Jim White: Christmas Day
I saw Jim White almost a decade ago, purely by accident: he was opening for Lucinda Williams, and I have to admit, I was totally blown away by the spectacle of light and stage presence, hushed half-harmonies and looped sound. White's work is often considered folk music, but if it is, it's folk music played through a thousand filters of haunted moaning atmosphere, freakfolk creaky tones, and cultural pastiche. It's like folk music from the time David Lynch and Jim Carroll tried to make a delicate, hushed indiefolk album, and left it in the hands of that guy from the Eels to produce.
Which is to say: I suppose there's a particularly southern trailer park form of singer-songwriter's heart buried in there, but it's one which references both James Taylor singing Fire and Rain and clips from Amazing Grace even as it buries the word bitch in a slow waltz about a Greyhound Station on Christmas Day 1998. The bells are a call to Christmastime, as they are so often wont to be, but they don't make the song any less odd, only that much more experimentally endearing.
Aw hell, words fail me. Just listen, and don't stop until it unravels and falls to pieces at the end. And if you ever get the chance to see Jim White perform, take your weirdest friend for company.
Saturday, December 20, 2008
Our theme this week is Jingle Bells, and no one has posted the song. So I’ve been left to think about it all week. Everyone should know that it’s very dangerous to leave me alone like that. After all, there are countless versions of this holiday classic, and one or two were bound to be .. well... odd. Kind of like the obscure relatives who fill peoples houses at this time of year, never to be seen again, until next year.
First, there is the close family. Different versions of Jingle Bells itself, for different moods.
Chromatics: One Horse Open Sleigh
(purchase info not available)
Christmas is at Granma’s house this year. At her age she does an amazing job of looking like an old-time movie star. She loves the classic songs of the season, but she doesn’t want anyone to know that she’s forgotten the words. So she makes up her own.
Crash Test Dummies: Jingle Bells
Cousin Crash will be there. That’s what she wants us to call her. Her birth name is Violet. She’ll be wearing dark rings of makeup around her eyes, and her skin will be even paler than we remember. She’ll make the sweetest songs sound like funerals, be we love her anyway. We have to, she’s family.
Diana Krall: Jingle Bells
Cousin Diana always brightens the mood, but she does tend to get a little wild.
Pearl Bailey: Jingle Bells Cha Cha Cha
Cousin Pearl always manages to get everybody into a conga line sometime during the evening. And we never feel embarrassed about it until we think about it later.
There are also the distant cousins. The songs are not Jingle Bells at all, but they must be relatives.
Jo-El Sonnier: Jingle Bell Rock
Cousin Jo-El always brings Cajun spiced shrimp. They sure are tasty! And he never says much.
Jodie Levins: Jingle Bells Boogie
Nobody can remember how cousin Jody is related to us. He shows up in a cowboy hat and bolo tie, and sits in a corner playing his guitar all night. Occasionally, he’ll stop playing for bit, and get to mumbling about Bob Wills.
I can’t imagine any of them not being there, And I’m looking forward to it.
Friday, December 19, 2008
Mary Chapin Carpenter: Bells are Ringing
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I am a Mary Chapin Carpenter fan - there's just something about her whispered enuciation, her unique phrasing and her compelling lyrics that leave me equally peaceful and challenged. She releases consistently excellent recordings, and her latest (in late September) is certainly no exception - Come Darkness, Come Light is subtitled Twelve Songs of Christmas and is filled to overflowing with appropriate covers and originals that reflect (pun intended) the holiday season in all its facets.
From the Rounder store:
Finally, a Christmas album worth listening to all year long. When Mary Chapin Carpenter set out to create Come Darkness, Come Light, she took a far different approach to recording a holiday album than most artists do. Rather than simply lending her voice to time-worn Christmas standards, Mary Chapin wrote her own set of heartfelt songs which explore the many meanings and emotions that Christmas evokes in each of us. These songs, mixed with a few hand-picked gems from other writers and rarely heard traditional tunes, will speak directly to the hearts of all Mary Chapin Carpenter fans. These are not merely holiday songs, they are simply great Mary Chapin Carpenter songs, both warm and intimate. And while they artfully capture the spirit of the season, this is a rare Christmas album that doesn't feel like it needs to be kept on the shelf between New Year's and Thanksgiving. With stellar support from longtime musical partners Jon Carroll (piano) and co-producer John Jennings (guitars), Mary Chapin's voice goes down as warmly as hot cider on a cold winter's night.
