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

Image

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.

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

Image

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.

Steve Earle: The Low Highway (Album Review)

Image

Steve Earle isn’t exactly new on the music scene. Currently he’s on studio album number 14. But despite his prolific music canon, he keeps each release fresh. My introduction to Steve Earle was the 2004 record “The Revolution Starts Now.” If you’re familiar with any of his past discs you’ll notice similar themes of poverty, class struggles, and general unrest amid varying musical styles. “The Low Highway” continues, and even improves upon, this trend.

“The Low Highway,” his 2013 album, drums to a similar tune. Earle’s newest release retains his signature Dylanish, nasally drawl, while adding a New Orleans feel. It isn’t quite the back country Creedence Clearwater Revival sound, but more a hangover recovery on the front porch in the French Quarter sound. Upon the initial listen, I was a little unsure how I felt. This is largely due to my love of his more sarcastic tunes such as “F the CC” and “Condi, Condi.”

As I delved deeper, gave it subsequent listens and saw him in concert recently, my feelings changed. Last weekend I had the privilege of seeing Steve Earle in concert at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre. This enhanced my understanding of “The Low Highway.” Early in the concert Earle took a pause in the action to elucidate that his current work evokes the New Orleans vibe due to his time spent there and the recent economic, social, and environmental woes (ie Katrina). Having spent a summer interning for the Gulf Restoration Network spreading wetlands loss awareness this message particularly resonated with me. Additionally, it helped to hear why Earle chose the NOLA twist. Hearing his inspiration therefore makes the album more meaningful.

Remaining faithful to his past songs, Steve Earle throws in simultaneously witty and through-provoking tunes. The powerful “Burnin’ it Down” begins “’Fore I was born, there were no limitations/Said my goodbyes at the greyhound station/Here I am half a mile from where I grew up/In a parking lot sittin’ in my pickup truck.” Later on he drops the lines “I’m thinkin’ bout burnin’ it down, boys/Thinkin’ bout burnin’ it down/Nothin’s ever gonna be the same in this town/I’m thinkin’ bout burnin’ the Walmart down.” Upon mentioning burning down Wal-Mart, the concert crowd erupted into bouts of applause and cheers. In a day when small businesses are being shut down and large corporations dominate even the smallest of towns, Earle embodies the sentiment of the Average Joe, whose dreams are often crushed by the expansion of big business.

Standout track “Calico County,” expresses similar sentiments. A rock-country anthem about cooking meth, it feels very appropriate considering the “Breaking Bad” final episodes. If this hasn’t been paired with a trailer of Walt and Jesse yet, it should be (I’m looking at you AMC). The album really ends on a strong note with possibly my favorite song on the album, “21st Century Blues.” Lyrically it is a throwback to “The Revolution Starts Now.” “No man on the moon, nobody on Mars/Where the hell is my flying car?” he quips. He goes on to say “It’s hard times in the new millennium/Gettin’ by on just the bare minimum/Everything to lose and nothing to spare/Going to hell and nobody cares.” Again, he captures the idea that Americans have hit an all-time low.

Earle took the stage at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre as a musician and a political activist. His commentary was sparse, but meaningful. True to his songs, he threw in sarcastic humor and serious opinions. Early on he joked about sending a song to Toby Keith and feigned confusion from no response. Yet Earle did not merely throw out dry anecdotes. He discussed his annoyance at the pursuit of oil, disappointment and dismay at growing lines for a soup kitchen in his neighborhood, and most prominently about his autistic son. “It’s an epidemic,” he said. With “1 in 50 kids diagnosed”, he continued, “it must be something in the food we eat, our drinks, something we are exposed to on a daily basis.”

Regardless of whether you fall within the same political lines as Earle, (and from the energy and enthusiasm of the concert crowd, I’m guessing most in attendance did), you have to respect anyone who stands in the spotlight as entertainer and political commentator. If you haven’t already grabbed “The Low Highway,” it is available for purchase across a range of formats and even streamed for free. And if the opportunity presents itself, buy a damn ticket to see this guy. He’s phenomenal.

Ramones: Mondo Bizarro

Image

The Ramones are generally known for their more riff-heavy, head bopping fare. My dad being a pretty big Ramones fan, I was brought up constantly listening to their music. While “Rocket to Russia,” and earlier works are fantastic, one of my favorite albums is their oft-overlooked 1992 release “Mondo Bizarro.”

