Perhaps many eons ago there was a glorious time when the world wasn’t overrun with Madison Avenue’s unrelenting push to make Christmas (or if you insist on being PC, “The Holidays”) come 264 days a year, bringing yuletide stress to people across the globe in an endless quest to have the perfect gifts for everyone.
One of the things that keeps me a shut-in in winter is the generic playlist of Andy Williams’ “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas,” and a slew of maudlin Bing Crosby covers of stale Christmas ballads, that get played at every American place of business. I believe that some really groovy holiday music can make Christmas infinitely more enjoyable. The good news is that these songs are pretty easy to find, (please take note of this businesses).
Let’s get our Christmas groove on.
Traditional Xmas ballads don’t have to be the sappy borefest that they usually are. Nancy Wilson’s warm, vivacious mid-tempo ignites fresh air to Vince Guaraldi’s oft recorded standard, “Christmastime is Here.”
The Pointer Sisters’ passionate and adrenaline-inducing gospel rendition of “Silent Night” knocks all the slow-burning lullaby versions out of the park.
As a rule of thumb, Christmas is more interesting in places other than Bethlehem, such as New Orleans or Hollis as Louis Armstrong and RUN-DMC prove.
If you have the patience, prepared to be transfixed by Duke Ellington’s intricate symphonic jazz composition “The Three Black Kings.”
If you’re looking to spice things up with something pessimistic, Tom Waits’ sarcastic interpretation of “Silent Night” bookending the acerbically grim “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis” is tailor made for you.
Before Sarah McLachlan had a bestseller with Wintersong, an album that featured less traditional holiday songs, June Christy did it first, and did it better. Her 1961 album This Time of Year, which features all original songs, is one of the most underappreciated gems of the season. “Christmas Heart” is indicative of the album’s Zen and humanism.
Did I leave anything out? Give me your holiday playlist.
A Special Take 5: A Celebration of the One and Only Weird Al Yankovic
Courtesy of exclaim.ca
Thanks to the internet, there are a million different parodies for every pop hit. However, very few are a fraction as good as the progenitor of the pop parody, Mr. Alfred Matthew “Weird Al” Yankovic. Influenced by a wide array of talents such as Shel Silverstein, Spike Jones, Frank Zappa, Monty Python, and as an avid listener of Dr. Demento’s radio show, Weird Al got his start when Dr. Demento aired a homemade tape of 16-year-old Yankovic’s accordion-arranged parodies in 1976.
He continued honing his zany persona as a radio DJ for his college station (did you realize he studied architecture? How predictably unpredictable of Weird Al), while still making appearances on Dr. Demento’s show with classics like “My Balogna” (“My Sharona” by The Knack) and a live version of “Another One Rides the Bus” (“Another one Bites the Dust” by Queen). The latter caught on in a big way, leading to an appearance on Tom Snyder’s TV show and a tour with Dr. Demento’s live show, which quickly led to Yankovic forming his own band and making a full-time career out of his special talent.
Courtesy of www.theatlantic.com
Coinciding with the infancy of MTV, Yankovic gained prominence with his equally hysterical music videos. His early efforts such as “I Love Rocky Road” (“I Love Rock & Roll” by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts) and “Eat It” (“Beat it” by Michael Jackson), which scored him his first of three Grammy’s, provided the “idiot giggles” with fart noises and other juvenile sound effects. Both his comedy and his musical abilities drastically improved with his iconic parody of Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” “Fat,” which was a shot-for-shot video except that Weird Al was in a gargantuan fat suit.
By the 90s popular music and their videos veered from the campiness of the 80s to a self-serious, edgy, urban style; the seriousness of music is even more pronounced today. In this shift, Yankovic has become more regarded as a novelty act than a comedian-musician, which is a far more accurate representation.
Courtesy of www.youtube.com
While most singers enjoy Yankovic’s spoofs, one rapper, Coolio got his boxers in a wad over Weird Al’s take on his hit 1995 song (his only hit as far as I can tell) “Gangster’s Paradise,” with “Amish Paradise,” which was a dis of the Amish and not denigrating of Coolio or his song. Even as ridiculous as Coolio’s grievance is, Weird Al, who is respectful of other’s feelings, made sure to get firsthand permission from the celebrities, rather than liaison’s like he did in the past, though he was not legally required to do either.
