Saturday, December 24, 2011

Holiday Classics: Blue Christmas

Leon Redbone: Blue Christmas


Blue Christmas provides the template for the holiday heartbreak song. Usually, the emotion gets heaped on, with big string sections, cloying background vocals, and a lead vocal performance that milks the song for every ounce of emotion it contains and then some. Elvis Presley’s version of Blue Christmas is exactly the sort of thing I mean, but the song is treated this way by almost everyone who records it. There are some odd counter-examples that set the song against a sterile techno backdrop, with a passionless vocal up front. But Leon Redbone shows in his version what can be done with the song by taking it at face value. The emotions here are real, not pumped up to theatrical proportions. The heartbreak is presented honestly, not glossed over or denied. I always hated the song until I heard this version. To me, Redbone finds the essence that so eludes others, and delivers a fine performance.

Holiday Classics: Coventry Carol

Chris Smither: Coventry Carol


As I wrote about earlier this month over at Cover Lay Down, the conceit of the Holiday Classic is confounded a bit by the existence of several historical waves and source-period songtypes which, together, comprise the current spate of familiar tunes for the season, as heard on the radio, in the mall, and at the hearth itself.

But though my own tastes generally run to the modern folkworld during the rest of the year, and though others tend towards the mid-20th century pop canon when citing their holiday favorites, my own true preferences for this sort of music trend much earlier - all the way back to the early wassails and church songs, and to the hymnal which collects them.

As such, even as I blog the new and the novelty, my secret household Christmas mix is mostly full of centuries-old songs done up in a modern and mellow folkstyle, from Cindy Kallet's Cherry Tree Carol, Brooks Williams' I Wonder As I Wander, Shawn Colvin's In The Bleak Midwinter, and Mary Chapin Carpenter's Sill, Still, Still to Sufjan Stevens' indiefolk takes on O Come O Come Emmanuel, Lo How A Rose E'er Blooming, The Friendly Beasts, and more.

And then there's this: a mellow, rich take on an old, unsourced traditional carol from the oft-blogged catalog of Chris Smither, originally released on a 1996 holiday sampler which - like so many other such Christmas treats from a pre-webbed world - was only made available for that one year, and has since become a rarity. As with so much of my late 20th century folk treasures, it comes direct to us from my father's CD collection, making it especially dear to me. And so I offer it in the spirit of the season, from my generations to yours. May it serve you well.

Holiday Classics: Joy to the World

Eef Barzelay: Joy to the World


According to our friends at Wikipedia, "Joy to the World" is the most published Christmas hymn in North America. The words were written by Isaac Watts from his interpretation of Psalm 98 in the bible, and were published by Watts in 1719. The musical arrangement that we use today is by Lowell Mason, and it is believed that the melody of this 1839 adaptation was inspired by or taken from parts of Handel's Messiah. Watts originally intended for this hymn to be a song of praise and triumph for the Christian Savior's return to earth at the end of the world. It's unclear how this song eventually ended up being a Christmas song, celebrating the Savior's birth. It's equally difficult to research this song as I kept coming up with the song by Three Dog Night.

Most of the well-known versions of "Joy to the World" are triumphant, celebratory songs, often with lush orchestral or organ arrangements featuring soaring sopranos or jubilant brass sections proclaiming the news of Jesus's birth. Conversely, there is this version by Eef Barzelay, better known as the lead singer and principal songwriter of the alt country band Clem Snide. This very understated version from Barzelay's 2006 solo album Bitter Honey features his distinctive voice, an acoustic guitar, and minimal production. One can interpret Barzelay's version as more of a contemplative, purposeful hymn, something that may not be as triumphant as the original author and arranger had intended, but may be more suitable for a cold night in a stable in a far away Middle Eastern land.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Holiday Classics: Frosty The Snowman

The Brady Bunch: Frosty The Snowman


The first single from the first album by The Brady Bunch was a Holiday song released in 1970. Cindy's "Frothty The Thnoman" will make even a white Christmas feel like a sunshine day. You're welcome!

Holiday Classics: The Christmas Song

Les Brown & his Orchestra feat. Doris Day : The Christmas Song

John Edwards: The Christmas Song
Out of print

Smokey Robinson & The Temptations: The Christmas Song

The Christmas Song might be the best of all Christmas songs in the pop canon. It was written in the space of 45 minutes on a hot summer’s day in 1944. Mel Tormé wrote the lyrics, Bob Wells the lyrics — on that hot day the lyricist sought to conjure images of winter in a bid to keep cool.

