On the 2nd Day of Christmas… “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” (album review)

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Elvis Presley dominated the airwaves for years, and maintains a posthumous presence today.  Though he’s renowned for hits such as “Hound Dog” and infamous pelvis gyration, his Christmas music ranks among the elite classics. Browsing the Elvis Christmas releases can be daunting, as his holiday tunes have been released and re-released an obnoxious number of times. For simplicity’s sake, I’m reviewing If Every Day Was Like Christmas. Grab a chair, crank up the stereo, and slip on the blue suede shoes.

Browsing the back of the album, you’ll notice that If Every Day Was Like Christmas is a hefty release. A whopping 24 tracks, it’s a purchase that feels well worth the cash. Every song is phenomenal. Festivities begin with “Why Can’t Every Day be Like Christmas.” Fair enough Elvis, I respect your holiday spirit, but that would require a year-round tree, decorations encroaching on other holidays, and a never-ending onslaught of relatives. Thus, it may be better that every day is not actually like Christmas. His point, however, is the tranquility and sense of unity which Christmas traditionally bestows upon the masses. Who can resist smiling with Xmas jingles blaring, jolly fat Santas ho-ho-hoing and red Starbucks cups adorning mittened hands?

As per usual, the content of Elvis’ album isn’t particularly new, but his renditions are the reason we all dust off the disc and throw it on the turntable, pop it in the CD player, or stream all 24 tracks. “Blue Christmas” bounces along merrily, despite the assertion of dampened sentiments. Presley brings his unique mumbling warble to each song. “Here Comes Santa Claus” shines with this recognizable delivery. As the song progresses you can almost see Elvis’ expression growing increasingly animated as his voice crescendos into an energetic “Cause Santa Claus comes tonight!” Try playing Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” then the Elvis version. The contrast is remarkable, and highlights the positive vibe Elvis emanates. Gone are the wistful, church-like Bing baritones. No offense at all, Bing. Your version set a standard. But Elvis broke barriers, which earned fame (and infamy).

“Santa Bring My Baby Back to Me” further illustrates the joyous nature so prevalent on If Every Day Was Like Christmas. Elvis sounds unlike a man depressed by absence from his gal, but rather finds consolation in begging Santa for a reunion. Why Santa has said female friend isn’t really explained. Let’s just hope Elvis hung a large enough stocking for his beloved. Interestingly, Elvis even brings his upbeat performance to serious tunes like “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” He understandably tones down the bulbous joviality which graces most other tracks, but he still manages to infuse such songs with a celebratory feel. Considering the fact that Christmas is intended as a season for generosity and caring, it feels more appropriate than funeral march adaptations which often pollute holiday albums. While you can’t go wrong with any Elvis Christmas release, If Every Day Was Like Christmas certainly comes with substantial play time and replay value. Spontaneous hip gyration is a known side effect, so grandma might be offended. Dance at your own risk.

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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.

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.

Pondering the French Press

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This weekend, while scrubbing the bejeezus out of my French Press, I wondered “why the hell do I put myself through this?” As much as I love my lime green, 8-cup Bodum French Press, I must admit it is a pain in the ass to clean. With the ten minute minimum clean up time, I reserve the pressing for weekends, and days when I don’t have work at 8:30 am. While I sipped my warm, Kahlua coffee, freshly brewed in the Bodum, I realized that my love of the French Press parallels my preference for vinyl.

Like the French Press, the turntable and vinyl require time and maintenance. Unlike a CD or mp3 player, you simply don’t push go and kick back. Rather, you pull out the clunky, delicate record, gently and somewhat awkwardly, so as to avoid finger scratches, place it on the turn table, then press play. Halfway through, you remove the album, flip it, and repeat the same fumbling placement of record on turntable.

But despite the necessary diligence of dusting off records, finding ample storage space, and involvement mid-way, digital music simply doesn’t compare. I prefer vinyl because of the obligation I feel to listen to an album in its entirety. When I download a CD, if I try to listen to the whole thing on my computer, I often fail. The tendency to multi-task usually kicks in, and my musical ADD revs up as I begin browsing my obnoxiously large collection in Windows Media Player. When the needle hits the groove I can’t hit the next button, and I’m definitely not changing vinyl every other song.

I also feel closer to my music when I play vinyl, just as I enjoy my coffee more when I go through the trouble of brewing in the Bodum. Interaction occurs on additional planes, those of touch and sight. I flip through stacks of records, select an album, put it on. No click. Click. Click. The halftime switcheroo means I stay in the same room as the stereo, and usually look at the artwork. Records used to include posters, like my Warren Zevon “Excitable Boy” insert, and booklets as found in my copy of the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour.” Sure, most digital jukeboxes like iTunes, Windows Media Player and Winamp show album artwork, but let’s be honest: how many of us sit and stare at the fullscreen album art on a computer, much less an mp3 player?

One of the main reasons I opt for my French Press over the Mr. Coffee or Kuerig is the loss of flavor in translation. With the French Press, the steeping process keeps the grounds and water together. While it means the mandatory mouthful of grit, it also makes for more flavorful coffee. Electronic coffee makers and their paper filter accomplices remove many fats in the beans which not only massage the taste buds, but have health benefits. Further bolstering the French Press boldness is the added control. If I want a stronger cup of coffee, I simply let my concoction steep longer. With electronic coffee machines, I wait, usually for a slightly watered-down cup of coffee. Similarly, records are much more flavorful than alternate musical mediums. As the vinyl pumps through my Yamaha RX-485 receiver, there is a certain fullness of the sound, a warmth not present in digital music. The sound seems to expand to fill the room. Basses are lower and deeper, strings more precise and sharper, and vocals less tinny.

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So does this mean I’m shunning the Mr. Coffee and mp3 player? Not quite. As much as I ragged on him, the ease and convenience, especially when I’m in a morning rush for work, are undeniable. Plus the Bodum doesn’t yield the delectable cappuccinos and nostril-opening espressos that my Krupp does (for $5, it was the best yard sale find I’ve had since grabbing “Sgt. Pepper’s” and “Magical Mystery Tour” on vinyl for $1 each). And as much as I love vinyl, there’s no way it could replace my massive CD collection. Although I am working my way through the archival of all my records in FLAC and mp3, it’s a lengthy process and not nearly as easy as downloading an album and burning it to a CD or ripping a disc to my harddrive. Plus my car doesn’t have a record player, and I wouldn’t want to risk scuffing up my vinyl on a portable turntable. Scratch a CD? Fine, burn another. Scratch a record and it’s straight to the landfill. In the ideal world I’d sip my French Pressed coffee every morning, and I’d always take the time to sit down and experience, not just listen to, my music. But if I did that with every album, I’d likely never be able to trudge through the entire music collection in a lifetime. And I’d definitely have a throbbing headache every weekday from caffeine deprivation.