The irony is that Coolio is being laughed at with appearances on Reality Shows while Weird Al is being laughed with all the way to number one of the charts for the first time with his latest album Mandatory Fun, which marks the end of his 14-year contract with Atlantic Records.
Courtesy of www.salon.com
He has taken the internet by storm with music videos, each one released for each song, spoofing Beyonce’s model. This has already received a lot of press. From reading some of the articles, it is interesting to see how Yankovic is looked down on for not doing parodies that snarkily make fun of singers and their songs (I have nothing necessarily against that mode of parody, as some like The Key of Awesome do it very well). The joy of Weird Al’s work is that he takes familiar tunes but makes them about seemingly unrelated topics, mostly food. In a gently satirical way, they do poke fun at our society.
Here are five fantastic songs and music videos by Weird Al Yankovic. Long live the King!
Like a Surgeon
For those who accuse Weird Al of being a lightweight, check out his take on Madonna’s “Like a Virgin,” where he pointedly mocks the corrupt, capitalistic medical industry playing an incompetent surgeon fresh out of med school who only cares about the money. He’s a less glamorous “Material Boy,” tee hee. He mocks Madonna’s original video with a lion arbitrarily roaming around the hospital as well as the pop star herself by emulating her breathy singing voice and her showy dance moves. Credit to Madonna for inspiring the title.
Trapped in the Drive-Thru
This epic 10 minute opus is Yankovic’s pinnacle of his oeuvre of food-themed parodies. Riffing R. Kelly’s bloated 90-minute hip-hopera saga (which I can’t tell if it’s deadly serious or if it’s intentionally funny) “Trapped in the Closet,” Yankovic narrates every detail of a laughably dull couple’s journey to the drive-thru and the obstacles they must face to order a cheeseburger and a medium soda.
White and Nerdy
This 2006 riff of Chamillionaire’s and Krayzie Bone’s gangsta rap “Ridin” is Weird Al’s artistic manifesto. He can really rap his ass off! Donny Osmond, one of the most endearing nerds in the biz, almost steals the show with his hilariously uncool background dancing.
This mashup medley of various pop songs kicks off and ends its trippiness with a performance of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” in an accordion polka style and runs the gamut of absurdity with terrifying stalker robots, a perverted baby Justin Bieber, a dancing pig and chicken duo, and a bubblehead figure pulling its brain out multiple times, among other demented vignettes.
Required viewing for all James Bond enthusiasts. Yankovic effectively spoofs various elements from the title songs of Bond movies, such as singing in the camera under a water background a la Sheena Easton (remember her?) to the exaggerated final long note of Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” (who in real life almost passed out as she was singing it in an uninterrupted take).
Honorable Mention: Weasel Stomping Day
This short ditty, a collaboration with the team of the irreverent Adult Swim Claymation Robot Chicken, is probably Weird Al’s most morbid piece of musical comedy. The title is pretty spot, or in this case, splat on.
(Top left to right) June, Ruth, Bonnie (bottom) Anita. Courtesy of samotako1.wordpress.com
For those who know The Pointer Sisters solely from their 80s dance hit, “I’m So Excited,” there might be the perception that they were a one-note band, a faddish novelty act. Actually the Pointer Sisters who have been performing in several incarnations for over forty years, were highly adventurous and versatile performers who tapped into and thrived at many musical styles.
Their eventful and colorful lives and careers would make an interesting biopic, one far more riveting than that of the bland Supremes. Born to an ultra-religious family where both parents were ministers for the Church of God, the four Pointer sisters and their two brothers were barred from all forms of entertainment except religious music. The sisters, who always loved jazz, blues, and rock and roll (referred to as “the devil’s music” by their parents) would sing together in secret, where they formed their dynamic sound.
Courtesy of killercell.blogspot.com
June and Bonnie, the two youngest sisters, were the first to rebel when they dropped out of high school and performed as “Pointers a Pair” in various California clubs. The excitement and fast-pace of performing attracted Anita, the second oldest, who quit her job and joined her younger sisters. Ruth, the oldest, was initially a replacement for June, who sporadically missed performances due to suffering nervous breakdowns and alcoholism (which was an ongoing problem) before she joined full-time in 1972. At first, Ruth performed simply as a means to provide for her children after her husband abandoned the family, though she quickly came to love the work and acted as a driving force for the group.
