore his self respect (after all, what did Santa do on foggy nights before Donner's condom burst? or is there a long lost outtake on the Island of Misfit Toys where Rudolph and Hermey find the graves of the previous Rudolphs?).

I'm never really sure if the moral of this one is that you should accept yourself because your flaws are what make you special, or that people never really love you for yourself but for the one thing you do freakishly well.

The Year Without a Santa Claus is often conflated in my mind with Santa Claus is Comin' To Town (so much so I bought the DVD of the latter thinking I was getting the former). They're both from the stop motion stable of Rankin/Bass, and have some voices in common. ... Comin' To Town is the one with the Burgermeister Meisterburger and The Year Without... is the one with the Snow and Heat Misers. Although I have friends who adore both of these, I've already mentioned the only things I find memorable about either. That said, the two Miser songs are so bloody catchy I have actually sat through the rest of the rubbish just to get to those bits. Snow Miser's voice is provided by Dick Shawn the standup who played the addled psychedelic rocker Lorenzo St. DuBois in The Producers. Heat Miser is Broadway stalwart George S. Irving, who reprised the role (along with Mickey Rooney as Claus) 34 years later in A Miser Brothers' Christmas, a sequel focussing on the two catchy brothers. I don't know whether they get as good a song, or merely repeat the originals, but they say you can have too much of a good thing. Too much!

Snow Miser / Heat Miser

I don't even vaguely remember the plot, but it's one of those quest formats, and one of the innumerable tedious hoops that the characters jump through includes resolving the sibling rivalry between the Snow and Heat Miser brothers, which clearly rests in their inability to develop separate theme tunes.

If you prefer this one, you hate your brother, or you are a catatonic couch potato easily swayed by an earworm of a jingle.

Of course the winner could only be: A Charlie Brown Christmas (OK, I cheated, we'll see him tomorrow!) Grinch has the best song, Rudolph is the best musical, and The Year without a Santa Claus is, um, a little bit better than that other one.

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21 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: A Winter's Solstice

OK, I know that over the years New Age has earned a reputation as sonic hippie sludge. One of my friends refers to it as one word to rhyme with "sewage" - "newage". But there was a time before we all got sick of Enya, before there were people who could not resist reinterpreting anything decent on a Fairlight, and albums full of synthetic pan pipes with fake American indian wolf and dreamcatcher motifs on their covers, were just a syncrestic nightmare which would even make Mike Oldfield into an insomniac.

This is a great mellow, but finely crafted well curated album from the Windham Hill label, who used these seasonal samplers as an effective way of shilling their roster of artists. They were originally a folk label that became increasingly associated with New Age until they were bought out in the mid '90's. This album is genuine chill-out, before chill-out became a predictable genre unto itself of overproduced stillness and low beats per minute. It is nicely low key for a season of long nights huddling for warmth.

Now I'm going to do the uncharacteristic thing, and shut up, I'll let a few of the tracks that I've linked to speak for themselves, but there's not a dud on the whole album.

Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring - David Qualey

William Ackerman and Joan Jeanrenaud - New England Morning

Liz Story -- Greensleeves:

A Winter's Solstice Vol. I (1985)

01 Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring - David Qualey
02 Engravings II - Ira Stein & Russel Walder
03 New England Morning - William Ackerman
04 High Plains (Christmas On The High-Line) - Philip Aaberg
05 Nollaig - Billy Oskay & Micheal O Domhnaill
06 Greensleeves - Liz Story
07 Bach Bourée (From The French Suite) - Darol Anger & Mike Marshall
08 Northumbrian Lullabye - Malcolm Dalglish
09 Petite Aubade - Shadowfax
10 A Tale Of Two Cities - Mark Isham

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20 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Brave Combo It's Christmas, Man

It was probably in the mid eighties that I first heard of anyone trying to have a bit of fun with polka.

Polka to me, was a totally foreign concept, it was tacky in the way that Lawrence Welk was, and it spoke to me of the whitest of white men with their strange sausages, warm beer and lederhosen. Oh it sounds like fun when they're rolling out the barrel, but any moment they'll stop singing adelweiss and start a chorus of tomorrow belongs to me. Okay it is originally from a Czech word referring to Poles, but the Warsaw Ghetto and Theresienstadt were a sop to some of the natives that took part of the sting out of German occupation. I'm not suggesting that polka brought up any deep seated feelings of Semitic persecution for me (all my feelings of Semitic persecution are very shallow), but it was just alien, like foods you already have a vague premonition will be distasteful, like Keilbasa or pierogies. It's the kind of situation that may lead you to be pleasantly surprised, or with a confirmation of disgust accompanied with self loathing for disobeying your own instincts.

