Thursday, December 23, 2010

John Boswell - Festival Of The Heart (1992)

In short, Festival of the Heart is one of the best Christmas albums ever recorded. Even the cover art is gorgeous. The crystal clear production of this totally instrumental CD is only one of the many wonders you will notice upon listening to John Boswell's beautiful arrangements of fourteen immortal Christmas classics plus two of his originals.

Most of these traditional songs are heard so often over the holiday season one tends to forget that many of these carols are some of the best melodies ever written. Boswell's sparse arrangements remind you that Christmas carols are music and not just audio decorations that complement your nutcracker and tree ornaments. His intensely melodic piano playing makes you understand and appreciate just how beautiful the melodies to "O Come All Ye Faithful," "Silent Night," "What Child Is This (Greensleeves)," and "O Holy Night" really are.

Boswell’s supporting cast enhances each track while playing such instruments as the penny whistle, guitar, English horn, flute and synthesizer. The exotic percussion instruments played by Omar Faruk Tekbilik provide "The Little Drummer Boy" with a very original Middle Eastern treatment.

You can listen to three tracks here.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Arthur Fiedler and The Boston Pops Orchestra - A Christmas Festival (1959)

Orchestral music has never been a focus of this blog but today a big symphony rules.  The Boston Pops Orchestra, now headed by Keith Lockhart, previously by John Williams, and even earlier by the late, great Arthur Fiedler (who made them the most popular orchestra in the world) recorded my all time favorite piece of Christmas music.

Fiedler and The Pops' begin their 1959 Christmas record with a powerful 8:44 salvo called "A Christmas Festival" which also happens to be the title track of the album it came from.  This medley of eight traditional carols and songs was arranged by Leroy Anderson who is best known for the orchestra's famous version of "Sleigh Ride" on the same record.  It was released on CD in 1990. 

I have a rule in my house (totally disrespected by everyone but me) that stipulates Christmas music may not be played before Thanksgiving morning and not until I conduct The Boston Pops playing this wonderful medley. No other Christmas music, happy or sad, serious or stupid, moves me as much as this instrumental track does every single season.

"A Christmas Festival" really takes off around 7:12 with the full orchestra blasting away in full melodramatic frenzy.  It must be played LOUD.  You can listen to it here.  While watching the video it's well worth paying attention to the amazing Christmas display in Stafford, VA that was programmed to go along with the music.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Various Artists - Stockings By the Fire (2007)

Front cover
It's been a few years since Starbucks scaled back their entertainment division although their caf├ęs continue to carry CDs that are appealing to upscale pop music fans. What is missing today are the discs the coffee giant packaged themselves, most of them compilations. Stockings By The Fire is one of their past Christmas collections and the people at Starbucks Entertainment did a very nice job assembling these sixteen songs for your 2007 holiday listening pleasure.

Even though the recordings on Stockings By The Fire cover a period of over fifty years it should fulfill listeners of all ages. Timeless icons such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, and Ella Fitzgerald are represented but so are more current singers such as Rufus Wainwright, Jack Johnson, Aimee Mann, Corrine Bailey Rae, and The Bird and The Bee (featuring the late Lowell George's daughter, Inara). Two artists most of us have never heard of, Hem and A Fine Frenzy, are also included.

Click on the image for track listing
John Legend (born John Stephens) and the gospel loving, fifteen member Stephens Family sing "It Don't Have to Change." It's the only song on the compilation you may not have heard before. Most of the rest are well known seasonal classics in versions that should be new to most of you. Wainwright sings "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" and Sarah McLaughlin offers "I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day." The suddenly overused and abused Joni Mitchell song, "River," gets a nice treatment from Rae and Herbie Hancock while The Bird and The Bee remake "Carol Of the Bells." Singer-Songwriter Alison Sudol, who uses the moniker A Fine Frenzy, covers "Let It Snow" and the album opens with Ray Charles and Betty Carter pairing up for "Baby, It's Cold Outside."  While it is always a great idea to include a Cole song it would have been nice if Starbucks gave us one that doesn't have the word "chestnuts" in it.  Cole's is the only track on the disc that gets beaten to death every December but I shouldn't quibble because it's still an outstanding entry.

A CD spanning the musical generations never felt quite so homogeneous before and the flow is never disrupted by something that doesn't fit the mood. Overall, Stockings is a nice set for someone who is looking for both the traditional and the new.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Shelby Lynne - Merry Christmas (2010)

Anyone who has followed Shelby Lynne closely through the years knows that her irreverence and fierce independence allow the strong-willed singer-songwriter to do what she wants with her career, so the fact that she recorded a Christmas album, something that is nothing more than a commercial venture for many artists, is very surprising. Nevertheless, Merry Christmas, Lynne’s second CD release of 2010, and the second one in a row on her own Everso label, is one of the highlights of all the holiday offerings this year.

Lynne has long been known for her outstanding body of original work but with two of her last three albums she has also proven to be a superb interpreter of other people’s music. Just A Little Lovin’, her 2008 tribute to the late Dusty Springfield, was the first testament to that fact and Merry Christmas is the second. This superbly arranged and produced holiday disc is typical of the singer-songwriter in many ways. The music is as unpretentious as the CD’s title and as earthy as a manger scene, yet it’s adorned with colorful decorations that never detract from Lynne’s singing.

The eleven song set contains nine standard Christmas carols and pop tunes plus two originals. "White Christmas" is an all acoustic entry with some nice jazz flute winding its way around the star's vocals. "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town" finds Lynne's voice dancing to some harmonica and a powerful bass line.  Both "Christmas Time is Here" and "Silent Night" are understated and classy while "Christmas Time's A Comin" is pure bluegrass.  The country-swing of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" is just plain fun. She nails the difficult finale to "O Holy Night."

Lynne’s two original songs couldn’t be more different from each other. "Ain't Nothin' Like Christmas" is light-hearted and pleasant, and is almost a throwaway, but in the hands of Lynne it feels like something much more substantial. She sings, "I’ll bring the nog, you put on the log. It’s a Christmas party." The song appears to be a deliberate antidote to her other contribution, "Xmas." By now everyone should know that abbreviating Christmas with an X is considered offensive by many Christians because it removes Christ from the word and the holiday, yet Lynne’s song title is not anti-religion, anti-Christianity, or anti-diety.  Instead it’s a remembrance of her tortured childhood back in Alabama. In Lynne’s case the X is symbolic because Christmas probably didn’t feel like a holiday most years. The song is in stark contrast to everything else on the album. It’s an emotional, slow blues with a sad and sympathetic saxophone helping to set the mood brought on by the track's opening line, "Christmas makes me sad and Daddy's being bad."

Shelby Lynne couldn’t have done anything to make this release more appealing. She has been on a hot streak for a whole decade now and Merry Christmas adds to her legacy as one of country music’s genuinely creative artists.