Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmasongs: 'Twas The Night Before Christmas

“A Visit From St. Nicholas,” or “'Twas The Night Before Christmas” as it is more commonly referred to, is a poem from the 1820’s that is usually ascribed to author Clement C. Moore. Our modern image of Santa Claus, the one found on wrapping paper and Coke packaging everywhere, draws almost exclusively from this poem. It’s hard to hear these classic verses and not get even a little holiday spark in your spirit. Growing up, one of our Christmas Eve traditions was to read this after we read the story of Jesus’ birth from the Bible. Wrapped up in some brand new pajamas we had just opened and sipping some hot apple cider my dad had just made, we would sit back and try to somehow keep our cool on in anticipation of the night of excited sleeplessness that lay ahead. I've still got the book my dad read from and you can bet I'll be reading from it one day too. Maybe that’s why this poem always stirs up something in me no matter who’s reading it. Besides, name me another poem or song that has been able to wrangle the following cast of interpreters:

“The Night Before Christmas” – Bob Dylan: For the Season One “Christmas & New Year’s” episode of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour show, Bob warmly read the poem over a nice acoustic guitar backdrop. His unique delivery and creaky voice fit the reading perfectly and he balances the festive reverence of the well-worn lines with a sly smirk in his voice. I could listen to this version a thousand times over.

"The Night Before Christmas" - Bob Dylan

“The Night Before Christmas“– Louis Armstrong: Satchmo’s infectiously jolly rendition makes you feel like it’s being read by Santa Claus himself. His booming voice, boisterous chuckle and playful inflections create a distinct version all his own. He almost sounds like he’s hearing it for the first time while he’s reading it and there’s no question that he’s thoroughly enjoying himself. Just like with Bob’s version, I never get tired of hearing this one either.

"The Night Before Christmas" - Louis Armstrong

“'Twas The Night Before Christmas” – Henry Rollins: Leave it to punk’s renaissance man Henry Rollins to whip up the most off-kilter arrangement. He kept the original lyrics but fashioned a backing track of air raid sirens, helicopter blades, gunshots and a bomb drop. It’s not quite as “yuletide fuzzy” as the other two, but for a teenager in the 90’s looking for all things irregular, unconventional, sarcastic and ironic, this one fit the bill like few else. This one is a matter of quality over quantity for me because eventhough I don’t listen to it as much as the other two, it hits me just the same.

"'Twas The Night Before Christmas" - Henry Rollins

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Christmasongs: Happy Hanukkah!

According to the Hebrew calendar, today is the 25th day of Kislev, more commonly observed as the kick off to Hanukkah. Don’t feel bad if the eight-day Festival of Lights snuck up on you again this year. Since Jewish holidays aren’t based on the internationalized Gregorian calendar, they seemingly fall on different days each year. Due to the differences in marking the passage of time and days, Hanukkah can actually be celebrated as early as late November or as late as the end of December. I say we all do our own part to demystify the aura of the menorah and I’ll start with a “Hanukkah Crash Course” and some awesome Hanukkah-inspired tunes.

While I’m no scholar, here’s goes… In 175 BCE, Greek ruler Antiochus IV invaded Judea, recaptured Jerusalem, outlawed Judaism and desecrated the Holy Temple. Not only could Jews no longer openly practice their beliefs and customs, but Antiochus IV went so far as to ransack the Holy Temple and to sacrifice pigs on the altar. This caused a giant backlash of uprising and guerilla warfare (commonly referred to as the Maccabean Revolt, “maccabean” being taken from the Jewish word for “hammer”) that allowed the Jewish people to reclaim the city and the Holy Temple. They had to repurify the temple by creating new holy vessels and by building a brand new altar. They were only able to find one undefiled container of oil for the temple’s menorah and it was only enough to last through one night’s burning. However, the oil burned for eight days straight, which was the exact time it took for the priests to prepare more oil for the menorah. Hanukkah was established to celebrate, among other things, the rededication of the temple and the miracle of the oil.

While there certainly aren’t a plethora of rocking songs about Hanukkah (punk covers of “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” nonwithstanding), there are a few out there that find themselves right at home in my annual holiday festivities. Here are a few of my favorites:

Adam Sandler first introduced “The Chanukah Song” in 1994 on Saturday Night Live during an episode of “Weekend Update.” They played it a ton on the radio stations where I lived and I learned the simple chords and lyrics to earn some cool points with my school and church friends. Adam’s currently released three different versions of the song with an ever-revolving cast of Jewish and non-Jewish celebrities. Although they are all hilarious, the first version will always hold a special place for it’s sheer out-of-nowhere awesomeness.

"The Chanukah Song" - Adam Sandler

Stephen Colbert released his holiday special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All! in 2008 and it is filled with ridiculously funny songs and guest stars. Among them is the holiday invitational duet, “Can I Interest You In Hannukah?” sung with Jon Stewart. Much like Sandler’s song, this one is incredibly clever and the first few times you hear it you’re guaranteed to miss a line or two from laughter.

