Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Shazam! From the Boss to the King to John & Paul (But Not George or Ringo), Not to Mention Jessica & Nick


Like everyone else out there, we’ve been hearing Christmas songs since the day our local radio station switched to holiday music sometime around, oh, July 4th, it feels like.

And while it may just be a symptom of our own aging, the 24/7 holiday music programming appears to have stretched the song quality pool from what once seemed Olympic pool-deep to, nowadays, more of the ankle-deep, wading pool variety.

What we recall in our youth to be a handful of mostly good, listenable songs—Nat King Cole’s incomparable cover of “The Christmas Song” (written by an insufferable bore: more on that later), Bing’s mellow, smoky, “White Christmas,” and even Brenda Lee’s country-ish “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (recorded when she was 13: try to get your mind around that)—played over and over a few days a year, has evolved into a thousand mediocre-at-best covers played non-stop for months on end.

Anybody else out there wonder why Elvis bothered mumbling his way through “Here Comes Santa Claus”? It actually sounds like Elvis doing a parody of Elvis—as if he can’t wait to get the thing over with.

And, fortunately, get it over with he does, in just 1 minute, 54 seconds.

Along with that and other mediocre-at-best covers, of course, there are the occasional odd original Christmas songs—the oddest of all surely being Dan Fogelburg’s “Same Old Lang Syne.” You’ve heard it: the singer meets his old lover in a grocery store, she drops her purse, they laugh, they cry, they get drunk and realize their lives have been a waste, and, oh, the snow turns to rain (we make none of that up).

So how, exactly, did that become a Christmas song?

Then there's ex-Beatle Paul McCartney’s “Happy Christmastime,” which combines an annoyingly catchy beat and dreadful lyrics, something McCartney often did when John Lennon wasn't around (Lennon, for example, replaced McCartney's original “I Saw Her Standing There” teeny-boppish opening line, “She was just seventeen/A real beauty queen,” with the more suggestive “She was just seventeen/You know what I mean”), to create a song you try to drive out of your mind by humming something more tolerable, like, oh, Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey's duet, “Baby it’s Cold Outside” (more on this gem, later).

McCartney actually recorded his new Christmas standard nearly thirty years ago, and it rightfully lay dormant until the advent of All-Christmas-All-The-Time programming a couple of years ago.

Fortunately, by way of offset, Lennon’s own sour, downbeat, but catchy “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” is played about as much as “Happy Christmastime.” Who else would start a Christmas song: “And so this is Christmas/And what have you done...” but John Lennon?

(Of course, who but Paul McCartney would start his Christmas song, “The moon is right/The spirit's up?” If anything explains the Beatles’ breakup better than these two songs, we haven’t heard it.)

Now, we don’t normally pay much attention to Christmas songs. If it isn’t one of the aforementioned, or an old standard sung by Bing, Tony, Frank, Ella, Nat, Bruce and a few others, we’d be clueless.

But thanks to a remarkable new technology, we here at NotMakingThisUp suddenly found ourselves able to, for example, distinguish which blandly indistinguishable female voice sings which blandly indistinguishable version of “O Holy Night”—Kelly Clarkson, Celine Dion, or Mariah Carey—without any effort at all.

The technology is Shazam—an iPhone application that might possibly have received the greatest amount of buzz for the least amount of apparent usefulness since cameras on cell phones first came out.

For readers who haven’t seen the ads or heard about Shazam's wonders from a breathless sub-25 year old, Shazam software that lets you hold your iPhone towards any source of recorded music, like a car radio, the speaker in a Starbucks, or even the jukebox in a bar, and figure out what song is playing.

Shazam does this by recording a selection of the music, analyzing what it receives, and displaying the name of the song, the artist, the album, as well as lyrics, a band biography and other doodads.

What possible good could there be for identifying a song playing in a bar?

Unless you’re a music critic or a song-obsessed sub-25 year old, we’re still not sure. But we can say that Shazam is pretty cool.

In the course of testing it on a batch of Christmas songs—playing on a standard, nothing-special, low-fi kitchen radio—heard from across the room, without making the least effort to point the iPhone at the source of the music, Shazam figured out all but one (a nondescript version of a nondescript song that it never could get) without a hitch.

And, as a result, we can now report the following: 1) it is astounding how many Christmas songs are out there nowadays, most of them not worth identifying, Shazam or no Shazam; 2) all Christmas covers recorded in the last 10 years sound pretty much alike, as if they all use the same backing track, and thus require something like Shazam to distinguish one from the other; 3) nobody has yet done a cover version of Dan Fogelburg's “Same Old Lang Syne,” fortunately; 4) none of this matters because Mariah Carey screwed up the entire holiday song thing, anyway.

Now, why pick on Mariah Carey in these virtual pages, as opposed to, say, someone who can't actually sing?

