There’s a communal feeling about most Christmas music. Maybe this is because we generally hear the songs in the company of others, whether it’s as we’re elbowing our way down the aisles of the department store or perhaps singing along with them in church. I think that the most special thing about Frank Sinatra’s A Jolly Christmas (Capitol Records, 1957) may well be how a very particular mood is created, quite different to that of the run-of-the-mill Christmas album. It is not so much a mood of lonesomeness (although Sinatra was well-skilled with evocation in that area) but a more nuanced and less inherently-sad sense of simply being alone at Christmas. Not miserable, and not necessarily overjoyed either, but simply contemplating and appreciating the season apart from the crowds and the relatives.
In the course of his long career Sinatra recorded plenty of Christmas music, from the sides with Axel Stordahl in the 1940s on Columbia (some very lovely stuff) to The Sinatra Family Wish You a Merry Christmas on Reprise in 1968 (predictably kind of cheesy). And these Christmas tracks get repackaged and resold over and over again. However, A Jolly Christmas is, to my mind, quite distinct. In 1957 when he went in to record it (during July in Los Angeles), Sinatra was truly at the peak of his artistic powers. Not only was his vocal ability (both the quality of his voice and his sense of how to use it) the best it had ever been or would ever be, but he was also at a peak of good taste. My theory is that Sinatra always personally had good taste, but later in his career he came to believe that his potential audience did not, and he dumbed things down at times in an effort to woo them. At this time, however, in the mid-1950s, Sinatra had a clear idea of what he wanted to do, musically-speaking, and what he was capable of, and he was able to work with arrangers and musicians of great excellence and taste themselves, and together they were able to put out records of a very high standard that in turn reached an appreciative and welcoming audience. All of these factors would never come together simultaneously again, and this is why Sinatra’s albums for Capitol Records in the 1950s stand as his greatest, and indeed as some of the most perfect examples of refined popular music that exist.
To put it in context, A Jolly Christmas was bookended by A Swingin’ Affair! (a sterling Nelson Riddle set) and Come Fly With Me (a masterpiece with Billy May). And released in exactly the same month (September of 1957) was Where Are You?, one of Sinatra’s great sets of lovelorn ballads, this one arranged by Gordon Jenkins, who likewise is the arranger for A Jolly Christmas. Jenkins had his strengths and weaknesses as an arranger, but there’s no doubting that his particular style is crucial in making A Jolly Christmas the unique kind of Christmas record that it is. Continue reading “A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra”
What is it about a great Ron Sexsmith song that can be so very pleasing and satisfying, right on the first hearing? I was trying to work that out while listening to one after another on his latest album, Forever Endeavor. For me at least I think it’s something like this: One has heard in one’s lifetime a whole lot of songs, by artists one likes a little or a lot, and there are so many instances where a song begins with promise but instead of fulfilling that promise it gets stuck, or reaches for a height it cannot attain. Sexsmith at his best can turn out a tune that is just so right, musically and lyrically, and seems to arrive and unfold effortlessly. He writes with an innate knowledge of so much of what’s come before him, and blends musical and lyrical references without strain.
Take just one song on this record. We’ve all heard of “Lonely Avenue,” but Ron Sexsmith gives us “If Only Avenue,” with a perfectly wistful and irresistible melody.
With the luxury of hindsight
The past becomes so clear
As I look out on the twilight
My days have become years
It’s strange, as people we’re prone to dwell
On things that we can’t undo
And we’re liable to wander down
If Only Avenue
Cue the wonderfully languid riff that anchors the tune, and basically there’s nothing you can say about this short, unpretentious pop song other than that it is flawless, and could easily be taken for a standard written forty years ago. As on a number of other tracks, producer Mitchell Froom has added string arrangements that are understated and apropos. The whole thing is just a sheer pleasure. Continue reading “Ron Sexsmith: Forever Endeavor“
Before this Christmas season draws to an official close (there are twelve days of Christmas, y’know), I thought it worth noting one new addition to the already-gargantuan and ever-increasing library of Christmas albums. (I love great Christmas music and am known to listen to it in July.) It is a record titled Baby, It’s Cold Outside by a lady singer named Cerys Matthews, who emanates from the nation of Wales. She is little known west of the Atlantic Ocean, though she’s had quite an interesting and eclectic career, leading a rock/pop band by the name of Catatonia during the nineties, later going to live and work in Nashville for a few years and producing more folky/countrified kind of work, and in more recent times recording and releasing her renditions of traditional Welsh songs (and this album features one titled “Y Darlun”).