"Can I Interest You In Hannukah?" - Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart

Save Ferris was one of those third wave ska bands from the 90’s that I thought should’ve gotten more recognition. I loved their It Means Everything album from 1997 and it’s a shame that there was apparently only room for No Doubt in the “girl-fronted ska band” category. Save Ferris’ “Christmas Wrapping” is a fun take on The Waitresses’ song that changes all the lyrics by subbing in Hanukkah references.

"Christmas Wrapping" - Save Ferris

When members of Guster and The Zambonies got together to form The LeeVees, they had only one goal in mind; write an entire album’s worth of Hanukkah songs. They succeeded and Hanukkah Rocks was released in 2005. The album has a great sonic sound to it and songs titles like “Jewish Girls (at the Matzoh Ball)” and “Gelt Melts” should tell you all you need to know. May favorite song takes on the spelling dilemma that surrounds Hanukkah and is appropriately titled “How Do You Spell Channukkahh?” to help confuse things even further.

"How Do You Spell Channukkahh?" - The LeeVees

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Interview with Ben Arthur

While no one would deny that there’s an incredibly strong relationship between music and literature, it’s safe to say that few artists have explored the creative conversation between the two as interestingly as Ben Arthur. While he has previously recorded six albums and authored two novels, his If You Look for My Heart project actually combines those two worlds into one beautifully interconnected piece of art.

If You Look for My Heart tells one story through two different filters – an album and a book. You can certainly choose to enjoy one without the other, but taken in combination they allow to the story to unfold in richer and fuller ways. For the full experience, be sure to download both the album and the eBook.

I had the pleasure of asking Ben Arthur a few questions about If You Look for My Heart (as well as his next project Call and Response), but first he wanted to greet everyone directly:

“Just wanted to say hi to the NoiseTrade community, and thank anyone who's giving my work a listen/read, and opening up a line of communication between me and you. I know it's a loud, distracting world, and I appreciate you spending some time with the work I've been doing.”

Alrighty, on to the interview!

NoiseTrade: If You Look for My Heart is an interesting dual-medium piece that is told through an album and a book. Is it two separate stories that have intersecting elements or is it one singular story told two different ways?

Ben Arthur: Thanks! It was definitely a lot of fun to work on. Both the novel and the album tell the same story, but from different angles and with different points of emphasis. (The eBook is actually a single aggregated work, with the songs embedded in the text.) But while the album and novel are intertwined conceptually, they aren't dependent on one another – you can listen to the album like any other album, and you can read the book like any other book. Hopefully when you listen/read to them together, new elements of each shine through, characters and story lines and motivations shift around in new ways.

NT: Did the book and the songs get written simultaneously or did the project initially start out within just one of them?

Arthur: The album and the book were very much developed together. In fact, they changed one another as they went along. Lines in a song would nudge the narrative and story lines in the book made me write new songs.

NT: Are the special guests on the album (Rachael Yamagata, Aesop Rock, Bobby St. Ours, DJ Big Wiz) used as character connections to the book or do they just provide a different sonic coloring to the musical portion of the piece?

Arthur: Rachael Yamagata actually appears briefly in the book at a performance, which was fun to write - I'm a huge fan. But mostly the other voices on the album allowed me to fold the songs into the story without being too self-referential. I didn't want a character saying, "Hey, this Ben Arthur cat, what a singer!" or anything awful like that.

NT: The idea behind your next album sounds absolutely amazing. It’s titled Call and Response and it includes your “answers songs” to both other songwriters (Bruce Springsteen, The Rolling Stones) and also other authors (Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro). What sparked the idea for Call and Response and how did you go about deciding which songs and short stories you would respond to in song?

Arthur: Well, when you think about it, all art answers other art in one way or another. But the framing allowed me to really focus on that source of inspiration in the songwriting and even gave me the chance to collaborate with some artists that I really idolize. Co-writing songs with George Saunders and Jonathan Lethem was a big thrill for a fan like me.

NT: In January, you’ll have the opportunity to perform the song(s) you wrote in response to Joyce Carol Oates directly to Joyce Carol Oates at a Poets and Writers Live event in San Francisco. Is this the first time you’ll have done this and what are your thoughts on how she’ll respond to your response to her? 

Arthur: Yeah, this is definitely a first for me. I'm excited and nervous. And grateful for the opportunity -- Poets and Writers Live is a really cool event, and this should be equal parts exhilarating and favorite recipe for a good show!

NT: Bonus question… Do you have any favorite “answer songs” by other individuals and if so, what makes them a good “answer song” in your opinion? 

Arthur: Well, "Southern Man"/"Sweet Home Alabama" is the standard (did you know they actually sing "southern man" in one channel at around the :55 second mark?), but my favorite answer song fact that I've run across recently is that "This Land is Your Land" was originally an answer song to "God Bless America." The original title was evidently "God Blessed America for Me." Weird and awesome.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmasongs: Merry Punksmas!

Christmasongs is a (semi)annual look at some of my favorite Christmas music through theme-based posts of sonic stocking stuffers from me to you. It's guaranteed goodness and there's no need to keep the receipt!

