Saturday, December 20, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Thank God It's Christmas" /

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

Amid all the tacky extravagant sentiment of holiday pop music, count on Freddie Mercury to pull out all the stops.

"Oh, my love," he emotes mournfully, "We've had our share of tears."  Not the most upbeat opening, and he follows it up with a wistful, "Oh, my friends / We've had our hopes and fears." Key shift up, volume raised, he adds, "Oh, my friends / It's been a long hard year."  Amen to that, brother.

And then, in anthemic Queen fashion (you knew this was coming), he belts out, "Thank God it's Christmas / Yes it's Christmas / Thank. God. It's. CH-RRISTMAS."  Clinging to it like a man on a sinking ship.

He trots out all the pop song tinsel -- the stars, the snow, the synths, the background chorus -- but I love the way he goes for broke here. Why not throw all your hopes on this one day?  (Or even -- as he suggests in the bridge -- make it be Christmas every day?)  Like all great divas, he knew that passion can in fact go hand in hand with over-the-top production -- if you truly believe.

In the third verse, he laments, "Oh my love / We live in troubled days / Oh my friends / We have the strangest ways."  This song was written in 1984, but here we are, thirty years later, and we're still living in troubled time with strange ways. You'd think mankind would have wised up by now. But apparently not -- which is why we still need Christmas.

Friday, December 19, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Christmas at the Airport" /
Nick Lowe

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

Ah, the Friday before Christmas, one of the big travel days of the holiday season. Traveling at Christmas can such a joy-killer, it's a marvel nobody thought to write a song about it before. (That is, if you don't count "Jingle Bells" as a road song.)  Leave it to Nick Lowe to lead off his 2013 holiday album Quality Street with this most unsentimental track:

The sound-effects lead-in -- airport PA announcements, crowd noise -- set off a visceral travel anxiety in me right away. But then here comes Nick, jovially strumming an acoustic guitar, with a few licks on surf guitar and electric piano to add jet-set sparkle. 

The scenario is simple -- as he arrives at the airport, a snowstorm has just begun, and suddenly flight after flight is being cancelled. It's a clever conceit, turning upside-down the old Christmas standard pieties about white Christmases. Yes, we've been programmed to hope for snow at Christmas, but when it does come, what a hassle!  (Shades of the comedy classic film Planes, Trains and Automobiles with John Candy and Steve Martin.)

There was a time when air travel seemed glamorous, but that era's long past.  What with ever-lengthening security lines and ever-shrinking seat space, passengers get cranky and miserable in no time, and massive weather delays ratchet that up even further.  ("The terminal was seething / Without much Christmas cheer," as Nick starts out verse two.)  Worst of all is knowing that you're anxiously expected at the other end for a date that can't be changed. 

Still, Nick keeps things whimsical, as he messes around the empty airport ('I'm doing Santa's sleigh ride / On the baggage carousel"). I must say, he's taking the disappointment well in stride -- maybe escaping the obligatory family gathering is a blessing in disguise?  He finishes off his third verse in snappy style:  "I should be at the table / With all my kith and kin [I can count on one finger the songwriters I know who would use that vintage phrase] / It looks like Christmas, Christmas at the airport / Don't save me any turkey / I found a burger in a bin."  Pow, whop, alliteration and absurdity packed in that last zinger of line -- and he's outta there.

There's songcraft for you. Let others get mushy or corny at Christmas -- not our Nick.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Atheist Christmas" /
Robert Crenshaw

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

As someone who does believe in the Christmas story, I get annoyed when self-professed atheists sneer at Christmas just because of its rampant commercialization and tack-i-fication.  So I was wary of this "holiday" song by Robert Crenshaw, the title track of his 2012 EP.  But that in-your-face is really a bait-and-switch. . .

