27 December 2012

A Charles Dickens Denouement

Yes, I’m still Celebrating the Dickens’ Bicentennial!
By Kristin Battestella

One would think I’d eventually run out of Dickensian material to review in this 200 year party, but no! So what better time but the Christmas season to end our Victorian conversations?

The Christmas Carol – I stumbled upon this 1949 half hour on one of our new retro channels- love them- and wow, found two of my favorite things together: Vincent Price reading Charles Dickens! Price is so young indeed for this very early television production, but he’s animated, suave, and even cheeky during his onscreen transitions. He’s clearly enjoying this little holiday dramatization! Though black and white, there’s also a fittingly aged, green patina to the video, which retroactively creates a further vintage.  Arthur Pierson’s (Hometown Story) adaptation has all the quintessential dialogue and memorable iconography even if the acting is the dated with the expected but put on British-ness. The direction feels stilted as well, with bare bones sets, awkward cues, some choppy editing, and simple camera filming.  However, most of this is forgivable considering the budding television concepts and infancy of the medium post-war. Though few, the ghostly effects are surprisingly well done for the time.  With such a short time frame, the work is considerably condensed, too. The unusual looking Ghost of Christmas Past and subsequent two ghostly visitors only receive one essential scene each. Thankfully, fun music accents the paired down design, and the quick simplicity makes this one just right for the Dickensian classroom.

Great Expectations – A dynamite ensemble- including the endearing John Mills (Swiss Family Robinson) as Pip, a wonderful Martita Hunt (Brides of Dracula) as the freaky Miss Havisham, an enchanting Jean Simmons (Guys and Dolls) debuting as the young Estella, and of course, Alec Guinness again – makes this award winning 1946 black and white Dickens adaptation glorious. From the scary Magwitch entrance and childhood abuses to Miss Havisham’s decrepit house and London refinement, the pace, emotion, likeable people, and ironic circumstances are all here. Naturally, the timeline and some condensing are necessary for these two hours, and it looks as though there are some weird sped up actions in some scenes. However, this film doesn’t look dated and old as some might expect, but rather perfectly period. The mood and atmosphere are excellent, be it the depressed or the festive, and stunning décor recreates splendid London heights and demented Victorian lows. Subtitles will be a must for some to catch all the accents and old speak, granted. But who needs modern adaptation drivel coughgwynethpaltrowcough when this version is still damn near spectacular?

Oliver Twist – This once lost 1922 silent adaptation is obviously not for everyone thanks to the early jumpiness and over emoting players of the time. However, the sepia tones, blue evening tints, and even red chrome work accent the jovial scoring and add to the poor London setting onscreen.  Jackie Coogan (Fester from The Addams Family!) as Oliver is also tiny and cute against horror pimp Lon Chaney as Fagin. Chaney is wonderfully hunched and decrepit, yet bemusing and seemingly feeble – but we know better! Despite some of the primitive presentation, it’s still very easy to root for Oliver and his goodness in the battle against deceit and the criminal underbelly. I’m sure there are people today who can relate. There isn’t a lot of rewatchability here, however, and this 70-minute charmer would be nice for kids – except you need to really know the story or pay serious attention to the title cards. The intertitles pack in a lot of the tale- even for a silent film, they seem, well, wordy if I may say so! The length and pace also feel long, but Dickensian scholars and film historians will enjoy a thorough study.

 The Light of Faith It’s not Dickensian but rather a Lon Chaney connection, but this surprising 1922 short is included on the Oliver Twist DVD.  This frame within a frame story of the Holy Grail is a little heavy handed and again of its time with then-contemporary settings and drama.   However, this also once lost and only partially rediscovered tale is very colorful, with numerous rainbow tints and pleasant musical arrangements. Some segments are perhaps too sweet with typical action, but the medieval insert looks good. It’s fun to see Chaney in the then-modern style, too. He’s simple and eventually desperate- but it’s for the right reasons. The pre-code, pre-Depression depictions of poverty and hunger are also intriguing.  If you can get over the over accentuated theatrics, Chaney fans and film students should give this little piece the attention it deserves. 