For me, Christmas and punk music are a combination straight from heaven. Mixing together two of my all-time favorite ingredients, punk rock Christmas songs get me in the spirit as much as A Christmas Story and a real tree do. Being that they hold such an important place, I’m pretty discerning of which ones I hold in high regard. There are some definite duds out there, but there are plenty of amped up chestnuts that float to the top of the holiday punch bowl. It’s always fun to hear an old classic sped up and shouted out, but I really like the originals the most. Here are a few of the keepers:

“Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)” – Ramones: You can’t talk about Christmas punk rock without starting here. Opening with Joey’s nasally snarl and immediately kicking into that iconic Ramones sound, “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want to Fight Tonight)” is so awesome on so many levels. Johnny’s down-stroked guitar leads the holiday charge and Joey’s somewhat confident/somewhat pleading vocals ring out over Dee Dee’s bass and Marky’s drums. This song was released at the end of the 80’s and if VH1’s “Pop-Up Video” is to be believed, a young Liv Tyler appears in the music video for it.

"Merry Christmas (I Don't Want To Fight Tonight)" - Ramones

“Punk Rawk Christmas” - MxPx: In 2009, MxPx compiled all of their fan club Christmas singles and added a few new tracks to release the incredibly awesome Punk Rawk Christmas. The title track was a new recording and perfectly captures the desire to have a good Christmas in the midst of whatever issues, financial or otherwise, that may be going on. One of my favorite bands plus my favorite holiday equals an album that pumps even more yuletide awesomeness into the season.

"Punk Rawk Christmas" - MxPx

“It’s Always Christmas At My House” – Huntingtons: It’s no secret that the Huntingtons are deeply in love with, and are masters at paying homage to, the Ramones. They were even lucky enough to be Joey Ramone’s backing band for a couple of shows at CBGB’s before he passed away. They wrote “It’s Always Christmas At My House” for Tooth and Nail Records’ first Happy Christmas compilation and it’s definitely a crowd pleaser. The lyrics playfully reference National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation and describe that crazy Christmas over-the-topness in all of us. Okay, most of us…some of us…just a few of us? Well, at least we have an anthem!

"It's Always Christmas At My House" - Huntingtons

“Christmas Eve (She Got Up And Left Me)” – Rancid: After wearing out my copy of …And Out Come The Wolves my sophomore year of high school, I’ve always had a soft spot for Rancid. Their unique mixture of punk, reggae and ska has always stood out to me and they always get me moving. The Christmas part of this song pretty much boils down to just being the date the girl left, but I still count it as a Christmas song.

"Christmas Eve (She Got Up And Left Me)" - Rancid

“This Time Of Year” – The Mighty Mighty Bosstones: Great punk rock usually carries a message right? With “This Time Of Year,” The Mighty Mighty Bosstones remind us that all the “stuff” associated with Christmas is nice, but the real meaningful things are spending time with friends and family and letting all the peace and goodwill towards men come out in your attitude. I love, love, love this song and the bouncy rhythm and lyrical focus always put a huge smile on my face.

"This Time Of Year" - The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

“Oi To The World” - No Doubt: I included The Vandals’ original version of “Oi To The World” in my personal favorites post and I really like No Doubt’s cover too. Gwen does a good job handling such a rowdy vocal and I love the dancehall “Frosty The Snowman” breakdown in the middle as well. Besides adding that and a few horns, they keep it pretty much the same. Why mess with a good thing right?

"Oi To The World" - No Doubt

“Santa Claus Is Thumbing To Town” – Relient K: I first heard this song on Tooth and Nail Records’ Happy Christmas Volume 3, but it can also be found on Relient K’s two Christmas releases, Deck The Halls, Bruise Your Hand and Let It Snow Baby…Let It Reindeer. I love the humor and chaos in the lyrics and the image of Santa trying to hitchhike after his sleigh breaks down is great. Funny, boisterous and still so festive, it should be on as many Christmas albums as it can.

"Santa Claus Is Thumbing To Town" - Relient K

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christmasongs: Stink, Stank, Stunk!

Christmasongs is a (semi)annual look at some of my favorite Christmas music through theme-based posts of sonic stocking stuffers from me to you. It's guaranteed goodness and there's no need to keep the receipt!

For all the classic, engrained-in-our-upbringing holiday television specials of yesteryear (i.e., before the 80’s), not many of them contain an actual villain. Sure, Hermey and Rudolph had to watch out for the Abominable Snow Monster and Frosty was always looking over his shoulder for the sun. But for the most part, everywhere was pretty peachy keen in Christmas cartoonland. Everywhere that is, except Whoville! 

How The Grinch Stole Christmas! was always fascinating to me as a kid because of the dread and terror from the Grinch that balanced out all the syrupy sweetness of the Whos. I mean the guy has yellow eyes and has termites running through his teeth! It’s no surprise that everything ends well for all parties involved, but the first two-thirds of the story is a one-man maniacal reign of terror that keeps me coming back year after year. Eventhough Dr. Suess wrote How The Grinch Stole Christmas! all the way back in 1957 and the televised special came out in 1966, the Grinch still seems as popular as ever. I believe it's because to be truly memorable, a villain needs a really good theme song and “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” fits the bill perfectly. The song was originally sung in the animated special, not by the narrator Boris Karloff as many believe, but by the equally gravelly-throated and equally devilishly-named Thurl Ravenscroft. It’s a 6-verse, no chorus, occasional speaking part romp of stink, stank, stunk goodness.

