Friday, December 31, 2010

In Memoriam: Abbey Lincoln

Abbey Lincoln: Talking to the Sun


Give a listen to Talking to the Sun. The song opens with just the drums. That’s just one drummer, but he’s playing an intricate pattern that sounds like it came from Africa. The band joins in, and the music is definitely jazz, but that African feel is still there. Abbey Lincoln starts to sing. Her voice sounds like a second horn, (is there such a thing as an alto trumpet?). She perfectly captures the emotion of the lyric, and her words are clear. After stating the theme, she takes a solo. She skats at the end of the song, but, before that, she is singing the words over, but working magic on the music. The emotion of the piece is only enhanced.

The description above, for me, perfectly captures the artistry of Abbey Lincoln. The connection to Africa did not show up in all of her work, but it was important to her. During the 1960s, she would become active in the Civil Rights Movement. At the time, she also pursued an acting career, and there was hardly any music. In the 70s, even the acting stopped. Her marriage to Max Roach had ended, and she withdrew from the spotlight. When she returned in the 80s, however, she more than proved that she still had it. She focused on the music from then on. Talking to the Sun is from 1984. Lincoln was never afraid to experiment with a wide variety of musical settings, but she never forgot that it must always be about the song. In her early career, from 1956 to the early 60s, she sang other people’s songs. But the later part of her career also proved that she was a fine songwriter as well. Lincoln is gone now, but thirty-five years of music remain. I suspect that jazz singers will be listening to, and learning from, that body of work for a long time to come.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

In Memorium: Hank Jones, Herb Ellis, and James Moody

memorium jazz
Hank Jones – Herb Ellis – James Moody

Hank Jones: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes


Herb Ellis: Sweet Georgia Brown


James Moody: Moody's Mood For Love


The world lost three major American jazz legends in 2010. Hank Jones was 91 at his death, Herb Ellis, 88, and James Moody, 85. All three began their long careers just after World War II in the mid 40's, and all three continued playing and recording well into the 90's and later—Moody recorded a new CD just this year.

Hank Jones, brother of equally famous and talented Thad and Elvin, was a pianist who worked mainly in New York City. Among many of the artists he recorded with are Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Coleman Hawkins, Benny Goodman, and Lester Young. The song featured here is a solo effort on a CD by his intermittent group, the Great Jazz Trio, from their 2004 album, Someday My Prince Will Come.

Herb Ellis, guitarist, was another post-WWII musician who toured and recorded with Ella, as well as Jimmy Dorsey, Billie Holiday, and Charlie Byrd, but he was best known as a member of the Oscar Peterson Trio in the 50's. This version of Sweet Georgia Brown is from the 1980 self-titled album of the Monty Alexander (piano), Ray Brown (bass), and Herb Ellis Trio.

James Moody was a saxophonist best known for his 1949 hit song, Moody's Mood For Love, an improvisation of I'm in the Mood for Love. Moody was a long-time collaborator of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie but also played with Miles Davis, Lionel Hampton, and Eddie Jefferson. I'm spotlighting his hit, although I'm not sure if this was the 1949 version or (more likely) a later remake.

Monday, December 27, 2010

In Memoriam: Robbie Jansen & Tony Schilder

Tony Schilder Trio feat. Robbie Jansen: Montreal

(Album out of print)

The jazz scene of Cape Town, South Africa, is quite unique. A port city, it has consolidated the sounds of the Malays who once were imported as slaves by the Dutch with the jazz and soul music collected at the docks from visiting American sailors, the harmonies of Africa with the need to move impelled by the music from Brazil and Cuba, riding the influences of Stan Getz, Miles Davis and Hugh Masekela — and, above all, because it is jazz, the riffing with the collaegues on the scene. It is a scene like no other, a genuinely multicultural melting pot in which the artist is equally at home producing experimental jazz or fusion as he (usually it is a man) is with getting people to dance. Cape jazz has even produced its own form of dance, called the Jazz, which borrows from the Latin types of ballroom dancing. Though never really salacious, it can be very sexy indeed.