Interestingly enough, I first heard Bells Are Ringing on a compilation I bought from Target quite a few years ago, which included selections from a diverse group (Shawn Colvin to Ricky Martin!) - it is delightful to see the song resurrected on this new offering, to reach a wider audience.
My wife and I were talking about upcoming themes on Starmaker, and I mentioned that we would probably be doing some kind of holiday theme soon. She said, “Wouldn’t it be funny if someone had recorded ‘Deck Us All With Boston Charlie?’” Of course this was impossible, and I thought no more about it. Then, this week’s theme was announced. I went to Amazon’s download store, and searched for “bells”. After sifting through the start of the over 2000 hits for tunes I might want to post, I came up with enough possible selections, and decided to go link-hopping, seeking unusual Christmas albums. After only a couple of jumps, what to my wondering eyes should appear but this little gem. And by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, no less! Then, I listened to the snippet, and it got even better. I heard bells! And now, you will too.
Lambert, Hendricks and Ross: Deck Us All With Boston Charlie
The lyrics come from the classic comic strip Pogo, which debuted in the New York Sun in1948, and ran first there and later in national syndication, until 1973. Pogo was created by Walt Kelley, and was distinguished by its use of political satire. Pogo could be read by the younger members of its audience as pure absurdity, but there was also an additional layer of humor for adult readers to enjoy. Pogo strips published near Christmas often featured bizarre new lyrics for familiar carols
Jon Hendricks, Dave Lambert, and Annie Ross were three jazz singers who got together in 1957. As Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, they set original lyrics to well-loved instrumental jazz numbers, even singing the original solos note for note. This approach to jazz singing is called vocalese, and it is a style that they pioneered. The song “Twisted”, heard at the end of Joni Mitchell’s album Court and Spark, was originally the work of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross.
Doris Day: Here Comes Santa Claus
I love Doris Day. I do. I love her movies, I love her voice, I love her persona. There's not much about her that doesn't seem squeaky clean and completely likable, and the fact that she's so believable at it is what seals the deal. That clear as a "bell" voice is perfect for holiday classics. Alas, while she was recording albums, she only released one full Christmas album, it was only later that her record labels compiled all the songs she had recorded for Christmas otherwise and put them together. I am so glad they did, because the one I have is just wonderful and fills me with joy...something I think Christmas music really ought to do.
Her version of "Here Comes Santa Claus" is lovely and fun, and begins with plenty of jingling bells and then continues with xylophone, which is a bell of sorts depending on who you ask. It's one of my favorite versions of this holiday classic.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Otis Redding Jr and Otis Redding III
Otis Redding: Merry Christmas Baby
Otis Redding backed by the inimitable Booker T & The MGs on one of my favorite holiday songs of all time. As far as Christmas tunes go, it doesn't get much better than this.
Ray Stevens - Santa Claus Is Watching You
I just ain't feeling the holidays this year. Let's see. It's 7 days till Christmas and it's 78 degrees with 80% humidity, everytime I look at the paper another umpteen thousand people are getting laid off and there is not a single Christmas decoration in my house. No tree, no wreath...nothing...and to top it all off, the wife and I decided not to do gifts this year.
Why? Cause we bought a puppy last week and decided that little terrorist would be gift enough for both of us. Oscar, the puppy, is also the reason there is no tree in out house since we figured he'd just tear it up.
Now, about the song. Well...What do you really say about a Ray Stevens song? They're silly and funny and when this theme was announced it was the first song I thought of.
Merry Christmas to all y'all.
Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Peter Ostroushko: Shchedryk
Go back for a moment to Susan‘s excellent post on Carol of the Bells, read it again, and you’ll find the phrase, “ancient pagan Ukranian New Year’s chant”. If you have read any of my posts on British folk songs, you will know that this was a temptation I could not resist. That is why I am posting a song about a swallow, that has no bells, and is a song of spring. Let me explain.
As Susan mentioned, Carol of the Bells is indeed derived from an ancient song from what is now the Ukraine. The original song is called “Shchedryk”. The lyrics are completely different: they tell of a swallow who flies to a farmer’s house to bless him and his family with abundance for the new year. In the pagan tradition of the Ukraine, the year was believed to begin at the first sign of spring, which was the return of the swallows. “Shchedryk” would have been used as a ritual chant to note the occasion.
When the Christians arrived in this part of the world, they imposed their calendar on the people they converted. This was the Julian Calendar, which reckons the beginning of the year as what we now call January 13. And to this day, they still observe New Years on this day, and that is when they sing “Shchendryk”, still with its original lyrics. That poor swallow must be freezing!