The point is, even if you don't officially "believe" in Jesus, there is much about this holiday to love, and this song lovingly resurrects all of that.  "The holidays are complicated," he acknowledges right off the bat, noting that the winter solstice -- the original pagan holiday -- "doesn't have Santa Claus." Yet right there in the liner notes we see a circa 1960 snapshot of the Crenshaw boys with a department store Santa (an event Robert's brother Marshall too has referenced in his song "Live and Learn" from Jaggedland.) I get a warm feeling just thinking about the Crenshaw family Christmas.
Because Christmas can fill some holes in the soul. In the second verse, Robert elaborates: "This year I really needed Christmas / We put up lights and got a tree / We got presents for family and friends / Some dogs and cats got some treats." It sounds so simple, but take it away, and what are you left with?
It's being with family that matters, of course, but also honoring traditions. (Love the line in verse three, "We loved the Christmas songs, many written by Jews.") Yearning for tried-and-true comforts himself, he gives us a charmingly retro arrangement, with all the cheesy details we fall for this time of year -- a wintry flute, snowflake spangles of percussion, caroling harmonies from the back-up singers. 
In the chorus, he surrenders happily to the whole shebang: "So I'm having an atheist Christmas / I know it's crazy, but so? Ho Ho Ho. / And I hope you find yourself in a moment of pure bliss / Under the mistletoe / With beautiful lights and snow." There it is, wrapped up in shiny paper and tied with a bow. Even if you don't believe in Christ, here's something heart-warming you can believe in.  It's so, so, SO much better than nothing. 
My Musical Advent Calendar

"Christmas Is For Mugs" /
Graham Parker

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

Trust my man Graham Parker to keep holiday spirits from getting too cloying.  His 1994 EP Graham Parker's Christmas Cracker is definitely one of my unsentimental Yuletide go-to's. (See here for a bit of "Soul Christmas.")  But you don't release a Christmas record if you really do hate the holiday, and snarky as GP's take may be, I've still gotta think he gets a kick out of it.

It's a great shaggy-dog story, as Graham does so well. Though he's in full Americana mode, he's shopping around modern-day London for a present that'll please his darling -- and yet everything goes disastrously awry.  We've all been there, up against that December 24 deadline, panicking when gift after gift fails, and Christmas spirit is in woefully short supply.

That jaundiced chorus says it all: "Now everybody's talking about the kisses and the hugs / And all the little heartstrings that the festive season tugs / But all I see are lager louts, shoplifters and thugs / So fill mine up, 'cause Christmas is for mugs."

And yet . . . and yet . . and yet.

Last verse, in which brilliant wordsmith Graham flaunts not just four rhymes, but five: "Now all the crepe and tinsel is left lying on the floor / The wreath we hung up weeks ago is rotting on the door / And I'd like to punch the lights out of that crooked tree vendor / And if I saw St. Nick tonight there'd be a scene of gore  / I'd throw a match into the fire and make the chimney roar." And not in a good way.

My take on this?  Sure, it makes him mad -- because somewhere in there, he still wants for Christmas to be something special. Something magical. And when it isn't . . .

But what the hey. If nothing else, we'll fill our mugs (pun intended) and make do with what we can get out of the holiday season.  Because here we are, in the scrum of real life, and we'll deal with it just fine. What really matters, of course, is the fact that he loves his partner and would love to get her a present that will make her happy. The world's working against him, but he's a guy who can go with the flow.

A real-world Christmas scenario -- I'm cool with that.

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.

Monday, December 15, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Santa's Lost His Mojo" /
Jeremy Lister

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

Well, we still have several days to go until Christmas, so let's keep the mood light.  Here's another  kitschy Santa song, from former The Voice contestant Jeremy Lister:

Nashville singer-songwriter Lister was obviously having fun with this syncopated novelty song, first released on a 2008 compilation Ten out of Tenn.  His wry concept of a stressed-out Santa Claus going off on a bender isn't classic country, but close enough.

The bridge always makes me grin:  "Deck the halls with boughs of holly / We've got to get Kringle back to feeling jolly." But the part of this song that really sticks in my ear is that repeated lead-in  "ho, ho, ho, ho, oh no" climbing in backbeat rhythm up an ominous scale. That's the sort of hook that should have made Jeremy Lister more of a star.

I loved Jeremy's appearances on The Voice so much that I actually remembered him as having won his season -- Season 3, I think it was -- so I'm a little bummed to look on-line and find no record of him even among the finalists.  Well, since none of the top winners seemed to have made much of a splash since, I guess it's no surprise that he too seems still to be waiting for his career to gain traction. If nothing else, he's given us a holiday treat that keeps on giving.

