Thursday, December 29, 2011

Forgotten Music Thursday: Chicago - Hot Streets (1978)

Hot Streets is an album I was completely disappointed with and had no respect for when it was first released in 1978. I couldn’t believe what happened to my guys! Was it too much too soon after Terry Kath died or was it Chicago just didn’t care anymore? While the album hasn’t changed with the times I have, and I now view Hot Streets in a completely different light than I did in 1978. While I will never consider this record high art, and it will never show up on lists of Chicago's great works, I now view it as a fine pop album.

If there is a problem with Hot Streets it is the songwriting, not the musicianship. I find the musicianship on this disc to be impeccable throughout the entire album and it is the reason why I like it. The band's "chops" elevate mostly ordinary songs. Both Danny Seraphine on drums and Laudir deOliviera on percussion are superb. Anyone who enjoys percussion will love these guys here. Newcomer Donnie Dacus, who replaced Kath, turns in some fine guitar work, especially with his solo on the title track. Of course I miss Kath, whose lead solos and rhythm guitar would have added more punch and given the songs a harder edge, but there is nothing we can do about that. The horns are crackling too!

"Alive Again" and "Hot Streets" are two songs I loved off the album twenty-six years ago and I still do today. The opener is one of the finest songs Chicago ever recorded after they made their decision to go mainstream and, in my opinion, it is trombonist Jim Pankow's last great composition. Robert Lamm's title track is a perfect throwback to earlier times with it's jazz-rock vibe and a really fine Walt Parazaider flute solo. "The Greatest Love On Earth" is an unpretentious ballad. Dacus' "Ain't It Time" is another favorite. The singing robots at the end of "Show Me The Way" are still troubling, and so are Peter Cetera's motives and lyrics to "Little Miss Lovin," but in 2011 I find Hot Streets to be very listenable.

One should note that Hot Streets is also the first album Chicago recorded with new producer Phil Ramone after the firing of James William Guercio who guided their career until then. It was also the first not to feature the famous Chicago logo on the cover. Instead there is an awful picture of the band prancing around and jumping into each others arms. Ugh!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Various Artists - Let It Snow (2011)

Let It Snow is this year's Christmas CD from Starbucks and it's another good one. The Seattle coffee chain's annual collection of seasonal tunes are always among the best compilations assembled for the holidays. A lot of thought has gone into every single one of their Christmas discs and, as always, they combine tracks by famous heritage artists with more current stars (along with a couple of complete unknowns) yet somehow they make all of the songs feel as if they belong together.

At first glance I was disappointed when I saw Brenda Lee's name on the song listing. "Here we go again," I thought, "the same old stuff." But what to my wondering eyes should appear was not "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" but her version of "Jingle Bell Rock." Yes, it's a very famous song by an artist we always hear from at Christmas but it's a different version than the one we are normally exposed to so my faith in Starbucks was restored. They always offer something a little different without getting too far out on the edge.

Death Cab for Cutie is accounted for with a slower version of "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" then we are normally accustomed to and Alison Krauss brings a genuinely unknown tune to the table with "Shimmy Down the Chimney (Fill Up My Stocking)." A once popular, but long forgotten jazz singer, Julie London, is represented with her version of "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," and an up and coming unknown, Rosie Thomas, sings the title track.

The Starbucks tradition of eclecticism continues with Duke Ellington's very unusual take on Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" called "Sugar Rum Cherry" and another artist not normally associated with Christmas, Fiona Apple, sings "Frosty the Snowman." Bob Dylan released a Christmas album two years ago for charity. One of the tracks from his disc, "Must Be Santa," shows up here. Bing Crosby is on board too, but he’s not singing "White Christmas." Instead he does "It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." Yo Yo Ma closes the disc out with a beautiful treatment of "Silent Night."

Andrea Bocelli, Neil Diamond, The Ronettes, Dolly Parton, Aretha Franklin, and Elvis Presley are all featured on this CD too.

All of the Starbuck's Christmas CDs are quite enjoyable because they make good song choices and don't just rehash the same tired old versions.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sugarland - Gold and Green (2009)

Gold and Green, the first full-length Christmas CD by the country duo Sugarland combines five new, original tracks with five more famous Christmas songs that they previously released only as a bonus disc on a now hard to obtain version of Sugarland's 2006 album, Enjoy the Ride. The limited edition was a Wal-Mart exclusive.

The covers include the religious carols "Silent Night" and "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," the pop-classic "Winter Wonderland," and two songs normally aimed at kids, "Holly Jolly Christmas," sung by Kristian Bell and "Nuttin' For Christmas." All are nicely rendered and Jennifer Nettles voice carries the day on most of them. The last song is far less juvenile than usual because it's given a bright bluegrass arrangement that elevates it into an entirely different realm. It's nice to see the country stars reworking a tired old holiday tune by turning it into something unique.

The real gems here though are the Nettles - Bell originals. "City of Silver Dreams" is an almost melodramatic look at a rural girl's first visit to New York City at Christmas. The same can be said of "Coming Home" in which Nettles comes across more like an R & B diva than a country star. Bell's "Little Wood Guitar" is the tale of a little girl who received a guitar for Christmas. The other new tracks are the title song and "Maybe Baby (New Year's Day)."

Tom Jurek of All Music Guide has wrongly criticized Gold and Green as "an obvious, cloying exercise in marketing, and holds little artistic merit." He also wrote that it was "canned and pre-packaged." Jurek isn't the only one with harsh words for this disc, but I disagree. Even taking into consideration the subject matter, and the fact that this is a country music CD, none of the originals descend into sappiness, a too common occurrence plaguing the genre these days. Give Sugarland credit. They didn't fall into the usual Christmas album trap. They recorded something different and it's a surprise that paid off well.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

She & Him - A Very She & Him Christmas (2011)

Cyber Monday was the impetus for a lot of great music deals from Amazon. The massive online store even offered some downloads for as little as $1.99 per album, a price too good to ignore. One of these bargains was A Very She & Him Christmas the latest CD by singer-songwriter M. Ward and his singing partner, the terminally cute actress, Zoey Deschanel.

The third release by the pair is an unoriginal but pleasing take on twelve mostly famous Christmas tunes. More sparsely arranged than She & Him's first two discs, many of the songs consist of little more than solo acoustic guitar supporting Deschanel's sometimes multi-tracked vocals. Some light percussion, ukulele, keyboards, and electric guitar occasionally spice up the songs and Ward duets with her on a few tracks, taking the lead on one. Deschanel has a voice good enough to do the job but it isn't especially distinguished or powerful. "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" and "The Christmas Song" are not easy songs to sing but she manages to successfully navigate her way through both of them.

As usual, the duo shows off their love of mid-60s pop. There is a version of Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and two songs from The Beach Boys' original Christmas album: their huge hit "Little Saint Nick" and a nice take on the seldom heard "Christmas Day." Other staples include "The Christmas Waltz," "Silver Bells," "I'll Be Home for Christmas, and "Blue Christmas." "Sleigh Ride," features some nice 60s electric guitar playing by Ward.

The only misstep is the pair's take on "Baby, It's Cold Outside." It doesn't hold up against a lot of other versions and even if it did people must stop doing this song now! It's so overused and abused every December that I can't take it anymore.

The album cover is also decidedly retro and the liner notes are presented in the form of a signed Christmas card. These two are always about keeping things in the past.

The CD's light production makes A Very She & Him Christmas a little different from what you might expect from a Ward and Deschanel record but that isn't a bad thing. This isn't a party album. These mostly gentle offerings are suitable for a quiet Christmas Eve at home.