... a Smiths song like Half a Person might have sounded something like this. Here's Jordan Young of St. John's, who goes by the hilarious moniker of Uke of Duckworth on Twitter. (If you're from away, the name is a riff on the Duke of Duckworth pub.)
When our son was three or so, this song was the go-to tune to cheer him up. The UK duo of Lemon Jelly may have been doing conceptual art and electronica earlier, but Nice Weather for Ducks was one of those left-field songs that appealed to kids, parents and just about everybody else. Nick is now almost 10, but still nods his head if a shuffle mix pops this tune out. Can't blame him.
The Chieftains made a whopper of a Christmas record in 1991, recruiting some distinct voices (who else would seek out alt-country pioneer Nanci Griffith and Elvis Costello and Marianne Faithfull ... and even Burgess Meredith) and compiling a setlist of seasonal music from well beyond their native Ireland. Credit The Bells of Dublin for introducing us to a modern classic, Jackson Browne's The Rebel Jesus, not to mention a respectful nod to ancient carols and hymns. The album is also the only recording I have that mentions the Wren Boy tradition, which is personally important as my dad was such a child growing up in Bacon Cove, Conception Bay, in the 1930s.
I like a lot on the album. Getting Marianne Faithfull to sing I Saw Three Ships A Sailing (as they title it here) was inspired, and the harp arrangement makes you realize what the world lost some years ago in the death of Derek Bell. Elvis Costello and St. Stephen's Day Murders is glum subject matter, maybe, but a compelling song.
Here are a couple of other songs. First, Rickie Lee Jones singing O Holy Night, which steers clear of the operatic stylings often associated with the powerhouse song; instead, this version is all about being vulnerable:
Here's Jackson Browne's Rebel Jesus, which ages well.
This is the last instalment in a musical advent calendar I worked on through December. It's been fun, and I think I'll try it again next year. I'll post the full list in a couple of days.
Be There Christmas Eve has the classic elements of a good Ron Hynes song: longing, wistful, and just a touch sentimental. Ennis (who first recorded it as The Ennis Sisters for the Christmas on Ennis Road album a while back) do it justice in this live performance.You can get Ron's own version on the compilation album . Atlantic Standards Christmas.
In the interest of a green Christmas, I'm recycling, almost entirely, a post from 2008, in which I suggested Fairytale of New York is the ultimate Christmas song. An odd choice, but I stick by it; read on to find out why. And it's today's entry in my musical advent calendar, in which I've been picking some of my favourite songs and albums. It winds up tomorrow. Here's the original post:
Fairytale of New York is - hard to believe - more than two decades old. The 1987 collaboration between the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl has come a Christmas classic, in spite of itself. It's dark, serious material (the famous opening lines of the lyrics, after all, are "It was Christmas Eve babe/ In the drunk tank"), yet I'd put it up as an ultimate Christmas song: it's full of emotion, and isn't Christmas sometimes also about wistful thoughts of ruined, piercing self-reflection as anything else?
I'm not alone. In 2004, the song topped a British poll of favourite Christmas songs. The Wikipedia entry notes that the song has come out on top on other surveys, and has been identified as a Christmas favourite of everyone from Cliff Richard (!) to Ricky Gervais.
The song has been re-released in recent years, largely to draw attention to MacColl's family's campaign to investigate her 2000 death in Mexico.
I think the song has become evergreen because it's kind of timeless; it's clearly set in the past (the reference to Sinatra has sparked at least two debates I've been privy to, pertaining to the era in which the song is set), but that doesn't really matter too much.
The songs of the Pogues are populated by incorrigible rakes and ne'er-do-wells with bad language and worse behaviour who are more celebrated than condemned. In a smaller way, when Christmas gets a little intense, there may be a comfort in hearing Fairytale Of New York and thinking: at least everyone else is rowing as well.
The video, which features Matt Dillon in a cameo in its opening moments, is a gem. Here it is.
I have no empirical evidence to back this up, but my guess is that Christmas Day tops the other days of the year, in terms of number of photographs snapped. Pictures are hard to resist: the surprises of Christmas morning, the glee on children’s faces, the joy of families brought together.
Our first stop in this week’s web tour is a video that makes great use of family pictures, in a musical kind of way.
