Thursday, December 24, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Thank God It's Christmas" /

And in the end, this is what it comes down to.
I could have posted about Nat King Cole's "Christmas Song" -- one of the greatest Christmas songs of all time, and a personal touchstone of mine. And I could have posted about Darlene Love's "Christmas Baby Please Come Home," which has so many holiday ramifications for me (David Letterman, Phil Spector, et cetera).
But nobody throws his heart on a stage like Freddie Mercury did, and in this 1984 holiday single -- written by Roger Taylor and Brian May -- Freddie flings it all out there, AND acknowledges that your Christmas may not be as perfect as the marketing folks make you think it should be.  
He's broadcasting to all who are connected to him -- his love, his friends -- and acknowledging the crap they've gone through in the past 12 months. (The Thatcher years, my friends -- need I say more?) "Oh my friends, it's been a long hard year." I love how the toggling chord changes underscore the back-and-forth of this frustrating year.
But now here comes Freddie, evolving into new (complicated) chords, and new keys: "And now it's Christmas / Yes it's Christmas, / Thank God it's Christmas." Surging upwards, in short broken lines that tell us that he knows he's hoping against hope. And that shiver of passion at the end -- so Freddie. Punching every note for emphasis, and like a diva breaking up "Christmas" into "Ka-rist-mas."  Because, when all is said and done, it is important to believe.  
Yeah, we live -- as he says -- in "troubled days." (You think 1984 was troubled? Just take a look at 2015.)  But, c'mon, it's just one day, and for just one day -- "Thank God it's Christmas."
It's a wail of despair, acknowledging all the angst that's gone before -- no denial here. And yet somehow the promise of better days is there too. The conviction in Freddie's voice buoys the song up and thrusts us into the new year. 
Let's go for it.  
And merry Christmas to you all....

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Christmastime" /
Aimee Mann

It's pouring rain here in New York City -- rain, not snow, on December 23rd -- and I couldn't get a cab to save my life.  So the last two presents I need to buy better be available still tomorrow. I couldn't sleep last night, worrying about all the things I need to get done before Friday.  Why did we think holidays were a good idea?

When I get in a funk like this, somehow I crave listening to Aimee Mann.  And here she is, with a Yuletide version of her trademark cynical melancholy.


From her 2006 Christmas album One More Drifter in the Snow (gotta love that ironical title), this song was written by Aimee's husband, the wonderful Michael Penn, along with Jon Brion. I love it when the morose magic of Aimee's voice is kicked up a notch by Michael's wry humor and clear-eyed perceptions.  
"It's Christmas again, December is here," she begins, in a diffident drawl, "Hasn't it been a wonderful year?"  Is it just me, or do I detect a note of sarcasm there?
It's a flawed holiday, at best. "And on the tree all the ornaments glow / Tinsel will cover where the branches don't grow."  Maybe that just because she's an outsider, looking in, but the merry streetscape sure seems like a cruel cliché. "There's lights on all the houses / Spouses with their spouses / Children playing in the snow."  I especially love that line "Spouses with their spouses," and how her voice lifts, so wistfully, on the second "spouses."  I find myself getting all tangled up in the gender politics of that innocent word, which is always relational -- you can't just be "a spouse," you have to be somebody's spouse. And right now, apparently, she isn't.  
I can just hear the shrug in her spirit as she muses, "Keeping on track's another matter of course /  That's the great divisor / You are now the wiser / Maybe just a bit less so." Yeah, she's holding it all together, but it's so much effort. "Touch and go 'til you stop on a dime / All alone at Christmastime."
And -- as always in a Michael Penn song -- you've got no one to blame but your own capacity for self-deception. In the last verse she ruefully admits, "Look at your behavior / Looking for a savior / Underneath the mistletoe."  I love the double meaning of savior here -- not Jesus, as the hymns proclaim, but the Mr. Right she's still waiting for.
(Yup, this is pretty much the heart-scarred Mann/Penn party line -- read here for more.)
A holiday downer?  I suppose it could be. But me, I see it as a compassionate reality check. Why do we feel forced to pretend that our lives are perfect when this season rolls around?  No one's life is perfect.  It's okay to feel loss and melancholy, whatever the calendar says. And if that's where you are in life right now -- well, you've got some pretty comforting company in Aimee Mann and Michael Penn.  

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Tinsel and Marzipan" /
Pugwash and Friends

Talk about a feel-good track. This was released in December 2006 as a benefit for the Irish Epilepsy Association Brainwave.  And, having only this year been seriously turned on to the wonderful music of Pugwash (with their awesome album Play Intimately (As If Among Friends)) I am so delighted to add this tune to my holiday playlist.

With a loping power-pop beat, this track is upbeat, energetic, and entirely what we need when there's only two more shopping days left before Christmas. Sure, it's festive, but the Christmas spirit needs more than trimmings. As lead singer Thomas Walsh explains, "I wrote my letter to Santa Claus / Asking him / If he could bring / Some peace and love to everyone."  The idea's not new, but so far we haven't quite got there, so why not ask again?

And with Walsh's gorgeously easy voice, it sounds so earnest. Keys shift upward and that Wall of Sound effect builds, until it's practically like a little bit of Brian Wilson "Good Vibrations" magic.

Tinsel -- cheap stuff that somehow turns a home into a Christmas miracle. And marzipan, simple candy that gets molded into amazingly artistic shapes.

And what it all comes down to is that can't-ignore-it refrain -- "Merry Christmas everyone" -- with the "and friends" singing lustily along.  It's repeated, and repeated again, until you realize that you too need to sing along. It's like believing in fairies, or knowing that there's no place like home -- say it often enough and it just might come true.

