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Sounds of the Season, Part 1

So the Thanksgiving family visit is over. The turkey’s been devoured, the leftovers turned into soup. We’ve survived Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

Now the Christmas season really begins. Bells, tinsel, lights on rain gutters, the Grinch and the jolly old elf are all here for the big day. And of course, so is holiday music.

I’m a big fan of the season in general. And I truly enjoy the music. Somehow it’s doesn’t really feel like Christmas until I hear some favorite classics. Such as the Singing Dogs rendition of Jingle Bells. Or maybe Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer. OK, maybe not that one.

I do have some real favorites. Yes, the dogs really are one of them. As you’ll see by the list below, I tend to favor more contemporary songs for the most part. There’s no real order to the list, and I’m not sure I’d go so far as to call it a “Top 10,”  but it’s not really Christmas to me without these.  Copyright restrictions prevent me from including links,  but none of these are hard to find.

1. Step Into Christmas, Elton John.

A good way to kick off the party, even if most  folks under 40 don’t know what a turntable is.

2. I Believe in Father Christmas, Greg Lake.

A haunting, perhaps a bit cynical , take on the holiday and its commercialization.

3.  Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You, Billy Squier.

A great idea, and a great singalong favorite.

4.  Please Come Home For Christmas, Eagles.

A classic lover’s lament.

5.  Snoopy’s Christmas, The Royal Guardsmen

Ah, the spirit of the holiday. Almost brings a tear to my eye every time.

6. Ay Ay Ay, It’s Christmas, Ricky Martin

OK, fine, roll your eyes — I do too. But my wife loves this one, so on the list it goes.

7.  Silver Bells, various artists.

This is  the most traditional song you’ll find here. This was my Mom’s favorite Christmas song. Reminds me of her.

8.  Feliz Navidad, Jose Feliciano.

Just a happy little expression of the holidays, in two languages.

9.  The Rebel Jesus, Jackson Browne.

A reflection on the meaning of the season, but hardly in a traditional sense.

10.  Happy Xmas (War Is Over), John Lennon.

A timeless masterpiece.

So that’s my list. How about yours? Share your favorite holiday songs in the comments and I’ll post them for Part 2.  Until then, the dogs are barking and the bells are jingling….

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Paradise by the …

So it comes down to this.

Meat Loaf endorses Romney.

Billy Ray Cyrus endorses Obama.

We’ve reached the point of C-list (at best) celebrities endorsing politicians. And for what purpose?

Honestly, does ANYONE think the opinions of these fine gentlemen will influence even ONE vote in this year’s presidential election? Neither one is exactly burning up the music charts these days.

What is it that makes famous folks of any stripe — actors, musicians, chefs, authors — think their endorsement matters? Do they really belive they can make a difference in the way people vote?

Don’t get me wrong. I firmly support the right of celebrities and non-celebrities alike to speak their minds. That’s a fundamental part of American democracy. But there’s no reason to expect that their opinion is any more valuable, or any more rational, than my next door neighbor’s.

Mr. Loaf might believe his presence could sway undecided voters toward Romney. But think about it.  His biggest hit album (Loaf’s, not Romney’s) was released in 1977.  He hasn’t been a significant presence in the music world in decades. He’s actually never had a presence in politics.  So why would we consider his opinion relevant?

And Billy Ray Cyrus’s career follows a similar trajectory. Today’ he’s better known as the father of Hannah Montana.

Do political endorsements matter at all? Sure. An endorsement by a respected diplomat or statesman or stateswoman carries some weight.  But in the end, the vast majority of voters are far more likely to make up their own minds about a candidate than listen to any outside voice. And that’s as it should be.

Ah, but if only we could get someone (Cee Lo?) to create a mashup of  “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” and “Achy, Breaky Heart.”

The Trouble With Music Today…

OK, you can relax. This isn’t going to be one of those “get-off-my-lawn” curmudgeonly rants.  I promise, I’m not going to be complaining about how much better things were way back in the Dark Ages when I attended Walrustropolis High. (Go Pauls!) — although our football rivalry with Carpenter High was the stuff of legend.

