On the 7th Day of Christmas… “Silent Nightclub” — Richard Cheese (album review)

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Richard Cheese may not be a household name, though after this review you’ll likely plow through his entire discography quicker than a one horse open sleigh. A comedic singer, he performs lounge and swing style takes on top 40 hits. Hitting play sucks you into a portal, transporting listeners into a Vegas cocktail bar complete with martini and halfway unbuttoned silk shirt.

Amid Cheese’s extensive catalog is an aptly titled Silent Nightclub. As the name suggests, the album is an amalgamation of “holiday” hits. A quick glance at the tracklist and the brow furrows in confusion. Only five of the 15 total songs are traditional Christmas tunes. The other 10 are mainly pop hits which slightly relate to the holidays. And most of the time the connection is more of a stretch than the Grinch shimmying down a narrow brick chimney. Cheese opens with Dead Kennedys’ punk anthem “Holiday in Cambodia,” presumably because it contains the word holiday. He does however, use jingle bells and a Christmas melody to provide a festive ambiance.

Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” follows up “Holiday in Cambodia,” a hilarious reference to the Virgin Mary. Conservative religious folks may be offended, but one listen to the disc and it’s obvious Cheese isn’t meant to be taken seriously. Cleverly, he includes “Like a Virgin” and unless you’re quick to ponder the non-commercial aspects of Christmas, the reason for inclusion may pass you by like Santa skipping the naughty kid on your block. Cheese also includes “Ice, Ice Baby,” “Imagine,” “Naughty Girl,” “The Trees,” “I Melt With You,” and finishes on an appropriate note with “Holidae Inn.” His choices are undeniably unique for a Christmas CD, and you’ll be gnawing the candy cane in your martini in no time.

Amusingly, though predictably, even the holiday tracks aren’t exactly straightforward. The version of “Jingle Bells” on Silent Nightclub features animal noises rather than the actual lyrics. This album by no means seeks to replace the original versions of your holiday favorites. “Last Xmas” is actually only 18 seconds long, and Cheese explains the shortened Wham cover by proclaiming “…that song sucks.” Sorry Wham fans. Take your problem up with Richie. As the sole original track “Christmas In Las Vegas” paints an entertaining portrait of Vegas with a twist. Rudolph bets on red and the Wise Men roll sevens. Cheese exploits both Christmas and Las Vegas clichés, stuffing both into a witty stocking.

Silent Nightclub serves up a hearty, creative dose of mildly, though carefully and astutely selected tracks. Additionally, Cheese’s mock-serious, sleazy delivery packs a ramshackle sled of laughs. Try not to keep from bursting into fits of giggles while the artist woof-woof-woofs in tune to “Jingle Bells,” double-times through “Christmastime is Here,” or jollily bounces down John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Just like spiking eggnog spices up the holiday merriment, Richard Cheese’s Silent Nightclub is sure to get the Christmas party popping.

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On the 9th Day of Christmas… “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (Review)

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A Charlie Brown Christmas” is one of the most celebrated films in the holiday movie canon. The jazzy, largely instrumental score composed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio is equally as enjoyable, though severely underappreciated.

If you’ve seen any Peanuts animated video, Vince Guaraldi’s traditional loose jazz should be familiar. The soundtrack A Charlie Brown Christmas compiles recognizable holiday tunes and adapts them to piano-centric pieces. Furthermore, there’s almost no singing. One of the few vocal tracks is “Christmas Time is Here,” included in the intro to the animated film. As you may have guessed if you haven’t seen the movie, all tracks on the album appear in the Peanuts movie. “O Tannenbaum” kicks off the soundtrack, followed by a toe-tappingly catchy “What Child Is This.” A usually somber tune, Guaraldi breaks barriers with a unique rendition.

As expected, the Peanuts main theme, “Linus and Lucy,” is included on the soundtrack. My favorite track is “My Little Drum,” a spin-off of the Little Drummer Boy. The track features vocal “pa-rum-pum-pums” and “oohs” in time with the instrumentation. “Skating” is another personal favorite which, appropriately, seems to skitter across the speakers. Similarly, “Christmas Is Coming” may induce spontaneous cases of the Peanuts dance, so be careful when you push play.

While the album consists of 12 tracks, play time feels much shorter due to sparse lyrics. There isn’t a song you’ll want to skip. Guaraldi sets his album apart by providing Christmas tunes, many of which normally associate with a serious tone, in a lighter mood. Each track is upbeat, and refreshingly modern. Overall, Guaraldi masterfully crafts a finger-snapping album which serves as a lounge music twist on traditional holiday tunes. A Charlie Brown Christmas is at least as impressive and lovable as its film counterpart, and being mostly instrumental is the perfect album to liven up your Christmas party.

