Wednesday, December 24, 2008

My Favorite Christmas Song This Year

After I posted a 78 of "The Three Little Pigs" both to this site and to WFMU's blog, asking who knew the name of the singer, I was quicly able to learn that it was Toby Deane, a specialist in the fields of both children's records and unique vocal performances. I will do an entire multi-song post about her, soon, as she is my 2008 chioce for the greatest singer I'd never heard of before.

Many thanks to Irwin Chusid, who sent me what appears to be Toby Deane's greatest moment, a Voco records 78 from the late '40's, which is quite unlikely anything else I've ever heard. It's called "Alice in Christmas Wonderland", and it's been in nonstop rotation here in my world, since I first heard it, in late August of this year.

There is so much I love here, I don't know where to start. The whole arrangement is so beautifully odd, what with the multiple female backing singers, who sound at one moment like they are in a halloween cartoon, and another moment like they belong in the "You're Out of the Woods" scene from "The Wizard of Oz". Then there's the one singer who swoops in with descending broken chords (then echoed by the clarinets) at the 1:30 point.

Speaking of those clarinets, the sheer business of this track is a wonder to behold. The various sections played by the piano, in particular, just takes my breath away at times. And the double bass adds a lovely feel, too. All that work, for a children's record. I would LOVE to have been at this session.

Then there's the song. Most songs of this type would wear out their welcome with me by the end of the first minute, but somehow, this one is a joy in that area, too.

And all of that leaves out the main show, which is the lead vocal. I've not grown the least bit tired of listening to this, over the past four months, primarily because of Toby Deane's stunning and wonderous singing. There are moment, such the second time she sings "Alice", about 25 seconds in, that just give me chills.

The ability of a singer, who was apparently in her 20's or 30's at this time, to fully and convincingly sing as if she was, oh, about 12, astonishes me. And the little laugh on her voice, as heard at about 1:16, and again at 1:43 - well, I don't think that's something that can be taught.

I suspect I like this more than anyone who may hear it here on my site, but that's okay. Hopefully, you'll like enough to make my lengthy post worth reading.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fun with Decorations

Since you've probably got your tree decorated by now, perhaps you'd like to hear how someone else's decorating is going. Here's Ben Light and the Surf Club Boys, to tell you about the "Christmas Balls" on the tree of someone very special!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Family Christmas

I guess this song is well known to a lot of people, and I've even seen it listed in a few places as one of the Worst Christmas Songs. Happily, I've not heard the versions of this song that are typically referred to. They are described in terms of this being a novelty song, or a redneck Christmas tribute, or something like that.

Again, luckily, I never read any of that until I had grown to love this song to death, without any irony needed. This version grabbed me from the first moment, and from that time on, I've loved it as a real slice of life look at one (fairly bemused) woman's Christmas memory. I live fairly far from redneck central, and yet (apart from the parents getting drunk in the first line) I've always been able to picture the video of this recording, in my head, as taking place at my own home.

The song is "Merry Christmas From the Family", and it's sung here by Jill Sobule, from a long out of print Various Artists Christmas album. She reminds me here of Melanie, a singer whose best work I adore, and she has the same passionate, if slightly overwhelmed and confused tone about her, which fits this wobbly Christmas story well. I am in awe of someone who can sing the verse about the lights blowing out, with the same emotional conviction as Melanie employed on "Candles in the Rain".

And the arrangement, with accordion, a lead clarinet, and all sorts of acoustic strings and drums, resonates with me and rings in my head throughout the year, not just for the last three weeks. I'm often a fan of music that sounds like it's about to fly off the rails, and at times, that's the case here, especially in terms of the electric guitar which enters the song here and there after a minute or so. Going into the second bridge there is an especially nice moment.

I guess I have to accept that this was written as silly satire, but it works better as a more nuanced, Randy Newman style number. Hope you enjoy it.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

O Holy Night

There really is no competition, as far as I'm concerned, for the best or most beautiful Christmas song. Far and away, that vote goes to "Silent Night". By the same token, there's no race for second place, either. That one is "O Holy Night", which is well above all the others, apart from the one at # 1.

Here are two unusual versions of "O Holy Night", both of which I love. First up, The Christmas Jug Band. I've enjoyed several tracks by this group, more often than not, because of the involvement of Dan Hicks, surely one of the greatest singers I've heard. But here, in my favorite of their tracks, it's not Hicks' singing on display. And anyway, in any version of this song, the song itself needs to be the focus, as it surely is here.

And what a singularly marvelous piece of work this is. Start with this great song, and apply a wonderfully loose, folky arrangement, with altered (but still wholly appropriate) lyrics here and there, sung by a cadre of folks who sound like they might be trying out this arrangement for the first time. It’s just that free and joyful. And then there’s a perfect recorder solo, and when the vocals come back, there are two magical moments on the word “divine”, where the three main singers hit a major triad as if the whole song had been waiting for them to get there. This is on my very short list of the best Christmas records ever made, and one I’ll never get tired of.

In a completely different direction, I offer up Ellis Chadbourne, a singer I was introduced to by my friend Citizen Kafka, a man I have subsequently lost touch with. Also offering up rewritten text, in this case significantly so, to remove all Christian references, Mr. Chadbourne instead is seeking for a Holy Night in which the Bomb has been banned, and peace reigns over the Earth.

This (and all of Mr. Chadbourne's work) tends to be quite divisive - either you "get it" or you don't. It was a early moment of bonding between me and Citizen Kafka when I focused in on Chadbourne's material as the real heart, the key material within what he had shared with me.

Yes, some say he can't sing, and/or even that this is painful to listen to. I won't disagree with anyone about taste, and I recognize that there is one howler of a note here.

But I will disagree (and have, quite forcefully) with those who have said there is nothing to "get" - there is a passion, a life-affirming spirit captured in Ellis Chadbourne's records, particularly this one, which gives me chills. When he gets to "O Night Divine", and seems at the very top of his range, it takes my breath away - and yet then, I realize there is a higher note yet to come - will he make it? When he reaches that note, just at the end, I feel I am hearing a man singing directly to God, and I rarely can hear this track without tearing up.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Christmas Music - The Sublime and the Ridiculous

I'm going to try an provide several obscure and (in most cases) wonderful Christmas recordings over the next week or so. First, two tracks that couldn't be more different. We'll start with the sublime, in this case, a performance that doesn't seem like it would work well: A New Orleans styled version of "Silent Night", performed by one of my '50's heroes, Huey "Piano" Smith and his group The Clowns. Even though they repeatedly get one of the chords here wrong, this is still a peerless, exquisite performance, filled with deeply emotional singing, a rollicking beat, and great instrumentation:

On to the ridiculous. All thanks to Dr. Demento for this one, which I'll let speak for itself. Ladies and Gentlemen, "The Chipmunk Song" as performed by The Whales:

More to come!