Thursday, November 29, 2012

Tis the Season

Tis that time of year again, when stores put out their green and red and cover everything in cotton snow, towns line the streets with festive lights and every mother’s child puts out a flippin’ Christmas album.

I believe I did a few Christmas posts a couple of years back, and likely expressed my misgivings with the holidays at one point in my life. But with age and kids, my old soft heart has caved and I’ve found that I rather like Christmas music. As always it’s an emotional thing, and few tunes can swing with zany delight or break your heart into a billion pieces better than those we only pull out for about five weeks at the end of each year. And personally, I prefer classic songs to new compositions, and a more standard, “reverent” rendering of those songs than an amped up throw away tossed on some “Rockin’ XXXmas!” compilation. Of course there are exceptions in both categories, and I believe I’ve mentioned The Pogues/Kirsty McColl ditty Fairytale if New York as a personal favorite, and have also always enjoyed the Cocteu Twins take on Frosty the Snowman and Winter Wonderland.


I “don’t allow” Christmas music in the house until Thanksgiving Day, and it irked me to no end to see trees and garland for sale at Target before it was even Halloween. But now that Turkey Day is behind us, it’s been a holy and a holly jolly good time left and right. This year I beefed up the rather small collection of Christmas albums with several that were on sale for “I’ll pay that” cheap at a couple of places. None of them are in the category of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the greatest Christmas album of all time (and if you don’t agree, you are flat out wrong), but one or two might be darn near close in their own way.

Let’s begin!

Frank Sinatra – Christmas Songs by Sinatra: This here is a re-release of a repackage of an original release from back in 1948 that had various other songs tacked on here and there along the way. None of this material was recorded after 1950, so this is prime Sinatra. For the most part it’s a “ballads” collection, so better for background dinner music than to get the party hoppin’, but a few numbers in the middle swing as only Frank can. My favorite part is the bits recorded for broadcast to the troops overseas, complete with pre-song dialog.

Louis Armstrong & Friends – What a Wonderful Christmas: An obvious cash-in on Armstrong (he only appears on about six of the fourteen songs), this is still an excellent collection, as his “friends” include the likes of Duke Ellington, Mel Torme and Lena Horne, just to name a few. I’m not sure that Louis is really well known for his rendition of any one Christmas jingle, but Eartha Kitt’s Santa Baby is always a sexy delight and Torme’s take on his own Christmas Song, while not the definitive Nat King Cole version, reminds you why this is usually considered the greatest Christmas song of all time. But the standouts for me are the lesser known cuts, and especially from Louis, with tunes like Christmas in New Orleans, Cool Yule and the cake taker, ‘Zat You, Santa Claus?

Carpenters – Christmas Portrait: This is the only one I considered a possible gamble and, while I’m not officially ranking, may be my favorite of the bunch. Apparently this version of the album adds tracks from their second Christmas album, the post-Karen An Old-Fashioned Christmas. And really, “old-fashioned” as in “traditional and wholesome” is what they were going for here, and I mean that in the best way possible. Richard C certainly had a vision here with his grand chorals and sweeping symphonies, and the focus here is not Karen but the entire production itself, as through a series of vocal medleys and instrumental highlights she doesn’t make a full on appearance until track 4. From start to finish this is a big production, but always tastefully so, from song selection to arrangements and delivery, and it never drags, never goes too far over the top and hits you in all the right places, both toe-tapping and heart-wrenching/warming.

Dean Martin – My Kind of Christmas: This appears to be a reworking of a previous collection of Dino’s well known (and not so) Christmas standards. All the obvious holiday radio staples are up front and in classic, mischievously lovable form, from Baby It’s Cold Outside to Silver Bells to Rudolph. In addition are some lesser known but equally delicious numbers like Christmas Blues, as well as Blue Christmas, the whacky A Marshmallow World and the not necessarily Christmas, but certainly fitting, I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm. In an attempt to keep things hip and fresh, a reworking of I’ll Be Home for Christmas as a duet with Scarlett Johansson isn’t quite mind blowing but is certainly entertaining (and admittedly the final decider in me picking up the CD), but “The Swingin’ Yuletide Mix” of Winter Wonderland, complete with in your face bass and dance beat, absolutely wrecks an otherwise fantastic version of the song. I guess you can’t get through the season without a couple of broken ornaments.

Burl Ives – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: One problem with holiday songs is that there are pretty much 25 or 30 that you hear over and over again, and that everyone seems to do ad nauseum. And for the most part these are all great songs, so that’s a good thing. But when you’ve just picked up a handful of albums and White Christmas is on most of them…well, you know. That’s what makes what is essentially the soundtrack to the 1969 Christmas special for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, featuring the always perfect Burl Ives, rather refreshing. And to be sure, his take on A Holly Jolly Christmas is the “hit” of this whole deal, but not-likely-to-be-on-your-Pandora-station offerings like the touching Silver and Gold and the nyah-nyah We’re a Couple of Misfits not only conjure up immediate images from the show, but add a little variety to the sometimes monotonous fruit cake that is listening to holiday music for extended periods.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Quarterly JT Part 3 - 2002

Well, we’re near the end of the year so I’m grossly behind in this post. I’d love to blame JT, but he’s been ready for weeks now, so the fault is all mine. In my defense, I had my write up complete but then made some last minute changes that took a bit longer than I’d expected. But regardless, let’s jump in…

The year that was 2002 was a huge year for me in a lot of ways with big events happening left and right – some of them great and others the total opposite. By this point I had lost touch with most all recent or “relevant” music, choosing instead to move further back into classic rock, 80s nostalgia and the more experimental veins of post punk and experimental music. I was pretty much only purchasing new albums by artist that I had liked or had been around for 10+ years and ignoring anyone who was, well, younger than me.

