Well, once, in an interview, Dylan Thomas said of himself (as a younger poet):
I wrote endless imitations, though I never thought them to be imitations, but rather wonderfully original things, like eggs laid by tigers.
Those tiger eggs might not be so well known, but A Child’s Christmas in Wales most certainly is; it has traveled around the world many times over, and is one of the most beloved of all literary evocations of Christmastime. In it, a man of uncertain age tells some small children gathered at his side of what Christmas was like when he was a boy … and in so doing captures the most wonderful kind of magic that human memory can make, bringing to life an idealized Yuletide landscape, fashioned with the kind of reckless joy of language and humanity that defined Dylan Thomas. It is at once so very particular to a seaside town in Wales and so amazingly universal (which explains its perpetual popularity). Continue reading Cerys Matthews – A Child’s Christmas, Poems and Tiger Eggs→
Under Milk Wood is Dylan Thomas’s “play for voices” (i.e. intended for radio rather than the stage), a quite wild and sometimes soaring portrait of the inhabitants of a fishing village in Wales, the fictional Llareggub, depicting both their dreams and a day in their lives.
‘Tis the season to remember three of our very favorite Christmas albums, all of which have been reviewed at greater length in these pages in the past. So, in capsule form here and now:
Christmas in the Heart ~ Bob Dylan
Many groaned when they heard Bob Dylan had recorded a Christmas record, and many still think that he himself groans his way through it, but they’re the ones missing out. Immaculately produced in what might initially seem a cheesy fashion but actually features exceedingly smart and classic stylings, it sets the smooth instrumental and vocal backing against Dylan’s hoarse singing, and brings to mind nothing so much as Louis Armstrong in the latter part of his career doing “What a Wonderful World.” The voice is so lived in, the owner of it has seemingly seen it all, and yet at the end of it all can guilelessly sing lines like: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” It counts so very much coming from that place. And, as expounded on at (likely) painful length in my original review, Dylan’s Christmas album manages to blend the secular and religious songs of Christmas together in a startlingly effective way, finding a spirit that unites them. It’ll surely make you laugh and at times it ought well make you cry. You must have it.
(And Dylan’s proceeds in perpetuity go to providing food to the needy.)
A Jolly Christmas ~ Frank Sinatra
Set down right amidst the high water mark of Frank Sinatra’s career and talent in the mid-1950s, this sensitively-made long playing record, arranged by Gordon Jenkins, provides posterity with essential Sinatra readings of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” “Jingle Bells, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” and others. Essential because Sinatra remains the greatest male popular singer to ever lift a microphone to his lips, and he is heard here as the great musician that he was and not the caricature too often present in the popular consciousness. And, as expounded on at (possibly) painful length in my original review, this Christmas album by Sinatra is one particularly apt for listening to when one is alone during the holiday season: not necessarily lonely, but simply by oneself. It’ll take you places. You must have it.
Knew very little about Welsh chanteuse Cerys Matthews when we first encountered this album (the most recently-released on our list) but have become consummate fans since, finding that her work over many years combines remarkable spirit, talent and taste in an especially uplifting fashion. Here, in recordings that possess that spark of genuine live performance, she and her merry band perform such traditional chestnuts as “We Three Kings Of Orient Are” and “Ding Dong Merrily On High” and seem effortlessly to conjure what must have been their original joy and mystery. Indeed, as expounded on at (relatively) brief length in my original review, as well-worn a song as “Go Tell It On The Mountain” is performed here “as if it was composed yesterday, with a fairly overflowing spirit of gladness and urgency. That’s no small thing.” And truly, Christmas is not a small thing, after all. That’s what this album will remind you of, and it will get you singing along too. You must have it.
Under-promise and over-deliver, that’s always our motto here, so here’s two more essential Christmas picks:
Christmas with the Louvin Brothers ~ The Louvin Brothers
The aforementioned Bob Dylan once picked this as possibly his favorite Christmas album, with good reason, as the Louvin’s transcendent harmonies can transport you to a higher place from which you may return with reluctance. Originally it contained only hymns, but the modern edition includes two secular Christmas tunes as well. Ira Louvin was a troubled man, but it sure seems at least he knew where he should be looking for the light.
A Christmas Gift for You ~ Phil Spector (and various)
Is there anyone in the world who hasn’t heard these great tunes, by the Ronettes, Darlene Love and the Crystals? Yet their very ubiquity might make us take them for granted. They evoke Christmas as intensely as a deep snowfall on the evening of December 24th. The producer of all of these amazing sides, Phil Spector, is spending this Christmas in jail, and likely the balance of his life, but it’s worth remembering that there were moments in which he followed his better angels and made music as beautiful and as cheering as this.
Hullabaloo is the eighth full-length solo album from Cerys Matthews, and the second to be devoted largely to traditional Welsh songs. It is in fact very much a sister album to 2010’s TIR, which was packaged similarly with sepia-colored photos from days gone by, with the songs’ lyrics lovingly laid out in Welsh and English along with notes on their background. In a certain sense Hullabaloo is a mirror-image of her first Welsh-traditional collection. While TIR included some lighter numbers it was anchored by such great, stirring ballads as “Myfanwy” and “Calon Lan;” whereas while Hullabaloo has some poignant ballads it is defined more by its uptempo and danceable tunes and arrangements. And while TIR was built upon voice and guitar, Hullabaloo flaunts a great ensemble of pipes, all manner of stringed instruments, esoteric percussion and whatever might be called for at the given moment.
Cerys Matthews excels at inspiriting and refreshing old tunes, and she also excels at finding and lifting up the common thread that runs through the really great songs from a variety of musical traditions. It’s very difficult (actually impossible) to define that thread in mere words, but one shot at it is to suggest that it is one entwined with insight into that which is fundamentally human and quite often that which is sacred; and, when it inhabits a melody and a lyric, it makes for a song that can stick around for centuries. Continue reading Cerys Matthews – Hullabaloo→
Hook, Line and Singer: A Singalong Book is a 288 page, hardcover tome being released imminently via Penguin. It’s a songbook which has been put together by Welsh singer and raconteur Cerys Matthews, of whom we’ve become big fans lately at the Cinch HQ. This isn’t a review, as I don’t have the book [*see ADDENDUM below], but merely an honorable mention for something that looks charming. By all accounts, the book presents a wide collection of beloved songs in an easily playable and singable format, with the goal of encouraging folk—especially families with young children—to make their own music, turning off for a while the auto-tuned plastic product that assaults us all the time on the airwaves. It also includes background and commentary on the songs, alternate translations and the like.
But you can listen below via YouTube to Cerys Matthews talk about Hook, Line and Singer, and also about her literary hero (Dylan Thomas), her musical hero (Bob Dylan) and music in general. Also you can hear a snippet of one of the songs in the book, namely the gospel classic “Down by the Riverside.”
*Addendum July 10th: Since writing the above I have bought a copy and shared it with two nieces on a recent family visit. It was a big hit, and looks certain to be used a great deal in the future. What makes it an especially wonderful songbook is the breadth of genres covered, with movie songs such as from “The Wizard of Oz,” folk songs, gospel songs, Americana, melancholy songs and funny songs. From “Edelweiss” to “Home On The Range” to “Whistle While You Work” and “On Top of Old Smokey” … it’s just a really well-chosen collection that has something for any mood, and some quite unusual things too. And then to have the little essays and stories accompanying each song is superb, because it puts them in some kind of context, instead of just tossing them out there helplessly. I was not in the least disappointed. It is a beautifully put-together book and a wonderful gift.
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.