It was first recorded in 1946 by the King Cole Trio, also on a hot day. These recordings apparently did not make great waves. The trio recorded a new version in 1953, with an orchestral arrangement by Nelson Riddle. The version that we are most familiar with is Nat ‘King’ Cole’s 1963 recording, which is closely patterned on the 1953 take, right down to the jingle bells outro.

Tormé recorded the song he co-wrote in around 1954, and again in 1961 for the My Kind Of Music album, and in 1992. Also see this delightful video of Tormé and Judy Garland (wondering about flying rainbows) from Garland’s 1963 Christmas show. A couple of weeks ago, Glee paid homage to Garland’s Christmas special, to great effect.

But none of these versions feature here. First we have Doris Day and the Les Brown Orchestra doing The Christmas Song in 1946, around the same time the Cole Trio recorded the orignal. Note how this version incorporates strains of the "Noel" carol, and plays out with a nod to "Silent Night" where Nat would later opt for "Jingle Bells".

Then there is a slow-burning version by John Edwards from 1976, which sounds a lot like Donny Hathaway might have sung it. Edwards, an excellent soul singer in his own right who was once mentored by Curtis Mayfield, later became lead singer for The Spinners, most notably on "Working My Way Back To You".

A rather different soul version is delivered by Motown giants Smokey Robinson and The Temptations. I am unsure when they recorded it, but comments on the video on YouTube suggest the year 1987.

Normally contributors to the Star Maker Machine don't really plug their own blogs, but I think it is fair, at this time of the year when some may need a fix of new seasonal music, to make readers of this blog aware of the Christmas mixes I have posted in the past, ranging from soul to country to "Christmas in Black & White" and, of course, pop. ALL HERE.

And so, to my fellow contributors and all readers, may your Christmas be bright and may the new year bring you lots of joy.

Photo by Phill Joynes (

Holiday Classics: Christmas Time’s A-Coming

Emmylou Harris: Christmas Time’s A-Coming


Country music Christmas albums: Bah, humbug. They are almost all forgettable, often featuring the same couple of dozen songs, ("Little Drummer Boy," anyone?), philharmonic-style string arrangements and overly solemn vocals.

But there's one I will defend: Emmylou Harris’s first and only Christmas record, "Light of the Stable." And not just because it's the only Christmas record I know of with a Neil Young song as the title track. It's a significant record because it heralded (hark!) Emmylou's neo-traditional stylings of the early 1980s. Released in Europe in 1979 (It became available in the U.S. a year later; the cover above, showing a pregnant and not particularly comfortable Emmylou, is from the original English release), "Light of the Stable" came out a half-year before "Roses in the Snow," Emmylou's traditional country/bluegrass standard bearer. "Light of the Stable" also featured the first officially released "Trio" track, with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt providing supporting vocals on the title song. Thanks to the bright, acoustic arrangements, "Light of the Stable" still sounds fresh today. Even "Little Drummer Boy." Though, in deference to the Facebook "Little Drummer Boy Challenge," the album's opening track, “Christmas Time’s a-Coming,” is offered here instead.

Guest post by Mt. Vernon Mike

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Classics: Mele Kalikimaka

Poi Dog Pondering with The Dirty Dozen Brass Band: Mele Kalikimaka


I must apologize to one of our readers, who sent me an e-mail to request T-Bone Burnett’s version of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen during our Offbeat Holiday Music week. I did not post it then because I knew that it would fit this week’s theme better. But I’m not posting it now either, because the album it comes from, Acoustic Christmas, has another song I wanted to post more: Mele Kalikimaka. The song was written by R Alex Anderson in 1949. A year later, it was a hit for Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. Oddly, the notes in the Acoustic Christmas album list the song as traditional. Mele Kalikimaka is an example of a Hawaiian musical genre called Hapa haole, in which Hawaiian phrases or pidgen English ones are sprinkled into mostly English lyrics, and native Hawaiian rhythms are used. The words Mele Kalikimaka are what apparently happens when a native Hawaiian tries to say Merry Christmas.

The version heard here is a collaboration between Poi Dog Pondering and The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. That was either going to be a nightmare or a blast. I’m happy to say that it was the latter.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Holiday Classics: We Three Kings

Book Of Love: We Three Kings


See if you can name the decade in which this song was recorded.

The Philadelphia-based synth popsters Book Of Love give us an immensely dance-able version of "We Three Kings", now available on the two CD version of their debut. It's worth noting for two reasons. First there's the way vocalist Susan Ottoviano sings as though she'd rather be scrubbing toilets. And secondly, because it provides the soundtrack to an outrageous 60,000 LED Christmas display near Miami, FL which you can see here .

