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.