July 25, 2007

Merry Christmas (In July)!

The big half-way day is finally here.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas – Tift Merritt
Any song that starts with an organ this cool deserves to be listened to. A wonderful version done by the beautiful Tift Merritt.

Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis – Neko Case
Okay, we can argue about whether this Tom Waits song is really about Christmas. Quite honestly, with someone like Neko Case covering it, I don’t really care. This is quintessential Waits material that has never sounded so sublime.

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Jigsaw Seen
Tapping into “Paint It Black,” Jigsaw Seen tear through a classic that I had previously never thought could rock so hard.

Christmas Will be Just Another Lonely Day – Brenda Lee
It wouldn’t be Christmas without Brenda Lee. This is one of my favorite Christmas songs by her, filled with her smoky, sexy voice and backed-up with melancholy strings.

Hard Candy Christmas – Dolly Parton
One of Dolly’s best, in my opinion. During the chorus, you believe she’s only repeating that things will be fine only to convince herself.

Santa Claus Is Watching You – Ray Stevens
A novelty classic. One year, during a visit to Hershey Park in Hershey, PA, my cousin Travis and I kept repeating, “Cause Santy Claus is watching you!” And then Travis would do, “He’s everywhere! He’s everywhere!” in a perfectly-pitched imitation of Ray Stevens. I should point out that this happened about six years ago, when we were both over twenty-years-old.

In the Bleak Mid-Winter – Sarah McLachlan
This song was written in 1872 by Christina Georgina Rossetti, though it wasn’t published until 1904, well after her death. One website claims that Rossetti wrote this poem in response to a call for Christmas poems in Schribner’s Magazine. Whatever the muse, she left us with a haunting and beautiful song perfectly

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Aimee Mann
Like Jigsaw Seen, Aimee Mann knows how to spice up a classic. The horns and marching drums make this sound like a whole new song.

Hardrock, Coco, and Joe – The Three Little Dwarfs
Hardrock, Coco, and Joe, a Chicago-land classic and, thanks to super station WGN, a national classic too? Must be because we grew up in Central Pennsylvania and love this little film. Every Christmas morning the short was played on Bozo. Though the films have copyright info, the video quality is so poor, it’s nearly impossible to read. IMDB dates the film to 1951. Wikipedia credits it to a company called Centaur Prodictions. It’s certainly unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Originally called “The Three Little Dwarfs,” most remember this song as simply “Hardrock, Coco, and Joe.” The three are Santa’s helpers and deliver an unforgettable chorus.

O Holy Night – Nat King Cole
The king of Christmas music, Nat King Cole’s stunning voice carries this beautiful version. By the end, his delivering is moving and passionate. Each time I hear this song, I get chills.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – Judy Garland
Not that I have anything against Entertainment Weekly (subscriber for twelve years—I love you, EW!), but last year, after 77 Santas posted a history of this song, EW printed a very similar article in their magazine. Probably no correlation, but I like to think so.

I’m going to call “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” the most depressing Christmas song. In fact, it was originally even more somber than the version that we know today.The song was written by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Judy Garland made the song famous in her 1944 film Meet Me in St. Louis. Garland found the original lyrics too sad for a Christmas song. There is a fatalistic view on the world—there is talk of everyone being together, of muddling through, friends once gone who will come back. It reminds me a hymn almost, that promises a great reward in Heaven, where all friends and family will one day meet each other again.In fact, the original version, which Hugh Martin didn’t want to rewrite, did include religious undertones.Have yourself a merry little ChristmasIt may be your lastNext year we may all be living in the pastHave yourself a merry little ChristmasPop that champagne corkNext year we may all be living in New York.No good times like the olden days,Happy golden days of yore,Faithful friends who were dear to usWill be near to us no more.But at least we all will be togetherIf the Lord allows.From now on we'll have to muddle through somehow.So have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

Garland’s version probably has the most recognizable lyrics. There is a tender delicateness to this version—that quiet, music box-like introduction that draws the listener into the word. It’s beautiful.

Happy Xmas (War Is Over) – John Lennon
I’ve always loved “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” but probably never more so than in the past few years. While the song was topical on its initial release, the song has sadly remained as relevant as ever and will probably always be. But it’s the message of this song that remains with me—war is over, if you want it.

Christmas Baby (Please Come Home) – Darlene Love
No surprise that we’re closing out the summer season with this, one of my favorite songs ever. The best commentary I’ve read on the song appears here, and is reprinted below.