Monday, December 21, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Ain't Nothing Like Christmas" /
Shelby Lynne

I think I missed a day or two in there.  No better reason to post twice (c'mon, it's the solstice) if only to bring you this spot-on tune by Shelby Lynne.

It is funny, the roads we take to find an artist whose music resonates with us. I'd always thought of Shelby Lynne as a country artist and therefore -- mea culpa, but I grew up with Midwestern Hayride and it's a thing with me! -- not worth my time. But then she released this astonishing 2008 album Just a Little Lovin' dedicated to the music of my musical heroine Dusty Springfield, and I became -- like that! -- a Shelby Lynne fan forevs.

How could we not love the laid-back snap and groove of this holiday track?

And yes, I especially love that this video clip is from Live from Daryl's House, wherein one of my longtime musical crushes Daryl Hall hosts an astonishingly well-curated selection of artists.

There is indeed a bit of twang to this track. But it's all copasetic -- "I'll bring the nog / You put on the log" -- and it's a Christmas party.  Not much more to it than that, just folks getting together around the tree.

Whatever you yourself believe, tuck it outta sight, because we need to buy into the spirit of "carols and good cheer." Come on, folks. It don't come but once a year.  Go for it.

My Musical Advent Calendar

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" /
The Jigsaw Seen

Okay, I'm starting to get into the mood for Christmas carols, the real stuff.  But I'm not ready yet for the full-on jubilation of "Joy to the World" and "Angels We Have Heard on High."  No, I'm still easing into things with my favorite minor-key carols --  you know, the brooding stuff like "O Come O Come Emmanuel" and "We Three Kings" and ""What Child Is This." 

And of course -- "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." But with a twist, and I do mean a Twist (though I'm not sure Chubby Checker had this in mind...)

Gotta love this band. Based in LA, for nearly 20 years they've been cranking out witty alternative music that's steeped in 60s rock history -- an intriguing mash-up of British Invasion, surf guitar, and flower-power psychedelia. Every song is full of subtle musical references that the band earnestly hopes you'll pick up (catnip to a music nerd like me).

And yes, I do know that three of the band's members -- guitarist Jonathan Lea, bassist Tom Currier, and drummer Teddy Freese -- have been touring with Dave Davies of the Kinks for the past couple of years. Given their crunchy, infectious sound, it's a match made in heaven.)

This holiday track was first released (on red vinyl!) as a single in 1989, only a couple of years after front man Dennis Davison and guitarist Jonathan Lea first founded the band. Dig that sitar-like intro, which then kicks into a thrashing drumbeat that could segue at any minute into the Stone's "Paint It Black" or the Seeds' "Pushing Too Hard."

They may be purveying tidings of comfort and joy (or so the lyrics promise), but the comfort and joy sure haven't happened yet. "Let nothing you dismay"? Sorry, it's 2015, and there's dismay everywhere I look. "To save us all from Satan's power / When we have gone astray"?  Oops . . . too late.

Or is it?

It's a dark world, drawing to the end of a troubled year, and it could go wrong at any moment. With the Jigsaw Seen at the wheel, though, we're driving helter-skelter through that dark night, looking for a red neon "Vacancy" sign up ahead. Even a stable would do....

Saturday, December 19, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Father Christmas" / The Kinks

Sorry. I forgot to open the door on my advent calendar yesterday -- too caught up in the big buzz in Kinkdom. Last night in London, Dave and Ray Davies sang together on stage for the first time in nearly 20 years.  And if you've been following the soap opera of the Davies' brothers lifelong love-hate relationship -- well, you'll know this is major news indeed.

So really, there was no other holiday song I could write about today...

The Kinks have never been big on sugary sentiment, so of course if they were going to do a Christmas song it would have to be something with a thrashing beat, some scathing social commentary, AND -- if we're lucky -- a Ray Davies sigh of sorrow for a world's that gone downhill.

Well, this 1977 single has all that. The basic scenario: The narrator wistfully remembers childhood Christmases when he believed in Santa Claus, even though he knew it was his dad behind it all; but now, a grownup, he's working as a department store Santa and -- no Miracle on 34th Street nonsense here -- he's getting mugged by a pack of street urchins.

That's the infectious chorus -- the sneering Cockney chant of those little punks: "Father Christmas, give us some money / Don't mess around with those silly toys / We'll beat you up if you don't hand it over / We want your bread so don't make us annoyed / Give all the toys to the rich little boys." (I can attest: This is an absurdly satisfying thing to sing aloud with a pack of other people.)

Next, Ray takes down the commercialization of Christmas, with all its crass marketing targeted at  kids: "Don't give my brother a Steve Austin* outfit / Don't give my sister a cuddly toy / Don't want no jigsaw or monopoly money / All we want is the real McCoy."

And for these left-behind kids, the "real McCoy" is  . . . a job for their dads. (Remember 1977 in England? Labor strikes, protests, riots...)  Aw, gee -- but before we can feel too self-righteous, Ray adds, "But if you've got one I'll have a machine gun / So I can scare all the kids on the street." He may sympathize with their poverty, but he's also repelled by the street violence poverty breeds. Talk about Dickensian Christmases -- this is the real spirit of Charles Dickens.

It could be a downer, but it's such an exuberant rocker you can't help but sing along with its goofy energy. The sweet angel-chime tinkling of a glockenspiel is swept aside by Dave Davies's shrewdly snarling guitar riffs, slicing aggressively through the mix; there's a great snappy drumbeat, and Ray's voice punches out that chorus with gusto.

When he gets to the last verse, his God-bless-us-every-one send-off is surprisingly heartfelt: "Have yourself a merry merry Christmas / Have yourself a good time / But remember the kids who got nothin' / While you're drinking down your wine." Not exactly a feel-good ending. But who expected that from the Kinks?