"You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” - Thurl Ravenscroft

Throughout the years, everyone from Mojo Nixon to RuPaul has tried their hand at covering “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” to varying degrees of success. Some really rock and some are pretty ho-hum, but here are a few of my most favorite versions:

"You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" - Whirling Dervishes

"You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" - Tracy Bonham

"You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" - Sixpence None The Richer

As a Grinch-related bonus, here’s a version of “Little Drummer Boy” by Jars of Clay dubbed the “Grinch Mix” from their 1995 EP, Little Drummer Boy. Colder and more abrasive than their straight version of “Little Drummer Boy” from the same EP, this one is definitely a 3 Decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce compared to the other one.

"Little Drummer Boy" (Grinch Mix) - Jars of Clay

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Christmasongs: A Totally Rad 80's Christmas

Christmasongs is a (semi)annual look at some of my favorite Christmas music through theme-based posts of sonic stocking stuffers from me to you. It's guaranteed goodness and there's no need to keep the receipt!

Yes, Virginia, that is Mr. T getting some sweet Nancy Reagan sugar for Christmas.

Can we all agree that there seemed to be something extra special about the Christmases of the 1980’s? Whether it was due to my age (born in 1980), the special marketing relationship between TV and toys, the rise of video game systems, the plethora of McDonald’s holiday commercials, or the awesome toys that were created under the Cold War climate (G.I. Joe, Rambo, Hulk Hogan vs. Nikolai Volkoff action figures), it seemed to always be a ‘roided out version of Christmas, at least for us kids. Luckily there was also some great music to go along with all of the Cabbage Patch Kid stampedes and claymation California Raisins. A bunch of 80’s Christmas songs have appeared in my previous “Christmasongs” posts and they are more to come after this, but here's a nice chunk of goods ones to mention. Let’s jump in the DeLorean and take a trip shall we…

“Do They Know It’s Christmas?” – Band Aid: You can’t talk about Christmas music from the 80’s without starting here. In 1984, Bob Geldof and Midge Ure gathered together a huge collection of some the biggest musical acts of the time to record a single that would raise money for the Ethiopian Famine. Leading the way for other charitable efforts like Live Aid and the “We Are The World” single, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” serves as an important milestone in the ongoing relationship between music and relief efforts. Watching the video for this one is like a “Where’s Waldo” of the musical landscape of the 80’s.

"Do They Know It's Christmas?" - Band Aid

“One Year On” – Band Aid: Sure, everyone's heard "Do They Know It's Christmas?" a million times since 1984. However, when they repressed the single the next year, they added a pretty interesting B-side titled "One Year On." It opens with a spoken message from Bob Geldof and then features Midge Ure reading out on everything that the Band Aid money went to over the last year since the single was first released, all played over the musical bed from "Do They Know It's Christmas?" It's a pretty interesting track and serves as a really nice follow-up to all the attention that was garnered by the single and Live Aid. Without a doubt it's a "do not miss" piece of 80s pop culture that shows just how impactful the whole Band Aid movement was (and why it continues to still be so impactful three decades later).     

"One Year On" - Band Aid

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” – U2: It’s hard to believe that only one of the A Very Special Christmas compilations were released in the 80’s, but it was at least a really good one. Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Run DMC, Madonna and Bon Jovi all appeared on it and U2 performed one of the best loved covers of Darlene Love’s classic “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” It was recorded during a soundcheck on one of the stops on The Joshua Tree tour, so it has that iconic mid-80’s U2 sound. This one shows up every year on radio playlists and retail store overhead speaker, but for very good reason.

"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" - U2

“Thanks For Christmas” – XTC: Under the moniker “The Three Wise Men,” XTC released “Thanks For Christmas” as a non-album holiday single in 1983. XTC has always been one of the better bands to emerge from the New Wave/Alternative genre and it speaks a lot about them that they can even pump out an original Christmas tune as well. This one feels super upbeat and festive and I really love the overall musical tone of the song. As a side note, the appearance of this song (along with “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses) in the first season Christmas episode of Gilmore Girls helped Amanda get me hooked on the show. I’m totally down with any show the exhibits such incredible musical taste. I’ve said too much…

"Thanks For Christmas" - The Three Wise Men (XTC)

“All I Want For Christmas” – Timbuk 3: Timbuk 3 is a unique band that is mostly categorized as a one-hit wonder for their irony laced “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” single. However, my favorite song of theirs is “All I Want For Christmas” from 1987. Written as somewhat of a protest song against the vast array of “war toys” that were available to kids, the chorus of “All I want for Christmas is world peace” sums up the song pretty well. The verses name drop a lot of toys like Transformers, G.I. Joes, Rambo and Thundercats and there’s also a reference to Stars Wars 1, 2, and 3 and VCRs. Add in a drum machine and a “We Three Kings” harmonica solo and you’ve got one decidedly 80’s socio-political Cold War Christmas song.