On the 10th Day of Christmas… “Silver Bells of Christmas” — Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney (Review)

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A few years ago while ambling about the aisles of Big Lots I uncovered Silver Bells of Christmas in a bargain bin of CDs. Noticing the album was a Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney collaboration at the traditional Big Lots low price, I picked up a copy. If you’ve seen the classic holiday film “White Christmas,” you’ll realize this isn’t the first Crosby/Clooney tag team.

Upon first listen I was struck by the raw audio quality. As a vinyl fan, I actually appreciated the rough pops and hisses. Granted, my Roxio Easy LP to MP3 kit delivers much richer vinyl transfers, but then again Silver Bells of Christmas was a dollar. My second reaction was surprise. Although the cover art advertises “With Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney,” there’s only one song featuring the two musicians together. Interestingly, it is the title and opening track “Silver Bells.” Of the remaining nine songs, six are Bing solos leaving Rosemary only three.

What sets Silver Bells of Christmas apart from other Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney releases is the raw audio. Complete with the flaws of a rough transfer, this CD mimics an old-timey feel. As soon as you push play you’ll be transported in front of a wood-paneled gramophone. Sure, you might have other iterations of these songs, but the versions found on this release, particularly the initial song, are worth the price of the disc alone. Undoubtedly the greatest track is “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Bing delivers a jazzy rendition complete with a slam-bam finish as the crooner would say. He truly goes to town, hollering: “whoa Rudolph, what a shiner/brightens up the whole darn sky/whoa Rudolph, looks like a miner, prancing across the sky.” Then he proceeds to drop a dose of scat, ending with “whoa diddy, abadoodeeda, abadoodoodadeedee (rough approximation).” After listening to this, it should come as no shock that ol’ Bing partook of the green stuff. And no, I’m not referring to Christmas trees…

From the Amazon store, it seems like you can cop this album at a Big Lots price online. Audiophiles might want to skip out, but if you aren’t bothered by the tinny quality, this is a great addition to the Christmas collection. You can’t go wrong with the B-sides of Bing and Rosemary. Heck, it’s worth the money just to hear Bing lackadaisically scatting his way through “Rudolph.” Maybe he should have voiced the Claymation snowman rather than Burl Ives…

12 Days of Christmas (Albums)

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12 Days of Christmas, 12 Days of Christmas Music

That’s right, 12 days, 12 albums that are guaranteed to have you rockin’ around your Christmas tree. Or chugging spiked eggnog. Whatever your style, crank up the speakers, squeeze into the tackiest Christmas sweater buried in the recesses of your closet, and check out some holiday tunes.

A few weeks ago I found a stack of records tucked away in an old Rubbermaid container. Among them was the 1972 A Partridge Family Christmas Card, album. You may recall the kinda cheesy but lovable show about a musical family with a school bus for transportation. Well, apparently they lurched into the holiday spirit. How’s it sound? Pretty damn good, and I hate to admit it, especially to my Partridge Family-adoring mother.

As a family tradition, we’d always listen to this album, albeit on cassette tape, while decorating the tree. When I was a kid my favorite track was the unofficial 12th song, “My Christmas Card to You,” recorded on a higher BPM so as to lend the Partridge Family a Chipmunks quality. Looks like my dad held the same opinion of the Partridge Family that I did. I finally decided to offer the album an unbiased play through, and have to admit David Cassidy and crew crafted a well-rounded, refreshing holiday compilation.

A Partridge Family Christmas Card opens with the titular track “My Christmas Card to You.” Like the rest of the album, David Cassidy plays the prominent lead vocalist, with his family providing accompaniment. The thought of my entire family in such confined studio space haunts me, but I suppose Cassidy wasn’t related to the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future. “My Christmas Card to You,” as can be inferred from the name, is a sort of vocal Christmas card. Cassidy wishes Merry Christmas to his listeners. Considering his fanbase at the time of release, this probably consisted of gaggles of teenage girls. It’s a creative song, and the only original track on the album. Partridge Family female members provide some great backing vocals.