So, after learning all of this, the next step for me was to find a version of the song in the original Ukrainian. When I saw the name Peter Ostroushko, I knew my search was over. Ostroushko is a fine mandolin player who frequently appeared on The Prairie Home Companion from its earliest days on. His “Shchendryk” starts with a lovely a capella rendition, followed by a restatement of the theme on the mandolin. From there, we’re off on a wild ride which even makes a brief stop in Christmastown, before returning to the Ukraine by January 13.
This is all very well, but where are the bells? Well, Susan did invite me to present more versions of Carol of the Bells, so why not?
John Fahey: Carol of the Bells
When I want a straight reading of a Christmas song, I like a spare arrangement for a single instrument. Acoustic guitar will do nicely. But because of the rhythmic complexity of Carol of the Bells, it takes a master such as John Fahey to pull this off.
Sylvia Woods: Carol of the Bells
Sylvia Woods has been playing the harp for thirty years. She has appeared on the Prairie Home Companion, and played with the Chieftains, so why isn’t she better known? It’s hard to make a living as a harpist, so Woods also writes harp books, gives lessons, and operates a retail and mail-order harp business. I would imagine that all of this limits her ability to tour. Here, she solves the problem of rhythmic complexity by arranging Carol of the Bells for a harp trio.
Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Esquivel: White Christmas
Many folks think of Esquivel as epitomized by a lush form of lounge music. But this something different: a holiday tune on a cocaine binge, tapped out on the edge of a martini glass. Mad bells and tinkly triangle and a never-ending choral crescendo into a world of scat and staccato, creating a manic sort of cheerfulness edged with something desperate. It is, perhaps, the least soothing version of this song ever recorded. The bells just make it worse. Gorgeous, in its way.
Rosie Thomas: Why Can't It Be Christmastime All Year
It starts out with a staccato piano rhythm... then an explosion of drums... then another piano, with a bouncy beat... then "the tintinnabulation that so musically wells from the bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells, bells - from the jingling and the tinkling of the bells"!
I was already familiar with the songs of Rosie Thomas, having bought her first two CDs years ago after reading about her on the Joni-list - the title of Rosie's Only with Laughter Can You Win is a nod to the influence of Joni Mitchell...
Then Boyhowdy gave me the heads-up a few months back about Rosie's soon-to-be-released Christmas CD, on which she covers Alvin and the Chipmunks' Christmas, Don't Be Late and Joni's River... both haunting, stripped-down versions of the originals - I was curious to hear more and bought the single of Why Can't It Be Christmastime All Year from iTunes, immediately falling in love with her exuberant embrace of the season of family and friends... and including it in my eighth annual holiday mix, soon to be distributed to my own circle of loved ones...
Raise your hand if you wish it was Christmastime all year - We do! We do!
Monday, December 15, 2008
Eric Burdon & The Animals: The Black Plague
By 1966 The Animals had, for all intents and purposes disbanded. Lead singer Eric Burdon had discovered acid, and bassist Chas Chandler had discovered Jimi Hendrix. Everyone else went back to Newcastle it seems, everyone except Eric Burdon and recent drummer Barry Jenkins. They decided they liked this town called San Francisco, and these people called hippies. So Eric decided to persevere, he got a whole new band together....complete with an electric violinist....cause hey, nothing says "we dig acid" like an electric violin. He hastely dubbed this band The New Animals and debuted themselves with a brand new song about San Francisco at the Monterey Pop Festival. Two months later, the album was out.....Winds Of Change, Eric's psychedelic debut. Now the "New Animals" never achieved the same succes that the "old Animals" did, which is a shame, because I think it's some of Eric Burdon's best work, second only to his early 70's work with War. Winds of Change is in my opinion the best Eric Burdon and The Animals album, and arguably one of the best of the psychedelic era....certainly one of the most forgotten. This song, a morality tale about the Black Death, is pretty representative of about half the album....the blue shade of the mood ring half.....well, given the subject matter....maybe dark blue.
The black plague is estimated to have wiped out anywhere from 40 to 50 percent of Europe's population from 1340 till the late 1600's. And it killed indiscriminately as purported in this song. Prince or pauper, priest or stableboy....all were subject to this much misunderstood epidemic. It is consequentially what kept Europe in the dark ages for so long. Religious fervor spread, jews, lepers and people with simple acne or psoriasis were executed. Witches and heretics were hunted and burned. There was disenchantment with the church. Some, like Martin Luther, sought reform. Some, like the flagellents decided the only way man could stop God's wrath was to travel form city to city mimicking the crucifixion in an effort to suffer as Jesus suffered. Cats were killed and burned for being in league with the devil (inadvertently prolonging the plague in the process), many were convinced the world itself was ending. And inside the castle wall, the bell tolled on...
