Tuesday, December 16, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Wonderful Christmastime" /
The Shins

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

Why do so many musical cooler-than-thous like to bash Paul McCartney?  They'll point to "Silly Love Songs" as if it were the only song he ever recorded in his post-Beatles career and condemn him for a sentimental hack.

Well, he is sentimental, I'll grant you that, and being a sentimental guy, it was almost inevitable he'd record a modern Christmas classic. "Wonderful Christmas Time" came out as a single in 1979, and every year it puts several more pounds and dollars in the already substantial McCartney bank account. Critics hate it, of course.

But lo and behold, look at how cool the song seems when you've got indie stars like The Shins covering it.

The Shins covered this for a 2012 Starbucks holiday anthology, and I'm betting that James Mercer couldn't wait to get his hands on it, having lived in England as a kid, where this song is even more ubiquitous in December than it is here. (Dig the Macca-esque Liverpudlian vowels James Mercer can't help throwing in  -- "the spirit's up," "and that's enough." It's all part of the homage.) They've relaxed the tempo and traded in the synthesizers for electric piano, all of which helps the song sound a good deal more mellow. But otherwise, it's a pretty straight cover.

But is this really such a sentimental song?  The Shins do melancholy very well, and they bring out an almost edgy undertone of what's not right with the world.  Just being there with his friends/lover/family is "enough" -- he doesn't dare to ask for anything too big. (Not like Stevie Wonder, asking for world peace.)  He reminds us that this festive party spirit "only comes this time of year," with crowd chatter muddying up the background track toward the end. That raucous choir of children is singing just off key. And there's nothing icky-sweet about that third verse: "The word is out / About the town / To lift a glass / Ahhh don't look down."  (Followed by a vertiginous three beats of silence as, of course, they do look down anyway.)

So let's wrestle Christmas happiness out of whatever we've got, with tripping syncopation, upward melodic lines, and scale-mounting chord changes. We're not telling you that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year -- we're making you feel it in the music itself.  It's a pretty irresistible song in my book, no matter who sings it.

No comments: