Off the Beaten Track: Music Reviews and Musings by Mary Leary

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One afternoon, back when my ex and I had a combo, I blurted out my new idea:  “A Christmas song would be a great way to get our stuff out there!” Although we didn’t end up adding sleigh bells to any of our tracks, a similar notion has occurred to several others desirous of laying their stamp on the season – yes, Virginia, as it turns out, that’s a lot of stamps. There’s no need to settle for hackneyed holiday sounds, which at this point could mean “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” or Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmas Time.”

It’s not like it was 15 years ago, when I was a little girl, and “Silver Bells” and “Silent Night” dogged elevators and department stores. Since then, more than oldies stations have taken to playing Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas,” and tracks from Phil Spector’s Christmas Album (currently available as A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector), which features the Ronettes, the Crystals, and Darlene Love, who takes the lead here:

Even “Christmas Time is Here,” from the Peanuts special, has gotten old, especially since Starbucks played it practically nonstop every December from the mid-late ‘90s.

Then there are the once-obscure tracks that have been corralled onto hundreds of holiday compilations. I felt pretty special about incorporating several R&B and soul  LPs back before alt. Xmas tunes were so widely available – now there are too many to be smushed into one OFBT.

Despite the challenge of finding anything “different,” some holiday recordings do manage to be unusual. And my lifelong quest has unearthed treasures that may not be that offbeat – they’re just wonderful.

One of the first albums that found its way to me (truly, I can’t remember how) is about as traditional as they come, especially for folks with any Brit in ‘em: The Holly and the Ivy: Carols from Clare College. In the late ‘70s, composer/ arranger/conductor John Rutter was gaining prominence through work that felt like a breath of fresh air and innovation. Listeners welcomed his compositions, like The Holly ‘s uplifting “Donkey Carol.” Also in play was Rutter’s musical scholarship, which uncovered such relative obscurities as the German “Noble Stem of Jesse,” the Basque “I Saw a Maiden” and “Gabriel’s Message,” and the French “Quelle est cette odeur agréable?”.

For years I’ve lighted balsam candles and listened to this album while wrapping presents, baking, etc. I’m always time-travelled back to peering from my grandparents’ front window, across the snowy fields to a house about a mile away, with smoke curling out of the chimney. There’s a mystical stillness in “Legenda” and in Margaret Poston’s “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree.” Perhaps I should share that my faith, which includes every good-feeling deity, can feel shaky at times. But when, as is the case here, human ability combines with inspiration that can only be called divine, I sure as heck believe in something. Although this video is from the Choir of King’s College, it’s very close to the version on The Holly.

Regarding jazz, my go-tos are a Verve showcase, Have Yourself a Jazzy Little Christmas, and Yule Struttin’ – a Blue Note Christmas. Have Yourself is a winner from Oscar Peterson’s introspective “A Child is Born” to Ella Fitzgerald’s warmly swinging “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Other highlights include the Swingle Singers’ sophisticated “Christmas Medley,” Fitzgerald and Billy Eckstine with “The Secret of Christmas” “and “Christmas Eve”, and the Roland Kirk Quartet’s kick in the pants to “We Three Kings” (the most “out” jazz here). Another goodie is Billie Holiday convincing us “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” Sister Rosetta Tharp throws down some intense gospel with “O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” which is given a run for its money by Dinah Washington’s “Silent Night.” Bill Evans lends beautiful lyricism to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

For Hip Holiday Gatherings, try...

For hip holiday gatherings

Like Have Yourself, Yule Struttin’ is a shoo-in for parties. It includes songs I’d never heard but which are now part of my yearly menu, like Bobby Watson’s “Vauncing Chimes,” and another contemporary composition, “Merrier Christmas” (there’s a vocal rendition by Dianne Reeves and an instrumental by Benny Green). Yule’s tracks are generally more contemporary and edgy than those on Have Yourself, as when Joey Calderazzo and Rick Margitza take “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Little Drummer Boy” for walks far beyond their customary neighbourhoods. Of these jaunts, my favourite is Dexter Gordon’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Also nice are Lou Rawls with “The Christmas Song,” Eliane Elias’s Latin-jazzy “I’ll Be Home for Christmas/Sleigh Ride,” and Chet Baker’s “Winter Wonderland.” John Hart’s guitar is fresh as a newly-cut pine on “O Tannenbaum.”

