Friday, December 23, 2011

Bing Crosby: Merry Christmas

Review # 58
Artist: Bing Crosby
Title: Merry Christmas
Format: LP
Label: Decca
Year: 1945
Songs: 12

Hello, readers. I managed to get one more review in before the holiday. If Christmas records aren't your thing (and I understand if they aren't, believe me), rest assured, this is the last Christmas LP review for 2011.

Bing Crosby's Merry Christmas is one of the best known Christmas records ever. Released on Decca Records in 1945 as a collection of 78rpm discs, the album has never been out of print, a statement which can be made of few records. And for good reason--it's a masterfully executed record. I had a friend who would listen to it all year around. Bing is in top crooning form, and the two orchestras that appear on this record both perform the songs in style, whether the song is somber, dour, or swinging. The Andrews Sisters provide backing vocals on side two and make the record just feel like a perfect slice of the music of the 1940s. It's both a great representation of the time and also timeless.

The record seems to be divided into a somber side and fun side. Side A of the record features earnest and sometimes dour songs, often with religious themes. Christmas is, of course, for most people a religious holiday, so "Silent Night" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"  aren't really surprising selections. The one that is a bit more unusual is "Faith of Our Fathers," which, aside from from really bringing down the mood, is pretty awful in what it advocates. The song is about "our fathers" who, in spite of being killed and tortured in dungeons, retained their Christian beliefs. Which I guess is all well and good if you're a strong Christian. But what's really terrible about it is that expresses the desire for these fathers' children (i.e. ourselves) to be similarly martyred: "Oh how sweet would be their children's fate if they, like them, could die for thee." Yikes. Martyrdom is not something I would ever wish on anyone. Wouldn't it be better to wish that no one, anywhere, ever has to go through "dungeons, fire and sword?" Wouldn't that be more in the spirit of the holiday? In any case, this particular song makes me want to turn off the record and put on the Subhumans' "Religious Wars" instead.

On the other hand though, side A also includes Crosby's version of "White Christmas," which is arguably the definitive version of this song. A dour holiday classic in which the narrator dreams of a snowy Christmas, just like the ones he used to know. Having spent my early childhood in a place where winter consistently meant snow and white Christmases were not the exception, I can understand. This song always evokes memories of building a snowman in the front yard, jumping off my parents' deck into deep piles of snow, and then coming inside to sit by the fire and drink hot cider. Here in Seattle, this sort of thing is a lot less common, and although I've lived in western Washington for over two decades now, I've never stopped missing those snowy winters that Bing longs for in this song.

Before I get any soppier, let's turn briefly to side B, the "fun" side of the record. This side of the record is upbeat, through and through. Many of the songs, as previously mentioned feature the Andrews Sisters, and most of the songs also feature a different orchestra from side A. While I'm not familiar with other work by either one, the Vic Schoen orchestra on side B really shines. They give us swinging, jazzy versions of songs like "Jingle Bells" and "Santa Clause is Coming to Town" that are reminiscent of Count Basie's work. Side B features what I would probably consider the best version of "Jingle Bells" I've ever heard, rivalled perhaps only by Frank Sinatra's version. The Andrews Sisters' unique backing vocals really make this one distinctive and fun.

If you're one of those folks who hates Christmas music, you probably won't be able to get behind this record. And that's fine. I don't really know why I like it, but I do. And if you're going to listen to Christmas music, it's hard to beat Bing Crosby's Merry Christmas.

I'll leave off here with link to "White Christmas," the song this record is probably best known for.

Happy Holidays to you and yours from 30,000 Songs.

Total songs listened: 731

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Christmas with the Chipmunks

Review # 57
Artist: Alvin and the Chipmunks
Title: Christmas with the Chipmunks
Format: LP
Label: Liberty Records
Year: 1962
Songs: 12

Long before computer animated chipmunks were singing Lady Gaga songs in endless, terrible film sequels, Alvin, Simon, Theodore, and Dave Seville were already holiday favorites in America. The Chipmunks first Christmas LP was a tremendously successful record, for a novelty act. Its best known track "The Chipmunk Song" (better known in some circles as "Christmas Don't Be Late" or simply "that songs where Alvin wants a hula hoop") was the Chipmunks' only #1 single, and won three Grammy awards (best comedy record, best children's record, and best engineering on a non-classical record) in 1958. The record has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and has been reissued and repackaged numerous times in multiple formats. Beloved by many as a piece of classic kitsch and maligned by others as a shrill, corny irritation, Christmas with the Chipmunks may be the best known novelty record of all time.