And along those lines there was a bit to choose from, but not all of it took me where I needed to go. Chris Isaak released his first studio album in four years, the yawning Always Got Tonight (which I need to give an honest re-listen one day); Pet Shop Boy gave us Release, which had a fantastic lead single (Home and Dry) but failed to capture my attention overall; Sonic Youth delivered Murray Street, their first with Jim O’Rourke, that is quite nice but never asks to be listened to (when you’re putting an album on out of obligation…well, you know); Dag Nasty (sigh...) reunited with Dave Smalley (double sigh…) for Minority of One, full of great hooks and sing-along choruses, but still couldn’t match the power of Can I Say (though it squashes Four on the Floor like a grape) and Belle & Sebastian put out a soundtrack for the movie Storytelling, that I’ve yet to see, and which is pleasant, but soundtracks are rarely ever groundbreaking, much less something that requires repeat spins.

So with a lot of mainstays letting me down a bit, what did I do? Well, I sorta started beginning attempting to listen to new music again. Sorta…

Here’s a bit of all that and then some in no particular order – also, I covered all these albums more in depth on a previous post. And, as always JT goes first…oh wait, I think his are in descending order…


5.  Busted Stuff by Dave Matthews Band - After the success of the illegally leaked ‘Lillywhite Sessions’ DMB went back in the studio and recorded many of the tracks from those sessions and the results, while not as good, were amazing none-the-less and comprises the band’s best album to date.   
4. One Beat by Sleater-Kinney - More than any of the albums on this list, One Beat screams of living under the Bush Administration in a post 9/11 world...songs such as ‘Combat Rock’ and ‘Far Away’ put to music the way many of us felt during that confusing time period.  

3. The Remote Part by Idlewild - Idlewild were one of the most consistently good rock bands of the early 00s. More introspective than their previous two albums, The Remote Part finds the band churning out singable, perfect pop rock songs.

2. Turn on the Bright Lights by Interpol - Interpol came out of the box sounding like Joy Division for the new Millennium and launched 100s of new wave revivalist copycats...some that were good (Editors, Elefant) and some that weren’t (She Wants Revenge) but none (including Interpol themselves) that would ever replicate the brilliance of Turn on the Bright Lights.

1. Castaways & Cutouts by The Decemberists- In my opinion, the most brilliant ‘indie’ band to come out of the early 2000 music scene, from Alt-Country to Prog Rock Concept Albums, the Decemberists have rarely made a misstep. With Castaways & Cutouts, the band set the bar high for what has been an amazing career thus far. 


Interpol – Turn on the Bright Lights – Of all the acts riding on the retro New Wave, this album hit me on a crazy personal level. Virtually every post punk outfit – from the menace of Joy Division to the echo of the Chameleons to the quirky melody of Echo and the Bunnymen – was blended together into something familiar and yet fresh, the logical footnote to a genre whose heyday may have been 20 years before, but continued (and continues) to influence all but the most banal of bubblegum pop.

Rhett Miller – The Instigator – As the second greatest songwriter of my generation, Rhett’s first solo album after the success of the Old 97s left me a little underwhelmed when it first came out. But these songs really, really stick with you and now it’s my favorite of his solo work and even gives a couple of the Old 97s albums a run for their money. As always it’s the catchy hooks and infectious choruses, all oozing with Rhett’s charm, humor and down to earth good nature, making even his weaker moments better than most folk’s stronger.

Tom Waits – Blood Money/Alice – Brother Tom can deliver abrasive, frightening and near comical “rockers” that stomp and howl with post world abandon, or brooding, tender and equally as frightening ballads that wind tiny fingers of sweet pain deep into your heart and soul; and with Blood Money and Alice, released together and yet two entirely different projects, he handles both separately and perfectly. Honestly, with a catalog built of amazing songs and albums, these two may be his best in each of his “sub categories” and you just need to decide which mood you’re in before you choose.

Doves – The Last Broadcast – For me this is one of the greatest albums of all time and a definite desert island disc. I found these guys by chance on a sampler that Tower Records (RIP) was giving out, which included There Goes the Fear. That song is an epic surge of dynamic energy in and of itself and an excellent example of everything this album has to offer. The Last Broadcast is nothing short of a masterpiece by any standards, with highs and lows dabbling in elements of shoegaze and electronica and folk and solid rock, conjuring images that are at once joyous and morose and ultimately darn near holy. Everything comes together in a melodic, emotive and immediately endearing mesh that is nothing short of triumphant.

Neil Halstead – Sleeping on Roads – I’m saying it again, but my boy Neil is the greatest songwriter of my generation, and he makes it seem so simple it’s staggering. This was his first of now three solo offerings outside his Mojave 3 “day job,” and it’s by far the most ambitious. Sleeping on Roads permeates with a sort of satisfied melancholia, realizing that there is beauty in everything, especially pain. That’s not to say it’s a depressing album, but it looks at love and life with a sense that everything we see and experience is just passing, and that’s ok. And what brings it all together are the layered textures, from stripped down and pensive to sweeping walls of atmospheric noise. Through all of it is Neil’s laidback, folky charm and a sense of melody and way of turning a word that brings an easy smile to my face every time.