* Note: NOT Stone Cold Steve Austin, the wrestler-turned-actor, but the bionic superhero played by Lee Majors in the Six Million Dollar Man TV series, which was still on the air in 1977.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"I Told Santa Claus" /
Fats Domino

Coulda fooled me. This track showed up on the compilation Hot Rod Holiday, which has been a staple of my family's seasonal listening for years. But in fact it wasn't recorded until 1993. I'm guessing (hoping) that Fats had been trotting out this holiday number for years before it was finally recorded.

Bottom line? Fats is tapping into a bounce piano tradition that's as old as the hills, and as rich as we could want it to be.

This song is just this shy of "Merry Christmas Baby," the old sexual innuendo-laden Charles Brown classic. Our singer is humbly addressing Santa Claus, asking for his holiday wish list, and all he's got is -- well, there's this girl...

And yeah, he starts out all hot and heavy: "Oooh wee baby, you sure look good to me / I told Santa Claus I want you under my Christmas tree / I won't need a million dollars, you be enough for me." That road-house piano line pounds away, making everything copasetic.

But it takes him no time at all to specify, "I'm gonna ask you to marry me." And, just to prove his bona fides, he's projecting into the future: "A boy for you / And a ten-pound girl for me." Interesting how he assumes that the mother wants the son, but dad? He's jonesing for the girl child.

Having given birth to a ten-pound girl -- who is an amazing person whom I wouldn't want to have lived without -- I'm totally on board with Fats' agenda.

Let's be real -- this cat is a national treasure, any time of year. I dig that this particular track has a holiday bias, but truly, honestly? Anything Fats does is cool with me.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Run Rudolph Run" /
Chuck Berry
I don't remember hearing this as a kid, but I must have. In 1958, when Chuck Berry first released this, I don't think rock 'n' rollers were expected to do Christmas songs. Thirteen-year-old Brenda Lee released "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" that same December, but that's really more of a country tune than a rocker. It would be another 5 years or so before Phil Spector pulled out all the stops on his girl-group Christmas album (another of my holiday must-haves). 
"Run Rudolph Run," though, is a full-on 12-bar blues; it's practically "Johnny B. Goode but with different lyrics. Gotta love it.


Apparently writing holiday songs was a specialty niche in Tin Pan Alley; this was written by Marvin Brodie and Johnny Marks, Marks being the same tunesmith who cranked out "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," and "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas." Not bad for a Jewish guy from Mount Vernon, New York.
But for Chuck Berry, Marks must have known that sentimental sap wasn't going to work.  Instead he gives us a cool-cat Rudolph zipping around the suburban sprawl  ("Santa make him hurry, / Tell him he can take the freeway down.") with a workaholic Santa urging him on.
Santa's doing his usual gig, asking kids what they want for Christmas. The little girl wants a Betsy Wetsy doll -- every girl in the 1950s had to have a Betsy Wetsy doll -- but the little boy is awfully specific: "All I want for Christmas is a rock and roll electric guitar." Ahead of his time, that kid, and Berry sings that line with special glee.
That chugging guitar, the lagging beat, and that guitar solo in the middle eight -- it's nothing like "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas," nothing at all.  It's bona fide rock and roll, with just enough tinsel to make a few extra dollars for Christmas.  But Chuck Berry's having so much fun here, why not jump into the sleigh with him?   

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Santa Baby" / Maria Muldaur

Wait -- only ten more shopping days until Christmas? Yikes!  (And when I say ten more shopping days, I really mean seven more business days, which is what matters when you do most of your shopping on line, as I do.)

I know I said no more snarky anti-holiday numbers, but honestly, this sexy wish list for the Man in Red hasn't a bit of snark to it. Commercial? Materialistic? You bet. But this naughty/nice babe is perfectly willing to play nice so long as she gets what she wants. 

So whose version of this holiday standard do we pick?  Is it Eartha Kitt's 1953 original, delivered in her best kittenish purr? Madonna's coy Betty Boop version? Kylie Minogue's campy diva turn? Ariana Grande's melismatic overload? Taylor Swift's teenybopper yodel?

Really, as far as I'm concerned, it's no contest -- not when you've got Maria Muldaur in the wings.

Maria, after all, is an old hand at issuing sexy invitations, as her 1973 hit "Midnight at the Oasis" attests. ("Let's slip off to a sand dune / Real soon / And kick up a little dust.") It's all in the innuendo.

Which is the whole point of this tongue-in-cheek song. Our singer -- think of her as a 1950s precursor of the Kardashians -- has a Christmas list all right, and it's strictly high-end: furs, cars, jewelry, and maybe a little pied a terre? But the song is a brilliant melding of melodic form and function -- all those curling little melodic lines, crooking a sexy finger at Santa.

It reminds me of this annoying lingerie commercial that plays heavily during football games (guess why?), with a dewy model in a scarlet satin teddy licking her moist full lips, swiveling to show off her perfect breasts. The message is so clear: "Buy me what I want and I will let you fuck me." (Which is different from, "I will fuck you.") But in Maria's teasing version, that blatant message is given a knowing (wink-wink) spin.

"Think of all the fun I've missed," she cajoles, "Think of all the fellas that I haven't kissed / Next year I could be just as good / If you'd check off my Christmas list..."  And Maria's contralto massages those lines, amping up the subtext, letting us all know that she's ready to deliver.

Camp? You got it. And I love it. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Christmas Time Is Here" /
Diana Krall

Palate cleanser time. 