With a title like Baby, It’s Cold Outside, one might well assume that this was a swinging Dino kind of Xmas record, but that track is very much the exception, and in more ways than one; in fact, it’s probably best to circle back to it at the end of this little review. In actuality, this is an album of traditional and predominantly religious Christmas carols, performed in a sparse, folk-like context, albeit pretty far from any idea of folk purism. The central success of the album is in enlivening and refreshing these old tunes, like “Good King Wenceslas” and “We Three Kings Of Orient Are,” with live-in-the-studio performances that are just off-center enough to be interesting to the ear (with the odd exotic instrument thrown in), and which at the same time communicate an infectious sense of joy and mystery. Even “Jingle Bells,” which to me is probably the most annoying song to have to hear again and again during the holiday season, is performed winsomely enough here with banjo and sleigh-bells to raise a fresh smile. Similarly, “Go Tell It On the Mountains”—surely about as hackneyed a folk-hymn as one could name—is performed here as if it was composed yesterday, with a fairly overflowing spirit of gladness and urgency. That’s no small thing.
A full-length example—although it’s a more modern song than most of the others—is the rendition of “Little Donkey,” which can be heard via SoundCloud below. Although this tune can be dismissed as a “children’s song” (as if children’s songs aren’t crucial both to Christmas and to the universe-at-large) I think the performance here evokes the genuine poignancy at the heart of it. It is sung and played with great love and care, as if it all really matters. (Someday we’ll find out if it does.) Coconut shells are the featured exotic instrument. Cerys Matthews’ vocal on this track is at a whisper level.
In the end, it is a Cerys Matthews album, and so her singing is the key color on the canvas. When I first heard her sing (not in the context of this album) I frankly didn’t like her style very much at all. Then, I happened across her in a different setting, and thought, well, that’s kinda something. Having now heard a lot more of what she’s done, including this current record, I would have to say that I’ve come to believe she’s a singer of quite remarkable nuance and range, although she comes across with deceptive simplicity. For one thing, she genuinely knows how to use a microphone. It was Sinatra who described the microphone as “the singer’s instrument,” and even in his day he mourned those singers who didn’t use it for all it was worth. Today, you only have to turn on one of those ubiquitous talent shows to see how many singers believe that they should basically plant the microphone on their lips and yell. And why not, when they get rewarded with huge applause for doing so? Matthews clearly understands how her use of the microphone helps manage the dynamics of the performance and the expression of the song. And when we’re talking about dynamics, the concept of restraint (or lack thereof) inevitably comes up. Matthews, as with the finest singers, seems to know as a matter of instinct and taste when and what to hold back, and when (which ought rightly to be rare) to let loose. She also seems wise about turning technical weaknesses of her voice to her advantage when it comes to emotional expressiveness. The variety of vocal tones and textures she applies just on this album are pretty impressive on their own merit. And, in the end, after all, she is Welsh; therefore a very special blessing of God is upon her vocal cords, and I think that she cannot be said in her use of them to squander that particular element.
And so, back around to the title track. It was in 1999, while Matthews was still the lead singer for the rock/pop band Catatonia, that fellow Welsh citizen and pop-music legend Tom Jones connected with her to record the old Frank Loesser classic, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” for a new Tom Jones album and as a Christmas single in Britain. They did the complete treatment, a total throwback, with the right kind of band. No great effort for ol’ Tom Jones, a truly old-school professional vocalist, you might well say, but how did the rock & roll chick figure into it? Well, she acquitted herself with aplomb. It was a relatively minor hit in the U.K. at the time, but, as with the best of these Christmas things, it has stuck around and people remember it year by year. Cerys Matthews had apparently planned to build a follow-up Christmas album around it herself, but the project has waited all the way until now. What she delivered in 2012 is of a rather dramatically different spirit to that track, although it could be said that the concepts of joy and of fun are common denominators. The song has been sung by many greats over the years, but rarely if ever has it been done with the kind of chemistry that Tom and Cerys put forth, especially in their live performances, one of which is embedded below via YouTube. Matthews hams up her half of the vocal to the nth degree, but that doesn’t prevent her from bringing it all home in the end.
As for the album as a whole, a record that evokes the joys and the mysteries of the true story of Christmas as charmingly as this one does deserves to be remembered for many Christmases to come.
I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s new album, Tempest (the iTunes version until my LPs arrive) over the past week and I’ve also been looking at some of the reviews. My impression at the moment is of a vast gulf between what the album contains versus what even the best reviewers have been able to say about it. I don’t think this is because the reviewers are stupid but rather that there really is so much going on in the songs on this album that a review of standard length and breadth is bound to come up short; this is true I think even more than to the usual degree. I mean, it’s always essentially impossible to write adequately about music, when only listening to it will communicate its nature, but Tempest is a special case, even when compared to many other Bob Dylan albums. I think we’re used to a Bob Dylan album having one or two or even three of the kinds of songs that blow one’s mind and take over one’s imagination. But Tempest, with ten songs, has I think at least eight that reach that level (though I’m not even going to say which two don’t).