From here, the album progresses as a string of well-known holiday favorites. While the tunes might not be original compositions, their execution is unique. And let’s be honest, how many Christmas albums feature completely new songs? Instrumentation remains fairly minimalist. You’ll hear strings, drums, some brass and the like, but songs rely on backing vocals heavily. Naturally the “Partridge Family*” members grab mics and contribute to the effort. Sure, you’ve heard “White Christmas” loads of times, but the Partridge version adds small repetitions of “bum-bum-bum” to Cassidy’s upbeat singing. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” adds echoes from the “fam”. There’s a real ‘70s vibe to the entire project.

If you’re a Partridge Family fan, this is a must have album. Casual listeners and those formerly unaware of the Partridges should check this out as a refresher from the traditional Nat King Cole (no offense Nat) and Johnny Mathis tracks. Tune in tomorrow for another Christmas album, and until then stay warm and out of trouble.

*While you might assume the backup vocalists to be the Partridge Family, the only members on the album are David Cassidy and Shirley Jones.

Ivan Ives: “Stranger” but still familiar

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I’ve been an Ivan Ives fan ever since hearing his track “Got It.” The golden age beat, witty word play, and Big Lebowski references convinced me to pick up the entire “Iconoclast” album. After hearing Ives’ collaboration with legendary lung-buster Percee P, “Kill ‘Em,” I snagged “Newspeak.” Flash forward to 2013, and Ives is thankfully still spitting. Like any true artist, he’s switched up his style enough to remain fresh while preserving his individuality. His 2013 album “Stranger,” as the name implies captures a mature, introspective, and thoughtful vibe.

Before “Stranger” dropped, Ives released the single “8mm” produced by RJD2. Featuring RJD2’s recognizable sound, the traditional kicks and snares are accompanied by movie reel whirs. Ives uses the metaphor of an 8mm video camera in romanticizing his recollection of a relationship: “I’m doomed to sleep alone in this bed we bought together/But at least I’ll remember us forever.” Follow-up song “Insomniac” featuring Aaron Marsh on a Thom Yorke-worthy hook of “I close my eyes/Never gonna leave this world like this/I fall away/Never gonna leave this world like this,” contrasts RJD2’s instrumental with a traditionally modern hip hop beat. Instead of the sepia-tone invocations of “8mm,” “Insomniac” provides a subdued backdrop. Further developing this are Ivan Ives’ lines such as “I’ve ruined my real name/I’ve ruined my fake name/Because I had to do things I never wanted to do/Out of desperation, out of character/I’m sorry, I never meant to fail you.”

The album oscillates between these two styles, offering more traditionally underground beats and indie/electronic hip hop. “Stranger” therefore relies on Ives’ lyricism to serve as the unifying gel. And it works. Unlike CDs cobbled together to sell singles, this is a disc to be experienced as a whole, to provide an atmosphere and setting. Even the cover art alludes to the pensive portrait painted uncovered by pushing play. Memory is a key concept on “Stranger,” particularly the idea of fluidity and change. “Death of a Salesman” finds Blueprint dropping a few verses on priorities in youth and the consequences as an adult.

While Ives’ packs his usual insightful austere and wordplay, as well as top-notch production, the beauty of “Stranger” lies in the overall message. Rather than braggadocio, Ivan Ives offers reflection. Unlike the vast majority of records that overpopulate the airwaves, this is one rapper who doesn’t simply blab about over-indulgence. At the end of “On the Road,” he says “And fuck fame/It’s a damn stare-fest/I don’t care about fake outfits and who wearing best.” You have to respect an artist whose main priority is making music because that’s what they love as opposed to leveling up and gaining achievements.

If you’ve never experienced Ivan Ives, this is certainly an excellent starter album. Be warned though that any Ives disc is a gateway drug, and you’ll likely be jonesing for more of this rapper’s music. You can cop any of his releases from your favorite online distributor, or opt for IvanIves.com. This latter digital delivery method gives the artist maximum profit, and Ivan Ives is assuredly a hip hopper worth supporting. Also be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. A few weeks ago Ivan Ives was generous enough to give away a copy of “Stranger.” How can you not respect an artist with that much love for his fans? Enjoy your Tuesday Tunes, and happy Halloween week!

Jay-z: Magna Carta…Holy Grail or Magna Carta…Holy Fail?

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Readers be warned, this review will feature a lot more hiss than pop. Because I don’t know about you, but I was expecting a hell of a lot more from an album titled Magna Carta…Holy Grail.

I first became aware HOV had a new album coming out while watching game five of the NBA finals. Although I assumed the roughly ten minute long commercial was a promo for an upcoming record, the TV spot remained pretty ambiguous and it took a quick Google search to confirm my suspicions. I guess this tactic worked though, because I’m one of the poor souls who downloaded the rubbish.