The Accretions Gang's Idea of Holiday Sounds

The Accretions Gang's Idea of Holiday Sounds

If you’re desperate for even more distance from the 110th broadcast of Frosty The Snowman you can get an effective antidote while supporting local musicians, albeit ones who’ve, since this recording, mostly fled San Diego for more supportive (of experimental music) pastures. On and the Reindeer You Rode In On the Accretions posse dependably backs its experimental claim – indeed, most of these sounds have fallen far enough from the beaten track into a snowdrift to be deeply concerned with frost bite. Not every group of knob-turners can offer the drug-free trip provided by the CD’s recurring “12 Days of Christmas” motifs. These may please Residents fans by weaving between a loping, cowboy rendition of “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem,” a machine-tight “Jingle Bells” (by percussionist/sampler and Accretions founder Marcos Fernandes), and the toy-piano tinkle of Hans Fjellestad’s “Dejlig er Jorden, ” which sounds like “O, Christmas Tree.” There’s boogie mileage in the industrial/otherworldly “Holiday Season” by resident wunderkind Marcelo Radulovich, who also provides a bell-driven coloring of “Good King Wenceslas.”

An ambient 11-minute rumination on “Frosty the Snowman” is perfect for anyone who may have pondered how it would feel to be made of ice and stuck outside a prefab home in Levittown, New York; listening in lonely isolation to the extracted holiday bustle of the family that made you. And if that’s too much food for the psychiatrist, there’s just plain fun in a polka version of “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” and Vegas parody “Up on the Lounge Top,” which features a vocal that could have been phoned in by Lux Interior on Prozac. The Accretionists occasionally succumb to beauty, which Holzborn provides with his serene, only slightly eccentric “Joy to the World.”

For something that’s just a little odd, Woody Phillips has labored over A Toolbox Christmas (“Your favorite carols performed on your favorite hand and power tools”). While I was a bit disappointed that the songs aren’t performed entirely with saws and hammers, this is good for a couple of chuckles. Phillips’s tomfoolery is a walk in a right-wing park next to The American Song-Poem Christmas: Daddy, Is Santa Really Six-Foot-Four? We’ll get into the song-poem thing at a future date. For now, just know that these compilations gather lyrics by one-time music star wannabes with varying degrees of no talent, which were then presented by a stable of “song-poem” musicians. From record label Bar None’s description:

Fasten Your Seat-Belts...

“Our holiday collection includes tunes about candy canes, toys, reindeer and, especially, Santa Claus. In one, Santa trades in his sleigh for a flying saucer; in another, he comes to town atop a weapon of mass destruction.” … “When Santa isn’t gleefully disco dancing (on “The Rockin’ Disco Santa Claus”), he’s one scary dude — at least in the cracked snow-globe world of song-poems. Everyone knows that the holidays can seem like a surreal psychodrama. Song-poem writers are just a little more upfront about it.”

The songs that make me shriek in the way that worries my neighbors include “A New Year’s Dawning,” “Maury, the Christmas Mouse,” the confusing “Santa Came on a Nuclear Missile,” “Christmas Treat/Peppermint,” the ultra-fanciful “Evelyn Christmas,” and “Snobows” (which are what snowflakes make when they really try, or we really try to see them, or… uh… if you just play along, you’ll be rewarded by more mixed metaphors than you can stuff in a stocking), and the exquisitely awful title track. “Santa Claus Goes Modern” must have so challenged Rod Rodgers, the singer charged with delivering it, that he should net some sort of parallel-universe trophy.Xmas Party w/ Eddie G.