Monday, December 19, 2011

Holiday Classics: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

David Lanz : O Come, O Come, Emmanuel


The origin of this Advent hymn is lost to time---some sources say it began as an 8th century Gregorian chant, some say it's from the 12th century, some say it's later. Regardless, it's got this great minor key going for it (rare for Christmas music), which I love. This version in particular by new-age artist David Lanz is special to me. A good friend who was the organist at the church I used to attend always began Advent with this arrangement. I especially like the phrasing, the way Lanz makes you wa-a-i-i-t for resolution, just like Advent itself. It's already a bit late in the season to listen to it, I suspect, but I hope you like it too, regardless of the day.

Holiday Classics - Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

Lou Rawls: Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas


When Judy Garland sang “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” in the MGM musical Meet Me In St Louis, the song was a hymn of comfort to the narrator’s little sister – and, indeed, herself – in a situation of personal upheaval. It’s sweet and tender and fragile.

Over the years that meaning became roundly ignored in such ways that it assumed the dimension of a recyclable Christmas card. It is the equivalent of the tinselled “Season’s Greetings” banner in your local footwear store.

So if we need to take Judy’s quiet embrace of a song as the ubiquitous exuberant handshake of seasonal well-wishes it has become, we ought to be selective about whom we allow to convey the greetings. I might propose Luther Vandross’ quite lovely version, but if we are going to flip Judy’s intent upside down, we may as well go with the big band bombast of Lou Rawls, who delivers the song in big style on his 1989 album A Merry Christmas. In fact, I think I’d rather have Lou’s version.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Holiday Classics: Deck the Halls

The Roches: Deck the Halls


The one constant in my family’s holiday celebrations over the past 20 odd years has been The Roches’ Christmas album, We Three Kings. The Roches were a band that my wife, whose tastes ran toward the folky, and I, whose tastes were a bit harder edged, both liked. We appreciated the beautiful and quirky harmonies, and the music snob in me was impressed by their work with Robert Fripp.

In 1990, We Three Kings was released, and we heard it on WFUV, Fordham University’s amazing radio station. I wanted to get a copy, to surprise my wife, who loved it, and who had only a few months earlier given birth to our first child. In those pre-Amazon, pre mp3, days, you actually had to go to a record store to buy CDs, and like an idiot, I waited until right before Christmas to try to get a copy. I walked into J&R Music, probably the best record store in NY, and was encouraged to hear that very CD playing on the in-store sound system. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find a copy in the bins, and wanting to make my wife happy, I dragooned one of the workers, who told me that the copy playing on the sound system was the last one in the store. I made him take it out of the CD player and sell it to me.

Since then, We Three Kings has become the harbinger of Christmas. My wife dusts it off when she starts her baking, and I know that delicious things are about to happen. Coming from a secular Jewish family that didn’t celebrate Christmas, I never really understood the power and fun of Christmas music until I started spending the holidays with my future wife and her family. Now, even though we have a large CD library of holiday (mostly Christmas) music, and I have compiled a large iPod playlist of holiday music, both classic and otherwise, We Three Kings continues to be my favorite.

It is hard to pick a favorite song on the disc. I can eliminate the few that they sing in overdone New York accents, and the more religious ones. Deck the Halls ultimately jumps out at me. The way they hit the first “Deck”, and the classic Roches’ harmonies, and the crazy fa la la la las. Enjoy.

Guest post by J. David

Holiday Classics: You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch

Carnival of Shame: You’re a Mean One, Mr Grinch


I have no intention of stopping Christmas from coming, so I thought I had better clear this one off early. I can’t tell you much about Carnival of Shame. I know that they were based out of the Philadelphia area, and they released a holiday EP in 1993 with the wonderfully subversive name of Happy Alcoholidays. Of course, that is where this song comes from. You might think that their lead singer had a knack for imitating Thurl Ravenscraft, who sang the original version of Mr Grinch. But I was able to hear a couple of other tracks from Alcoholidays; it seems that Carnival of Shame’s lead singer always sang this way. The arrangement sounds like the classic four piece rock band: drums, bass, and two guitars. But the band stays loose, making odd interjections throughout that are just right for this woozy version of Mr Grinch.

Here’s a bit of Grinch trivia: aside from singing the original Mr Grinch, Thurl Ravenscraft’s other claim to fame was that he originated the role, and provided the voice for Tony the Tiger for many years.