A strange track, “Holy Grail,” kicks off Magna Carta…Holy Grail. The beginning is sung by Justin Timberlake, and after about a minute of his crooning over a soft piano piece, Jay-z jumps in on top of an electronic-rap beat. JT’s part is pretty good, and Jay-z’s appearance is alright, but they don’t really mesh well. Adding to the musical confusion are multiple tempo, instrumental, and flow changes that trip over one another in a dizzying frenzy. In a song just over 5 minutes they don’t really establish any continuity.

Unfortunately, the only constant during the album is discontinuity. Unlike almost any good album, this just seems like a hodgepodge of 16 tracks of recycled material, not a unified whole with any purpose or originality. And to add to the clusterfuck which is Magna Carta…Holy Grail Jay-z isn’t even consistent. Lyrically, the only cohesion is the HOV’s braggadocio, emphasis on materialism, and overall narcissism. In the titular track Jay-z raps “Now I got tattoos on my body, psycho bitches in my lobby/I got haters in the paper, photo shoots with paparazzi/Can’t even take my daughter for a walk/See em by the corner store, I feel like I’m cornered off/Enough is enough, I’m calling this off.” Now, I have no doubt that you get a lot of unwanted attention HOV, but do you really expect me to pity you when you have millions, especially when you follow up a complaint about the media with “Who the fuck I’m kidding though/I’m getting high, sitting low/Sliding by in that big body/Curtains all in my window/This fame hurt but this chain works.” I certainly hope not, because it didn’t work.

This trend continues on tracks like “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” featuring Rick Ross. Opening the track Ross raps “I just landed in Europe, nigga/Shopping bags, I’m a tourist, nigga/Money talk I speak fluent, nigga.” Not exactly the most original, and yet again money-centric lyrics. Unfortunately Jay-z’s entire playbook is brag about [insert expensive car here], then [brag about being best]. On F.U.T.W. the rapper disses Cadillac’s in favor of Maybachs. Listening from the perspective of a dude with a car in the shop every other week, this isn’t exactly anything I can relate to, or care for. When Jay-z boasts “Hands down got the best flow, sound I’m so special” on “Tom Ford” though, he’s really gone too far. I know this is subjective, but go listen to some R.A. The Rugged Man, Percee P, Celph Titled to name handful out of the plethora of talented contemporary rappers. Then tell me Jay-z has the best flow.

After a while, and by that I mean the first three tracks, it starts to feel like HOV used a madlib for writing his lyrics. Formulaic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Most of the album consists of references to Jay-z’s immense wealth, Lamborghinis, Maybachs, and it wouldn’t be quite as bad if his accompanying beats weren’t mainly generic electro-rap. “Tom Ford,” “FuckWithMeYouKnowIGotIt,” “Crown,” “La Familia,” and “Nickels and Dimes” all feature this uninventive instrumentation garnished with HOV’s cookie cutter lyrics. The few redeeming beats, including “Picasso Baby,” “F.U.T.W.” and “Somewhere in America” manage to piss me off as I keep dwelling on a slew of other rappers who would have murdered those beats instead of wasting them on car references and incessant verses about how many million HOV has made.

Of the limited tracks that don’t make my ears bleed, “Picasso Baby” and “Somewhere in America” remind me of old Jay-z material. This isn’t exactly bad, but it isn’t anything new or inventive. In fact, the only original product of this rubbish heap of a record was Jay-z’s decision to give out 1 million free downloads of his album…with a catch. The download was only available on select, pricey Samsung Android phones. I don’t have a problem with the idea of giving out free copies of an album, whether limited or unlimited, but the fact that he partnered with Samsung to distribute the downloads really sums up the materialistic focus of Magna Carta..Holy Grail.

If you paid for this craptastic CD, you were swindled. Write Jay-z and ask for your money back. From the sound of it, he could afford to reimburse each fan, even those who received free copies. If only he could give me back the time I spent listening to this damn record. At least I have a copy of Reasonable Doubt to console me after this depressing addition in HOV’s canon.

Nichol9 Revisited

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Several weeks ago I reviewed a then unreleased album by an underground rapper, Nichol9. Luckily, he’s been busy working on another album as well as getting a nine year old project, the Skitzo EP released officially. Support Nichol9 and buy his debut album, the Skitzo EP and his new single, “The Weatherman” featuring Polysh and Bizzare of D12. You can use iTunes or CDBaby. Stay tuned for more Nichol9 releases and keep updated via his Twitter, Facebook and Myspace.