Friday, December 24, 2010

A Christmas Bowl

By Nick
At this festive season of the year, the radios and loudspeakers in stores bombard us with a barrage of Christmas tunes. There is nothing wrong with this; Christmas is probably the only time in which the Gospel is (unwittingly) promoted in major retailer and on mainstream radio stations, and I would certainly rather do Christmas shopping to Bing Crosby than Bon Jovi. However, the same songs and same versions of songs being played over and over again starts to wear on you, and after one has heard "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" for the tenth time, one is tempted to swear off Christmas completely. One local radio station, 101.7 Bob FM, has done a good job in combating this musical staleness with an amazing variety of music ranging from the popular to the incredibly obscure. However, variety does not always mean quality, and along with some great new songs I have also heard some holiday clunkers (More on those later). This means that the dedicated listeners will resort to CDs.
     The proprietors of this blog managed to purchase some excellent CDs at that great storehouse of musical excellence, Big Lots, for the bargain price of $2 per CD. The first CD that we purchased was generically titled Peace with a stock photo of snowy woods on the cover. Also on the cover was a blurb with the artists featured on the CD, which included Jars of Clay, Keb' Mo', Kate Bush, Alicia Keys, and Johnny Cash. Naturally I had to buy this.
The CD starts off with Vertical Horizon's alternative rock interpretation of "I Believe in Father Christmas", followed up by Jars of Clay's "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen." The album then takes a jazzy, minimalistic turn with "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" by Aimee Mann, the Gordon Lightfoot-penned"Song for a Winter's Night" by Sarah McLachlan, and the traditional "Love Came Down at Christmas" by Shawn Colvin. These songs all have a lazy, midafternoon relaxing feel. Next comes not just Johnny Cash, but Johnny Cash backed up by the Statler Brothers. The song sounds like a younger Johnny Cash, and the sound quality is not great, but it's Johnny Cash, so I'm not complaining. Johnny is nearly upstaged by bluesman Keb' Mo' and his improvisational "Jingle Bell Jamboree". Keb' Mo's plays and sings in such a relaxed manner that you could easily imagine him playing all day without stopping. This song is the highlight of the album, combining raspy vocals with fluid guitars and adding an extra-large dose of Christmas cheer.Kate Bush comes next with her weird and experimental rendition of "Home For Christmas." This is appropriate because Kate Bush is weird and experimental. Chris Botti, the trumpet guy, serves up the romantic "Perfect Day", about how his woman makes every day like Christmas, and Rachel Yamagata gives us the romantically weepy "River" ("I wish I had a river I could skate away on.) The only clinker on this album is Alicia Keys' vaugely-gospel tinged "Little Drummer Girl." The heavy beats and overdone delivery on this song clash with the minimalism of the rest of this album. Five For Fighting finishes out the album with "Silent Night", making use of his falsetto vocals and understated guitar.
 The second bargain CD purchased was "Stockings by the Fire", put out by Starbucks Entertainment. Starbucks has managed to select a good mix of of classic Jazz/Swing and modern indie/soft rock on this collection. It starts out with Ray Charles and Betty Carter performing "Baby, It's Cold Outside". Voices like those only come around once in a millenium. Sarah McLachlan follows it up with a minimalistic spin on "I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day", written by that Yankee Imperialist, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The everpresent Frank Sinatra and his I'm-singing-through-a-carboard-tube vocals show up next with "I'll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams.) Love him or hate him, there's no denying the man's talent. The folk-rock band Hem (not to be confused with the Gothic Rock band HIM) gives another minimalistic (see a pattern here) take on "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." Ella Fitzgerald does an amazing job on "Sleigh Ride.", although I'm convinced that if Ella Fitzgerald sang "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" it would have been good. Rufus Wainwright gives a nasally rendition of "What Are You Doing New Years Eve?" While it's almost impossible to ruin such a good song, Wainwright's alternative rock stylings clash with the Tin Pan Alley feel of the song. Herbie Hancock joins forces with Corinne Bailey Rae doing their version of "River", which, like many jazz songs, is slow and sort of tuneless. It's by no means a bad song, but it sounds very little like the original, and Rae, like most vocalist, flubs the "fly-y-y" in the middle of the song. Jack Johnson, steps in to save the day with possibly the best rendition of "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer." Jack adds a new verse after the traditional verses where Rudolph tells the other reindeer  "I see through your silly games. How could you look me in the face when only yesterday you called me names?" the bird and the bee give us their weird and futuristic version of "Carol of The Bells", which changes keys multiple times. A Fine Frenzy gives us a weak version of "Let It Snow." While it holds up musically, the breathy femals vocals make the song flabby and indecisive. Nat King Cole, who deserved the "King" in his name, gives us his Christmas classic "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)." Anyone who doesn't own a copy of Nat's rendition of this song should consider themselves deprived. The tipsy Dean Martin swaggers his way through "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm." The amazing Diana Krall sings "Winter Wonderland", complete with all those amazing jazz solos that are in every Diana Krall song. Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson sings "Do You Hear What I Hear" and Gospel-influenced John Legend and family sing "It Don't Have to Change", a song filled with Christmas memories of playing football and basketball and singing all day. This contrasts with my Christmas memories, which are mainly of playing video games and eating all day. Aimee Mann (Remember her from the first CD?) closes out the album with a soft "White Christmas."
     These two albums are great for listening to at any time of day, but especially midafternoon. For those looking for a break from Bruce Springsteen screaming "Santa Claus is Coming to Town", and flop artists ruining classic Christmas songs, check out these two CDs.

Currently Listening: Andre Rieu and Friends, Superstar Christmas, The CDs mentioned above.

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