Few exponents of Cape jazz sought their fortunes outside their country, or even country. The few who did with success include Jonathan Butler and Abdullah Ibrahim (who before his conversion to Islam was known as Dollar Brand; the nickname acquired because he always had a stash of US currency to buy jazz LPs from sailors). Many of the jazz men who stayed behind became local legends; most have died in undeserved poverty, true martyrs for their art.

The ultimate Cape Town jazz song is Dollar Brand’s Mannenberg, named after the ghetto Manenberg, which is populated by the mixed-race people classified under apartheid as “coloured”, dumped there because their previous homes were located in areas declared “white”. Brand’s multi-racial backing band included the saxophonist and singer Robbie Jansen, a man of prodigious talent and bad habits. Like most of his peers a political activist, Jansen was known to be a generous man who encouraged young talent.

His recorded output was scant; a couple of LPs under his name, a few more on which he appeared (such as those by Pacific Express, Butler’s old band, and briefly Juluka). Above all, Jansen was a live performer. And as such, at a nightclub in ca. 1988, he delivered the greatest interpretation of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On I’ve heard (he later recorded the song; alas, I’ve not heard it).

Jansen died on July 7 at 60. Less than half a year later, on December 8, his frequent jazz collaborator and friend Tony Schilder died at 73, after a long illness.

Tony Schilder was known as the gentleman of jazz; always impeccably dressed with polite manners, he played the keyboard like few could. Dollar Brand wrote his jazz symphony about Manenberg, but Schilder made the place his trademark through his co-ownership of and residency in the 1980s at the stylish nightclub Montreal, incongruously located in the rough township. The club’s theme song, a lovely slice of music (with, it must be said, pedestrian lyrics), was recorded twice: in 1985 with Robbie Jansen on vocals (it is that version featured here) and in the 1990s with Jansen and Butler sharing the microphone.

Like Jansen, Schilder built a reputation as a live act. As far as I know, he recorded only three albums, the first of which, titled Introducing Tony Schilder (1985), was produced by Jonathan Butler, who also sang and played guitar on it (and had a song, JB's Back In Town, named after him). That set, with great vocal tracks and Latin-flavoured instrumentals, remains one of my all-time favourite jazz albums – objectively so, even if that preference may be clouded by the nostalgia for my younger, more handsome nightclubbing days...

After Jansen died, a trade unionist proposed that the city of Cape Town name a street after him. I believe a whole district should be named after the greats of the Cape Jazz scene.

Read an excellent post on Schilder at this outstanding blog.

In Memoriam: Lhasa de Sela

Lhasa de Sela: Anywhere on This Road


Lhasa de Sela, Lhasa to her fans, was born in Mexico and eventually settled in Montreal. She had, as they say, “big ears”; she heard everything as she traveled throughout North America and Europe, and it all became part of her sound. So one song might show the influence of gypsy music, another might sound jazzy, still another might suggest her Mexican roots, and all on the same album. She sang in Spanish, English, and French, and sounded comfortable in all three languages. The constants that made her albums work as coherent packages were the passion of her vocals and her musical imagination. Perhaps she would have made more albums if she had known how little time she had, but, as it stands, only three albums, made from 1997 to 2009, are her legacy. Lhasa completed her last album while battling her illness. She succumbed to breast cancer on New Year’s Day, 2010. She was 37.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

In Memoriam: Ronnie James Dio

Ronnie Dio & The Prophets: Love Pains


Elf: Happy


Elf: Good Time Music


Roger Glover: Love Is All (feat. Ronnie James Dio)


Before he replaced Ozzy Osbourne as the frontman of Black Sabbath in 1979 and formed his own classic band Dio in 1982 and became the godfather of heavy metal, Ronnie James Dio had decidedly softer music on his repertoir. Being part metalhead, part softy, I find nearly everything the man recorded in his 53 year career irresistable.