Readers who have been with this blog since the beginning may have by now noted that I have an awful lot of Chipmunks LPs, so it should come as no surprise that I like this record. I love kitcshy, silly, novelty music, and if you are like me in that respect, Christmas with the Chipmunks is just ridiculous upbeat fun all the way through. As was the case in Urban Chipmunk, this record sees Dave Seville trying to make the rambunctious chipmunks toe the line as a respectable singing group, while our rodent friends (and especially Alvin) have other ideas. Alvin's penchant for turning the songs' lyrics into dramatic monologues repeatedly gets him in trouble for "over-acting," with Dave frequently admonishing Alvin and co. to "just sing!" This conflict arises right away on the song's opening number "Here Comes Santa Claus," and continues to be an issue on "Over the River and Through the Woods" and "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas." Why Dave puts up with the chipmunks is unclear. After so many conflicts like this, and given the debatable merits of the chipmunks' vocal abilities, one is left wondering why Dave carries on trying to make them a proper musical act.

Unlike other Chipmunk records, this album sees Dave playing a more active role in singing the songs himself. He takes the lead on "Silver Bells" and sings "White Christmas" entirely on his own, aside from a conversation with Alvin in which he bemoans the lack of snow this year. Rest assured, Dave's sorrow is short lived, as Alvin chimes in at the end of the song to alert him to some festive precipitation. This record also features a cameo from none other than Rudolph (the red-nosed reindeer) who sings the song about himself in the first person. The voice is a clear imitation of the Rankin & Bass Christmas special, and sounds in particular like the part of the story in which Rudolph is trying to cover his embarrassing nose with a piece of clay and constantly sounds like he has a cold.

Probably the best known track on this record is the aforementioned "Chipmunk Song." This is both the only original song on the record, and the one in which Dave (aka Ross Bagdasarian) makes the greatest effort to actually differentiate his voice as he performs each of the three chipmunk voices. My record player has a 16 rpm setting (although I've never seen a record that plays at this speed), and it's fun to play this song at that speed, because you can hear three tracks of Dave, talking and singing very slowly and trying to make his voice sound like three different voices, in combination with the "real" Dave voice, which slowed to half speed sounds like some terrible beast. My friend referred to this as the "Three Dave Seville's and a Bear" version of the song. While this song is one I like to hear at normal speed at least once every December, having the vinyl gives me the added benefit hearing what the Chipmunks' voices sounded like when Dave/Ross actually recorded them.

If by some unlikely chance you haven't heard "The Chipmunk Song" before, you can listen to it here, complete with old, cheap children's animation that shows you what shenanigans our rodent friends got up to while recording this unlikely number one hit.

Total songs listened: 719

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Beach Boys: The Beach Boys' Christmas Album

Review # 56
Artist: The Beach Boys
Title: The Beach Boys' Christmas Album
Format: LP
Label: Capitol Records
Year: 1964
Songs: 12

Happy Holidays, 30,000 Songs readers!

Sorry about the long delay since my last post. I've been travelling and otherwise very busy for a while and only today have I had enough time for it to occur to me to write a post. I'm going to try to do a couple of holiday record reviews this week, and return with some classic hardcore next week.

The Beach Boys' Christmas Album is a record that my wife and I picked up at the Fremont Sunday Market around this time last year. This record is full of the Beach Boys' distinctive harmonies as they perform original songs like "Little Saint Nick" and "The Man With All the Toys" and Christmas classics like "Santa Claus is Comin' To Town" and "Frosty the Snowman."  I'm not the biggest Beach Boys fan, truth be told, but I like them in small doses. Maybe that's part of why I really like side one of this record, but by the end of side two have had enough. Side one is full of upbeat tunes, mostly their originals, that showcase the harmony intensive take on the Chuck Berry sound that made the band famous. If you like the Beach Boys and don't hate Christmas music, there's really nothing not to like here. These are all the songs you hear on oldies radio stations in December.

