Thursday, December 20, 2012

Various Artists - Holidays Rule (2012)

Holidays Rule is this year's Christmas compilation from Hear Music and, as usual, it's available at both Starbuck's and at Amazon. It's also one of the finer seasonal collections the mega-huge coffee empire has ever released and the seventeen song CD may just be their most eclectic ever.

With just a couple of major exceptions Holidays Rule is loaded with a boatload of current pop and rock stars, many who arrived on the scene just in the last couple of years.

Among the old timers and veterans are Irma Thomas and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Their "May Everyday Be Christmas" features a more modern arrangement than the famous New Orleans outfit is normally known for. Rufus Wainright and guest Sharon Van Etten acquit themselves well with a slightly new slant on the overplayed, "Baby, It's Cold Outside." Southwestern rockers Calexico check in with "Green Grows the Holly" while folk-rocker Andrew Bird's "Auld Lang Syne" is enhanced by his dignified fiddle work.

I've never liked Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" at all (It always felt like he wrote it in the shower in his spare time) but The Shins completely remodel the ex-Beatle's tune with needed improvements that make it far more enjoyable. Speaking of the knighted one, his contribution to the affair is a laid back version of "Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)." Here, the famous Englishman continues in the direction he took earlier this year with his Kisses on the Bottom CD. He sings over top of Diana Krall's very cool piano playing and John Pizzarelli's jazz guitar. The spare arrangement is part jazz, part lounge music, and very satisfying.

Among the newer artists are current Grammy nominee, fun., who open the disc with an offbeat, techno, and slightly eerie take of Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride." The Civil Wars stay true to themselves with a bare bones reading of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." Heartless Bastards ("Blue Christmas"), The Head and The Heart ("What Are You Doing New Year's Eve"), and Fruit Bats ("It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas") all turn in worthy performances.

Chris Thile, former mandolin player for Nickel Creek, formed the Punch Brothers after his old band broke up and his new crew conjured up a very nicely rendered version of the only religious song on the album, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel."

Every track was recorded especially for Starbucks and the CD was produced by Chris Funk of The Decemberists with Sara Matarazzo of Search Party Music. McCartney's production company, MPL, was on board as executive producer.

As with most compilations not everything operates on the same level. However, the unevenness that is almost always apparent on these types of releases is never as overt on Holidays Rule as it is on many other various artists sets and everyone involved gets extra credit for trying something different.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Yogi Yorgesson - I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas (1949)

Singer-comedian Yogi Yorgesson's real name was Harry Stewart (1908 – 1956). Yorgesson was simply a persona the latter used to release over forty songs for Capitol Records beginning in 1949.

Stewart was originally a radio announcer in the late 1920s in Tacoma, Washington where he invented an act featuring Yorgesson in the mid-30s. Stewart later took his shtick to night clubs where the Swedish character evolved over the years. Finally, in 1948, Stewart became a singer, recording two songs under the Yorgesson name. When the sides proved successful Capitol Records picked up his contract and the following year they released "I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas" with "Yingle Bells" as the B side. The novelty record became a big seasonal hit. Billed as Yogi Yorgesson with the Johnny Duffy Trio, the 78 RPM record sold over one million copies nationally and became a certified gold disc.

Eventually the song was forgotten until Dr. Demento regularly featured it on his syndicated radio show in the 1970s. Since then, it has achieved status as a real Christmas cult classic.

Almost everyone who hears Yorgesson's most famous song will tell you it's hysterical. His Swedish accent is obviously fake but good enough for listeners to get the joke. Both the song and the arrangement, with its cheesy organ lead, sound quite dated today but that is part of its charm. Lyrically, "Yust Go Nuts" is as current now as it was back in '49. The singer spins a yarn about how a blockheaded husband buys a carpet sweeper for his wife instead of a nightgown as a present because he doesn't know her size. The second half of the song tells the tale of relatives who really can't stand each other gathering together only once a year at Christmas and trying unsuccessfully to co-exist on the big day.

In addition to Yorgesson, Stewart included other fake ethnic characters in his repertoire, most notably Harry Kari of Japan and a German named Klaus Hammerschmidt.

Stewart's career ended in 1956 when he was killed in a car accident.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

John Lennon & Yoko Ono - Happy Christmas (War is Over) Official Video

It's almost trite to post a tribute to John Lennon on the anniversary of his death so, even though I consider myself to be one of the world's biggest fans of The Beatles, I've never participated in the ritual. However, this year I've decided to make the first Christmas music post a very simple statement. It's his famous Christmas song's official video.

It's true that Lennon was a contradiction. Here was a man with a mile wide violent streak who did so much to promote world peace and, outside of his great music, that's what he'll always be remembered for.

Happy Christmas John!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Stevie Wonder - Songs In the Key of Life (1976)

Let's get right to the point. Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life is one of the greatest albums of all time. It's also his magnum opus, filling two whole LPs and a four song EP with twenty-one songs in all.

Although Wonder finished off his outstanding decade with the very good Hotter than July in 1980 he came close to emptying his aresnal with Songs. Just like other artists who issued huge multi-album sets Motown's resident genius threw every single one of his musical ideas and influences into the stew. The result was one of the very few releases of its kind that doesn't waste any space. Not even The Beatles double album of 1968, as diverse and wonderful as it was, could make that claim.

No matter what subject or genre Songs tackled it overflowed with excellence. Wonder's topics ranged from love and social commentary to God and spirituality. They included the pure pop of "Isn't She Lovely" (a love song to his new baby daughter), to the hybrid, jazz-rock of "Sir Duke" (a tribute to one of Wonder's idols, Duke Ellington), and a nostalgic tale of the star's childhood ("I Wish"). There's more: the earthy and unique "As" as well as moving ballads such as "Love's in Need of Love Today" and "If it's Magic." He also touched on racial issues with "Black Man" and "Village Ghetto Land." "Contusion" is a jazz-fusion instrumental.

One of the reasons Songs in the Key of Life is an uncommonly excellent record, especially when compared to Wonder's subsequent releases, is because he still employed a band in the studio to flesh out his ideas. It wouldn't be long until he took the easy way out by becoming too attached to the synthesizer. Unfortunately that allowed him too many opportunities to produce almost everything himself without input from a supporting team.

Wonder’s talents are so immense that he has always transcended the R& B world. He has been embraced by folkies, jazz musicians, and pop fans alike. He's always been one of the few black artists to receive routine airplay on album oriented rock radio stations. Songs in the Key of Life is one of the reasons why.