As a quartet, the Pointer sisters were finally able to achieve a record deal for a full-length album, which combined a selection of old timey bebop tunes and contemporary R&B songs, including their first smash hit “Yes We Can Can.” In early performances before they could afford a costume designer, their style consisted of 1940s garb that they collected from various thrift stores.
They won their first Grammy, surprisingly, in the Country & Western category for their ballad (co-written by Bonnie and Anita), “Fairytale.” Topping the Country charts, The Pointer Sisters were invited to Nashville where they were the first black performers to sing at the Grand Ol’ Opry (although the bookers weren’t aware of their phenotype before they came on stage).
Courtesy of thissongissick.com
At the peak of their success, Bonnie decided to leave the group to start a solo career. In hindsight, this probably helped the group in the long run as her brassy sugar-pop voice was the weakest in the bunch. The ever resilient Pointers soldiered on as a trio and rose to even greater heights. In 1983, with the album “Break Out,” they fashioned a new persona of the party princesses and sang many of their longest lasting hits including “I’m So Excited,” “Jump,” and “Automatic” which solidified their major celebrity status for the next few years.
In spite of the Pointer Sisters’ willingness to adapt to the garage pop sound popular in the late 80s and 90s, their popularly quickly dwindled with audiences. They were cast aside for younger singers like Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Sinead O’Connor and their two albums in the early 90s were flops, essentially ending their recording career.
They made another comeback of sorts with a nationwide tour of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” where they sang a collection of Swing-era songs. Their success was short-lived due to the increasing unreliability of June, who became addicted to crack in addition to her alcoholism. Ruth and Anita officially ousted her in 2001. June spent the remainder of her life in jail and in poverty before her death in 2006 of a stroke in conjunction with breast and lung cancer.
Courtesy of www.visitstatesboroga.com
Ruth and Anita still tour under the billing “The Pointer Sisters.” While they still look and sound fantastic, much of the magnetism is gone because their band is of a lower quality and June’s replacements, Issa and Sadako (Ruth’s daughter and granddaughter), don’t match her vocal intensity or her charisma.
Friend’s Advice (Don’t Take It)
In spite of the negative critical and audience reception to this period, I dig their spirited take of this catchy and sassy tune about judgmental and hypocritical friends who disapprove of their friend’s “bad boy.”
Yes We Can Can
At one time in history, it was mainstream to sing about women standing up for themselves. This song, headed by a soulful Anita, is one of the catchier and resonant rallies for gender equality. There’s a great drum solo by Gaylord Birch.
One of their most consistently dependable raise-the-roof tunes, this rendition stands out because of its gospel infused sound and spirited background riffs by June.
They fully immerse themselves in this classic bebop vocalese standard. The scat solos are fantastic, but even more impressive is their perfect synchronicity of the chorus.
Some fans have complained about the lightning-fast speed of this 1988 rendition. I think that the pace gives June the best opportunity to show off her great dancing, and the lower key showcases her gravelly rock-and-roll voice.
Jazz, like many art forms, experienced a renaissance in the 1990s. In the 1980s, much of jazz’s output, with prehistoric abrasive synthesizers, sounded like elevator music. In the following decade, we saw many musicians turning to a more traditional sound (and real instruments) and updating the standards with their own personality. At the tail end of the 90s, MaxJazz, an independent record label, formed and introduced the consumer to a crop of brilliant and original musicians, quickly establishing an esteemed reputation for honoring artists’ creativity.
One of its brightest discoveries was Detroit vocalist Carla Cook, whose auspicious debut album It’s All About Love, helped put MaxJazz on the map with its critical and commercial success, and even scoring a Grammy nomination (though she lost to the higher profile, but bland Diana Krall). In just three years, Cook continued her string of excellence with a duo of albums- Dem Bones (2001) and Simply Natural (2002). (In my opinion, Dem Bones is the strongest because it has more bopping and avant-garde funk, and many of the tracks feature a real groovy horn section). All three albums are available on MaxJazz’s website.
Sadly, she hasn’t recorded another album since. Although she still tours all over the world, appearances seem to be few and far between and they’re not very well-publicized. Until she returns to the recording studio, here are five tracks for your pleasure while you crave for Cook to hurry on back.
