Saturday, December 19, 2009

Shazam! From the Boss to the King to John & Paul (But Not George or Ringo), Not to Mention Jessica & Nick...2009 Edition



Editor’s Note:

Back by popular demand, what follows is our year-end sampling of the Christmas songs playing incessantly on a radio station near you, and it demands from your editor only a few updates this holiday season.

For starters, we have not heard the dreaded duet of Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” thus far in 2009, and for this we are most grateful. Still, keep your fingers crossed that we’ll continue to avoid it.

(If it turns out that their recording has been confiscated by Government Authorities for use as an alternative to lethal injections, we’ll consider ourselves a positive force for society.)

On the other hand, we are sorry to report that what has followed this cheery development has been a surge in playing time for Barry Manilow’s chirpy immitation of the classic Bing Crosby/Andrew Sisters version of “Jingle Bells.”

Believe it or not, “Jingle Bells” was written in 1857...for Thanksgiving, not for Christmas. And it’s hard to imagine making a better version than that recorded by Bing and the three Andrew Sisters 86 years later.

But Manilow didn’t bother to try.

Instead, Barry and his back-up group, called Expos, simply copied Bing’s recording, right down to that stutter in the Andrews Sisters’ unique, roller-coaster vocals on the choruses, as well as Bing’s breezy, improvised, “oh we’re gonna have a lotta fun” throwaway line on the last chorus.

Sharp-eared readers might say, “Well, so what else would you expect from a guy who sang ‘I Write the Songs’…which was written by somebody else?”

We can’t argue with that, but we will point out another annoyance this year: the enlarged presence of Rod Stewart in the Christmas play-lists.

Don’t get us wrong: we like Rod Stewart—at least, the Rod Stewart who gave the world what your editor still considers the best coming-of-age song ever written and recorded: “Every Picture Tells a Story.”

It’s the Rod Stewart who gave us “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” we’re less crazy about.

So too the Rod who chose to cover “My Favorite Things” (for the definitive version of that classic, see: Bennett, Tony) and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with Dolly Parton (for an equally offensive version of this one, see: Simpson, Jessica and Lachey, Nick).

As an antidote to Rod, we suggest Jack Johnson’s sly, understated “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which seems to be gaining recognition, and anything by James Taylor—especially his darkly melancholic “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Of all the singers who recorded versions of this last—and Sinatra’s might be the best—it is Taylor, a former heroin junkie (thankfully he didn’t succumb), who probably catches more of the intended spirit of this disarmingly titled song.


After all, the original lyric ended not with the upbeat “Have yourself a merry little Christmas, let your heart be light/Next year all our troubles will be out of sight,” but with this:


“Have yourself a merry little Christmas, it may be your last/Next year we may all be living in the past.”

No, we are not making that up. But at least Barry Manilow won’t be covering it any time soon.

JM—December 19, 2009



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-deep to, nowadays, more of a wading pool-depth.

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-tinged “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.

Does 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. Fortunately The King does get it over with, in just 1 minute, 54 seconds.


Along with that and all the other covers, there are, occasionally, the 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 those things 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 with dreadful lyrics, something McCartney often did when John Lennon wasn't around.

Lennon, after all, replaced McCartney’s teeny-boppish opening line for “I Saw Her Standing There”—“She was just seventeen/A real beauty queen” is what McCartney originally wrote—with the more suggestive “She was just seventeen/You know what I mean,” thereby turning a mediocre time-piece into a classic.

But Lennon was not around to save “Happy Christmastime.” McCartney actually recorded this relatively 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 downbeat but catchy “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” is played about as frequently as “Happy Christmastime.”

Who but John Lennon would start a Christmas song: “And so this is Christmas/And what have you done...”? Of course, who but Paul McCartney would start a 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 Nat, Bing, Frank, Tony, Ella and a few others, we’d be clueless.