Side two, aside from maybe just being more Beach Boys songs than I need in a row, is just less fun. They save all the slow numbers for this side of the record--it begins with a version of "We Three Kings" that drags so much, it feels like my record player is on the wrong speed.  It's twice as long as anything on side one and juuuuuusssst drrrraaaaaaaaags. Even the version of "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town," a song which is typically an upbeat number, on side two of this record feels sort of flat or sad or something. It's sandwiched between "Blue Christmas" and "White Christmas," and I think is meant to pick up the mood a bit between those two rather dour Christmas songs, but it doesn't really clear the bar.

The one moment on side two that really cracks me up is the very end. Like many Christmas albums, this one ends with a rendition of New Year's favorite "Auld Lang Syne." At the very end of the song, the band gets turned down in the mix and Dennis Wilson gets on the mic to wish all the listeners at home a happy holiday season. And he stumbles over his words: "we hope you will treasure it the way we do, and if you hap... happen to be listening to this album right now...." Now, this could hap... happen to anybody, but seriously, why didn't they do another take? Did they have a midnight deadline to get the record done in order to get it in stores in time from Christmas? By 1964, there really isn't an excuse for this sort of thing from a famous band on a major record label. They weren't exactly recording on wax cylinders. It just feels too sloppy for the Beach Boys, and it makes me laugh, every time.

Check it out: "Auld Lang Syne"

Total songs listened: 707

Friday, December 2, 2011

Dock Boggs: False Hearted Lover's Blues

Review # 55
Artist: Dock Boggs
Title: False Hearted Lover's Blues
Format: LP
Label: Monk Records
Year: 2009
Songs: 10

Dock Boggs is one of my all time favorite musicians in the American folk tradition, and False Hearted Lover's Blues is a collection of his recordings from the late 1920s. Boggs recorded a number of albums for Smithsonian's Folkways label in the 1960s when folk music became popular again, and those are fine records and better recorded, but there's just no substitute for hearing the original recordings. These are little slices of a culture and way of life in America that have largely disappeared. Boggs's somewhat abrasive voice combined with an aggressive, often fast, style of banjo playing conjure echos of a time when ramblers walked the dirt back roads of America, drinking corn whiskey. These songs have an ominous sound to them, and the lyrics tell of lost love, broken hearts, bad decisions, ruined lives, nights in jail, and ultimately, death. In "Country Blues" for instance, Boggs laments the bad decisions of a rambling lifestyle, as he envisions his own funeral. The spine-chilling "Pretty Polly" tells the story of another rambler who, after breaking his lover's heart, kills her and buries her body in some desolate place. It's not entirely clear, but he may bury her alive. Afterwards, he goes down to the river, "where deep waters flow," and there the song ends. Again, it's not clear, but he may drown himself in the river for what he's done. You won't find "You Are My Sunshine" or "She'll Be Coming 'Round the Mountain" in Boggs's catalogue.

I think most people who aren't well acquainted with American folk music have an idea of it as a tame, friendly acoustic music, children's songs, or political protest music. They think of sanitized Americana like Peter, Paul and Marry basically. Maybe they think of early Bob Dylan, or even Woody Guthrie if they're slightly better informed. Folk music can be all of these things, but much of the earliest music recorded in America isn't like that at all. These songs created images of the darker side of American rural life--hardship, loneliness, violence, alcoholism. "Hard luck," in these songs isn't your computer crashing or getting a flat tire, it's your brother getting shot, or spending your life in prison for robbing someone in alley and accidentally killing them. The lyrics to Boggs's songs have more in common with gangster rap than they do with children's music or even the protest music of the 1960s.

These recordings vary a fair amount, in terms of recording quality. Taken from 78 rpm records if I'm not mistaken, some of these songs probably sound as good as they ever did, while others obviously were damaged. The last couple of tracks are very scratchy and sound like they run a little slow. Monk Records (a German label, I believe, which is sort of odd) seems to have done the best they could in cleaning these recordings up, but you can only do so much with damaged records from almost 100 years ago. Even so, if you are a fan of classic American folk music, this record is indispensable. Boggs's songs (and variations of other folk tunes, like "Sammie Where You Been So Long," which has much in common with  Bascom Lamar Lunsford's "I Wish I Was A Mole in the Ground") are classics. His approach to banjo playing is exciting to listen to, and clearly influenced many who came after him. The Folkways stuff recorded 40 years after this has many of these qualities. They're more accessible, perhaps. But if you want to hear some real, authentic American folk music, there are few better examples than False Hearted Lover's Blues.

Here's Boggs's version of "Pretty Polly."

Total songs listened: 695