In the mid eighties I was more directly aware of punk as an aesthetic, mostly in the way it crashed landed into pop culture in artefacts like Liquid Sky and Repo Man. I helped organize a Repo Man themed party for my house at Uni (we got into a bit of trouble, the campus police had to ask us to stop playing the soundtrack of the movie out into the street with our very large speakers). A friend of a friend was seriously into punk and hardcore and provided me with records which helped make some of the best obscure mixtapes I'd ever done. This introduced me to a range of acts beyond those on the Repo Man soundtrack. I particularly warmed to the groups that fused punk and hillbilly bluesrock into psychobilly including Gun Club and The Cramps. It was probably about then that I heard of Polkacide, whose music I've still not yet heard, but the idea of fusing the exuberance of punk and polka was tantalizing.

Though not from punk roots, Brave Combo are more squarely from the Texas music scene, their use of polka seemed similarly invigorated. I became gradually aware of them as they issued polka flavored covers of Purple Haze (Hendrix) and People Are Strange (Doors). So when I saw their 1992 album It's Christmas, Man, I pre-empted Santa and gifted myself on the spot. Here they put a variety of dance rhythms, including cumbia, cha-cha, samba and the much maligned polka that they champion, against holiday standards. They're kind of like David Byrne, without the po faced artiness, and a bigger sense of fun (self editor's note: after penning that remark research pointed up that they played Byrne's wedding, and some made cameos in Byrne's film True Stories, I had no idea).

It's Christmas, Man - Brave Combo
1 Must Be Santa POLKA
2 0, Christmas Tree SAMBA
3 It's Christmas CHA CHA
4 Corrido Navideño RANCHERA
5 The Christmas Song (Chestnuts) SKA
6 Christmas In July
7 Please Come Home For Christmas
8 Hanukkah, Hanukkah HORA
9 Frosty the Snowman
10 The Little Drummer Boy GUAGUANCO
11 Santa's Polka POLKA
12 Feliz Navidad CUMBIA
13 Ave Maria
14 Buon Natale WALTZ
15 Jingle Bells

Must Be Santa

When Bob Dylan covered Must Be Santa for his 2009 Christmas In The Heart album, he took his arrangement straight off of Brave Combo. Another famous fan, Matt Groening invited them to guest in a Simpson's episode. So hat's off to Brave Combo, one of the bands that have dared to make polka, well, almost cool. Look at the video, not a lederhosen in sight.

O Christmas Tree

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19 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Roches We Three Kings

The Roches, a trio folk singing sisters, came to fame mostly through their stripped down three voice a capella arrangement of Handel's Hallelujah Chorus. It was a party piece that drew people into listening to their albums with their more typical jokey folk songs with self-effacing lyrics, whether about relationships with married men, American naivete about the Troubles in Ireland, job dissatisfaction, layered with their quirky vocals and effervescent harmonies.

It was tempting to make this article a battle against the many other singer/songwriters who've plonked out Christmas albums, Shawn Colvin, Jewel, and James Taylor to name a few, at least those who've done a decent job of it. What puts this over the others is that it is strictly straight ahead, mostly traditional Carols, with a few popular seasonal standards thrown in. They do have their own brand of fun with many of the tracks and if the two original tracks they throw in (Christmas Passing Through and Star of Wonder) aren't particularly remarkable given their usual standard of songwriting, at least they don't drag the collection down.

Their take on the title song puts a mellow swing into We Three Kings.

The Roches - We Three Kings .mp3

Found at bee mp3 search engine

Track Listing
1 Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light
2 For Unto Us A Child Is Born
3 Angels We Have Heard On High
4 Deck The Halls
5 Christmas Passing Through
6 Sleigh Ride
7 Away In A Manger
8 Here We Come A Caroling
9 The Little Drummer Boy
10 The Holly and the Ivy
11 Frosty The Snowman
12 Do You Hear What I Hear?
13 We Three Kings
14 Star of Wonder
15 Winter Wonderland
16 Joy To The World
17 O Little Town of Bethlehem
18 Good King Wenceslas
19 Jingle Bells
20 The First Noel
21 God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
22 It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
23 O Come All Ye Faithful
24 Silver Bells

Here We Come A-Caroling, Star of Wonder, Jingle Bells, and the five in the medley video below, get a pure a capella reading. The rest get a good variety of arrangements over tasteful range of restrained synth keyboards, or guitar and piano.