Well, her “O Holy Night” happened to be the first song in our mini-marathon, and it really does seem to have turned Christmas song interpretation into a kind of vocal competitive gymnastics by demonstrating as much of her five-octave vocal range as possible not merely within this one particular song, but within each measure of the song.

Her voice jumps around so much it sounds like somebody's trying to tickle her while she’s singing.

More sedate than Mariah, and possibly less harmful to the general category, The Carpenters' version of “(There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays” comes on next, and it makes you think you’re listening to an Amtrak commercial or something (“From Atlantic to Pacific/Gee, the traffic is terrific!”), so innocuous and manufactured it sounds.

Johnny Mathis is similarly harmless, although his oddly eunuch-like voice can give you the creeps, if you really think about it. Mercifully, his version of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” is short enough (2:16) that you don’t think about it for long.

Now, without Shazam we never would have known the precise time duration of that song. On the flip side, we would we never have been able to identify the perpetrators of what may be the single greatest travesty of the holiday season—Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, singing “Baby it’s Cold Outside.”

“Singing” is actually too strong a phrase here. Simpson’s voice barely rises above a whisper, and you cringe when she reaches for a note, although she does manage to hit the last, sustained “outside,” no doubt thanks to the magic of electronics. Lachey’s vocals are like what people do in the shower—they think they’re singing, but they’re not, really.

Thus the major downside of Shazam might be this: having correctly identified who was responsible for this blight on holiday radio music, if we ever ran across the two in our car, we wouldn’t stop to identify the bodies.

Fortunately, the bad taste left by their so-called duet is erased when Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” comes on next.

Thanks to Shazam, we learn that this is actually the fourth version Nat recorded. The man worked at his craft, and it shows here. Unfortunately, the song’s actual writer, Mel Tormé, had the personality of a man perpetually seething for not getting proper recognition for having written one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time. (We did not learn this from Shazam: we once saw Tormé perform at a small lounge, where he chewed out a less-than-attentive audience member during the middle of a song, completely destroying the mood for the rest of the set.)

The pleasant sensation left behind by Cole’s “Christmas Song” is quickly erased by a male singer performing “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow.” He sounds somewhat like Harry Connick, Jr. doing a second-rate version of Sinatra.

Who is this guy, we wonder?

Shazam tells us it’s Michael Bublé. We are pondering how such a vocal lightweight became such a sensation in recent years when John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas” comes on. The only downer, of course, is when Yoko comes in on the chorus, like a banshee.

The other songs in our Shazam song-identification session are too many to relate. Sinatra, of course; Kelly Clarkson, an American Idol winner who essentially does a pale Mariah Carey impersonation; Andy What’s-His-Name, with the bland stuff—Williams; and Tony Bennett, one of the best.

Then there’s Willie Nelson, who has a terrific, understated way of doing any song he wants—but sounds completely out of place singing about Frosty the Snowman. One wonders exactly what kind of white powder Willie was thinking about while he sang this, if you get our drift.

Oh, and there’s Coldplay’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” which pairs the sweetest piano with the worst voice in any single Christmas song we heard; Amy Grant, a kind of female Andy Williams; the Ronettes, who are genuinely terrific—a great beat, no nonsense, and Ronnie singing her heart out with that New York accent; and Mariah doing “Silent Night” with the same roller-coaster vocal gargling.

Gene Autry’s classic “Here Comes Santa Claus” would be bearable except that he pronounces it “Santee Closs,” and this is unfortunate in a song in which that word appears like 274 times. 'N Sync is likewise unbearable doing an a cappella “O Holy Night,” with incessantly cute harmonies and Mariah-type warbling to boot. Hall & Oates’s “Jingle Bell Rock” has absolutely nothing to distinguish it from any other “Jingle Bell Rock,” while Martina McBride manages to sound eerily like Barbra Streisand immitating Linda Ronstadt singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Almost winding things up is Dan Fogelburg’s aforementioned “Same Old Lang Syne.” Something about the way he sings “liquor store”—he pronounces it “leeker store”—never fails to provoke powerful radio-smashing adrenalin surges that need to be suppressed.

Fortunately, we suppress those urges, because the Shazam experiment winds up with one of the best Christmas songs ever recorded. Better than Bing, maybe even better than Nat, depending on your mood.

It’s Bruce Springsteen, The Boss, doing “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” and even though it was recorded live more than 25 years ago, it still jumps out of the radio and grabs you.

Now, as Shazam informs us, this recording was actually the B-side of a single release called “My Hometown.” [Back in the day, kids, “singles” came with two songs, one on each side of a record: the “A” side was intended to be the hit song; the “B” side was, until the Beatles came along, for throwaway stuff.]

Fortunately nobody threw this one away.

