Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Shocked to realize I’ve actually bought 2 new records in the last few weeks. Both accidentally, I hasten to add. One was a pre-release review copy in a slim cardboard case in the $2.50 bin at the used store: A new album of Christmas Remixes. The second accident was the result a momentary enthusiasm for a longrunning act I’d recently come across for the first time persuading me to fork over 16 bucks for their Christmas album, which, I soon discovered, had just come out.

I didn’t hear volume 1, but Christmas Remixed 2 follows in the now-established tradition of taking pre-rock pop and jazz records and setting them to contemporary dance beats. Despite my fondness for those beats and the dreamy reverb-heavy atmospherics their producers often indulge in, I was surprised at how well they worked superimposed on the ‘50s recordings. The ‘50s were a stodgy era for pop-swing arrangements; in most cases these are improvements. Remixer John Beltran flattens out the harmonic movement in Bing & Ella’s rendition of “Rudolph” with an original riff while still foregrounding the melody; remixer MNO puts Rosemary Clooney urging us to Have Ourselves a Merry little Christmas through a thick surreal filter; remixer Red Baron lends a huge, tremendous beat to the Berlin Symphony Orchestra’s rendition of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies”; 46bliss lends a sacral atmosphere to Mahalia Jackson’s “Silent Night” that awes me more effectively than un-enhanced Mahalia ever has. The juxtaposition of past & present underlines the pastness of the past while bringing it slam bang effectively into the present. The past has never sounded more past. And the album is terrific.

I’ve been getting way into the library’s copy of 1998 release “The McGarrigle Hour,” starring Kate & Anna McGarrigle and featuring their children Rufus and Martha Wainwright and Lily Lanken, Kate’s ex-husband Loudon Wainwright, Kate & Anna’s sister Jane, and friends Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Chaim Tannenbaum. Gorgeous, lively, heartwarming group singing, exquisite harmonies, lovely vocal solos, and lots of good songs, from Irving Berlin’s haunting “What’ll I Do,” to older & more old-fashioned parlor songs, to good old anonymous folk songs, to some mostly good originals by 6 of the group members, to the ‘50s almost-rock hit “Young Love.” The recording psyched me so good that when I saw The McGarrigle Christmas Hour I immediately bought it. Missing Loudon Wainwright this time (a real loss in context; I don’t know his solo stuff), it’s much less heartwarming all the way around; the McGarrigle Christmas is somber. And that’s OK. Still lovely singing, and going for that holy tone, sometimes conveying a sense of obligation about the whole thing (enforced by the dreadful story in the booklet notes, which I’m too tired to repeat now) -- and that’s fine, that’s certainly an aspect to my experience of Christmas.

I picked up Andy Griffith’s 2003 release The Christmas Guest after the holidays last year and listened to it for the first time today. As on records past, he alternates stories and songs. The stories are super-wows; he’s a master warm wry dramatic passionate reader. “The Christmas Guest”’s story of God coming to visit in the forms of impoverished strangers telegraphs its “surprise” ending from a mile away and it’s still throat-lumpingly effective. Andy’s cover of Garth Brooks’s telling of the WW1 Christmas truce, Belleau Wood, movingly depicts the terror of war & the hope for peace (I’ve never heard Garth’s original). And Andy’s telling of the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke is gorgeously passionate; and hearing it again reminded me of the brilliant elegance of the Christ myth: born in a manger -- a feed-trough for livestock -- to become the source of universal communion -- “take of my body” he said as he passed the bread. Whether you believe or not, it’s great poetry; and Andy believes. He conveys the seriousness of the Christmas season more effectively than the McGarrigles because he exudes joy & passion rather than obligation. The album’s stories knock me out, but 2/3rds of the tracks are him singing carols to professional, serious Nashville accompaniment. He sings in a wide-vibrato church bass voice, and it’s great.

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Speaking of great poetry, my friend oblomova contains multitudes, she’s nationwide. (I went to that party 15 or 16 years ago; it was such a blast it inspired me to host my own secular reading Christmas parties; the year I went to that one was with a gaggle of actor friends; taking turns reading “Song of Myself” aloud was like taking part in a cutting contest with hot jazz saxophonists.)

* * *

We’ve been celebrating my wife’s birthday this week-end, and it’s been a blast. Took the coming-on-3-year-old to a gorgeous puppet production of “The Nutcracker” at Northwest Puppet Center, its one-hour length perfect for toddling attention spans. Later caught a couple songs of a music-store set by my friend Johnny’s band Zazou; their medley/montage of “How High the Moon” and “Ornithology” sung in 3-part harmony never fails to give me goosebumps.

And, of course, my sweetheart’s birthday is simply an occasion of happiness.
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