Joy to the World / God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen / First Nowell / Angels We Have Heard on High / Adeste Fideles

There's a bit of Brooklyn overlaid onto their Frosty the Snowman, and an intentional New Yoyk to Winter Wonderland. But the best in this vein is their take on Deck the Halls, is great fun, particularly the brashness they inject into the otherwise easily anodyne Fala Lalas.

This album works well both on its own or tossed into your massive Xmas shuffle. Their distinctive style makes a nice contrast against anything else you may throw at it. An essential holiday album, it's been brought back from out of print.

And to hear The Roches at their pared back best, from their second album:

The Hallelujah Chorus

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18 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Chieftains The Bells of Dublin

The Chieftains are an institution of Irish Folk Music. The approach of Paddy Moloney, arranger and player elevates it to the level of the classical music of Ireland, with an emphasis on virtuoso musicianship. This produces a clean sound, which sadly has led to much poor imitation on movie soundtracks, whipping out a similar but generic celtic sound, even when the film is about the English or the Mexicans or Aliens. At times their approach may seem too measured, but their energy compensates for the occasional lack of spontaneity.

Another way they get back the rougher feeling is when they collaborate with others. After doing an entire album, Irish Heartbeat, with Van Morrison, roughly half their output has been guest musician themed albums, the first of these is 1991's The Bells of Dublin a Christmas themed album. The subsequent collaborations include: Another Country (1992 American Country), The Long Black Veil (1995 Rock) Fire in the Kitchen (1998 Canadian Folk) Tears of Stone (1999 Women Singer Songwriters) Water From the Well (2000 Irish folk) Down the Old Plank Road: The Nashville Sessions (2002 Nashville Country) San Patricio (2010 Ry Cooder)

The Chieftains - The Bells of Dublin
1 The Bells of Dublin/Christmas Eve (with the bell-ringers of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin) (Paddy Moloney)
2 Past Three O'Clock (with The Renaissance Singers)
3 St. Stephen's Day Murders (with Elvis Costello) (P. Moloney, E. Costello)
4 Il Est Né/Ca Berger (with Kate and Anna McGarrigle)
5 Don Oiche Ud I mBeithil (with Burgess Meredith)
6 I Saw Three Ships A Sailing (with Marianne Faithfull)
7 A Breton Carol (with Nolwen Monjarret)
8 Carols Medley: O the Holly She Bears a Berry/God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/The Boar's Head"
9 The Wexford Carol (with Nanci Griffith)
10 The Rebel Jesus (with Jackson Browne) (J. Browne)
11 Skyline Jig (P. Moloney)
12 O Holy Night (with Rickie Lee Jones)
13 Medley: 'The Wren! The Wren!'/The Dingle Set - Dance/The Wren in the Furze/A Dance Duet - Reels/Brafferton Village/Walsh's Hornpipe/The Farewell ("Wren in the Furze by Kevin Conneff)
14 Medley: Once in Royal David's City/Ding Dong Merrily on High/O Come All Ye Faithful (with The Renaissance Singers)

Sadly, I couldn't find any links to my favorite song on the album, the St Stephen Day Murders, a collaboration with Declan Patrick MacManus, better known under his slightly less Irish moniker, Elvis Costello. I also couldn't find alt country singer songwriter Nanci Griffith's reading of The Wexford Carol. However my favorite carol on the album is Rickie Lee Jones on O Holy Night, which she lifts magnificently from the beginning (many interpretations start out small then belt the end).

O Holy Night - Rickie Lee Jones

Marianne Faithfull doing I Saw Three Ships A Sailing is the only weak track on the album, through no fault except perhaps not the best match of material to the singer, the tune being a bit sing song for Marianne's cabaret voice. Kate and Anne McGarrigle show their colours as folk stalwarts with a pair of French carols, producing their close harmony over the lilting Chieftains. Then again, I'm just impressed when anyone sings in French. I can barely speak the language.

Il Est Né/Ca Berger - Kate and Anna McGarrigle

While I think it's not a patch on the Costello, Jackson Browne covering his own song, Rebel Jesus, issues a superior version with the accompaniment of the Chieftains.

Rebel Jesus - Jackson Browne

To play you out, I've linked to the traditional carol O the Holly She Bears a Berry, and the instrumental that opens the album with the titular sounds of the church bells of Dublin in full peal.