The lyrics in this song work so well because of their simple understatement. As in the title, the single word “Christmas” is repeated by the background choir to begin each line of the song. Darlene Love then describes, in the briefest of sketches, familiar elements of Christmas: “The snow's coming down,” “Lots of people around,” “Pretty lights on the trees,” etc. Each verse ends with the same line: “(Christmas) Baby, Please Come Home!”
The chorus fills in the sketchiest of details.
They're singing “Deck the Halls,”
But it's not like Christmas at all,
'Cause I remember when you were here,
And all the fun we had last year!

And that's all we're told really. Boy and girl together last Christmas. Boy and girl not together this Christmas. Girl misses boy. So the apparent conflict is in their separation.

But there's something else going on here. There is no happy ending. The boy never shows up. If we listen closely to the lyrics and their delivery, though, we can feel another kind of tension. There is another conflict occurring, and that is between the forced joy of the season and the singer's own personal feelings of being sad and lonely. Once we become aware of this implicit conflict, the pieces of the song fall into place. We realize that the background choir is a group of people singing the single word “Christmas” over and over in a monotone, the effect being almost oppressive. In contrast, Love's individual vocal is marvelously expressive, her voice caressing and playing with every word, every syllable.

In this new light, the details of the season can be seen as constant tugs to involve the singer in the traditional, social events of the season, to give up her feelings of loneliness and isolation, to “go with the flow.”

With this tension in mind, let's see how the conflict plays out and reaches resolution.The song opens quietly. Strings quaver in the background, foreshadowing the emotions to come. Christmas bells ring on the beat. A lonely, halting bass line climbs the scale and then descends repeatedly. We work our way through the simple chord structure for one verse. Then the drums accelerate and launch us into the first vocal verse.

The vocal verses are richly layered. Multiple percussion instruments play interlocking rhythms, strings play counterpoint to the vocal, what sounds like a saxophone is used to add to the rhythmic surge.

Darlene Love's magnificent vocal soars in and around the pounding rhythms, like a surfer working her way through heavy swells, just beyond the reach of the undertow, harnessing all that power, playing with it.

A saxophone solo serves as punctuation. It is rich and warm, reminding us of the intimacy lost, the closeness needed but no longer available.

Another chorus, then the final verse. Darlene Love's voice quivers on the final word of each line, as if on the verge of tears, near breakdown. “If there was a way, I'd hold back this tear, but it's Christmas Day, please...”

Now the background singers echo her plea, “Please...” The call and response continues, accelerates, trading this one word back and forth, faster and faster, a piano now building in the background, begging for release, gradually climbing the scale, the pounding of the drums accelerating, until Darlene finally explodes, “Baby, please come home!” The piano soars now. Darlene repeats her request. The drums run free, no longer just carrying the beat but improvising, as the power of the climax winds down into release. Conflict between seasonal reminders and personal feelings are resolved, as the singer expresses her emotions fully and completely. Liberated from all restraint, she pours her true emotions out, honestly and openly, without shame or remorse.

It's instructive to compare this recording to another belonging to a prior generation, but with very similar lyric and thematic content. “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)” was one of Frank Sinatra's favorite songs. This is a similar tale. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy misses girl. And similarly, the tension in this song is also between the need to control and suppress one's feelings and the need to express them. The setting for the Sinatra song, though, is in a quiet bar late at night. The singer is able to express his feelings only to the bartender, and only after several drinks. He expresses his feelings with great restraint, referring to them indirectly, saying that he has to tell someone, or he “soon might explode.”

Given all these similarities, what is interesting is how different the two recordings are. The resolution of the Sinatra song is in the bar closing, the singer getting himself under control, successfully suppressing his feelings. The resolution of the Spector song is in the singer completely expressing and releasing her feelings. Whereas Sinatra successfully avoids an explosion, Love successfully explodes. The lyrics to the Sinatra song are clever and ironic. The lyrics to the Spector song are direct and effective. Sinatra offers a wonderful interpretation of “One For My Baby,” playing the part almost as an actor might. Love simply uses the words and melody as a starting point, with the real effect coming in the arrangement and vocal delivery. Instrumental backing for the Sinatra song is spare and low-key, echoing the reserve of the singer, and emphasizing the understated irony of the lyrics. Instrumentation for the Spector song is rich and multi-layered, representing the powerful opposing forces at work in the song, and the ultimate emotional release of the singer.

All in all, this masterpiece from Spector and Love is a wonderful example of the new aesthetic offered by rock music.

Thanks for spending the holiday season with us—check back in during November and December for oodles of treats. Until then, check in regularly for regular updates.


Erick said...

Thanks for all of the great Christmas music. I hope you had a great Christmas In July. See you in November.

bongolong said...


I went to download "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – Jigsaw Seen" but it has "expired"!!