Everything from the doo wop and r'n'b of Ronnie Dio & The Prophets (Love Pains is the b-side from their 1962 debut single), to the rockin' and rollin' swagger of Elf, from his guest spot on Roger Glover's wonderfully whimsical and silly The Butterfly Ball and the Grasshopper's Feast (based on the children's book of the same name) to heavy metal thunder of Holy Diver. Everything.

But on May 16th stomach cancer took one of the most powerful voices the world has heard. How pipes that huge could fit in a body so tiny remains a mystery.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Soundtrack Songs (Holiday Edition): True Blue Miracle / Keep Christmas With You

Sesame Street Cast: True Blue Miracle

[purchase DVD]

There's much to recommend this song, though the best part, for me, is hearing the voices of so many beloved actors from Sesame Street take their turn at celebrating the season. But unlike so many of our previous posts in this week's theme, for some reason, the original songs which come from my absolute favorite, perennial must-see holiday special Christmas Eve on Sesame Street haven't been covered well, if at all.

Okay, so Oscar's I Hate Christmas really wouldn't bear out as a softer tune, even with a heavy dollop of irony; if anything, it would work only as a thrashpunk number. And truly, this song is so definitive in the original, I fear coverage would only end up sapping the life right out of it.

But perhaps the world is overdue for a few versions of the Bob McGrath-led tune Keep Christmas With You, which one can't help but imagine in the transformative hands of some modern low-voiced male singer-songwriter like M. Ward or David Bazan, or perhaps in the sweet, rich tones of Rosie Thomas or Shawn Colvin. Anyway, it makes me cry, every time. So here: see it as it was meant to be seen. And Merry Christmas, to each and every one of us.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Soundtrack Songs (Holiday Edition): When The River Meets The Sea

Emmet & Alice Otter: When The River Meets The Sea

[purchase on DVD]

Rose Polenzani w/ Session Americana: When The River Meets The Sea


As I wrote on my "other" blog two years ago as part of a feature on this week's topic, "if this Paul Williams-penned tune wasn’t familiar from two of Jim Henson’s most magical Christmas specials ever*, it would fit perfectly in the gospelfolk canon." And though it makes but slight allusion to the Christmas story itself, it makes a good hymn, too - as my wife and I discovered performing it for church last year around this time, with naught but the appalachian dulcimer to accompany us.

But though Emmet's story is a beloved childhood memory, it took singer-songwriter Rose Polenzani's 2008 release of the same name to truly bring the beauty of this song home to me. Piano, strings, and sweet harmonies come courtesy of fellow Bostonians Session Americana, who specialize in intimate and occasionally raucous pubfolk, but the voice and arrangement are all Rose, showing why I'm such a fan of the diminutive folk artist. For her sparser live version - equally potent, in its own way - head over to Cover Lay Down, where you'll find it part of this year's set of Secular Songs and Nondenominational Carols.

*The version from Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas is the original, of course, predating the John Denver and the Muppets version by a couple of years - I would have posted the latter, too, which presents the song as a sweet and mild duet between Denver and Kermit's nephew Robin the Frog, but it's been stuck in our car's CD player for a couple of weeks now.

Soundtrack Songs (Holiday Edition): Baby It’s Cold Outside

Leon Redbone and Zooey Deschanel: Baby It‘s Cold Outside


Baby, It’s Cold Outside is one of those accidental holiday songs. There is no mention in the lyrics of Christmas, and the spirit of the piece is really not very Christmasy at all. Frank Loesser wrote Baby It’s Cold Outside in 1944, and he marked the two parts in the score "mouse" and "wolf". For four years, Loesser performed the song with his wife, Lynn Garland, at informal occasions. Then, in 1948, Loesser sold the rights to the song to MGM. Garland was reportedly furious.

MGM’s first move was to place the song in a movie, Neptune’s Daughter, where it was sung twice, by Ricardo Montalbán and Esther Williams, and also by Red Skelton and Betty Garrett. Another notable soundtrack appearance of the song was by Bette Midler and James Caan in the 1991 film For the Boys. But here, we hear the version from the song’s most recent soundtrack appearance, in the movie Elf. As far as I can tell, this is the first time the song was used in a holiday-themed movie. Leon Redbone and Zooey Deschanel play the parts of the wolf and the mouse perfectly.