"All I Want For Christmas" - Timbuk 3
“Give Love on Christmas Day” – New Edition: Before there was Bell Biv DeVoe and Bobby Brown's solo career, there was New Edition - one of the most ridiculously talented teenage R&B vocal groups since the Jackson 5. Their 1985 Christmas All Over The World album is one of my favorite go-to holiday albums every year and I was so happy to finally upgrade it from cassette to CD a few years back. While the song "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Girl)" is my favorite song from the album, their cover of the Jackson 5's "Give Love on Christmas Day" gets the highlight here for it's old-school throwback move of throwing the each band member's name into the lyrics: "Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky, Mike, and Ralph too/Give all the love that we feel to you." Classic cheesy goodness, every single time.     

"Give Love On Christmas Day" - New Edition

“Merry Christmas Santa Claus (You’re A Lovely Guy)” – Max Headroom: 80’s icon and “New Coke” spokesman Max Headroom’s voice causes an instant flashback for folks like me. His humor, sarcasm, electronic voice and stuttering delivery brought an erratic vibe to everything he was involved in. Hearing him sing this song takes me right back to a childhood Christmas playing Super Mario Brothers in my Karate Kid-esque pajamas that oddly enough had a Ghostbusters logo on them.

"Merry Christmas Santa Claus (You're A Lovely Guy) - Max Headroom
“Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You” – Billy Squier: Man, this pop-rock holiday gem from 1981 is so over the top cheesy that I can’t decide if it’s genius or just ironic. Either way it’s a guaranteed spirit lifter and it’s pretty much impossible not to sing along with a goofy grin on your face. I’ve got such a special spot for this one and I have no idea why. If you really want the full affect of this song though, you’ve got to watch the studio video from MTV’s first Christmas on the air. All 5 original VJs can be seen and the clothing and haircuts are priceless!

"Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You" - Billy Squier

Non-80s, 80s-themed Bonus: UK post-punk band The Futureheads seem to agree with me that there was something special going on with the Christmases during the Reagan Administration. They released “Christmas Was Better In The 80s” as a holiday single in 2010 and I absolutely love it! While there aren’t exactly any lyrical references to anything specific to the 80s, I completely agree with the sentiment and the music is awesome. They came up with some pretty killer artwork too!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Christmasongs: Duets

Christmasongs is a (semi)annual look at some of my favorite Christmas music through theme-based posts of sonic stocking stuffers from me to you. It's guaranteed goodness and there's no need to keep the receipt!

If we've learned anything from Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock, it’s that it takes two to both make the thing go right and also to make it out of sight. When one singer just can’t get the song across the same way two can, the elusive and mysterious duet may be in order. I’m not just talking about two voices from the same band, but the combined voices of two artists who don’t normally sing together. This is mostly used to great effect in the back and forth romantic numbers, but it’s not an exclusive trick. For Christmas songs, the duet can be used to spark the heart, amplify the grandness of the song, or add a comedic element. Here’s a few examples of some really good ones:

“Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy” - Bing Crosby and David Bowie: This duet goes down as one of the oddest pairings with surprisingly gorgeous results. These two seemingly polar opposites somehow find common ground over a Christmas carol from the 1940s. Recorded in 1977 for one of Bing Crosby’s holiday TV specials, the song was featured in a skit where David Bowie drops by the house to play the piano in the house where Bing just happens to be visiting. The visual of the two together is probably more jarring than just the audio because when they start singing, all thoughts of Ziggy Stardust or the calculated crooner melt away. The “Peace On Earth” portion was written specifically for the performance and it really adds a beautiful counterpoint to the “Little Drummer Boy” section.

"Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy" - Bing Crosby and David Bowie

“I Know The Reason” – Mindy Smith and Thad Cockrell: There’s not enough alt-country Christmas songs out there and there’s definitely not enough alt-country Christmas duets. Mindy Smith released My Holiday in 2007 and this duet with Thad Cockrell combines two of my favorite voices in the genre. Both of them sound stellar on this song and I love the non-traditional pairing of a smokier girl’s voice with a higher guy’s harmony. I really like the lyrics to this one too. As much as I loved Christmas as a kid, there’s nothing like spending the holidays with someone you’re in love with.

"I Know The Reason" - Mindy Smith and Thad Cockrell

“I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” – Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong: Many artists have covered this Irving Berlin classic solo, but hearing it done as a duet with such strong iconic voices makes this version the consummate one for me. It falls into that group of Christmas songs that are more about winter than actually mentioning Christmas specifically, but it works perfectly this time of year. Fun, romantic and instantly recognizable, “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm” is another great song for date night. I’ve got to thank Amanda for introducing me to this one and for doing a spot-on Louis Armstrong impression when she gets really congested.

"I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm" - Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong

“Baby, It’s Cold Outside” – Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone: This song has been covered so much it’s the Christmas equivalent of “Yesterday.” But for my money, no one has done it as good as Zooey and Leon. Recorded for the soundtrack of the hilariously awesome Elf, this duet trumps all other versions for me. Despite their 30+ year age difference, they exude a unique chemistry while playfully trading lines. There’s something so natural and smooth about their rendition that isn’t present in most covers of this song. In fact, there are a few couplings out there that have been just downright creepy. This one has that special something though and it’s overflowing with personality, connection and genuine enhancement from their combined voices, which is exactly what you hope to achieve with a duet.