O the Holly She Bears a Berry

The Bells of Dublin/Christmas Eve

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17 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Leon Redbone Christmas Island

Our album week continues with an entry that's so smooth and mellow, it's difficult to say much about it. Leon Redbone is an artist I first found out about from a movie, the great Richard Dreyfus 60's throwback detective stuck in the 70's flick The Big Fix. Although a departure from his usual retro selections, a repertoire heavy on Jimmie Rodgers, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton and Irving Berlin, Leon Redbone recorded the contemporary song "I Wanna Be Seduced" for the soundtrack. Dreyfus also sang the song on a Saturday Night Live appearance. It's a humorous corker, and I spent a while tracking down the recording. I was sorely disappointed that when The Big Fix finally got shown on telly, they'd let the music rights drop and some really crap filler music was used in the pivotal scene it had occupied. I don't know if this has been rectified as the film hasn't been released on DVD.

Often in a white linen suit and sporting a slimline goatee and black shades, Redbone looks like the love child of Frank Zappa and Paul Henreid. His music is so laid back, you might be tempted to look for the drip in his arm, it's like ragtime collided with Portishead. There's something a bit Burl Ives about his vocal delivery, or is it just the choice of songs? It's no mistake that his first album has a cover featuring Michigan J. Frog, the Looney Tunes/Michael Maltese/Chuck Jones creation that sang old time tunes in grand vaudeville style. I was psyched when I discovered he'd recorded a Christmas album.

Christmas Island - Leon Redbone
1 White Christmas
2 Winter Wonderland
3 Frosty the Snowman
4 Blue Christmas
5 (There's No Place Like) Home for the Holidays
6 Toyland
7 Christmas Island
8 That Old Christmas Moon
9 I'll Be Home for Christmas
10 Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!
11 Christmas Ball Blues

The hey day of tin pan alley that Leon Redbone has so ably interpreted produced so much of our secular Christmas music that this fits his act to a tee. There's not a duff track on the list. All you need to go with it is something green to drink, a mint julep, perhaps, and your walking stick, as you stroll down the forgotten Main Street, so cool under its dusting of snow.

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16 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Diner Soundtrack

Why? you may ask, have I selected for one of my advent goodies, the soundtrack to Barry Levinson's 1982 feature film debut, Diner.

A few years ago, I was doing a huge mixtape for Christmas for some of my friends, and I included cuts from that soundtrack. One of them asked the same question. That's because, to me, Diner is a Christmas movie.

OK. Part of the action takes place during the Christmas season. A group of young buddies getting together over the Christmas break in the run up to one of them getting married. Probably the only Christmassy thing that you'll remember is the scene in which Kevin Bacon's sarcastic smartass gets drunk and takes over for a baby Jesus stolen from a Church nativity display. Much of the rest of the picture, they hang out at the Diner and discuss life's imponderables, such as whose music is better for making out, Mathis or Sinatra?

My friends were just at the end of High School, after graduation we used Diner as a template for how we could continue to bond, even as our lives drifted apart. Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks were those times when, once family duties were dispensed with, we could get together and search for a Diner that served a good roast beef sandwich with fries smothered in gravy. So, part of what Christmas means to a secular guy like me, is a time that affords the chance to catch up with old friends.

There's only two Christmas songs featured on the Diner film soundtrack, both Chuck Berry, "Run, Run, Rudolph" and the cover "Merry Christmas, Baby" (Chess Records, color of the label: Chartreuse). "Merry Christmas, Baby" was originally recorded by Johnny Moore's Three Blazers with Charles Brown providing the vocals.

Merry Christmas Baby, you really did treat me nice,
Bought me a hi-fi for Christmas, now I'm living in paradise.

Chuck Berry - Merry Christmas Baby .mp3

Found at bee mp3 search engine

Neither of these songs were issued on the soundtrack album. However, the album is one of the best oldies film soundtracks ever done, a mix including Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Darin, Carl Perkins, Jimmy Reed, Clarence 'Frogman' Henry, Fats Domino, Lowell Fulson, Eddie Cochran and Elvis Presley. OK, there's some tacky schmaltz like the Theme to A Summer Place, and Fascination, but that's part of the late 50's vibe. Whenever I hear a song in a period film that I heard here first, I feel like they took it from Diner, as opposed to, say, reality.