Over the years, the song has been performed by some very unlikely couples. Here are a few: Dolly Parton and Rod Stewart, Martina McBride and Dean Martin, James Taylor and Natalie Cole, and my favorite for sheer weirdness, Ann-Margaret and Al Hirt.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Soundtrack Songs (Holiday Edition): Christmas Time Is Here

charlie brown christmas

Vince Guaraldi Trio: Christmas Time is Here


Sarah McLachlan ft. Diana Krall: Christmas Time is Here


I've got a few minutes before dinner, just time enough for the lowest of low-hanging fruit on our weekly theme. If you've never heard the soundtrack to the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas --- welcome to planet Earth!

Vince Guaraldi, in the mid-60's a hot jazz player who was following Stan Getz into Bossa Nova, was tapped because he, like Charles Schulz, was active in the San Francisco area. It was an inspired marriage – Guaraldi scored all the rest of the lucrative Charlie Brown TV specials.

I've also included a gorgeous 2006 cover by songstress Sarah McLachlan, with Diana Krall on piano. Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Soundtrack Songs (Holiday Edition): You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch

Thurl Ravenscroft: You‘re a Mean One, Mr Grinch


I grew up in a Jewish home, so I don’t get nostalgic for most of the old Christmas specials. Still, there were two that we always watched: A Charlie Brown Christmas and The Grinch. Yes, I know the full title is How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but every year there was that one special night when the cry went up, “Hurry, The Grinch is on!” The song is further proof that the bad guys always get the best stuff to sing, even during the holidays.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Soundtrack Songs (Holiday Edition): Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas


Judy Garland: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas


Liz Story: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas


Tom Scott: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas


This Christmas standard was first introduced to the world by Judy Garland in Meet Me In St. Louis. The original lyrics, which reflected the film's plotline of the family facing an unwanted move to New York, had fairly depressing lyrics to begin with: Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last, Next year we may all be living in the past. Garland and the director (her future husband, Vincent Minnelli) persuaded the songwriter to make it a little cheerier, and the rest, as they say, is history.

It's been covered approximately a bajillion times since the 1944 film. Here are two: one's a smooth jazz sax version by Tom Scott, for GRP's first Christmas album. The second is new age piano by Liz Story, recorded at Windham Hill Records in 1994.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Soundtrack Songs (Holiday Edition): Silver Bells

Bob Hope & Marilyn Maxwell: Silver Bells

Bing Crosby & Carol Richards: Silver Bells

Kate Smith: Silver Bells

Vonda Shepard: Silver Bells

Over at the Any Major Dude With Half A Heart blog, I run a series on the lesser-known originals of big hits (in the service of unabashed self promotion, the nearly 200 originals so far covered, as it were, can be found HERE). One original I have not included yet is the yuletide perennial Silver Bells, which takes the feast to the streets where Santas ring their bells in the pursuit of raising funds for charitable causes.

Silver Bells has served to score several movie soundtracks, and it was in the movies that the song debuted, performed by Bob Hope and Marilyn Maxwell. Or it did so in a way...

The film was The Lemon Drop Kid, a crime caper in which good-natured eponymous hustler-on-the-run Hope disguises himself as a fundraising Santa Claus with the help of love interest Maxwell in the course of which our heroes sing Silver Bells (do not be alarmed by the plot outline; the story has a happy ending). The movie was filmed in July/August 1950, but wasn’t released until March 1951.

In the interim, the great yuletide crooner Bing Crosby recorded the song with Carol Richards (who got her break in a Bob Hope talent contest). Their version was issued in October 1950 and was so successful that Hope and Maxwell’s Silver Bells scene was reshot for a more elaborate scene. Billboard in their review thought Bing & Carol’s recording had promise, saying “it has a folksy flavour which could catch big”. The “simple and unaffected” performance “could score”, the trade mag predicted.