Personal note:  I'm working with a youth choir that's providing live music for a museum screening of the brilliant 1965 animated TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas.  I have heard this number over and over for the past several weeks. But you know what? It's such a great tune, it never gets old.

The genius thing about the original TV show, as far as I'm concerned, is that they hired a bona fide jazz composer, pianist Vince Guaraldi, to provide a soundtrack -- and he delivered with songs that have become holiday staples. The syncopated piano riff "Linus and Lucy" is indelibly etched on my consciousness, but this more laid-back number has wormed its way into my heart lately as well.

And while these songs are ineffably charming when performed by kids, I'm zooming straight to this copasetic version by jazz pianist Diana Krall.

(Okay, yeah, I know that she's married to Elvis Costello, seriously one of my all-time faves, whose memoir Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink I've only just finished reading. But is that not a reason to love her more?)

Ah, yes, Christmas time is here, with all its attendant madness -- and what we all really want is a song that lags lazily behind the beat, that fulfills those holiday requirements with a deliciously minimalistic approach.

And Diana Krall -- god love her -- is totally confident enough to keep it all downscaled, with an illusion of effortlessness. "Christmas time is here," she acknowledges, "Happiness and cheer." Yeah, from there on it's a wish list of clichés: snowflakes, sleigh bells, carols, firesides.  But Krall's vocals are so warm and relaxed, the piano parts glancingly light. It's all about scaling it back and showing restraint. As we all need to do.

I love the tiny edge of grit in her voice, the caressing warmth of her delivery. Yeah, we've heard this song a million times. But it takes a true artist to make us hear it anew. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Donde Esta Santa Claus" /
Straight No Chaser

Well, while we're in the international Christmas novelty songs mode...

In 1959, this Spanglish tune was a modest hit for 12-year-old Augie Rios. The late 50s Pan American thing was in full swing, so why not? The song was written by George Scheck, Rod Parker, and Al Greiner, none of whose names sound particularly Latino (just sayin'). But Havana was still hot, and when the cha cha cha supplanted the mambo as Latin Flavor of the Month, these guys were ready to jump onto the boat.

Augie's version is a wee bit grating; I also like Guster's cover of it, but I deeply appreciate how the a cappella group Straight No Chaser adds a little sophisticated suavity to the Latin beat.

It's another of those kids'-eye views of Christmas, as our singer earnestly begs, "Mamacita, donde esta Santa Claus?"  Okay, even my rudimentary Spanish skills can handle that -- "Mom, where's Santa Claus?" He's hungry for toys, he's looking out the window -- so far, it's like any kid anywhere in the world.

But the songwriters felt obliged to throw in a few clichéd Latino details -- "I hope he won't forget / To click his castanet" (hmmm -- don't we need two castanets to make a sound?). The list of reindeer names that we know so well from "Twas the Night Before Christmas" * is transmogrified into "Oh! Pancho, Oh! Vixen, / Oh! Pedro, Oh! Blitzen, / Ole! Ole! Ole! Cha cha cha," Ermm, yes....well, a little racist. (Let's just hope that Augie Rios earned enough to go to college from this record.) But Straight No Chaser blithely substitutes their own wacky in-joke reindeer names (Gordo? Slubs?) and cha-cha-chas through it all.

Well, I do love a good Latin beat, and I'm won over by those melting doo-wop harmonies, along with the conga-styled beat box and the mariachi mouth organs. It's all about the garnishes -- the harmonized sighs, the maraca effects, the high-country sagebrush echoes -- the meticulous details that really good a cappella groups can't resist.

Before our final descent into full-on carols mode, a little trip south of the border for some feliz navidad is a welcome break. It's an earworm, all right, and I'm grooving on it.

* Real title: "A Visit From St. Nicholas," by Clement Clarke Moore

Saturday, December 12, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Mele Kalikimaka" /
Bing Crosby &
the Andrews Sisters

Really?  Yes, really.

No more snarky dysfunctional holiday songs, I promise.  I finally got some Christmas shopping done today, so I'm getting into the seasonal spirit. And with the weather here in New York in the 60s -- so weird for December -- this dreamy vintage song seems all too appropriate.

Background: This gem was written in 1949 by Robert Alex Anderson, who despite the Anglo name was born in Honolulu (shades of The Descendants -- and naturally the guy was a Punahou School alum, because, you know...).

In the wake of World War II, the Hawaiian fad was quite a thing, triggered by returning GIs who'd fought in the South Pacific. My own dad was a supply sergeant in Honolulu throughout the war -- talk about hardship duty. In the 1950s, there were Trader Vic-style Tiki restaurants on every suburban strip; pu pu platters were served at cocktail parties; women wore flowered muumuu dresses and men loud Hawaiian shirts. So when Der Bingle teamed up with the Andrews Sisters in 1950 to record this smooth little number, it's no surprise it became a seasonal novelty hit.

This song just makes me happy. There's the perky lilting melody, carried along by Hawaiian guitars and ukulele (until the big band thing crashes in in the bridge). It's been covered by everyone from Bette Midler to KT Tunstall, but IMHO you can't beat the original, if only because of Bing's effortless but warm vocals -- seriously, like butter. And the Andrews Sisters, too, harmonizing as if it's second nature -- who needs auto-tuning when you actually have faultless pitch?