On the literary front, this year I’ve also received two special Dickens related books. Although at this rate, I probably won’t get to novel Drood by Dan Simmons or the illustrated The Life of Charles Dickens by John Forster until next Christmas!  For more Victorian viewing and Dickensian rants, don’t forget to follow our Charles Dickens label. Now what the heck am I to do with myself for 2013?

23 December 2012

Babes in Toyland

Babes in Toyland Still Jolly Good Fun
By Kristin Battestella

I kept burying this 1961 Disney holiday musical in my queue in order to time it for Christmas, and then too many a “very long wait” from Netflix interfered before Babes in Toyland finally arrived.  After so many years of youth and Yule viewings on a jumpy VHS, each December I always have the urge for this memorable merry treat.

Disrupting the bliss of Mother Goose Village, corrupt Mr. Barnaby (Ray Bolger) and his henchman (Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon) plot to ruin the marriage of Mary Quite Contrary (Annette Funicello) and Tom Piper (Tommy Sands). Once they kidnap Tom and steal Mary’s sheep, she is forced to accept Barnaby’s marriage proposal. When Little Bo Peep (Ann Jillian) and the children in Mary’s care set out to the Forest of No Return to find the lost sheep, Mary must protect them and help save the Toymaker (Ed Wynn) and his Toyland from the pursuing Barnaby.

Based upon Victor Herbert’s turn of the century ode, director Jack Donohue (The Lucy Show) adds color and takes some lyrical liberties for the memorable marches and musical numbers here. Thanks to tunes both seasonal and classic- such as the titular “Toyland,” “March of the Toys,” “Slowly He Sank into the Sea,” and “I Can’t Do the Sum” – we still remember all the words five decades on. Yes, it’s all juvenile and simplistic, but also quite catchy, inventive, and most importantly, sing a long-able. Appearances by Mother Goose, Jack and Jill, Jack Be Nimble, and more ensure plenty of 365 days a year watch-ability for kids even if parents can spot some disjointedness to start. There isn’t a lot of straight dialogue here, and most of it rhymes. In fact, there isn’t that much drama, just one musical session after another advancing the plot with song and dance.  Tom and Mary don’t even speak for the first 20 minutes. Thankfully, once the story and peril at hand ramp it up, Babes in Toyland becomes one great adventure after another, from the lost sheep to the Forest of No Return and Toyland’s fun and action filled finale. Sure, there isn’t much of a plot if you think too hard, and the Romani misnomers of the day are also stereotypical, but I can’t help myself… “Gypsies! We are the gypsies, and we are here today and gone tomorrow!” All the action happens in an unrealistically fast-paced two days, but this hour and forty-five minutes is a quick and jovial good time.

Wow, Annette Funicello (Beach Party) is so young and pretty in Babes in Toyland! Mary Mary Quite Contrary wears some lovely dresses, sings up a wealth of innocent charm, and is quite the Italian fox, if I do say so myself. What’s not to love? By contrast, Tommy Sands (Ensign Pulver) was a bit of a flash in the pan, granted. Tom sank, oh yes indeed! However, his sixties teen dream entrapment is perfect for the toothache sweet fun here, and Sands’ “Floretta” segment is both totally preposterous and wonderfully in the moment. Likewise, Ray Bolger (Wizard of Oz) is a completely delightful ham. Even wise young viewers might never recognize The Scarecrow thanks to Bolger’s complete mustache twisting and greedy transformation. Every villainous cliché is tossed into Babes in Toyland, including a nasty forced marriage and a few implications not unnoticed by adults viewing today. From the slicked and pasted hair and shiny vampire camp to “Castle in Spain,” Bolger is utterly warped excellence.

Sing it with me, “And We Won’t Be Happy till We Geeeeeet It!” Barnaby has some dang catchy tunes, and likewise Zorro alums Henry Calvin and Gene Sheldon are classic in their cahoots. Kidnapping, theft, murderous innuendo- it might seem too heavy for a children’s tale except for the silent slapstick and lovably cruel fun in Babes in Toyland. The watery bedlam is totally on the nose and may even be downright annoying to some today, and yet every piece of it works. Love or hate the ham, this tomfoolery is mighty entertaining! Ed Wynn (Mary Poppins) is adorably dimwitted and charming in his stupidity, and Tommy Kirk (Swiss Family Robinson) matches perfectly with a nerdy but affable fun. The children in lesser roles such as Ann Jillian (It’s A Living) and Kevin Corcoran (Old Yeller) are somewhat brief but do some dear singing. Parents beware, however- the “Forest of No Return” jingle and Toyland workshop destruction might be somewhat scary for super young ones. Since they are 10ish and under it is probably okay to have the boys and girls sleep together in the same room onscreen. But five of them in one room?! How does Mary not pull that pretty hair out?