Written by the successful songwriting team of Ray Evans and Jay Livingston (who originally called it “Tinkle Bells”), Silver Bells did indeed catch big. It has been prodigiously covered – at least four new versions have been released this year alone.

A rather lovely version of the song appears in the wonderful Polar Express, in which Santa’s silver bell serves as a belated MacGuffin of sorts, recorded in 1966 by Kate Smith (who is perhaps best known for her 1943 rendition of Irving Berlin’s reworked version of God Bless America). Vonda Shepard, by dint of her residence on the Ally McBeal series something of a covers queen, also recorded it. Not having been a great fan of that festival of affected eccentricity, I don’t really know whether it ever appeared on the show, but it was included on the 2000 spin-off album A Very Ally Christmas. And quite lovely it is too.

Gifts & Wishes -> Soundtrack Songs (Holiday Edition): The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)

Alvin & The Chipmunks: Christmas Don't Be Late


Okay, I'm cheating a little here. Technically, this song does NOT count for our coming theme, as it was recorded in '58, sans visual imagery, and went on to top the charts, garnering its author and sped-up tripartite singer Ross Bagdasarian three Grammys: Best comedy performance, Best children's recording, and Best engineered record (non-classical).

But given how famous it made the Chipmunks themselves, it's no surprise to find that the song managed to feature prominently in several subsequent television incarnations, from the short-lived sixties cartoon The Alvin Show to the '81 Alvin and the Chipmunks special A Chipmunk Christmas.

Which means that if you're young enough, like me, you can't help but visualize the characters themselves when you hear it. And here's the true test, really: if you picture the Chipmunks as cartoons with the above personalities, then you, too, have the boob tube image in YOUR head - for the original record sleeve showed three fairly realistic chipmunks, not the cartoonish characters with personality we all recognize.

Really. Check it out:

Looks wrong, doesn't it?

And that's the point of our coming theme, after all: to post songs which we cannot help but see in our mind's eye, due to their origin in the films and television specials of the holiday season. Now that this "cheat" is out of the way, we can focus on those songs - both originals, and particular versions of classic carols - which really do spring from the screen. Expect some nostalgic images atop this week's post, folks. And enjoy the season, both on and off the tube.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Gifts & Wishes: I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus

Brenda Lee: I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus


It's been a long year - it's been a hard year. I've learned much about Abundance and its flip side Scarcity - holding on too tight causes lack... and generosity brings blessings...

I make a Holiday Mix CD each year and share copies with loved ones... and the thread continued with the songs I chose (or that chose me) - no clue as to how this one ended up in my Windows Media Player...

I don't know why... but I wouldn't have figured the late 50's/early-60's as a decade for charity - the lyrics of this Brenda Lee tune surprise and delight me each time I listen, as she tells us what she's going to do to Santa Claus, who seems not to be doing his job properly, and how she can help move the process along...

I missed some wonderful themes here on Star Maker Machine in the last few months - Brenda's lasso snapped me back to reality as well... realizing how fortunate I am to be surrounded by dear family, amazing friends and inspiring music...

Gifts & Wishes: An Apple, An Orange And A Little Stick Doll

stick doll

Jeannie & Jimmy Cheatham: An Apple, An Orange And A Little Stick Doll


My husband was reminiscing today about his father's tale of an early Christmas when his gift was a single orange. In comparison, Jeannie Cheatham's haul was relatively rich! Mostly, this jazzy song is about memories of long-gone Christmases and the simple, much-beloved gifts.

Gifts & Wishes: We Three Kings of Orient Are

Gregg Miner: We Three Kings of Orient Are


Of course the three kings are the original Christmas gift givers. But it seems odd that the three kings/wise men would travel all the way from the Far East and still get there in time to see the Baby Jesus while he was still a baby, until you realize that the term "the Orient" used to refer to what we now call the Mid-East. As the Europeans' knowledge of Asia expanded, so did the meaning of the word.