Diner Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
1 Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On - Jerry Lee Lewis
2 A Teenager In Love - Dion & The Belmonts
3 A Thousand Miles Away - Heartbeats
4 Somethin' Else - Eddie Cochran
5 I Wonder Why - Dion & The Belmonts
6 Honey Don't - Carl Perkins
7 Mr Blue - Fleetwoods
8 Reconsider Baby - Lowell Fulson
9 Ain't Got No Home - Clarence Henry
10 Come Go With Me - Del Vikings
11 Beyond The Sea - Bobby Darin
12 A Summer Place - Max Steiner
13 Fascination - Jane Morgan
14 Where Or When - Dick Haymes
15 It's All In The Game - Tommy Edwards
16 Whole Lot Of Loving - Fats Domino
17 Take Out Some Insurance - Jimmy Reed
18 Dream Lover - Bobby Darin
19 Don't Be Cruel - Elvis Presley
20 Goodbye Baby - Jack Scott

Music from a more innocent time, or at least idealized as such, reminding me of an idealized youth and friendships. So, to me, the whole soundtrack of Diner is a great Christmas album.

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15 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Motown vs. Spector

A Christmas Gift from Phil Spector vs. A Motown Christmas

Today we're hitting some soul pop tunes, and another album battle, the wall of sound vs the might of Berry Gordon's motor city empire.

A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector (originally ... from Phillies Records)
1 White Christmas - Darlene Love
2 Frosty The Snowman - The Ronettes
3 The Bells Of St Mary - Bob B Soxx & The Blue Jeans
4 Santa Claus Is Coming To Town - The Crystals
5 Sleigh Ride - The Ronettes
6 (It's A) Marshmallow World - Darlene Love
7 I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - The Ronettes
8 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - The Crystals
9 Winter Wonderland - Darlene Love
10 Parade Of The Wooden Soldiers - The Crystals
11 Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - Darlene Love
12 Here Comes Santa Claus - Bob B Soxx & The Blue Jeans
13 Silent Night - Phil Spector & Artists

This is a whole piece of work. Spector brings together Darlene Love, The Ronettes, The Crystals and Bob B Soxx and the Blue Jeans, fantastic session players such as Jack Nietzsche (also arrangements), Leon Russell, Barney Kessel, Tommy Tedesco and even Sonny Bono, and a consistent production aesthetic, which spins out a near perfect seasonal collection. It's hard to say which is the best Ronettes track on here, Frosty, Sleigh Ride or Mommy? Similarly the Darlene Love tracks are of fantastic quality, I bet you can't even think of another version of Marshmallow World although it's from 1949 and had been a hit for that crooner we saw earlier with that Bowie fellow, and later from that tipsy guy from the Rat Pack.

(It's a) Marshmallow World - Darlene Love

The Crystals rendering of Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, with its upward inflected declaration of the title before the verse, became the template for future versions including the big hit for Bruce Springsteen. It's hard to believe this album actually failed on its initial release, until you consider that it was released the day of the JFK Assassination (I wonder if there is a conspiracy theory that has tied the Clarkson shooting to Marilyn and John?). Apparently Brian Wilson rates it as the best holiday album ever made, and that fellow knows about records.

A Motown Christmas
1973 Original Double LP
Side 1
1 Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town - The Jackson 5
2 What Christmas Means to Me - Stevie Wonder
3 Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer - The Temptations
4 My Favorite Things - The Supremes
5 Deck the Halls/Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella - Smokey Robinson
6 I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - The Jackson 5
Side 2
1 Ave Maria - Stevie Wonder
2 Silent Night - The Temptations
3 Little Christmas Tree - Michael Jackson
4 God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen - Smokey Robinson
5 The Christmas Song - The Jackson 5
6 Joy to the World - The Supremes
Side 3
1 The Little Drummer Boy - The Temptations
2 Silver Bells - The Supremes
3 Someday at Christmas - Stevie Wonder
4 Frosty the Snowman - The Jackson 5
5 Jingle Bells - Smokey Robinson
6 My Christmas Tree - The Temptations
Side 4
1 White Christmas - The Supremes
2 One Little Christmas Tree - Stevie Wonder
3 Give Love on Christmas Day - The Jackson 5
4 It's Christmas Time - Smokey Robinson
5 Children's Christmas Song - The Supremes
6 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - The Jackson 5

Part of the problem with this compilation of Motown Christmas music is that it is just that, a compilation. It comprises much of the Christmas output of the Motown label from the 1960's and 1970's, and has their iconic stars, but suffers from a kitchen sink rather than selective approach. Cramming 24 of these tracks together issues diminishing returns as the result is uneven. Almost all the tracks can be heard more sensibly on their own individual Christmas albums: Jackson 5 (The Jackson 5 Christmas Album - 1970), Stevie Wonder (Someday at Christmas - 1967), The Supremes (Merry Christmas - 1965) and The Temptations (The Temptations Christmas Card - 1970). Although The Miracles released Christmas with The Miracles in 1963, the only overlap of their work here is Jingle Bells. Even the best of the Jackson's tracks included here, Santa Claus is Comin' To Town has distinct echoes of The Crystals version.