No, this is a complaint about SOME of today’s music. The kind that’s disposable, formulaic, overproduced crap.

Now I’ll be the first to admit there was some fantastic music made in the happy corners of my youth, lots of classic stuff that still gets airplay today.  And I’ll also grant that there’s good music being made today. But so much of today’s music played on commercial radio is dull, repetitive noise.

So what prompted my complaint? Two recent listening sessions on my lunch hour.

A few days ago, as I was driving to lunch, the car’s satellite radio presented me with something magical: a Bruce Springsteen concert recorded in 1976. It was vintage Springsteen, with all the passion, the fire,  the wonder of youth. The music that spoke to a teen-aged Walrus in a small town in  the midwest, music that showed, as Springsteen put it, “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” It was glorious, capturing all the hope and energy of life, with just a trace of the desperate suspicion that it won’t work out the way we hope..

That’s classic music that speaks to people.

Then came today’s contemporary  station on the way to Subway. They were playing fun’s We Are Young.  To my admittedly middle-aged ears, it sounded like a dirge. There was no joy, no celebration in the music. Even while singing “let’s set the world on fire,” the band sounded resigned, depressed.

Now I don’t expect every song to be Springsteenesque, even from Springsteen.  There’s a place for downbeat quasi-ballads. There’s even plenty of room on the charts for bad music.  The #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for this week in 1976 — the same week as Springsteen’s concert — was Disco Duck by Rick Dees.

Yes, the charts have always had some degree of really bad music.  But there’s always been a lot of great stuff around too.  The trick has been separating the rockin’ wheat from the boring chaff.

But in the last 15 years or so, the advent of the dreaded Auto-Tune and the near-takeover of pop songs by drum machines has made that sifting harder than ever. There’s just so much dreck out there.

Lana Del Rey.  fun.  (I’ll honor their style and not capitalize the band nane.)   Justin freakin’ Bieber.

Sure, there are still great artists recording.  Cee Lo Green.  Pink. Lady Gaga. Mumford and Sons. Drive-By Truckers.  And what do they have in common?

No obvious Auto-Tune.  No drum machine. Just a good to great voice,  ability (in most cases) to play their own instruments and a passion for the music.

And that’s what’s missing from the wannabes. Passion.  Without that, well, sorry, fun — your music isn’t.

Decline and Fall?

I try to be an optimistic soul, I really do. I look for the bright side of things most of the time. I realize most people are reasonably intelligent, most people are good and most people have at least some clue when they’re talking about music and literature.

But really, sometimes I wonder.

Although I’m late to the party on this particular example, I feel compelled to comment on it. I’m a lover of music, words and the combination of the two. Not sure how I missed this before now, but it simply boggles my mind.

Disclaimer: I’m an Eagles fan, have been pretty much since the band began. But I don’t think you have to be a fan to be dumbfounded by the question a music critic for the major metropolitan newspaper asked founding Eagle Don Henley three years ago.

The critic — who shall remain nameless here — asked Henley, via email, about the lyrics to Hotel California:

— “On “Hotel California,” you sing: “So I called up the captain / ‘Please bring me my wine’ / He said, ‘We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969.'” I realize I’m probably not the first to bring this to your attention, but wine isn’t a spirit. Wine is fermented; spirits are distilled. Do you regret that lyric?” [added emphasis mine] —

You’ve GOT to be kidding me! I first heard that lyric when I was a 17-year-old high school student and I knew THEN that it was a metaphor! How dense do you have to be to take that literally?

Henley, known for being rather curmudgeonly to begin with, responded thus:

— “Thanks for the tutorial and, no, you’re not the first to bring this to my attention—and you’re not the first to completely misinterpret the lyric and miss the metaphor. Believe me, I’ve consumed enough alcoholic beverages in my time to know how they are made and what the proper nomenclature is. But that line in the song has little or nothing to do with alcoholic beverages. It’s a sociopolitical statement. My only regret would be having to explain it in detail to you, which would defeat the purpose of using literary devices in songwriting and lower the discussion to some silly and irrelevant argument about chemical processes.”