And so multi-instrumentalist Gregg Miner gives the song an appropriately Middle-Eastern feel, with the oboe, the Egyptian oud and the Turkish saz leading the way. Gregg released two wonderful instrumental Christmas albums that are essential for anyone with a fetish for unique instruments. His collection of mostly stringed instruments (from "The Miner Museum of Vintage, Exotic, and Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments") is only surpassed by his ability to play them all. This is the guy I always wanted to be. And the beautiful booklets that accompanies the two CDs are pure instrument porn for someone like me.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Gifts & Wishes: Wassail Song

Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum: Wassail Song


Caroling is a nice part of the holiday season. There is a knock at your door, and when you open it, you are greeted by a cluster of people singing seasonal songs. Often, there are a few parents and a great many more children among the singers. Nothing could be sweeter and more innocent, yes? But the tradition of caroling comes from wassailing, an activity that was, at various times, banned by the church.

Wassailing was not an activity for children. Usually a group of men would take a wassailing bowl, fill it with either ale or mulled hard cider, and go door to door. In exchange for their songs of good wishes for the new year and a sip from their bowl, the wassailers expected a treat or sometimes a payment. If they did not get it, they would sometimes curse the house of the person who did not compensate them, or even vandalize their house. Another wassailing tradition is to visit an apple orchard, and ritually wake the trees. This is done by making as much noise as possible, and then making an offering to the trees by pouring some cider from the wassailing bowl on the base of each tree. This was done to insure a good apple harvest. You can find more information on the wassailing traditions here.

The Wassail Song performed by Laurie Lewis and Tom Rozum is a variation on the familiar Gloucester Wassail. Lewis and Rozum perform the song with some older and less known lyrics, and the arrangement emphasizes that this is an old song. But, old though it may be, Lewis and Rozum make it sound fresh.

Gifts & Wishes: Santa Baby


Eartha Kitt: Santa Baby


This song is about as far as one can get from the sentiment expressed in The Gift of the Magi. This Christmas classic, released in 1954 and played everywhere ad nauseum this time of year, revels in that 50's sexual innuendo that started creeping into the popular music of the time. It's mixed with a healthy dose of conspicuous consumption. All very tongue-in-cheek, though---we hope. I thought Santa was happily married to Mrs. Claus (does she even have a first name?) Eartha makes a little side-trip down the chimney sound pretty good, though. That is, provided that Santa delivers the goods.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Gifts & Wishes: The Gift of the Magi

Darryl Purpose: The Gift of the Magi


One of my favorite Christmas stories is O Henry’s The Gift of the Magi. So, when this week’s theme was announced, I was hoping that someone had made a song out of it. That someone was Darryl Purpose, and he does a great job with it. If you don’t know the story, I’ll let him tell it. I will only say that giving a gift should always be an act of love, and sometimes love involves sacrifice.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Gifts & Wishes: All I Want For Christmas Is A Beatle

Dora Bryan: All I Want For Christmas Is A Beatle


A totally sixties love song penned and sung by Brit stage actress Dora Bryan, who at 39 sounds so eager to cash in on Beatle-mania she doesn't seem to care that her song a) is a bit over-orchestrated for the teen set, and b) states no preference as to which Beatle Santa brings, which, as anyone who has even read a book about the sixties can tell you, was a social gaffe of the highest order. It's got a sort of naive charm, though - something light for the holidays, if nothing else.

Bryan's short single is notable for being the first novelty record about the Beatles - it was actually released in '63, before the band had even released their first single on American shores - but it certainly wouldn't be the last. In fact, Marsh and Propes' book Merry Christmas Baby notes several more holiday tunes along these lines, including "Ringo Bells" by the Three Blonde Mice, "Christmas with the Beatles" by Judy and the Duets, "I Want A Beatle For Christmas" by Becky Lee Beck and "I Want the Beatles for Christmas" by Jackie and Jill.