Mondo Bizarro is like an updated version of their previous works with a clear 1990s influence. Deviating from their more barebones early releases, Mondo Bizzaro adds a fuller sound to the typical Ramones repetitive riffs. This change is probably in part due to the replacement of Dee Dee Ramone after his departure from the group. The new bassist, C.J. Ramone and the Ramones’ evolving percussion style lend the album a louder, more fleshed out feel.

The result is a CD with the distinctive 90’s hard rock sound that also preserves the Ramones’ punk roots through fast guitar riffs as well as the group’s always-quirky lyrics. “Mondo Bizarro” opens with “Censorshit,” a song condemning censorship by the Parents Music Resource Center. “Ask Ozzy, Zappa or Me/We’ll show you what it’s like to be free,” Joey Ramone chides in the chorus of the song.

Other tracks include an anti-9-to-5 anthem, “The Job That Ate My Brain.” While it maintains the goofy, oddball sound and lyrics of past Ramones tracks, the song is decidedly darker than their early material. The chorus, “I can’t take this crazy pace/I’ve become a mental case,/Yeah this is the job that ate my brain,” appears much more sinister than their zany punk ballads of the 70’s and 80’s. Similarly, one of my favorite tracks “Poison Heart,” is much deeper, deviating from former chants of “Hey, ho, let’s go.” One stanza finds Joey crooning “Making friends with a homeless, torn up man/He just kind of smiles, it really shakes me up./There’s danger on every corner but I’m okay/Walking down the street trying to forget yesterday.” Obviously, there are no sunny, sandy Rockaway Beach getaways on this record.

The album really seems to bring Ramones material up to date with the paranoid 90’s. I always thought it appropriate when Richard Langly from the X-Files wore his Mondo Bizarro shirt. The brooding atmosphere of the 90’s is combined with the goofiness of the Ramones on this record in a way which makes you contemplate their songs more so than their light-hearted early works. A very worthy addition to any music collection, you can purchase it from iTunes or Amazon as well as stream it on Grooveshark. Be aware that a 2004 CD release allegedly has a cover of the Spider-Man theme song. Having just recently discovered this bonus track after doing some internet research, I may be upgrading my outdated copy soon…

Misfits: Static Age

Image

The Misfits are what you would get if you took the Ramones, made Jim Morrison the lead vocalist, and used 50’s sci-fi and horror B-Movie type lyrics. So what is not to love?

Because my dad played their CDs constantly, I grew up listening to the Ramones. Until a few years ago I knew nothing about the Misfits except the iconic skull picture which you see on shirts, patches, and messenger bags. After listening to just a few songs I picked up a few of their albums. Maybe it was the Jim Morrisonesque vocals, the patchwork of horror and sci-fi content littering their songs, or seeing Misfits paraphernalia everywhere. But whatever my motivations, I considered myself lucky for snagging a copy of “Static Age.”

True to its punk roots, the album features riff-filled songs which I imagine wouldn’t be too difficult to learn. I say this as someone who doesn’t play guitar, so I could be totally wrong. The lyrics really pop over the instrumentation, which consists of a few chords. Lead singer Glenn Danzig’s smooth, crooning voice over gruff, distorted guitars pair nicely. Additionally, the violent and macabre lyrical content juxtaposes Danzig’s pleasant voice for a surreal listening experience.

Most of the songs are pretty short, the longest, “Come Back,” sliding in at exactly five minutes. Despite their brevity they are catchy, attention-getting, and often pack a bit of a punch. The titular song, “Static Age,” features lyrics such as “This is the static age we live in/Our eyes criss-cross, hold and gaze/Breathe in, catch your radiation/Blue disease and turning, tossing.” Not many tracks advocate for breathing in radiation, but looking at the covers of various Misfits albums, it kinda makes sense.

Throughout the album several songs sound like goofy B-movies from the 1950’s and 1960’s. A few even share names, such as “Return of the Fly,” in which the Misfits drop the name of Vincent Price, horror and sci-fi staple actor. “Teenagers from Mars” is another such track that sounds like a bad black and white movie which would now be in the public domain.

Mixed in with the goofy, quirky lyrics however are somewhat disturbing lines. Don’t be fooled by the name “Last Caress.” It is not a love song, so don’t play this one on Valentine’s Day. “Bullet” is quite possibly one of the only songs about the JFK assassination. It takes quite a few liberties and deviates heavily from anything historical. Be prepared to check your offendable side at the door when listening to this song.

If you haven’t heard this album, it is really short and definitely worth a listen. For a little fun listen to “Last Caress” and then the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” As I mentioned earlier, I don’t play guitar, but those riffs sound pretty damn similar. Unfortunately, no free download of this one folks, but it is worth the few dollars on Amazon or iTunes and you can stream it on Grooveshark.