Although a Marvin Gaye track is included on the CD re-release, other contemporaneous Motown artists are unrepresented including, The Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, The Velvelettes, Jr. Walker & the All Stars, and Gladys Knight & the Pips. It's sad to imagine that it would have been easy enough to get any of them to do a single each to add to this record.

Many of the tracks have not dated well. You would think that the Supremes doing My Favorite Things would be a no brainer, but it's smothered in production. Even removing the constant layer of shakin' sleigh bells would instantly improve it. The Diana Ross vocal is great, you almost want to strip it out on it's own and leave the syruppy strings behind. She suffers even more when frog marched through Joy to the World which is made so up tempo that they may as well have done it to speed guitar instead of fustily fuguing strings with poorly interpolated Handel Allelujah's in-between verses. The only track The Supremes really get away with is Silver Bells, which, although attacked by now contextual, though unnecessary sleigh bells has the lightness of touch their other tracks here lack.

My pick out of this mish mash is The Temptations cover of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Finally, it should be noted that Motown have continually issued other Christmas compilation albums, some including or excluding these tracks, but they've never done anything definitive, unless you count the 35 track "Ultimate Motown Christmas Collection" which updates the canon to include, ahem Boyz II Men. Of course, if you're just being all inclusive, you'll never be definitive.

Winner: Phil Spector. I know it's small compensation for 19 to life. The Spector album is a quintessential, purpose built artefact of its time. I doubt there's a contemporary holiday movie that doesn't raid it for its soundtrack. It stands with the best non-seasonal work of its artists, which is something you certainly can't claim of the Motown songs.

Sleigh Ride - The Ronettes

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14 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Battle of Xmas Jazz

Verve vs. Blue Note

It's another of our battle days, and also the first day of a week of album entries. In the mid '90's when I bought these two, I did have a surprisingly hard time finding decent compilations, only a third album (which I now forget) even came under consideration. Now that there's probably more money in the back catalogue stuff that actually appeals to people who still pay for their music, you can't avoid
them. There are a plethora of Jazz Christmas albums, but I'm just considering two that I actually own, rather than trying to rate the merits of every compilation out there.

Have Yourself A Jazzy Little Christmas / Verve
1 Child Is Born, A - Oscar Peterson
2 Christmas Medley / Carol Of The Bells / Melodies For The Day / O Sanctissimo - The Swingle Singers
3 Jingle Bells - Jimmy Smith
4 The Secret of Christmas - Ella Fitzgerald
5 We Free Kings - Rahsaan Roland Kirk
6 Christmas Eve - Billy Eckstine
7 I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm - Billie Holiday
8 Ole Santa - Dinah Washington
9 Santa Claus Is Coming to Town - Bill Evans
10 White Christmas - Ella Fitzgerald
11 O Little Town of Bethlehem - Sister Rosetta Tharpe
12 Christmas Song, The - Mel Torme
13 God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - Jimmy Smith
14 Silent Night - Dinah Washington
15 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Ella Fitzgerald

This is a really solid collection, you could try to accuse it of playing safe, mostly mining the great vocalists in the Verve catalogue. Don't forget they have all the Ella Fitzgerald songbooks and then some. The quality trumps any quibbles about these perfectly executed standards. Some zest is added in the choice of instrumentals, even if the most contemporary cut is the 1961 Rashaan Roland Kirk's bop inflected We Free Kings. The impeccable roster shines through.

We Free Kings - Rahsaan Roland Kirk

Verve Records : Have Yourself A Jazzy Little Christmas

Yule Struttin' A Blue Note Christmas
1 Vauncing Chimes - Bobby Watson/Horizon
2 Silent Night - Stanley Jordan
3 The Christmas Song - Lou Rawls
4 I'll Be Home For Christmas / Sleigh Ride - Eliane Elias
5 Winter Wonderland - Chet Baker
6 A Merrier Christmas - Benny Green
7 A Merrier Christmas - Dianne Reeves
8 O Tannenbaum - John Hart
9 Jingle Bells - Count Basie
10 Chipmunk Christmas - John Scofield
11 God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen - Joey Calderazzo
12 Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - Dexter Gordon
13 Silent Night - Benny Green
14 Little Drummer Boy - Rick Margitza