Cook’s powerful pipes ably hold up with the brasstastic Brooklyn Jazz Orchestra on this Duke Ellington classic. Although she sings one bridge, her beautiful chest voice makes every moment magical.
4. The Way You Look Tonight
This romantic ballad, made famous by crooners Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, tends towards soppiness. With the help of this up-tempo arrangement, Cook’s straight-forward yet soulful phrasing keeps things fun and swinging. With solid accompaniment from drummer George Gray and pianist Cyrus Chestnut, it’s largely a duet between Cook and Daryl Hall grooving the bass. Cook’s scatting is top-notch.
Cook brings her earthiness to this mid-tempo rendition of the romantic bossa nova. The other highlight is Cyrus Chesnut, collaborator on all three of her albums, playing a sensuous piano and a Fender Rhodes, (an electric piano that creates the vibraphone-esque sound).
2. Inner City Blues
Aided primarily by a funky electric piano and a vibrant set of percussions, Cook’s soulful cover of Marvin Gaye’s immortal classic stresses the desperation and anguish of black oppression in America (the lyrics are sadly just as relevant today). She provides some nice scatting throughout the track before it finishes with a fantastic drum and percussion solo.
1. The More I See You
Jazz with strings is often dicey, as they tend to either overtake the syncopated jazzy vibe or remain too much in the background. The Brazilian-based Orchestra Jazz Sinfônica, with the perfect balance of brass, woodwind, and strings, effortlessly grooves with Cook. After a soft and gentle introduction, things get popping with Cook swinging and scatting away.
While I have nothing productive to show 95% of the time I binge on TV, every now and again this medium helps me discover something new and wonderful. One evening I stumbled across a concert on BBC (which has recently surfaced on YouTube thanks to the independent music label Splash Point Music) by an artist with whom I had absolutely no familiarity. This time my curiosity served we well.
From the moment Liane Carroll opened her set with her energetic piano playing skills and smoky soulful vocals on the swinging “That Old Black Magic,” I was a fan. In this performance (like in all her other concerts and CDs) Carroll enlivens her arrangements of an eclectic mix of old standards and more modern covers (of songs by The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Tom Waitts, among others) with a highly original footprint that feels fresh and modern without disregarding the integrity of the original material (and in many cases improving on it).
Courtesy of lianecarroll.co.uk
Several vocalists are also talented instrumentalists but don’t accompany themselves due to the difficulty of doing both at the same time. Carroll makes singing and playing piano simultaneously look effortless while doing both with gusto.
After being the first woman to win the BBC Jazz Awards twice, Carroll has built up a considerable fan base in Britain but still remains virtually unknown in the States, only having made her American debut in 2009 and touring here very seldom. At least she records albums regularly, most of which are available on Amazon and iTunes.
From interviews and fan recordings and testimonials, the Hastings-born Carroll seems approachable and totally unpretentious about her musical virtuosity. When she’s not on tour, Carroll performs at a local pub in her native Hastings, where she resides with her husband and sometimes collaborator, bassist Roger Carey.
Here are five tracks that demonstrate the versatility and dynamism of Liane Carroll.
5. How Insensitive
Although the bulk of Carroll’s work is solo, she collaborates with other musicians, the results are no less stellar. The usually bombastic and groovy Carroll gives a beautifully understated rendition of this Jobim classic. Bobby Wellen’s sax beautifully compliments her sultry voice.
Full confession: Carroll does mention the name of the tune, but I can’t understand what she’s saying. But that doesn’t detract from my love for this upbeat scattastic track. In addition to Carroll’s soulful scatting, there are excellent solos from Roger Carey and drummer Greg Leppard.
3. Pennies from Heaven
Carroll’s smoky voice gives this delightfully old fashioned 1936 standard a more contemporary vibe whilst retaining the nostalgic pep in her piano playing. There’s also some great a cappella scatting to look forward to.
2. Wee Small Hours/River
Out of all her solo performances, her powerhouse medley of two heartbreak songs is my favorite. Carroll begins by delivering David Mann’s 1950s ballad “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” as a mournful lullaby, before she crescendos to Joni Mitchell’s “River” with a more animated sense of urgency.
1. Eleanor Rigby
Carroll’s gospel-sounding vocals and jazzified mid tempo give this Beatles cover poignant empathy and gravitas for the titular character and “all the lonely people” missing in the lethargic original version.