Christa Borden: O Holy Night Borden’s newly released version of the hymn is splendid, and she has the voice to pull it off: only the brave and/or talented, for instance, will want to try those famous notes at the end. For the accompanying video, Borden reached out to the community, and asked friends and fans to send her some of their Christmas pictures. Here’s the resulting video, which was posted a week ago to YouTube. It’s sentimental and sweet … and a bit of a pleasure amid the seasonal bombardment.
Elsewhere this week
Mailing dates Still have some cards and things to put into the mail? It may not be too late, depending on what it is and where it’s going. Here’s a link to Canada Post’s guide to deadlines for delivery.
Christmas Mah Jong Mah Jong games, in which you click on matching tiles to eliminate them, have been an online staple for years. Here’s a variation with a Christmas theme, featuring images of Santa, gingerbread, and so on. It was the first game of its kind my son played, so it took a while to get the hang of it; if you’ll recall, only tiles with one border free can be clicked and released. A fine diversion for with the holidays coming.
Tee Fury I had never heard of Tee Fury until a couple of weeks ago, when I randomly came across a hilarious T-shirt design, featuring a scene from the Hoth battle sequence of The Empire Strikes Back, redone with a Christmas touch. (Maybe you need to see it to believe me.) I’m glad I read the small print, as the shirt was available for that day only. That’s how it works on Tee Fury: cool designs, cheap prices (US $9), and a big catch. The limited edition shirts are on sale for just 24 hours, so it pays to check regularly.
Give It A Ponder Hats off, or beards off, rather, to James Lipton of Inside The Actors Studio for mocking his own image in a clever and really funny series of commercials for communications giant LG, all about the hazards of texting. The message: think before you blurt. Lipton deflates his stuffy image with ads that any tween, teen or older should see.
Whether or not you’ve bought any of the Waldo books, chances are good you would recognize the lanky dude in the striped shirt. (If you’re British, you may know him better by his original name, Wally.) This online game follows the books: your mission is to find not only Waldo, but his friends, marking them as you go. Look for the “game widget” when you load this page. You can also create your own avatar, and shutterbugs can have fun with a Flickr-powered photo challenge.
Riddle Fence The sprightly St. John’s literary journal has just finished its fourth issue; you can’t read them online, but you can get a taste of what it’s about, plus directions on how you can contribute to upcoming editions.
John Gushue is a writer in St. John's, and is currently on leave from his job with CBC News in St. John's. John is on Twitter right here.
There are some other recent Christmas albums that are better (Diana Krall's Christmas Songs, Aimee Mann's One More Drifter in the Snow), but I picked Chris Isaak's album, named just Christmas, as today's pick for the musical advent calendar I've been putting together this month.
Maybe it's because Martha and I saw Isaak and his longtime band perform here in St. John's last year; the man not only has a great voice, but has charm coming out of his pores. I bought Christmas last season, and it's been on a lot lately. Like a lot of Isaak's music, it covers the bases: a little edgy, a little retro, a little rock and roll, a bit of kitsch and humour tossed into the blender. A few of those elements come through in his rendition of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which he performed in the clip below on the Leno-era Tonight Show, when the album came out in 2005:
Not too many songs of the season are embraced by atheists and Christians alike, are denounced by born-again Christians, have been described as both cynical and optimistic, have been played annually for almost 35 years, and have been given a new life from the biggest band on the planet.
Amid it all, its creator and singer says the song is what it is, and that the title is true.
That is, Greg Lake, who released I Believe in Father Christmas in 1975 as his one and only solo hit during a hiatus from Emerson Lake and Palmer, insists to this day that he does, indeed, believe in Father Christmas. (Or Santa, as we say over here.)
I Believe in Father Christmas has engendered a lot of controversy. The tune's lyrics reference the shift in perspective from a child to an adult; what seems to set some people off is whether Lake is denouncing Christianity, Christmas, the spirit of the season or all of the above. To get a sense of the debate, just look at the comments on this page alone. Perhaps the nub comes down to how you interpret these words, written by Lake and longtime collaborator Pete Sinfield: "And they told me a fairy story/ Till I believed in the Israelite." Is Lake saying that the Christian story is an extension of the stories parents tell children (he uses the word "sold" in the previous couplet), or is he saying that he was told fairy stories until he came to understand greater matters of faith?