"Baby, It's Cold Outside" - Zooey Deschanel and Leon Redbone

“There Are Much Worse Things To Believe In” – Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello: “There Are Much Worse Things To Believe In” is just one of the intelligently written and interestingly paired duets from Stephen’s A Colbert Christmas TV special. Like all of Colbert’s work it is as funny as it is thought-provoking. You’ll switch back and forth between laughing and pondering back to laughing to possibly having to look up a word in the dictionary (Let me save you some time, a dyspeptic is a crotchety, pessimistic type person). Any song that describes Santa as “a beast-man giving toys for good behavior” is worth checking out, but the fact that Elvis Costello sings on it makes it even that much better. I could listen to Elvis Costello sing anything, so all of the funny lines and Christmas references are just icing on the cake.

"There Are Much Worse Things To Believe In" - Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello

Friday, December 5, 2014

Interview with Over the Rhine + Even the Snow Turns Blue

 There's no question that Over the Rhine really knows their way around the sonics of this season. With their recent release of Blood Oranges in the Snow, husband-and-wife duo Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler now have three Christmas albums filled with uniquely soulful (and unquestionably soul-fulfilling) holiday hymns of heartache and hope. What you'll find on an Over the Rhine Christmas album are songs that fully embrace the typically untouched aspects of Christmas, helping to bring all the experiences of the season into full view. Plus, the gorgeous music is as comforting and inviting as a warm blanket on a snowy night as well.

Even the Snow Turns Blue is a charming compilation that perfectly captures the soothed spirit of Over the Rhine's three Christmas albums: 1996's The Darkest Night of the Year, 2006's Snow Angels, and this year's Blood Oranges in the Snow. From their breath-of-fresh-air originals like "Blood Oranges in the Snow," "Let it Fall," and "Darlin' (Christmas is Coming)" to their "this reminds me of something I've heard before" spot-on tribute song "Goodbye Charles" to their strikingly vibrant take on "Silent Night," Even the Snow Turns Blue allows you to hear exactly what's so special about Over the Rhine and their own slant on seasonal singsongs.
I spoke with Over the Rhine to discuss Blood Oranges in the Snow and their unique approach to Christmas music, as well as have them list off some of their own holiday favorites.

Blood Oranges in the Snow is the third Christmas album you guys have recorded in your career, none of which are of the traditional schmaltzy variety. How do you successfully continue to make your self-described “reality Christmas music” so original and so true to your own sound?
I think the short answer is we’re not trying to write good Christmas songs: we’re just trying to write good songs. We really don’t approach the Christmas records that much differently than the other records. And as songwriters, we’re genuinely curious to discover some of the Christmas tunes that haven’t yet been written. There are so many great ones out there already. 

Where your previous two Christmas albums (The Darkest Night of the Year and Snow Angels) are heavily seasoned with blues and jazz flavors, Blood Oranges in the Snow seems to carry a bit more of a classic country vibe. Was that an intentional direction in the instrumentation and the vocal performances?
We recorded and toured our last record, Meet Me at the Edge of the World, with a group of musicians that we’ve really come to love: Jay Bellerose on drums, Jen Condos on bass, and Eric Heywood on pedal steel and guitars. We wanted to record our new Christmas songs with this core band for the most part, and felt that they would help set this record somewhat apart from the previous two releases you mentioned. We had so much fun on our tour last year that we wanted to bring some of that shared history and chemistry to Blood Oranges in the Snow. It’s always been important to us not to make the same record over and over. 

Your cover of Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” is hands-down one of the most gorgeous versions I’ve ever heard of the 1973 classic. How’d you come about covering it? Oh, are there other cover versions out there? I guess we should have researched that! Karin and I heard the song on a late night drive coming home from a tour one December. As you mentioned earlier, Karin has joked that we’re developing a new genre of music called “Reality Christmas…” I think we’re just trying to acknowledge that none of us are immune to the heartbreak and family foibles and tiny victories and joys and sorrows that we encounter throughout the year, just because it’s Christmastime. So we’re trying to get at some of those deeper layers in the writing. “If We Make It Through December” is certainly one of the great “Reality Christmas” songs. 

Those of us who grew up believing (and still want to believe) the Christmas story, that angels arrived on the scene and announced that peace was coming to earth, that the baby hidden in the barn like a forbidden song was going to break the cycle of violence we humans are addicted to and show us a higher, different way – I think we can’t help but feel the disparity between that dream and where we are today. I think maybe our Christmas songs live in the space between the hopeful dream and the reality of the still broken world we call home. 

Your new Even the Snow Turns Blue compilation beautifully captures your saccharine-less take on Christmas music with songs like “All I Ever Get For Christmas Is Blue,” “Let It Fall,” and “My Father’s Body” to name a few. What pulls your songwriting towards these typically unexplored sides of Christmas?
Again, I think we’re just curious about the Christmas songs that haven’t yet been written. So like the rest of our songs, we’re looking for some fresh language, a little something you can feel on your skin, some element of risk or danger or vulnerability in the writing. 