Now, as far as I’m concerned, Henley responded to a moronic question quite well, giving it exactly the level of respect it deserved. But a quick Web search shows many more people thinking the exchange showed Henley to be a jerk than think the critic was a fool.

Sorry, folks, if that’s the best question a journalist can come up with — and misinterpret the lyrics so completely in the process — he or she is a poor excuse for a writer.

Psst. News flash:  The line “stab it with their steely knives” in Hotel California wasn’t just about knives (look it up). The song Life in the Fast Lane wasn’t about driving, either.

Oh, by the way, R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” isn’t about religion. And anyone who took Henley’s lyric that literally probably should stay far away from Dylan’s entire repertoire. And Elvis Costello’s. And maybe they’d better forget the writing of that Shakespeare guy, too….

This Just In…

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Breaking News: There’s a Spice Girls jukebox musical in the works. No word yet on whether Betty White will be joining them as Old Spice.

http://tinyurl.com/7eydgte

And if you can’t wait and know what you want, what you really, really want:

http://tinyurl.com/5etbwg

Originality Is The Highest Form of Tribute

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There are some things I just don’t get when it comes to music. The ongoing popularity of The Doors, for example.  How bands such as Train can combine good music with God-awful lyrics.  Or why on earth Judas Priest recorded Joan Baez’s classic, autobiographical “Diamonds and Rust.”

But one of the biggest musical mysteries to me has always been impersonators and tribute bands. I just don’t understand why someone would want to perform in the persona of another artist — and why on earth people pay to see (and hear) them do it.

Don’t misunderstand. I’m not talking about COVER bands — a band that performs other people’s songs, but doesn’t try to look and sound exactly like the original artists. A good cover band can be a lot of fun, and a great one can really rock. But TRIBUTE bands that want me to suspend disbelief and think I’m seeing the original artist(s), not so much.

Take Elvis impersonators — please. Elvis Presley was a revolutionary. His arrival was a slap to the face of the stagnant, boring musical establishment of the 1950s. Elvis was cool, sexy, and most of all to the established order, dangerous  (Not as dangerous, perhaps, as the African-American artists whose style he emulated, but that’s another story). Elvis was nothing if not original.

I’ve seen Elvis impersonators, good and bad. I’ve seen imitation Elvii ranging in age from about 8 to roughly 60. And the one thing they have in common, both good and bad, is that they’re safe. They’re wholesome. They’re not dangerous. And that makes them emphatically NOT Elvis.

Same thing with Beatles tribute bands. I’ve seen a few, and while they’re very good at imitating the vocals, gestures and stage presence of the Liverpool legends, all the Faux Fours lack a certain something.– depth, say, or sincerity. Instead of John’s biting wit, Paul’s likable cuteness, Ringo’s goofy sense of fun and George’s spirituality, the tribute bands give us a “performance,” in the acting sense of the word. Once they step off that stage, they could be a completely different person, just waiting for their next acting gig.

I just don’t understand what makes people WANT to take on those personas. Is it insecurity that they’re not original enough to make it on their own? Plenty of folks prove otherwise every day. If you can sing like Elvis, you can sing, period. Why not be an authentic artist in your own right?

As for the audience, I know people want to see their musical heroes. I have a fairly long list of artists I’ll happily pay to see over and over again — think Springsteen, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Elton John — but there are plenty that I never had the chance to see.  I was too young to have seen the Beatles in their prime, and  I wasn’t born when Elvis was in his. I would love to have seen them then; I don’t want to see an imitation of them, no matter how faithfully reproduced, now. I’d rather make do with their recorded music, and with videos of their original performances.

Like so much in music, and in life,  it all comes down to originality and authenticity. Why would you want to be a second-rate member of the Prefab Four or an imitation Elvis when you could be an original, first-rate you?

Epic Sax Walrus!

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Epic Sax Walrus!

OK, you KNEW I had to be all over this one!  Love it!  Rock on, cousin!

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