But thanks to a remarkable new technology, we here at NotMakingThisUp suddenly found ourselves able to distinguish, for example, 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 lets you point 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 learn what song is playing.

Shazam does this by recording a selection of the music and analyzing the data. It then displays the name of the song, the artist, the album, as well as lyrics, a band biography and other doodads right there on the iPhone.

Now, you may well ask, what possible use could there be for identifying a song playing in a bar?

And 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 get the iPhone close to the source of the music, Shazam figured out every song 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,” which may be the truest sign of Hope in the holiday season;

4) None of this matters because Mariah Carey screwed up the entire holiday song thing, anyway.


Now, why, you may ask, would we pick on Mariah Carey, 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 aimed strictly at demonstrating how much of a singer's five-octave vocal range can be used, not merely within this one particular song, but within each measure of the song.

In fact Mariah's 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 rather than a Christmas song (“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 other hand, 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 word for what they do. 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, or their car—not in a recording studio.

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 pair in our car while singing along with the radio too loudly to notice, we wouldn’t stop to identify the bodies.

Fortunately, the bad taste left by their so-called duet is washed away 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. This is the best version of the song on record, by anyone, and probably one of the two or three best Christmas songs out there, period.

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, during which he managed to mention that he, not Nat King Cole, wrote “The Christmas Song,” and when this did not seem to make the appropriate impression, he later broke off singing to chew out a less-than-attentive audience member, completely destroying the mood for the rest of the set.

Like that long-ago performance by the "Velvet Fog," the pleasant sensation left behind by Cole’s “Christmas Song” is quickly soured, this time by a male singer performing “Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow” in the manner of 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—the answer must surely be electronics: his voice, very distinctly at times, sounds like it has been synthesized—when John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas” comes on.

It’s a great song, demonstrating as it does Lennon’s advice to David Bowie on how to write a song: “Say what you mean, make it rhyme and give it a backbeat.” The fact that Lennon had the best voice in rock and roll also helps.

Unfortunately, his wife had the worst, and a brief downer it is when Yoko comes in on the chorus like a banshee. (Fortunately she is quickly drowned out by the children’s chorus from the Harlem Community Choir.)

The other songs in our Shazam song-identification session are, we fear, too many to relate.

Sinatra, of course; Kelly Clarkson, an American Idol winner who essentially does a pale Mariah Carey impersonation; Blandy—er, Andy Williams; and one of the best: Tony Bennett.


Then there’s Willie Nelson, who has a terrific, understated way of doing any song he wants—but sounds completely out of place singing “Frosty the Snowman.” One wonders exactly what kind of white powder Willie was thinking about while he was recording 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 then Mariah again, this time doing “Silent Night” with that same roller-coaster vocal gargling.

Gene Autry’s all-too-popular version of “Here Comes Santa Claus” would be bearable except that he pronounces it “Santee Closs,” which is unfortunate in a song in which that word appears like 274 times. ‘N Sync is likewise unbearable doing “O Holy Night” a cappella, with harmonies the Brits would call cringe-making, and Mariah-type warbling to boot.

Hall & Oates’s “Jingle Bell Rock” is too easy to confuse with the other versions of “Jingle Bell Rock”—thank you, Shazam, for clearing that up—while Martina McBride manages to sound eerily like Barbra Streisand imitating Linda Ronstadt singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

Winding things down is Dan Fogelburg’s aforementioned “Same Old Lang Syne,” and here we need to vent a little: something about the way he sings “liquor store”—he pronounces it “leeker store”—never fails to provoke powerful radio-smashing adrenalin surges.

Fortunately, we suppress those urges today, because the Shazam experiment concludes with one of the best Christmas songs ever recorded. Better than Bing, and 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 this version was recorded live more than 25 years ago, it still jumps out of the radio and grabs you.

Now, as Shazam informs us, this particular 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.