There's not much to the lyrics -- mostly clichés strung together. "That's the island greeting that we sing to you / From the land where palm trees sway," "Here we know that Christmas will be green and bright / The sun to shine by day and all the stars at night." But hey, you won't get any argument from me. I've seen those Hawaiian night skies and they are a thing of beauty.
So what does "Mele Kalikimaka" mean?  Well, imagine that you've got a phonetic alphabet (as the Hawaiians do) with no r's or s's. "Mele" is the closest you can get to "Merry," and "Christmas" inevitably gets reduced to "Kalikimaka." (Okay, that one does throw in some extra l's and k's. Go with it.)
It's dead simple, really. But if you have to have a Christmas without snow, sleighs, or reindeer -- as increasingly it seems we are going to have to do -- then bring on the leis and the ukuleles. Substitute a pu pu platter for the roast goose and a mai tai cocktail for the grog, and we are good to go. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Please Daddy (Don't Get
Drunk This Christmas)" /
The Decemberists

One last dysfunctional Christmas tune -- and this one's a beaut.

You'll find this gem on the 2007 compilation An Alternative Rock X-Mas (accept no substitutions).

It's a cover, actually, of a 1973 John Denver song -- who knew John Denver could go this dark? -- and it was written by Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert of the Starland Vocal Band, whose big hit was "Afternoon Delight." So, yeah, we're bucking the odds here. But this delicious holiday anti-classic is squarely in the camp of  Robert Earl Keen's "Merry Christmas to the Family," a trailer-trash anthem to the holiday season as way more people than we'd like to admit know it.

When the Decemberists sing it, of course, it sounds like a sea shanty. But then, most everything the Decemberists do ends up sounding like a sea shanty.

Due to some conspiracy between YouTube and BlogSpot, I couldn't upload the otherwise-available-to-all-users YouTube video of this song, so I made my own. (Which took AGES.) And I stole a picture of the Decemberists on The Simpsons because it makes my heart happy to think that the Decemberists were featured on an episode of The Simpsons.

I love the Decemberists. An alt band out of Portland that's addicted to old-school British folk? Naturally that hits all my hot buttons. You got your post-modern irony, but you've also got a healthy dose of loving respect for the music that went before.

One of my favorite Christmas tunes when I was a tot was "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," a kids-view version of Christmas with an ironic adult twist. We all know that Santa Claus is Daddy in a cotton-floss beard, but the kiddo hasn't a clue. This gorgeous little number takes the same kid-centric view, but Daddy isn't just giving Mommy a peck on the cheek -- he's staggering into the house drunk as a skunk, and Mommy's pissed as hell.

I love the specificity here. "Last year when I was only seven / Now I'm almost eight as you can see / You came in at quarter past eleven / Fell down underneath the Christmas tree." (The difference between seven and eight is so important when you're eight.) The kid has scars, I tell you, scars.  And his Christmas joy is seriously compromised.

Last year, Mommy sent him upstairs, but the kid's seen enough. And naturally he takes her side. "I don't wanna see my momma cry," he urgently repeats. (Kids siding with their moms? Hellyeah.)

Well, we're not eight -- we are older than that -- and personally I'm siding with Mommy. And worrying about the kid. And maybe phoning my lawyer.

Ah, Christmas.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Lumberjack Christmas" /
Sufjan Stevens

So while we're still in the market for dysfunctional Christmas songs...

If I wanted, I could do a musical advent calendar with just Sufjan Stevens songs; he records a Christmas EP every year, or at least he has since 2001, releasing them in 5-CD sets every few years. This one comes from his 2012 Christmas box set Silver & Gold; the track was actually recorded in 2006.

I keep meaning to listen to more of Sufjan Stevens' music. C'mon, I've gotta love an artist who proposes to do an album about each of the 50 states -- and starts with Michigan and Illinois. (He's originally from Michigan, Detroit-born in fact, but he now lives in, where else? Brooklyn.) I'm intrigued by the baroque layers of his recordings, too. But some of his music is so alternative it makes my head spin. I mean, I like quirky and I like absurdist, but at times it's too much work to figure out what he's trying to say.

Like this song:

It starts out all squeezeboxy Appalachian, with this mythic figure (the lumberjack?): "Oh, no, the rugged soul / The great backyard and the cold North Pole" but pretty soon that jaunty tune dumps us right back in our mundane lives -- "I resent that Santa went / And left us in the Alamo."  (Though in verse 2 Sufjan relents, believing optimistically that "Santa left / To save his kids from the winter cold.")

 Meanwhile, our singer is inviting someone (a lover? a beautiful stranger? us?) to have a Christmas drink and dance with him.  He's not one hundred percent sure about this Christmas thing, he admits in wistfully descending lines -- "I've got a premonition / That Christmas is a vision" -- but he's willing to give it a shot. Why not?

"If drinking makes it easy," he coaxes, "The music's kinda cheesy / The specials on the TV / Ho ho ho ho ho." How's that for ambivalent?

All the same, it's such a toe-tapping tune, he's already got me feeling festive.  So what if our modern commercialized Christmas is a big tinsel-wrapped fake?

And in the final section, he declares a sort of truce. "No one can save you from Christmases past," he sings blithely, resolutely pushing aside whatever bad Yuletide juju may have accumulated over the years.  "You'll have to love it or leave it at last." And as his perky chorus of singers repeats this mantra over and over, the scales definitely tip toward loving it.

'Cause why not? Might as well. Don't cost nothin'...

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Christmas Wrapping" /
The Waitresses
Here's a little time machine to the 80s...
Remember the Waitresses?  Or at least, remember their one hit, "I Know What Boys Like"? A sassy little post-punk number from the same MTV era that brought us the Go-Gos and the Bangles. Well, here's their other modest hit -- and it's a wonderful antidote to holiday schmaltz.

The Waitresses -- hailing from Akron, Ohio, hometown of Chrissie Hynde and Devo -- were led by Chris Butler, guitarist and songwriter, who by the way was in the crowd the day of the Kent State shootings in 1970. (This may or may not be relevant, but being from that era myself, I can't let go of that fact.)  It's intriguing, though, that they had a female lead singer, Patty Donohue, and that Butler wrote songs to reflect a female outlook.