A piñata in a jewel case happened when the underground mix-tapes of an L.A.-based comedy writer were released as A Christmas Party with Eddie G. on CD in the ‘90s. Although some of the tracks, like NRBQ’s “Christmas Wish” or Marshall Brown’s “Cajun Christmas,“ may be available elsewhere, the treat is in Eddie’s construct: A mythical  station that so perfectly recreates radio in places like New York and Chicago in the ‘70s-‘80s (with some appropriately ‘50s-‘60s dashes), it brings instant recall of how it felt to stumble from a freezing snowstorm into a pizza parlor, and to welcome the warmth of fellow hipsters, back when such meetings, whether in person or via air waves, felt more precious.

Whether or not that explains anything, this is really fun. Along with the between-song patter and old-school “commercials,” hot stuff includes Detroit Junior’s soulful “Christmas Day,” Rufus Thomas’s funky “I’ll Be Your Santa Baby,” Huey Piano Smith and the Clowns’ “All I Want for Christmas (Is a Little Bit of Music),” Louis Prima’s “What Will Santa Claus Say (When He Finds Everybody Swingin’?”), “All I Want for Christmas is You” (Foghat, sounding like Chris Isaak–who also has a holiday CD), the NRBQ track, and the following :

For the intelligent sensitivity that imbued lots of NYC-based art (influenced by the avant-garde enough to be intensely creative) in the ‘70s and ‘80s you may want to download tracks from the Roches’ increasingly scarce We Three Kings. Drawing from the trio’s ritual of bringing harmonies to the streets for the holidays, the collection occasionally gets overly cutesy or dissonant. Standouts include a touching “Away in a Manger” (with the alternate melody to the one more commonly used), “The First Nowell,” “Good King Wenceslas,” “Angels We Have Heard on High,” a very nice treatment of a song that’s fallen out of usage, “Sleigh Ride,” and two lovely originals: “Christmas Passing Through” and “Star of Wonder.”

An American collection as flavorful as cornbread and jambalaya is the Big Easy-centric Creole Christmas. From the mature soul of Johnny Adams on “Please Come Home for Christmas” to the sexy verve with which Frankie Ford revives “Jingle Bell Rock,” this is the s—t. I also dig Luther Kent’s deep soul (and melodic variations) on “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear,” Doctor John’s “Merry Christmas Baby,” and the lush early ‘60s harmonies of the Dixie Cups’ “Let It Snow.” Passion builds with a Zion Harmonizer gospel track, “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” If you think it can’t get any more real, the Soul Queen of New Orleans shows why she holds the title with a jaw-dropping tear into “O Holy Night,” which makes me want to move to New Orleans just so I can stake out every conceivable church where Irma Thomas might do this.

You CAN have shredded pudding at the par-tee

You CAN have shredded pudding at the par-tee

Even metal-heads have reason for cheer: We Wish You a Metal Xmas and a Headbanging New Year. Although I’m more hard rocker than metal-head, I think some of this stuff really gets it. Lemmy, Billy F. Gibbons and Dave Grohl add grit to Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run.” Alice Cooper’s signature snarl leaves claw marks on “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” is rendered thunderously Sabbath-ish by Ronnie James Dio, Tony Iommi, Rudy Sarzo, and Simon Wright. Tim “Ripper” Owens, Steve Morse, Juan Garcia, Marco Mendoza and Vinny Appice sound rather like Aerosmith on “Santa Claus is Back in Town.” The most head-banging for the buck’s in the screaming guitar refrain Craig Goldy slams between choruses of “Deck the Halls.” I also like Bruce and Bob Kulick’s contagious “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” For anyone longing to hurl “good will to men” entirely by the wayside, Chuck Billy transforms “Silent Night” into something ugly and ferocious.

As a Q-head, the last thing I want to be is a Q-tease. I was going to end with the title track from NRBQ’s typically ingratiating Christmas Wish (Deluxe Edition), a combination of fan club releases and live covers from the “magic” (request) “box.” But for addictive pop, even though you’ve probably heard this more than a few times this season, I have to give it to Paul (the Beatles fan club used to send out a wacky Xmas record every year, which was probably his idea). Until we meet again, enjoy that hot cider, latke, or secular treat.


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