There’s a wonderful narrative storytelling quality in songs like “Blood Oranges in the Snow” and “First Snowfall.” Have you ever considered fleshing some of your songs out into short stories or novels, or do they exist more purely to you in musical form? 
A number of people have said that some of these songs feel like short stories. We hadn’t really thought about it. No plans to adapt them anytime soon, but I think Karin and I are both pretty aware that we are writing stories with our lives, that we are our own protagonists and antagonists. Both of us would like to take a run at a memoir at some point. I think anyone that had a rich and conflicted childhood feels that tug. 

When you’re not writing your own Christmas songs, what are some of your go-to musical favorites this time of year? 
The best Christmas album ever recorded bar none is Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. So that is the gold standard. And we’re always in the hunt for a great reality Christmas song. Mary Gauthier, John Prine, Merle Haggard, and Tom Waits have all written them – to name a few. They’re out there. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Christmasongs: Personal Favorites

Christmasongs is a (semi)annual look at some of my favorite Christmas music through theme-based posts of sonic stocking stuffers from me to you. It's guaranteed goodness and there's no need to keep the receipt!
It's that time of year again... Christmasongs is back! I'm a bit of a freakshow when it comes to Christmas music, so I’m devoting the next couple of weeks to all the holly, jolly, ho-ho-hoing songs of the season. Whether it be tried and true classics, songs that just came out this year, rap, rock, punk, or hymns, we are an equal opportunity Christmas jukebox here. There is a metric ton of good Christmas music out there and only having a month or so to celebrate seems too short! Hopefully the upcoming posts will include some of your favorites, remind you of some good ones you’ve forgotten, and introduce you to some you didn’t know existed. Instead of just posting random musical chunks everyday, I’m going to have them somewhat themed to keep it interesting and to satisfy my aimless organizational needs. As an introduction, I thought I’d start off with some of my personal favorites. This list is by no means a desert island or top ten list (especially since there's eleven tracks), but it’s a good sampling of my own musical melting pot.

“Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” – John Lennon: I’ll stop just shy of calling this my favorite Christmas song (because who can really quantify such a definitive label anyway), but you combine John Lennon with Christmas and truthful lyrics that actually say something and you’ve got my undivided attention. Where do you begin with such greatness? The sound; the whimsy of the whispered intro, the moving tone of his unaccompanied voice for the first line, the elevated shift from acoustic sing-a-long to sleigh bells and children’s choir, all sheer perfection. The lyrics; from gripping opener “So this is Christmas and what have you done?” to the simplisticly huge refrain of “War is over if you want it” this song is packed with substance. Every musician takes a shot at covering it and no one comes close to the original. Come to think of it, maybe I shouldn’t stop shy of calling this my favorite Christmas song.

"Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" - John Lennon

“Christmas In Hollis” – Run DMC: If there’s a song that has a fighting chance against John Lennon for my Christmas #1, it’s this one. “Christmas In Hollis” by Run DMC will forever and always be my kick-off to the Christmas season every year. I was seven when the song came out and I remember getting the first A Very Special Christmas cassette and playing/stopping/rewinding this song to learn all the lyrics. Darryl’s verse has always been my favorite due to how smooth his voice and rhythm sound and because “It’s Christmas time in Hollis, Queens, Mom’s cookin’ chicken and collard greens” is as much a classic line to me as “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way” is. I’ll never forget the rush of performing it at my 2nd grade Christmas party and instantly transforming from the pudgy, white kid with glasses to the pudgy, white kid with glasses who can rap. I still try to bust it out each year at any opportunity I get because it’s fun to be the pudgy, white adult with glasses who can rap. As a bonus, “Christmas In Hollis” also has a gloriously cheesy music video that would be cool to see on TV this time of year…if only there was a channel that played music videos….

"Christmas In Hollis" - Run DMC

“Labor of Love” – Andrew Peterson: Andrew Peterson is a singer/songwriter based in Nashville that knows how to pack a punch in practically every lyric. Instead of just writing a good Christmas song, he wrote an entire conceptual Christmas album called Behold the Lamb of God that is just stunning from beginning to end. “Labor of Love” tells the story of Jesus’ birth in a manner that’s more in line with what was actually going on at the time. “Away In A Manger” is a beautiful song and all, but the inherent sweetness of it can cloud the reality of a young girl delivering a baby in a barn full of animals on a cold night with only Joseph there to help her. The fact that Jesus’ birth was instrumental in Him living as entirely human and entirely God is a cornerstone of the Christian faith and “Labor of Love” really helps you understand what that birth entailed. This song is raw and gorgeous and destroys me every time I hear it. "Labor Of Love" is beautifully sung by fellow Nashville singer/songwriter Jill Phillips.

"Labor Of Love" - Andrew Peterson

“What Can You Get A Wookiee For Christmas (When He Already Owns A Comb?)” – Meco: Yes Virginia, there is a Star Wars Christmas album and it is as glorious as it sounds. Christmas In The Stars: Star Wars Christmas Album was released in 1980 and features C-3PO, R2-D2, Chewbacca and a host of other characters ringing in the intergalactic holidays as only they can. Like all kid’s programs in the 80’s, there are lessons to be learned and they aren’t afraid to ask the hard questions like “What Can You Get A Wookiee For Christmas (When He Already Owns A Comb?)” While the song gives a few options, the perfect gift they decide on isn’t revealed until later in the album on the song “Merry, Merry Christmas.” You don’t get that kind of plot development and story resolution from just any old space-based holiday album. Christmas In The Stars is a treasure for sure and it should be added to everyone’s collection.