On one level perhaps it’s just a question of fecundity. The album is highly populated with long songs, and even the songs that aren’t dramatically long contain lots and lots of words. Dylan’s never been one to record many instrumentals, but I think it’s been a long time since the lyrics have spilled out of him with this kind of volume and force. And not chaotically either: the lyrics are intricate and filled with terrific rhymes, and burst forth in his torn-up voice yet highly nuanced singing with confidence and purpose.
Now, I fully understand why all the people invited to those “listening sessions” earlier in the year were so wowed. An appreciative listener arrives at the end of this album somewhat breathless and slack-jawed in amazement (and not just on the first spin either).
Of-course, all of the above makes me sound like someone who worships everything Dylan does completely uncritically, but I’m long past apologizing for my affection and regard for Bob Dylan’s body of work. Check back in three hundred years and we’ll find out whether those who thought Dylan was very special have been vindicated or whether those who thought he was merely another purveyor of late-20th-century-type rock/pop songs were proven right.
It’s true that not everyone has been bowled over by Tempest. That’s fair enough—no one’s obliged to like it at all—but merely as a student of human nature I’m curious as to why some people who like what we can loosely call “this kind of music” and who attest to loving much of what Bob Dylan has done before would not be nearly as wildly-enamored of this album as others.
The review in the LA Times was not technically a bad review (3 stars), but included substantial caveats. Perhaps reflecting on some of the reservations can be illustrative of where the differences in perception lie.
The reviewer appears to be least-impressed by the title track, which is a fourteen-minute song based around the sinking of the Titanic.
[Bob Dylan] is officially an antique, a relic and the last of his kind in a world that has little time or patience to focus on a 14-minute song about the sinking of the Titanic when everybody already knows how it ends. This is the big, grand miscue on the record. In an Irish-tinged tune that repeats virtually the same 16-bar melody throughout its quarter-hour, Dylan in poetic verse recounts the sinking and the fate of its passengers with a singsong phrasing that grows tiresome.
Well, if “everybody already knows how it ends,” what is the point, indeed?
It’s not beyond the capacity of Bob Dylan to write and record a dull or monotonous track, but I admit it does beggar my own empathetic capacity to understand how someone who generally enjoys Dylan’s music could find this to be such a track. It requires some kind of imperviousness. The folky melody is certainly repetitive, but if you want symphonies, you’re in the wrong place, my friend. For me, the counterpoint of the lilting waltz with the subject matter of the song amounts to something very affecting. And Bob’s singing throughout is so filled with variations in tone and character that monotony is for me very far from the situation. Dylan is really proving on this album how someone with a voice that is so shot can nonetheless be a a singer of great expression and subtlety (at least in the studio).
Ah, but we know how the story ends! Well, to think that this song is intended to inform us of how the story of the Titanic ends strikes me as maybe a slight failure of imagination, or attentiveness, or both. The title of the song, “Tempest,” is the initial tip-off that we are not in literal-ville. The historical Titanic was not sunk in a storm, after all, but by an iceberg (of which there is not a single mention in the forty-five[?] verses). So one might begin to suspect there could be something metaphorical going on. How about the story of the Titanic as a metaphor for life and death—for all of our lives and deaths? In any case, for this longstanding fan of Dylan’s work, it is pretty darned difficult not to be galvanized by the driving parade of verses, some of which include:
The passageway was narrow
There was blackness in the air
He saw every kind of sorrow
Heard voices everywhere
The veil was torn asunder
Between the hours of twelve and one
No change no sudden wonder
Could undo what had been done
The ship was going under
The universe had opened wide
The roll was called up yonder
The angels turned aside
They battened down the hatches
But the hatches wouldn’t hold
They drowned upon the staircase
Of brass and polished gold
The watchman he lay dreaming
The damage had been done
He dreamed the Titanic was sinking
And he tried to tell someone
Ah, shucks, if only we didn’t know how it all ends! Oddly enough, despite knowing it all, I find myself coming to the end of this song only wide-eyed and dazed.
Literal-ville doesn’t seem to me like it would be the most interesting place to live, especially if all you’ve got to listen to are Bob Dylan songs. The same LA Times reviewer says he likes the song “Long and Wasted Years,” but sums it up blandly as “a bitter song about a dead marriage.” Oh! I hadn’t realized that’s all it was. Foolishly, I’d felt all kinds of deep vibrations and resonances in this song. But somehow, there must be a way to bang all those verses into shape as just another bitter song about a dead marriage.