I've heard Becky Lee Beck's '64 original, and found it a bit like Annette Funicello taking on The Munster's Theme - trust me, this isn't worth passing along even for the novelty, though you can check it out on YouTube if you have two minutes of your life you never want back. But I'd love to hear that last one; bonus points to anyone who can find it to share.

Gifts & Wishes: Gift X-Change

Calexico: Gift X-Change


The best Christmas gift, according to Calexico (and, really, common-sense), is love – and that’s one present you can give yourself.

Depression and Christmas don’t always go together well. This 2000 track addresses somebody who is not in a happy frame of mind. The might be trying to bounce back from some sort of trauma of rejection, or perhaps suffers from some form of depression. “The spirit is broken, the path is overrun; you can’t move forward and now nothing gets done. I hope you find some inner peace along the way... What would it take to hear you say the gift you give is love.”

The track was recorded for a charity album, titled It’s Cool Cool Christmas, for The Big Issue in Britain, which produces magazines which homeless people sell on the streets to create an income. The album, now out of print and something of a collector’s item, also features the likes of Saint Etienne, Teenage Fanclub, Snow Patrol, Belle & Sebastian, Eels, Flaming Lips and El Vez (with his great version of Feliz Navidad).

The Big Issue project also operates in South Africa, Ireland, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Namibia, Kenya and Malawi.

The Winter Months -> Gifts & Wishes: 25th December

Everything But The Girl: 25th December


DJ and producer Ben Watt - once the male half of British alt-pop group Everything But The Girl, along with his life-partner Tracey Thorn, who he finally married last year after 28 years together, and more often than not the author of the EBTG catalog, though only rarely the primary vocalist, as he is in this gentle holiday tune - has a knack for an almost narcissistic self-reflection, especially in looking back wistfully on life. Here, his wishes for the holidays revolve around the unattainable: a second chance, a revisited childhood, and time, always time, and it's a pretty potent mix.

25th December isn't truly a holiday tune, with Christmas relevant predominantly as a focal point and setting for his nostalgia. But the way the song presents the desire for another chance at Christmas past provides an apt, albeit unusually abstract, introduction to our next week's theme, which will see us posting songs that relate to the desires of the season, from presents to presence.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Winter Months: January in the Halifax Airport Lounge

Bruce Cockburn: January in the Halifax Airport Lounge


We Americans have always been slow to discover Canadian artists, if we do at all. Bruce Cockburn was already almost ten years into his career when we finally noticed. By that time, Cockburn had gone through a spiritual crisis, and gone from being a man with no noticeable faith to becoming a devout, although nonsectarian, Christian. January in the Halifax Airport Lounge dates from the beginning of that process, and it possibly offers some hints as to what sparked it. Here, Cockburn seems to face the prospect of being separated from his loved one, apparently to fight a war in Cyprus. (Does anyone know why “ Some Winnipeg boys are Cyprus-bound” in 1975? If so, please respond in the comments.) Then again, could Cockburn’s narrator be feeling not the sorrow of human parting, but the fear of having been forsaken by God? It may be a stretch, but it would be bourn out by the direction Cockburn’s songs soon took.

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Winter Months: The Children of Winter Edition

Mark Olson and the Creekdippers: December's Child


Michelle Lewis: January's Child


Eric Parkin: February's Child


The winter months are the cruelest, both physically and mentally. It may be the season in which I listen to the most music. Instead of spending my spare time outdoors, I hunker down inside and soothe my S.A.D. with a hard drive's worth of mp3s.

So here are three songs to get you and me through the winter months: The first, some Southern folk-rock from Mark Olson's post-Jayhawks aggregation, the second, a slice of social commentary from the none-too-prolific singer-songwriter Michelle Lewis, and the third a reading of a John Ireland piece by pianist Eric Parkin. See you in March!