"What Can You Get A Wookiee For Christmas (When He Already Owns A Comb?)" - Meco

"Christmas Day" - MxPx: Along with other cool bands like R.E.M. and Pearl Jam, MxPx has recorded a bunch of Christmas singles over the years and has released them through their fan club. “Christmas Day” was released for Christmas of 1998 and it’s still one of my favorites out of their batch of holiday releases. It’s got a great punk vibe and is easy to sing a long with at the top of your lungs. I recommend listening to it while decorating the house or driving around during the dark winter nights. In fact, it could make any experience better this time of year, so just keep it cued up. “Christmas Day” can also be found on Tooth and Nail Records’ Happy Christmas, Volume 2 and MxPx’s Punk Rawk Christmas

"Christmas Day" - MxPx

“Christmas Wrapping” – The Waitresses: I know, I know…people either love the 80’s New Wavey awesomeness of this song or they hate that it’s played so much. I am absolutely in the former camp because this song is really, really good and it’s possibly the only Christmas song to reference one time grocery giant A&P. The song is super festive and relays a bunch of missed connections that tie together nicely in the end. I love the sound of this song and the late Patty Donahue had one of the coolest and most distinctive voices in the New Wave genre. Special thanks to Steve Craig, radio DJ hero of my teens, for cementing this song in my holiday heart by spinning it a few times every year during his "House Of Retro Pleasure" Christmas shows. I can't thank that guy enough for all the great music over the years!

"Christmas Wrapping" - The Waitresses

“The Christmas Song” – The Raveonettes: One of my favorite Christmas compilations is the Maybe This Christmas series from Nettwerk Records. Although they’ve sadly only released three of them, each one is packed with great tracks, including “The Christmas Song” by The Raveonettes from the third one. Man, when I first heard this song it instantly became my go-to Christmas date night song. Something about the way Sune and Sharin’s voices blend together with the mellow bounce of the guitars make this track audible mistletoe. If you could actually describe a song as “cozy,” this would be the one. It’s physically impossible to listen to this song without getting closer. So if you find yourself alone in Wal-Mart and this song starts playing, you’ve been warned.

"The Christmas Song" - The Raveonettes

“Oi To The World” – The Vandals: While No Doubt had some mainstream success with their cover of “Oi To The World” via A Very Merry Christmas 3, the song was originally recorded by Huntington Beach punk band The Vandals. I really like both versions, but there’s a certain charm to The Vandals’ raw and reckless approach. The song addresses racial tensions and the eventual mutual respect that can be found. “Oi To The World” is really awesome and the question of “Where’s the Oi I gave to the world” sadly still seems pretty relevant.

"Oi To The World" - The Vandals

“Must Be Santa” – Bob Dylan: This song is from the 60’s but Bob Dylan based his 2009 cover on a version by “polka plus” band Brave Combo. Rowdy, fun and totally overflowing with yuletide frothiness, “Must Be Santa” is perfect for oom-pahing around the Christmas tree. The video is really fun to watch too as it depicts a packed out Christmas party that delves into some unruly shenanigans. Bob wouldn’t be Bob if he didn’t mess with the song a little bit and he Dylanizes “Must Be Santa” by replacing the reindeer names with President’s names. In regards to the effect Bob has had on the political landscape of the last 40 or 50 years, he can get away with it. “Must Be Santa” is an instant party, just try not to spill your eggnog all over the place.

"Must Be Santa" - Bob Dylan

“Come On Ring Those Bells” – Phantasmic: I’m a junkie for the plethora of 90’s Christian alternative bands that came and went with only a release or two under their belt. Many of them played a huge role in my middle school and high school years. Tess Wiley spent some time in Sixpence None The Richer in the mid-90’s, but eventually left to pursue some solo projects. She fronted Phantasmic for a short period of time and the lo-fi outfit contributed a wonderfully unpolished cover of Evie’s “Come On Ring Those Bells” for Christmas In Heaven. The relaxed, folky romp sounds like it was loosely recorded in someone’s living room during a Christmas party. As a kid, I was exposed to the original song for years, including a yearly production at a local church that involved the choir disguised as a human Christmas tree with only hand bells and faces exposed. Although that image is still simultaneously hilarious and haunting, I seriously can’t get enough of this version.

"Come On Ring Those Bells" - Phantasmic

“Why Can't It Be Christmastime All Year” – Rosie Thomas: If you find yourself in need of an instant jolt of festive Christmas spirit, look no further. I first heard this song on a Paste Magazine sampler and when I popped the cd in, I’m pretty sure it caused eggnog to flow out of my speakers and mistletoe to grow from my rear view mirror. It’s a really fun song and the party vibe is driven home by all of the energetic instrumentation and the background voices. “Christmas Is My Favorite Time Of Year” can be found on Rosie’s 2008 album, A Very Rosie Christmas.

"Why Can't It Be Christmastime All Year?" - Rosie Thomas