You never know what you'll find when you dig around the internet. I'd much rather listen to something tongue-in-cheek like this than another frantically belted-out "All I Want For Christmas Is You," a tune which is well-nigh inescapable this time of year.  If you feel the same way, download this track from iTunes -- a struggling artist could really use the vote of support.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"A Change at Christmas
(Say It Isn't So)" /
The Flaming Lips

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

Let me start out by confessing that I know nothing about the Flaming Lips. They first hit the scene in the late 1980s, when I was completely uninterested in new music for various reasons, and despite the fact that some people whose taste I vastly respect are huge Flaming Lips fans, I just never  . . . bothered.  If I were sufficiently motivated, I could always remedy that omission, but -- well, life is too short to follow every good band out there.

But in my search for Christmas music, I was thrilled to uncover this gem, from their 2003 EP Ego Tripping at the Gates of Hell.

Those cheesy spangly synths at the beginning get me in the holiday spirit right away, and I have a weakness for that "live in the studio" effect where the musicians do their countdowns.  It makes me forgive the shambolic texture of this song -- no rhymes, no catchy melody, no crisp arrangement with choirs and strings.  Set against the slickness of so many holiday songs, this one is bracingly different.

Singer Wayne Coyne sounds almost apologetic, uncertain, mumbling about change and the future and hey, you never know.  He sets us up for ambiguity. But verse two suddenly zeroes in on the point: "Oh, if I could stop time / It would be a frozen moment just around Christmas / When all of mankind reveals its truest potential / And there is sympathy for the suffering / Yes, there is sympathy for those who are suffering."  I can just feel the glimmer of hope in his voice, and it rings truer because he doesn't sound like a guy who normally has a lot of faith in human nature.

But if we can do this at Christmas time -- well, why stop there?  He puzzles, "And it's glimpsed for one shining moment / And this change feels like a change that's real / But then it passes along with the season / And then we just go back to the way we were / Yes, we just go back to the way we were." Why is that, anyway?

In the last verse, a friend tells him that it's just human nature, not to expect more of people. But in his kinda geeky, real-guy voice he struggles to believe better -- to dream, to say it isn't so, not to give up on the human race.

Is this an optimistic song?  That's for you to decide. But I cling to his glimpse of Christmas bringing out the best in people -- and his hope that someday we'll find a way to make that happen year round.. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Someday at Christmas" /
Stevie Wonder

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

Yesterday, we had Kevin Morris -- today, Stevland Morris.

Promoting peace and love for the Christmas season?  Keb' Mo' (see yesterday's post) didn't invent the idea -- in fact, I'm pretty sure he grew up, as I did, with this Stevie Wonder classic in his head.

Written by Motown stalwart Ron Miller, who'd penned many of Stevie's earlier Motown hits, this gem appears on Stevie's 1967 album of the same name.  Let's get some context here: Stevie was 17 years old at the time -- seventeen! -- and despite the political ferment of the times, he was still pretty much a Motown property who did and said what Berry Gordy told him to.  It would be a couple more years before Stevie had enough hits under his belt to push Gordy for the right to write and perform more socially relevant material. But the Stevie who was soon to give us Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life was already starting to feel his wings, and you can feel his social conscience thrumming through this song.

Idealistic? You bet. "Someday at Christmas men won't be boys / Playing with bombs like kids play with toys" -- we're still waiting for that, Stevie. And we're still waiting for the day when "there'll be no wars," when "all men are free," and where there "no hungry children." I'm tempted to say that this song foretold the future, but no, those same problems were there in 1967 too. The thing is, we haven't solved them yet, not by a long shot.  Which is why we still need this song today.

And there he is, with that glorious young voice, melismatic and earnest and trustingly na├»ve.  It's a near perfect production, building at just the right pace, layering on more with every verse -- strings, a choir, the whole shebang -- but never tipping over into cheesiness. And what's even more important: This song never gets preachy or hectoring.  He's just dreaming, and hoping that the Christmas magic will help his dream along.

Well, it's 47 Christmases later, and we're still a mess of a world.  But every year, hearing Stevie sing this gives me new hope.  And if that isn't the Christmas spirit, I don't know what is.