The Winter Months: 12gatsu no Love Song (December Love Song)

Discussion ensues over who is prettiest – Leehom (left) or Gackt (right)

Gackt & Leehom Wang: 12gatsu no Love Song (December Love Song)


This song is available in no fewer than 9 versions, my music-lovin' peeps, and okay, yeah, I've got 'em all. The first version was released in Japanese, and subsequent years found it sung in, respectively, English, Mandarin, and Korean. I'm letting you experience the Mandarin version because it's another one of those delicious male-male duets that I adore. Like the last one I introduced you to, this song features the Japanese pop star Gackt, this time paired with the other musical co-star of that weird vampire movie, Moon Child, Leehom Wang.

Leehom Wang was born in New York and attended Boston's Berklee School of Music, just like the lead singer of Collective Soul (my last post). He was visiting his grandparents in Taiwan when he came to the attention of the music industry there, and it was a slow and steady climb to fame in the Chinese music scene, where he's a big star now. He was also featured in Ang Lee's film Lust, Caution.

I'd share the English version of this tune, but Gackt's English is right up there with my Japanese (in other words, phonetic), and it makes for distracted listening to what is truly a beautiful song. The lyrics describe a man who's longing for a former lover and wondering if the reminiscence is mutual. And there are jingle bells, so there's that. Happy December!

The Winter Months: December


Collective Soul: December


Okay, let's get this out of the way: This song is not about oral sex.

Collective Soul songs have a background allusion of Christianity to them---the lead singer, Ed Roland, and his band-mate brother were PKs (preacher's kids). They don't consider themselves a Christian band, but they're definitely classier than that simple (wrong) reading of the lyrics. The song uses December as an image of coldness, distance, and rejection to describe a relationship gone sour. "Turn your head…and spit me out…" is an oblique Biblical reference to a personal rejection.

Collective Soul was big in the 90s (and still together), which means I didn't discover them until the 00s. My 90s ended up focused on Raffi and Disney, and I missed a lot of the post-grunge bands until much later. I made up for my tardiness, though, with increased enthusiasm.

The Winter Months: February

Dar Williams: February


When a singer-songwriter describes one of her songs as a favourite you know you’re on to a good thing. So it is with “February” from Dar Williams’ 1996 Mortal City album, possibly her best (if one disregards her contribution to the solitary and wonderful album by Cry Cry Cry).

February’s sadness — the song is about a relationship going cold and dead — is underscored by Erik Friedlander’s unobtrusive cello. What great lyrics: “First we forgot where we’d planted those bulbs last year; then we forgot that wed planted at all; then we forgot what plants are altogether; and I blamed you for my freezing and forgetting and the nights were long and cold and scary. Can we live through February?”

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Winter Months: The January Man

Bert Jansch: The January Man


A great deal of amazing music has been allowed to go out of print, and become difficult to find. Bert Jansch, formerly of Pentangle, released this version of The January Man on his 1973 album Moonshine. The album was reissued in 2001 on CD, but that too has gone out of print. Moonshine is a fine example of what Jansch brought to the group Pentangle.

The January Man sounds like a traditional English song, but it is actually the work of Dave Goulder. He creates a character, in just a few short lines, for each month of the year. It’s great piece of economical songwriting, and one of the few New Years songs I know of. Goulder recorded the song on his first album, performing the song a capella. Goulder is a fine songwriter that far too few people know about, and this album, sadly, is also out of print, and even harder to get than the Jansch.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Winter Months: June In January

Dean Martin: June In January (live)


Dino’s on-stage shtick was well-known: cigarette in one hand, glass of Scotch in another, slurring half-remembered lyrics... Well, the smoke was real. The brown liquid was in fact ginger ale, the slurring was an act, and some of the lyrics were fudged on purpose to mask those he did forget. The model professional was at his best appearing blithely unprofessional.

This rendition of “June In January” – which appears on the Rat Pack Live at the Sands album, recorded in September 1963 – shows Martin at his mock-inebriated best, riffing with Antonio Morelli's orchestra (“you sure everybody was playing?”), cracking jokes at Sinatra, ad libbing (“give me a tshord”) and making funny voices before finishing the song off in proper crooner fashion. He’d then stagger off the stage sober and hit the bottle post-gig.