And "Christmas Wrapping" (get the pun with "rapping"?) is about as disaffected a Christmas song as you'll hear -- no wonder it starts with "Bah humbug!"


Yeah, she likes Christmas in general, but she's distracted this year -- working too hard, stretched too thin (sound familiar?). Weaving through it all is her on-again, off-again flirtation with a guy who might be the one, but -- "Had his number, but never the time" -- it hasn't yet gone anywhere, really.

The shallow garage-y production, the jerky tempos, they're all so New Wave, (this song was released in 1981, after all) and Donohue's vocals nail that bored, listless affect. I love how those verses end with a sickening thud: "Christmas by myself this year," "Get this winter over with," or "But I think, I'll miss this one this year."

Yes, they trot out some of the holiday standard clichés, but only to turn them on their heads:
Hardly dashing through the snow
'Cause I bundled up too tight 
Last minute have to do 
A few cards a few calls. 
'Cause it's "RSVP"
No thanks, no party lights
It's Christmas eve, gonna relax
Turned down all of my invites 

 And how sad she seems, with her single girl holiday meal -- "A & P has provided me / With the world's smallest turkey."

But then -- a Christmas miracle! -- she has to run back out to the store for cranberries and --

Oh, but don't let me spoil it for you. Listen to the song already.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Soul Christmas" /
Graham Parker
After James Brown yesterday, I just couldn't resist.
You know -- or maybe you don't -- what an over-the-top Graham Parker fan I am.  I realize that not too many of you may own his delicious 1994 EP Graham Parker's Christmas Cracker (although that is a lack you could quickly remedy by clicking this link.)  But if you are among the lucky few who are currently in possession of this gem, you'll know that "Soul Christmas" is a holiday classic just waiting to be discovered. 
It's as if GP has invited us to his own personal holiday bash. Okay, okay, things start out traditional -- Christmas tree, "A Wonderful Life," yadda yadda yadda -- but when the kids get bored, our cool cat Chairman kicks it up a notch, inviting all of his classic soul heroes to step up to the mike. He does it all in a syncopated talking blues that's as cool-cat as a cool cat can get. And for good measure, he's got the inimitable Nona Hendryx throwing in backing vocals.
It's like a holiday edition of Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music," name-checking all the greats: Sam and Dave, James Brown, Mary Wells, Eddie Floyd, and all the Stax house band -- Booker T, Al Jackson, Donald "Duck" Dunn, Steve Cropper.  We get Sam Cooke, Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, the whole Memphis crew.
But wait -- there's more!  GP dips into the stocking and pulls out Don Covay, Little Milton, Al Green, Junior Walker.  This is a man who seriously knows his soul music roots. Yeah, okay, in his own records he has brewed those soul influences up with reggae, folk, country, and everything else in the book. (Because that's what a creative genius does: he digests all the classic stuff and makes something new and wonderful and uniquely his own.) But this track has forever wed me to the vision of a young Graham Parker in his teenage bedroom spinning these soul platters and drinking in their essence to the core of his musical DNA.
And of course, the great question is -- where's Aretha? "Where is the Queen of Soul?" he asks. "Is that sweet Mama gonna grace us with her presence / Hey, when is Aretha gonna show?" And don't we all love Aretha? (Although GP has another song about that...)
Does Aretha ever get to the party? She doesn't like to fly, we all know that, but I like to think she drives up in her pink Cadillac as the chorus goes into a fade. Because Graham has thrown the ultimate soul Christmas party here, and it would be a shame if Aretha wasn't there.   

Monday, December 07, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Soulful Christmas" /
James Brown

Tired of PA systems blaring sappy holiday pap?  Well, then, it's time to get down with Mr. James Brown.

James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, had a particular fondness for Christmas albums--done, of course, in his own inimitable way. He released James Brown Sings Christmas Songs in 1966,  A Soulful Christmas in 1968, Hey America in 1970, and The Merry Christmas Album in 1999 (yes, James Brown was still around to pen a song for Y2K, called "Funky Christmas Millennium"). Listening to these albums, or to the various compilations made from them, is like going into another holiday dimension--a Twilight Zone indeed. Forget the standards; these are stockings stuffed with James Brown originals, from provocative songs like "Santa Claus Go Straight to the Ghetto" and "Hey America" to earnest pleas like "Let's Unite the Whole World at Christmas" and "Don't Forget the Poor at Christmas." And I don't even know what to make of songs like "Clean For Christmas," "I'm Your Christmas Friend, Don't Be Hungry," or "Believers Shall Enjoy (Non Believers Shall Suffer)." Good God!

This track, "Soulful Christmas" -- the title track of the 1968 LP -- encapsulates everything I love about James Brown. There's the funky strut of its tempo, that tight R&B combo keeping it all together, and Brown's stream-of-consciousness vocals inviting us all to his own personal holiday party. It's a pretty amazing full-fledged rap for 1968, long before today's rappers were even born. 

At first it sounds as if it's a seduction song -- "I ain't talkin' just to tease / People like you, you don't grow on trees / Look at you, that's what it's gonna be / Have everything I need / Around my soulful Christmas tree." But eventually it becomes clear that it's his fans that he's seducing, and by the end it's a shameless fan-club plug: "You bought my records, come to see my show / That's why James Brown love you so / You come to see my show / That's a debt that I'll always owe."  But the thing is, it was sincere: he really did love those fans, and entertaining them was his reason for living.

And his joy is infectious. "Got my baby, my precious love / Happiness, good God, I got plenty of /  Would you believe I got peace of mind / And I'll be groovin' at Christmas time."