On paper this collection from the great jazz label Blue Note seems a bit underwhelming. There's a bit of lazy curation in having two versions of the same song twice, one pair played consecutively in the track order and that's two covers of the relatively obscure Thelonious Monk song A Merrier Christmas. Material and artist match up is uneven, Stanley Jordan's frenetic and distinctive guitar picking style doesn't really do anything for Silent Night (I'd like to hear what he'd do with Carol of the Bells), but you do get Benny Green's version later on. The vocals aren't all the same calibre, nothing against the fine Lou Rawls, but his version of The Christmas Song is a superior lounge singer take rather than a classic moment of Jazz. It is harder to argue with the line up of the likes of Chet Baker, Count Basie, Benny Green and Dexter Gordon, and their contributions are worth the price of admission, particularly Gordon's reading of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Here's one of the album's more surprising successes, an instrumental, without its original novelty pitch shifted vocals, proves to be a hidden gem of Christmas standards:

Chipmunk Christmas - John Scofield

Winner: Verve! I've been a bit hard on the Blue Note album, and it certainly doesn't stand as well on its own as the Verve, but its contents have enough quality and unusual interest to be a fine addition to your random mix of seasonal tunes. The Verve you can easily listen through without the shuffle. Here's two of the vocal tracks, thoughtfully wrapped up in one YouTube offering:

White Christmas - Ella Fitzgerald and Silent Night - Dinah Washington

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13 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: 12 Days to Christmas

And now, a musical interlude:

My parents lived through the golden age of the Broadway musical. They saw the original casts of the Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, Bock and Harnick, and Sondheim of course. Their collection of LP's could pretty much be divided in half between classical music, and broadway musicals. In retrospect they didn't seem to own any of the obvious crooners of their generation, such as Sinatra or Tony Bennett, perhaps they had their fill of that on radio or in live performance. Apart from Opera, which Mom tortured me with on the weekend afternoon radio broadcasts from the Met, I enjoyed all her music. With my much older siblings I got a good dose of the sixties, and so I've had a strong foundation for varied and eclectic musical taste.

While my siblings also got the benefit of seeing a few of the classics, like The King and I. By the time I rolled around good new musicals were thinner on the ground, and only massively successful ones would tour outside of New York. I got to see You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown as a touring company. There was a summer stock revival of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Playhouse in the Park, with Artie Johnson in the Zero Mostel role, the best thing was that it was in the round, and each of three aisles in the theater were used for the three houses in the story, I sat on the aisle for the House of Marcus Lycus the pander and white slaver. We saw a few out of town flops that didn't make it far past Philadelphia, a vehicle for the post Cabaret Joel Grey, Goodtime Charley, was an unlikely musical based on the story of Joan of Arc from the point of view of the Dauphin, or the other historical flop 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a 1776 style romp on the history of the White House. The one time my parents took me with them to New York, my first original cast was the brilliant Cy Coleman/ Comden & Green musical On The Twentieth Century with Madeline Kahn, John Cullum, Imogene Coca, and Kevin Kline.

Still, I absorbed the scores of the Original Broadway Cast albums of the shows I'd never seen, or maybe saw the movie on TV. I once helped my team win a high school trivia contest because I knew that the obscure Jackie Gleason vehicle Take Me Along was a musical version of Eugene O'Neil's Ah Wilderness! So I know more about American musical theater than most other straight guys. Break out the show tunes, and I'm instantly camp.

There is so much that the musical and Christmas share, the flamboyance, decorative glamour and sentimentality. So a musical with Christmas somewhere in it is a double whammy. I'm not talking Holiday Inn, White Christmas or Meet Me In St Louis, we're strictly stage today. In 1978 our PBS station showed She Loves Me, a Bock / Harnick musical from 1963 filmed in 1978 for the BBC with a British cast. Based on a Hungarian play that has been the basis for several films including The Shop Around the Corner, In The Good Old Summertime, and, erm, You've Got Mail, it's a romantic comedy about co-workers who fall in love through an anonymous correspondence whilst harbouring initial enmity for each other at work. Of course I loved it, and the second time the PBS station showed it, I recorded the sound by feebly placing my panasonic cassette recorded with the longest play by dubious quality 120 minute tape in it a few inches away from my black and white telly. For years I listened to that recording nearly to destruction.

Outside of a couple more showings on PBS it wasn't shown again and was never released on any video format. This is a shame because it's a very enjoyable production. You can see on YouTube, bless 'em someone's dodgy vhs off air recording, which doesn't have the best sync, but beggars can't be choosers if it's otherwise lost. I'm not sure it's best enjoyed in full via YouTube, but I recommend it if you are keen on musicals. And yes, it is Peter Sallis, the voice of Wallace, as the comic sidekick to the male protagonist.