My enemy crashed into the dust
Stopped dead in his tracks and he lost his lust
He was run down hard and he broke apart
He died in shame, he had an iron heart
We cried on a cold and frosty morn
We cried because our souls were torn
So much for tears
So much for these long and wasted years
Hmm. If I didn’t know it was only a bitter song about a dead marriage, I’d say the track fairly explodes with emotional echoes and reflections on things like love, loyalty, memory, forgiveness, and regret. In addition, in terms of the sound and vocal performance, it evokes Dylan’s great song from 1986, “Brownsville Girl,” suggesting however vaguely some kind of picking-up of that story many years later. I admit that the track downright makes my eyes well up from the very first verse onwards. Maybe I’ll be able to correct that by keeping in mind the words “bitter” and “dead” from now on (but I wouldn’t count on it).
The same reviewer helpfully points out that the song “Early Roman Kings” is “a blues that directs its wrath at the selfish rich in the same way that ‘Masters of War’ indicted the military-industrial complex in 1963.” Alright. Without reopening stale discussions of “Masters of War,” is slamming the selfish rich—like some “Occupy Wall Street” slogan—really what “Early Roman Kings” is all about?
I can dress up your wounds
With a blood-clotted rag
I ain’t afraid to make love
To a bitch or a hag
If you see me comin’
And you’re standing there
Wave your handkerchief
In the air
I ain’t dead yet
My bell still rings
I keep my fingers crossed
Like them early Roman kings
The LA Times reviewer appears to be way more savvy than yours truly, when it comes to hammering the latest Bob Dylan songs into some pre-ordained mold of meaning. For me, up until this point, I was just digging the attitude on this track. I hadn’t picked up on any political or social manifesto. I’ll keep trying, though. Continue reading “Tempest by Bob Dylan: Is it an unreviewable album?”
More music journalists are coming out of the closet with their reactions after having had a “listening session” with Bob Dylan’s forthcoming album, Tempest. Michael Simmons in Mojo says bluntly that the album is “astonishing.” Anne Margaret Daniel in Ireland’s Hot Press uses words like “breathtaking, mythmaking, heartbreaking” and even “perfect.” It seems they like it. Neil McCormick in The Telegraph has similarly waxed rhapsodic.
Though I read McCormick’s piece in full, I have to admit I’m merely skimming these newer ones, which look quite detailed on a track by track basis. How much can you read about an album you haven’t yourself heard before you become hopelessly bogged down with expectations? Not being one of the anointed to hear the album in advance of its release, I’m looking forward instead to my own private listening session on the day of release (September 11th in the U.S.), as are so many others. I think it would be true to say that the expectations for this album could hardly get any higher now, which is not always a good thing; however, in Dylan’s case, he’s made quite a few great, great albums that fundamentally exceed any expectation that anyone could have had. Therefore, it’s not so unrealistic to have great expectations. It’s probably more the preconceptions that you can accumulate from these reviews which might risk weighing you down when you actually hear the thing yourself.
As expounded upon before, I’m not an advocate of vinyl purely for its tactile pleasures (although I love holding a real record as much as the next guy), but for quite a few years now there’s been a trend whereby new music released on vinyl has received a kinder and more faithful mastering than that which is released on CD (or mp3), where the abuse of the process of dynamic range compression has resulted in blaring and ultimately-wearying recordings being foisted upon a largely unsuspecting public. (Also known as the Loudness War[s].) The Dylan CD releases of the past several years seem to have progressively improved in that respect. Together Through Life on CD didn’t sound quite as bad as Modern Times had, and Christmas in the Heart seemed (to me at least) better still. (By the way, with the mercury frequently hitting triple digits in many parts this summer, I am glad to suggest that putting on Christmas in the Heart makes for some pretty effective aural air-conditioning. There’s nothing like listening to Bob Dylan sing “Winter Wonderland” when it’s 104 degrees in July. Just try not to get so enchanted that you light up some logs in the fireplace.)
I don’t know how the mastering will go on the forthcoming release, but Sony/Columbia is continuing the recent pattern of offering a vinyl package that also includes the album on CD. This is a smart way of selling it, I guess, albeit that one might wish for a lower price-tag.
Amazon.com is offering Tempest for pre-order as two vinyl LPs with one CDfor (at the time of writing) $25.99. Through the BobDylan.com site, on the other hand, you can pre-order the same thing for four dollars more.
That deliciously brings to mind Bob’s couplet from his song “Po’ Boy”:
I say, “How much you want for that?” I go into the store
The man says, “Three dollars.” “All right,” I say, “Will you take four?”
Of-course, may the Good Lord hasten the way when all honest consumers will be able to obtain the recording as it was meant to be heard regardless of the medium in which they purchase it. Does that seem so much to ask?
Just the other day there was news of yet another Bob Dylan boxed set to be released in the near future, this one some kind of totally complete collection that will certainly appeal to people who (1) don’t own any Bob Dylan albums already and (2) have unlimited funds for entertainment purposes. Not really too very exciting for someone like yours truly, but news all the same I guess.