Lake may not have the greatest amount of time for organized religion, but I have come across several interviews where is clear on his love and admiration for the values that Christmas represents, while dealing with that inevitable sadness that adolescents feel when they learn the fantasies and wonders of childhood are not quite true. In other words, he's standing by the title. Click here to see a page on his site which includes streaming interviews on just that. As well, here's a video of an interview with Lake and Sinfield on the song and how it came to be.
I do have a problem with the lyrics, primarily the last words. "Hallelujah, Noel, be it heaven or hell/
The Christmas you get, you deserve." (A lot rests on that comma.) I have an affinity for karmic justice, and I do believe that bad deeds eventually do go punished, but I don't agree that all people get the Christmas they deserve ... especially children who are caught in terrible family circumstances beyond their control.
What I think Lake was getting at, though, was a literal world view, which seems to be the case in the video, which Lake chose to shoot in Israel. To accompany the orchestral bombast of the final bars (which accompany words that I believe are sincere and hopeful), Lake's video includes bombings and napalm attacks in Vietnam. Karmic, indeed, but let's remember that 1972 Christmas bombings in Cambodia were still a strong memory.
Here's the video:
I Believe in Father Christmas went to No. 2 in the UK. Interestingly, the song that stopped it from getting to the top was another that experimented with the then-novel video format: Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody. The song was not at all a hit in North America, where Father Christmas is a meaningless phrase for many people. That hasn't stopped it from getting airplay, although it's really difficult to get Lake's original copy. A redo, with much less orchestration, was released later through ELP itself. (The melody still, of course, was based on Sergei Prokofiev's Troika, from the Lieutenant Kijé suite.)
A new spotlight came last year, when U2 covered the song as a fundraiser for Project Red, to combat AIDS in Africa.
This is the 21st of 24 instalments in a musical advent calendar I'm writing this year, on songs, albums and music of the Christmas season.
One of the best jokes in Shrek the Halls was the Gingerbread Man describing his horrific encounter with Santa Claus. ("You weren't there!") In a similar vein, a new movie from JibJab. You may feel guilty the next time you dunk a cookie!
I spent many years not being particularly fond of It's A Marshmallow World, which struck me as kind of sappy and, well, silly. Maybe it's a function of getting older, and having a kid, but the song gets more charming with the years.
This version, with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin from a Sixties Christmas special, appeals to me, largely because it reminds me of what TV specials were like when I was growing up: hokey, canned laughter, and what my dad would call fakey-fakey. Yet, it makes me laugh. The song appeared on the Christmas with the Rat Pack compilation that was produced seven years ago, to tie in with the resurgence of all things Frank that came with the Ocean's 11 franchise.
The New York Times has an interesting read on one of the great reversal of fortunes in American media history: the fall into massive debt (and loss of relevance) of Reader's Digest, which owns much more than just the magazine of the same name. It's now trying to reinvent itself by holding on to its old audience while finding a new readership online.
A few people I know really loathe this song. Or, I suspect, they loathe what they believe it's come to symbolize: rock stars earning brownie points through charitable singles. They have a point on that score, but on its own, Do They Know It's Christmas? still works, 25 years after its release, and long after the Ethiopian drought and famine of 84-85.
The video for the original recording is below; I agree with my friend Joan, who at the time noted that what she loved about the video was that it looked like they were hauling strangers in off the street. Never mind the fact that protagonist Bob Geldof and his collaborator Midge Ure (who cut the backing tracks the day before the voices were all recorded) recruited the top shelf of the English pop scene of the time, as well as a chorus of lesser-knowns who chipped in for the chorus.
Do They Know It's Christmas? happens to be a favourite of our son. He responded to it early on, when he was two or three and in the backseat of the car, and around this time of the year would call for the song he knew as Feed the World. (Are there many other songs that can be boiled down to such a powerful imperative?)
There have been subsequent remakes. A 1989 redo by the shallow production team of Stock Aitken Waterman can be safely forgotten. Geldof himself participated in the Band Aid 20 production five years ago; it's not bad, but the first one is much more powerful. I've seen grown men tear up over it, even years after its release. (The Band Aid 20 video is worth watching, if only to see Birhan Woldu, whose image as an emaciated, near-death child shocked the world, appear before the singers as a healthy, fully grown adult who remains active in the issues that Band Aid sought to publicize.)