Guest Submission from Truer Sound
Jethro Tull: Ring Out Solstice Bells
Most people count “Aqualung” as their introduction to the music of Jethro Tull. That certainly was the case for me. And for years, I never went beyond that. Jethro Tull seemed to be another hard rock band following in the footstep of Led Zeppelin, distinguished mainly by those weird sounds that Ian Anderson got out of his flute. My wife, however, taught me that there is much more to Jethro Tull than that..
It turns out that Jethro Tull came out of the same British folk-rock scene that spawned Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and many others. In its later years, the members of Jethro Tull even included former members of Fairport and Steeleye. So it is not surprising to find the influence of British folk music in the work of Jethro Tull.
I have discussed the presence of pre-Christian elements in British folk tradition before. On Jethro Tull’s album Songs From the Wood, Ian Anderson has taken what is subtle in traditional British songs, and made it explicit in his original compositions. “Ring Out Solstice Bells” describes what a druid solstice ritual might have been like.
So let me wish everybody a very happy Solstice. And if anybody knows any Hanukkah bell songs, I hope we’ll hear them this week, (I can’t think of any, or I would take care of it myself).
Sunday, December 14, 2008
The Ronettes: Sleigh Ride
Last winter, I took my two little girls for a ride in a one horse open sleigh at our local 19th century reenactment village. Our driver, an old and familiar friend, pointed out the rows of jingle bells tied to the harness, and taught us that such bells were required by law in such old-time townships. It seems that, given the incredible speed which a well-build sleigh could attain as it sped its passengers through woods and field on their way from house to village and back again, the bells alerted others using the same well-worn trails of impending doom under hoof and runner, so that they might scurry into the underbrush at the first jingle, and be saved.
These days, the history of the jingle bell's origin may be forgotten, but the association of sleigh-rides with jingle bells lives on in several gleeful seasonal songs which call back to winters past, as seen through rosy glasses of historical romanticism, and always from the perspective of the riders, rather than the hapless pedestrians.
As an introductory sally in what will surely prove a fruitful survey of our favorite versions of several such songs this week here at Star Maker Machine, this evening, I offer this classic take on a song originally written as an orchestral piece, first recorded by The Boston Pops in 1949, and subsequently re-released by the Andrews Sisters in 1950 with newly written lyrics before becoming one of the most popular standards of the season.
The Ronettes 1963 version of Sleigh Ride is surely familiar, and hardly obscure; I heard it twice today, in fact, while spinning the dials on a long car ride with those same little girls, now one year older and a heck of a lot more demanding about which songs of the season are worth their attention. It wasn't the first recording of the song, and it won't be the last. But it is a standard worth sharing, one which speaks to the flexibility and power of that girl-group sound. And it stands out here because of the horsey intro, and the way the bells -- of both the glockenspiel and jingle variety -- each get their due before becoming almost buried in Phil Spector's infamous wall of sound.
As a bonus, here's a wonderfully gleeful alt-rock version from indie producer and musician Rob Cosh. It's got bells on, too.
Rob Cosh: Sleigh Ride
For an entirely different albeit similarly girl-voiced take on the same song from nasal folktrio The Roches, feel free to head over to Cover Lay Down, where once again I have been unable to resist cluttering the bloggiverse with holiday coverfolk.
Holly Cole, Rebecca Jenkins, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Jane Siberry, Victoria Williams: Carol of the Bells
George Winston: Carol of the Bells
The Nylons: Carol of the Bells
"Carol of the Bells" (also known as the "Ukrainian Bell Carol") is a choral miniature work originally composed by the Ukrainian composer Mykola Dmytrovych Leontovych. Throughout the piece, a 4 note motif is used as an ostinato and was taken from an ancient pagan Ukrainian New Year's chant known in Ukrainian as "Shchedryk". The original work was intended to be sung a cappella.
The composition was premiered in December 1916 by students at Kiev University and was introduced to Western audiences by the Ukrainian National Chorus during its concert tour of Europe and the Americas. It premiered in the United States on October 5, 1921, at Carnegie Hall and was later adapted into English language version by Peter Wilhousky in the 1930s.
The rest of the story can be found here...
I offer up my three favorite versions: haunting harmonies, melodic piano instrumental and layered a cappella... and, as Joni says, "you know, there may be more" - enjoy!