The Boss begins the familiar song with some audience patter and actual jingle bells, then he starts to sing as the band comes to life. Things move along smoothly through the verse and chorus...until ace drummer Max Weinberg kicks it into high gear and the band roars into a fast shuffle-beat that takes the thing into a different realm altogether.

Feeding off the audience, Bruce sings so hard his voice slightly breaks at times. Then he quiets down before roaring back again into a tear-the-roof-off chorus, sometimes dropping words and laughing as he goes.

This is real music—recorded live (in 1975 at the C.W. Post College)—with no retakes, no producer, and no electronic vocal repairs, either.

Try doing that some time, Jessica and Nick.

Actually, come to think of it, please don’t.



Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and a Good New Year to all.


Jeff Matthews
I Am Not Making This Up


© 2008 NotMakingThisUp, LLC

The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews.
Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews’ recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes investment advice. It should never be relied on in making an investment decision, ever. Nor are these comments meant to be a solicitation of business in any way: such inquiries will not be responded to. This content is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.



14 comments:

PT said...

This is where I post a personal blessing on satellite radio, when the christmas tunes started showing up I just push a button and they go away. My annual fee is well spent just for the past month.

Mark said...

Jeff,

Other than your Beatles commentary at the beginning and your Springsteen commentary at the end, this column was something that's actually quite rare for you: incredibly boring. But then, perhaps that's the whole point!

P.S. The Kinks' "Father Christmas" is a great tune.

Randy said...

I thought the Beatles broke up because Paul was tired of finishing that lazy bum John's songs for him?

And to rip Paul for the brilliant lyrical beginning to that song, well, what did you want?


"The snow is high, and so am I"?

or

"It's cold outside, but my cidar warms my inside!"

Give him credit for at least trying to avoid the typical xmas banalities...

Jeff Matthews said...

Mark, "Father Christmas" is indeed one of the good ones that gets no airplay any more. And Barenaked Ladies' "God Rest Yee Merry Gentlemen" is nice too.

Cheers,
JM

The Log said...

Bing and Bowie, Little Drummer Boy, one of your few misses this year. Thanks for the great work.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you didn't Scrooge (a verb here) one of my favorites, Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy, as done by Bowie and the Bing. That duet done in a Crosby xmas special has an interesting story behind it.

PhillipCharles said...

Jeff,

A Major Holiday BooYah to you and yours!!!

I enjoyed your thoughts in this post, made all the more relevant by the fact that I have a been feeling a paplpable sense of relief all day due to not being exposed to these same songs on a 24/7 basis everyday since Halloween. Christmas 'music' and the Christmas season itself could and would be much more appreciated if it were limited to a few days around mid-late December (think less suburban America and more Scandinavia).

I appreciate your ability and diligence in opining on each song the way that you have, and probably speaking in detail for many, especially to a degree that I would have never considered. A bit of therapy that was very welcomed...

Heraclitus said...

Jeff - for your consideration, a duet by Stephen Colbert and Willie Nelson about bringing dope to the Baby Jesus:

http://wonkette.com/405103/wise-man-willie-brings-dope-to-baby-jesus

An instant classic, in my opinion

Aaron said...

One comment and one quick story Jeff:

A) You can find the Shazaam technology on Verizon's VCast service as well. I used it to identify a tune a heard on the radio by Mavis Staples of all people...the technology is really quite extraordinary!

B) At the store where I work part time, the retailer began playing Christmas songs approximately two weeks before Thanksgiving. Some customers were so incensed at the thought of hearing Christmas music prior to the holidays that they threated to boycott the store if they didn't turn it off. And turn the music off they did, for two beautiful weeks...loved the quiet!

Anonymous said...

I found this Christmas CD several
years ago--Christmas Gumbo--and it
is excellent and different.
Suzann

Anonymous said...

Before starting a family office and managing money, I was a recording engineer and worked for 6months on Mariah's Christmas record. We started in the spring and worked straight through a hot summer with a small, fake Christmas tree in the control room.
In retrospect I have mixed feelings about the record. I concur about the vocal gymnastics but the CD has become a holiday favorite for many. Ultimately that is what matters most.

Jeff Matthews said...

A former recording engineer who worked on Mariah Carey's Christmas album responds to our blog about that album.

Isn't the Internet a staggering, wonderful thing?

JM

Anonymous said...

Fairytale of New York by The pogues

Ken said...

The mix sounds like you were listening to "The Light" or a similar syndicated channel. I agree completely - they switch over way too early, and then run a relatively limited playlist into the ground. Plus, it's all pretty generic lite-pop stuff.

If you want something different, do what I did this year - drive to visit family on Christmas day. Nearly every station had switched over to all Christmas music. Most also seemed to be keeping to their format, as best they could. There was country & western, rap, jazz and blues, instrumental rock, and others. Some great stuff, and some straight from the bottom of the barrel. I won't get into the horrors of the novelty records...