So will we JB -- thanks to you.

Sunday, December 06, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Green Christmas" /
Barenaked Ladies

To my mind, the real version of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" is the 1966 animated short with Boris Karloff's voiceover; I never saw the live-action 2000 film with Jim Carrey.  Why on earth pump up a charming perfect fable with all that extra plot and action and special effects?

Nevertheless, the movie has a super-duper soundtrack, from which I've pilfered several holiday tracks. Here's track 3, by the always fun Canadian band Barenaked Ladies (whose 2004 album Barenaked for the Holidays is also worth checking out, if you're a holiday music junkie like me).

The idea of a "green Christmas" -- as opposed to a white Christmas, I suppose -- makes me fret about climate change, or about living in Los Angeles. But I assume this Christmas is green because it's seen through the eyes of the ultimate green-skinned sourpuss, Mr. Grinch.

As he catalogs all the trappings of Christmas that he hates -- presents!  shop displays! tree decorations!  icicles! carolers! stockings! -- the loping lilt of this song simultaneously allows us to stroll through, enjoying it all.  Barenaked Ladies songs always have deft lyrics; I particularly dig the image of "Five red mittens drying on the rack / And needles shedding tannenbaum."  I can almost taste the cocoa.

In the bridge, the singer explains why the Grinch is so green: "Green, cause of everything I miss / All this mistletoe, no kiss / And with every Christmas wish / There would be no greater gift / Than to have this envy lift."  Hmmm... in Dr. Seuss's original book, the Grinch was simply a Scrooge-like fellow (we all know someone like that) who hated Christmas and wanted to ruin it for others; the fact that he hates it because he's jealous of Whoville's happiness doesn't come out until the end.  Having the Grinch be this self-aware in the beginning of the movie kinda spoils it for me. 

But if it's not about the Grinch -- just someone who can't get into the Christmas spirit this year, for one reason or another (and we all know someone like that, too) -- then this jaunty little song works very well.  The way that melodic line bounces up the scale, the buoyant yearning of the bridge -- sounds to me like this Grinch has already rediscovered the reason for the season.  I know I have.

Saturday, December 05, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Zat You, Santa Claus? /
The Brian Setzer Orchestra

Ah, Santa. There's a whole vein of Christmas music focused on the Jolly Old Elf, from the comic ("I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus") to the lascivious ("Back Door Santa"), and everything in between.  It's a handy out--if you don't want to sing about Jesus, focus instead on snow and reindeer and St. Nicholas.

The original version was recorded by Louis Armstrong in the mid-1950s, but as Christmas novelty tunes go, this campy tale of a midnight encounter with Saint Nick just begs to be covered.  Last year I shared with you the video of this number by lounge lizard extraordinaire Buster Poindexter (a.k.a. former New York Dolls frontman David Johansen); now here's the Brian Setzer Orchestra giving it a whirl. 

Setzer seems to have developed quite a fondness for the Christmas repertoire since the orchestra released their Boogie Woogie Christmas album in 2002; they've done a number of Christmas tours since then, all of them noticeably light on carols and sentimental standards. This performance is from their 2004 Christmas Extravaganza special, filmed live at L.A.'s Universal Amphitheatre. Setzer's vocals have gotten raspier since his rockabilly Stray Cats days, though nowhere near as growly as Armstrong's. But he's still rolling out a jazzy big band arrangement, and dig that sax player in the leopard-skin jacket. 

The story is negligible; there's no point in wondering why Santa would decide to burgle this guy's house. The whole point, really, is that finger-snapping jump-jive rhythm, the kitschy horn fills, and the overall wacky sense of fun.  Because if we can't have fun at Christmas...

Friday, December 04, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Children Go Where I Send Thee" / Nick Lowe

Yeah, I've got a soft spot for holiday music -- why else would I be blogging about it?  And, if you didn't already know, I've got a soft spot for Nick Lowe. But truly, I never expected that the two would converge they way they have since the Nickster released his holiday album Quality Street in 2013. Now, he's regularly touring every December with what he calls the Quality Street Revue, often with the bizarre and wonderful Los Straitjackets as a backing band. And crowds are turning out to watch Nick deliver Christmas songs -- both classics and a few snappy originals -- with nary a touch of sugary sentiment or corny sleighbells.

Take "Children Go Where I Send Thee," an African-American spiritual firmly ensconced in the gospel-folk tradition.  But along comes St. Nick to give it a rockabilly spin -- and hey presto!

The form is a traditional counting song, with each verse adding in another Biblical element, all the way up to "Twelve for the twelve apostles," always ending up with one for "the little bitty baby" Jesus. And like "The Twelve Days of Christmas," each verse has to do a countdown back to one. (Though Nick wisely skips ahead in some strategic jumps.) 

It seems simple and straightforward, although in fact some of the verses have some pretty obscure references ("Seven for the seven that never got to heaven"? "Eight for the eight who stood at the gate"?). Ah, how those old spirituals coded the hell out of the Bible, finding all sorts of correspondences between Israel's servitude and their own. But Nick gamely powers through it all with high-energy guitar strumming and a yodel-like leap on "How-ow shall I send thee?" No lugubrious weeping and wailing here -- he's sending those children out to do God's work, come hell or high water.

I love how he lays down his own call-and-response, with overlapping echo-chambered vocal tracks. I imagine him in a plaid coat, facing himself on adjacent Appalachian ridges, hand cupped behind his ear, shouting the good news back and forth.