Here's the song that makes it a particular Christmas treat:

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12 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Children Go Where I Send Thee

Natalie Merchant was the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs, and has had a reasonable career as a solo artist. She is a fantastic vocalist, and surprisingly electrifying when seen live. This is a gem rescued from one of those Christmas pop compilations that started regularly cropping up in the marketplace post Band Aid. What this usually means are covers performed by various artists often with music largely in the public domain (to cut down on royalty costs) the for benefit of a charity.

Of course the upside of these albums is that they promote and fund a charity. The downside is that the quality control, particularly in pairing of artist with material, can be hugely variable. For every good track like this one you get a Puff Daddy, Snoop Dog take on Santa Baby, or Whitney Houston eviscerating with too much soul diva for its own good Do You Hear What I Hear. They are not as consistent, as say, the Hal Wilner produced covers albums on the themes of Disney, Weill, or Nina Rota, Stay Awake, Lost in the Stars and Amacord Nina Rota, which have very few dud tracks between them.

Children Go Where I Send Thee covered by Natalie Merchant is taken from a series of albums made to benefit the Special Olympics, A Very Special Christmas, and is on the third iteration released in 1997.

Since this one was sublime, I'll just include the ridiculous (there's an equal time law, apparently). From the same charity album a track by No Doubt, a cover of their sometime touring mates, The Vandals' Christmas song Oi! To the World:

Oi! To the World - No Doubt

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11 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Christmas in Capetown

This track from Randy Newman's 1983 album Trouble in Paradise may be dated in the same way that the Specials AKA's Free Nelson Mandela is (which when I hear it now sounds like an advert for a product that comes with a free Nelson Mandela, or maybe its a buy one get one). Its probing of racial prejudice seems more throwaway than his much better earlier track in this vein Rednecks, but he gets to drop the N bomb again, ironically again, anyway. It does undermine the Christmas song in general even if the satire is untimely, and I enjoy it as much in that vein as when I first heard it.

Given this, it's tempting to plump instead for his successful sideswipe at religion, God's Song (That's Why I Love Mankind), covered notably by Etta James. She interprets the lord's deep and loving sarcasm as a blistering soulful put-down.

God's Song - Etta James / Randy Newman

Man, I have to add this one to my Xmas playlist! But for some funky Christmas, we can't beat James Brown:

Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto - James Brown

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10 December, 2010

Advent Calendar in Song: Ballad of The Carpenter

The American (Political) Folk Factor, Part 2

Phil Ochs was a paradigm of the 1960's protest folk singer. Even as Dylan broadened his appeal, Ochs stuck to his guns, consistently taking aim at injustice and hypocrisy at all levels. There are also some deeply poetic and personal songs, so it's not all banner waving and barricades. His suicide in the mid '70's, put down to his bipolar depression, or the great comedown of post '60's, was particularly sad as we really could have used his intelligence, humour and fervour in the Reagan years to today.

Ballad of the Carpenter is a Ewan MacColl song, which I first heard as covered by Phil Ochs. Ewan MacColl was a singer songerwriter and playwright. He was also a committed socialist, and his song frames the Christ story as if he was a union agitator.

Strangely the only version of this track that I could find on the web, for your delectation, is from a webcast made by the late Tuli Kupferberg a poet and publisher of the beat generation and co founder of the hippie band The Fugs. In the video, he introduces the track which is played off the Phil Ochs LP and instructs the camera man to film a satirical mocked up wanted poster of Christ charged with sedition.

I'm also including this link to a non-seasonal Phil Ochs offering, so you can hear his wit at its most piercing and intense in his honesty. While many of his protest songs were about the usual targets, the racist south, the Vietnam war and Nixon, no one was free from his barbs, as you'll hear.

Phil Ochs - Love Me, I'm A Liberal .mp3
Found at bee mp3 search engine

I'm going to wrap up this instalment with another non-seasonal track, to bring my political folk story full circle, and also to annunciate how the political folk of both America and Britain have had an interesting co-dependence of fellow travelling troubadours. As I noted a few days ago the partial resurrection of Woody Guthrie by british agit-popster Billy Bragg, here's his song A New England as covered by Ewan MacColl's daughter Kirsty. Resexing and altering the lyric she makes it more of a pop ballad of rejection than the Bragg's original of disaffected politically indifferent youth, but both, classics.

A New England - Kirsty MacColl / Billy Bragg

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