Springsteen begins the familiar song with some audience patter and actual jingle bells; then he starts to sing and 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 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 in 1975 during a concert 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


© 2009 NotMakingThisUp, LLC

The content contained in this blog represents only the opinions of Mr. Matthews, who also acts as an advisor: 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, and should never be relied on in making an investment decision, ever. Also, this blog is not a solicitation of business: all inquiries will be ignored. The content herein is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.





13 comments:

Mark said...

>>...the Rod Stewart who gave the world what your editor still considers the best coming-of-age song ever written and recorded: “Every Picture Tells a Story.”<<

I am *so* with you on that-- that song was (and still is) an absolute masterpiece, and it's been straight downhill (creatively speaking) since then for Rod. Nevertheless, you (or, more to the point, his myriad assortment of expensive kids and ex-- as well as current-- wives) have to give the guy credit for managing to continue (primarily, I suppose, in the theaters of gambling casinos) quite a lucrative career for well over 40 years (and still going strong).

Reb said...

Manilow gave credit on the cd to Bing and the Andrew sisters..but i guess you didn't actually know what you were talking about before you wrote this

Jeff Matthews said...

Reb is correct, and yet we actually did not mean to imply that Barry Manilow had 'stolen' Bing's recording without acknowledgement of the original--after all, that would be hard to do.

He simply copied it, which is our beef. Nat didn't copy Mel; Tony didn't copy Julie Andrews; and Bruce didn't copy Bing.

Still, we thank Reb for flagging that, and have corrected the imprecise language and apologize for the implication of the original.

JM

cheyfaith said...

This post really increased my holiday cheer. In fact, I am laughing so hard at my desk that coworkers are curious. Thank you, Jeff, and happy holidays to you and yours.

Rich said...

Even if Rod Stewart was unconvincing with "Do you think I'm sexy", he did open the door for the definitive version by Bob and Ray!

Jeff Matthews said...

Thanks Faith! You too!

JM

Dan said...

I believe "Have Yourself a Merry Christmas was written during WW II, which probably explains the original lyrics. JT's version is very good. Another version I recommend is Shawn Colvin's.

Jon Ellenbogen said...

Jeff, your observations are perfect and very funny.
I would only add one additional song to the good songs list: White Christmas by the Drifters. For me, no Christmas is complete without it.

Jeff Matthews said...

Thanks, Jon.

And we should thank John Hughes, the teen-angst film director who died this year, for single-handedly reviving the Drifters' version, as well as Brenda Lee's, by featuring them in his mega-hit, "Home Alone".

JM

Anonymous said...

Willie don't do white powder-anyone on his tourbus caught with it is banished from the realm-FOREVER. Botanicals are a different story.....

Jeff Matthews said...

Very cool. Ask Willie if he'd do an email interview for us!

JM

Tague said...

I still think ELP's Father Christmas remains one of the best.

They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on Earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the Virgin's birth
I remember one Christmas morning
A winters light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas Tree smell
And their eyes full of tinsel and fire
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
And they told me a fairy story
'Till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked at the sky with excited eyes
'Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on Earth
Hallelujah Noel be it Heaven or Hell
The Christmas you get you deserve.

Tague said...

I still think ELP's Father Christmas remains one of the best.

They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on Earth
But instead it just kept on raining
A veil of tears for the Virgin's birth
I remember one Christmas morning
A winters light and a distant choir
And the peal of a bell and that Christmas Tree smell
And their eyes full of tinsel and fire
They sold me a dream of Christmas
They sold me a Silent Night
And they told me a fairy story
'Till I believed in the Israelite
And I believed in Father Christmas
And I looked at the sky with excited eyes
'Till I woke with a yawn in the first light of dawn
And I saw him and through his disguise

I wish you a hopeful Christmas
I wish you a brave New Year
All anguish pain and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear
They said there'll be snow at Christmas
They said there'll be peace on Earth
Hallelujah Noel be it Heaven or Hell
The Christmas you get you deserve.