There's a new version this year, produced by the Canadian band F***d Up (aka, the band whose name can be said aloud on CBC Radio 3, but not on 1 or 2). They recruited alt-scene luminaries, like Tegan and Sara, Bob Mould and Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, to sing the parts. It's a fun version, and all of the proceeds are going towards three Canadian groups that are fighting violence against women. You can buy it from iTunes for 99 cents right here, and stream it here.
Here's the video for the original. A trivia note: the opening lines, sung on the record by Paul Young, were meant to be handled by David Bowie, who coudn't get to the studio in time (he's heard with a spoken passage on the 12" single version). Bowie, though, opened the song during its rendition at the close of the Wembley leg of Live Aid.
If there's one Christmas record I've encouraged people to buy, this would be it. In our house, for more than 20 years, this has been the album that has most defined the season. A few notes of this, and I'm fine. (A good drink doesn't hurt, either.)
The Sackville All Star Christmas Record was released by Toronto's Sackville Recordings, and features some jazz luminaries having a ball with some Chriistmas standards. Canadian Jim Galloway, who plays soprano sax, was joined by three Americans, including legendary bass player Milt Hinton. The album was recorded over two days in March 1986; I'm not sure when we first learned about it, but I remember how: the late Clyde Gilmour talked about it ecstatically on his show. I ordered a copy - one of the first CDs I ever bought, I'm sure - and have pulled it out every Christmas since.
The musicianship is exemplary, which makes sense given that most of the players had had four decades or more under their belt. A reunion, alas, will never happen; Hinton died in 2000 (Saturday actually makes the anniversary of his passing), while pianist Ralph Sutton and frequent collaborator drummer Gus Johnson have also died. Galloway, who was a few decades junior to the seasoned sidemen who played with him, is still active.
You can still find the album, and indeed can buy it or download it here from Amazon. If you heard CBC Radio's adaptation a few years back of Kevin Major's House of Wooden Santas, you may already know the wonderful music all came from this album. I'd recommend the whole thing, but if I had to pick a couple of favourites, I'd go with At The Christmas Ball and Good King Wenceslas.
Thanks, Clyde Gilmour, wherever you are.
This is the 18th instalment of a musical advent calendar I'm working on this month. Come back tomorrow for a whole new item!
There's a sizable amount of Christmas-themed music from Newfoundland and Labrador, but Amber Christmas shines brightest of the bunch. I've been recommending it to friends since it came out in 1997; the above cover art is from the original pressing, and new editions have featured the blue, more religious cover featured here.
Pamela Morgan of Figgy Duff produced the record, recruiting collaborator Anita Best, some terrific musicians and singers (including a pre-Rasa Erin Best), and a sprinkling of kids who, among other things, make some of the songs sound like a great Christmas party. The album, named after Morgan's Amber Music Ltd., is far from informal and ragtag, though, and features top-shelf arrangements and musicianship. (And some wit: the credits include "various wenches, rogues, beggars, minstrels, fakirs and thieves.")
It also includes the best versions (for me, anyway) of two Christmas songs: The Cherry Tree Carol and The Holly and the Ivy. Until this album came out, I found the Cherry Tree Carol a bit cloying, mainly because it seemed to be done by high-pitched singers. Morgan's version is completely different, and makes the story - about Joseph's petulance and (understandable, really) mixed emotions over his wife's pregnancy - compelling. Dave Panting's mandolin is wonderful. Anita Best sings The Holly and the Ivy with gusto, livening up the Christmas carol most closely tied to the pagan roots of the season.
I still see Amber Christmas in local stores like Fred's, and it appears to be still available from Morgan's own site. For online shoppers, the album is not, unfortunately, on Amazon or Chapter's. If you don't have a copy, find a way of buying one.
This is the 17th entry in a musical advent calendar I've been putting together this month. Click on the link to see the rest.
Dot Dot Dot is Morse code for the letter 'S,' the full message Guglielmo Marconi claimed to have received atop Signal Hill in St. John's in 1901. It ushered in the age of telecommunications. My maternal grandfather worked as a telegraph operator for Canadian Marconi on Signal Hill for many years.
As well, I have a habit of overusing the ellipsis when I write ... as frequent readers might notice.