Traditional, yes; sappy, no. Because in this day and age, if you're going to do a Christmas album, you'd better actually believe in it.  And wonder of wonder, Nick Lowe does.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Let There Be Peace on Earth" /
Vince Gill

I'm so tired of the shooting. So tired of the killing. Beirut, Paris, San Bernardino, and those are just the latest installments. So in this season of what we expect to be joy and love, can't we PLEASE put some urgency behind the call for a stop to all the madness? #nomoreguns

I'm embarrassed to admit that I know next to nothing about singer-songwriter Vince Gill, who (I now learn) has won 20-some country music Grammys. Blame my old C&W blind spot, tripping me up again. A flurry of interweb research tells me that he's an Oklahoman, started out in bluegrass, was in Pure Prairie League in the early 1980s, is married to Amy Grant, and is currently doing duets with my country-music main squeeze Lyle Lovett. And he has a voice like butter. So how has this guy been so completely been off my radar all these years?

True to his country roots, Vince Gill is apparently a great believer in the Christmas album: This is the title track from his first one, in 1993, but he's released three others since then. I don't hear anything cheap or cynical here, though. The arrangement is tastefully simple, with Gill's earnest voice front and center through all the inspirational chord changes. And then his daughter Jenny -- who must have been, what, twelve at the time? -- chimes in, just as earnestly.

This song may be a holiday chestnut, but it's one with a good back story.  Written in 1955 by Jill Jackson Miller and Sy Miller, it reflects her turnaround from near-suicidal despair after a failed marriage. That's a hard-won wisdom, which is probably why there's nothing smug or self-righteous about its message of worldwide brotherhood. Basically, it keeps coming down to the unavoidable: If we want change, we have to be personally responsible for it. "Let there be peace on earth / AND let it begin with me."

Sign those petitions, go to those rallies. Don't just sit on your hands, people.  Let it begin with you.

PS  A little bonus -- not a holiday song, per se, but a song that's been rattling my brainpan all day...

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"What Christmas Means to Me" /
Cee Lo Green

I'm coming right out and saying it -- I hugely enjoyed watching Cee Lo Green as a judge on The Voice and I really haven't enjoyed the show since he left. Love ya, Pharell, but it's just not the same.

If anybody was going to breathe life back into the Christmas album concept in 2012, it was gonna be Cee Lo. I'm guessing nobody predicted that his Cee Lo's Magic Moment album would have been quite such a hit, but it makes total sense to me.

And of all its recycled (let's call them re-gifted) numbers, this one has to be my favorite.

Okay, for starters -- the original was written for none other than Stevie Wonder, for his massively wonderful 1967 Someday at Christmas LP (more on that to come in days to come). It was written for Stevie by Berry Gordy's brother George and sister Anna (who also married Marvin Gaye), along with Allen Story -- talk about good bloodlines.

True to songwriting convention, it's a catalog song, cramming in all the things he loves about Christmas -- mistletoe, carols, candles, holly -- with a love song subtext: she's smiling, she's giving him cards and kisses, and the new year looks pretty good if they can only be together.

But there's that bright and snappy Motown sound, swinging just behind the beat, with a great bass line, splashes of horns, and silky smooth backing vocals. And Cee Lo has the exquisite taste not to muck around with the essence of it. Where Stevie had a sweet harmonica solo, Cee Lo inserts some gospel-inspired scatting, and yeah, the production's a little more ramped up -- but give Cee Lo credit, he's an acolyte of the R&B DNA, and he's not about to fix what doesn't need fixing.

If nothing else, Cee Lo's Magic Moment  resurrected some classics of the holiday repertory for millennials who might otherwise never know "Baby It's Cold Outside" or "Merry Christmas Baby" (more on those later too!). One of the things I loved about Cee Lo on The Voice was his astonishingly eclectic range of musical knowledge; he's like the Atlanta version of Elvis Costello, listening to everything with greedy and receptive ears.

Oh, and -- let's not overlook this -- he just has a crazy rich soul voice, full of love and positive energy. Which, come to think of it, is what this holiday season should be all about. 


Tuesday, December 01, 2015

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Little Saint Nick" /
The Beach Boys

Ah, it's Christmas season at last (no, I won't go there before Thanksgiving is over, but once the turkey's done, hold on to your hats...)

And let's kick things off with a band who totally bought into the pop music industry's mandate for holiday material -- because if the Beach Boys weren't earnest about Christmas, who would be?

PS If you haven't seen the amazing bio-pic film Love and Mercy, acquire it now by whatever technological means you possess.

St. Nick = Santa Claus = a totally non-sectarian approach to Christmas, which was what was most decidedly wanted in 1964, when The Beach Boys Christmas Album was released. It's an incredible album which I would highly recommend you download. I personally demand that my 20-something offspring listen to it every holiday season, just to tap into, y'know, the spirit of the season.

Oh, the multi-layered dimensions of this two-minute pop confection. Sure, it's more on what I think of as the Mike Love end of the Beach Boys spectrum, with a jaunty beat and chord changes that sound like gear shifts, but it's good to start the holiday season with something sunny and light. Even on something this slight, it's a thrill to hear those trademark overlapping vocals go off in all directions (dig that punchy bass vocal: "Christmas comes this time each year...").  And there's something adorable about Mike Love's nasal vocals and the corny updated lingo ("And a real famous cat all dressed up in red / And he spends the whole year working out on his sled.")  Santa was into drag-racing? Who knew?

And where those trademark Beach Boys harmonies (courtesy of the Four Freshmen) kick in, the whole thing goes into another dimension, a la Brian Wilson. (Have you not seen Love and Mercy? Because YOU REALLY SHOULD.) As that chorus of "Run run reindeer" swells and swirls, I see the roots of their later masterpiece "Good Vibrations" starting to grow.

Yeah, okay, this track is mindless pop fun. But when the talents involved are this awesome -- is not that what we desire?