Obviously, despite its high-end production at the time, Babes in Toyland is dated with silly puppetry, stage-like cardboard facades for sets, evident matte paintings, and shiny, plastic lawns.  It’s all ridiculous really, and yet there is an interactive musical charm to the design. Though small scale now, the fantasy costumes, colorful backdrops, and bright kitschy looks so much nicer and more family friendly compared to the contemporary in your face CGI and modern dark and dirty fantasy realism. The dance routines are also of the time, but still well choreographed and impressive fun. Don’t lie! Whatever your age, you know you’d hang out in Mother Goose Village or chillax at Mary’s house like it was a medieval fantasy faire. The animation accents, color and video effects, miniature filming, and stop motion scenery create so bad its cool retro Rube Goldbergs- although modern kids might find the somewhat crappy looking toys lame. Fortunately, those who had such wooden horses and Lincoln logs can reminisce or create new family memories with Babes in Toyland.

Though available on DVD, there aren’t any features or behind the scenes treats, which is surprising for a Disney release. The picture is also unfortunately not in widescreen, and Babes in Toyland is becoming rarer and increasingly edited on television as well. Sure, the whole thing is really quite silly, and you must turn off your elder brain to appreciate Babes in Toyland- especially parents who didn’t grow up watching it but now have the kids hooked. However, there’s also a smart, self-referential goofy at work, something for all members of the family to be bemused. They just can’t make films like this today and have them be so good. Both young boys and girls can delight, too. Adults who saw Babes in Toyland as kids can enjoy again and gain with their young ones at Christmas or year round.

22 December 2012

Our Christmas Vinyl Collection

The Christmas Vinyl Collection 2012
By Kristin Battestella

Another year, another look at the state of the ever-growing collection of Yule on Vinyl here at I Think, Therefore I Review! Here’s a quick list of all the snap, crackle, and pop holiday essays, conveniently in one non-scratchable location at last.

And lastly, the only remaining Christmas records I own and have not reviewed thus far are the 10 album Great Songs of Christmas Goodyear series. Whew!

For more fun reference, you can also visit the 2009 Christmas Vinyl Assessment or use the Christmas tags, labels, and search options. Most of these reviews and posts have shopping links or album cover photos where available, as heck, not all of this turntable material is available digitally or even that easy to find and identify via checking the musty attic or searching the messy thrift shop.  So, if anyone has further questions on clarifications or specifications, please feel free to inquire in the Comments Section any time. And as always, whatever You and Yours celebrate this holiday season, may you be warmed, well fed, and abundantly blessed!

21 December 2012

Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special

A Double Helping with Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Christmas Special
By Kristin Battestella

I love the confusion of Christmas records, I really do. ‘Pon my soul, it turns out A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special is a reissue of not one, but two previous Ernie Yule albums: Sing We Now of Christmas and O Come All Ye Faithful. This double delight provides a family friendly Christmas listen, and puts an Amen to it.

First released in 1965, Sing We Now of Christmas stands as Record 1 for A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special, and the titular Sing We Now of Christmas opens with a satisfying Old World sound to set the album’s tone.  It’s traditional, but not so out of touch and with a special Middle Eastern rhythm. I like it- somber, but not so old-fashioned baritone deep that it can’t be enjoy today. This church casual preparation and fun continues with O Christmas Tree. This one’s very easy to sing along to indeed. So often any more we get just a rushed refrain, but Ernie gives us time to enjoy all the verses here. His bass tone is simply perfect for The Little Drummer Boy, too. It’s a sweet, but somber male ode for young and old and just excellent in simplicity and style. There isn’t a lot of orchestration, nor is it needed for this quiet reverence and humility.  

Angels We Have Heard on High isn’t over the top, either, like so many booming renditions today. Tennessee keeps the big “Gloria” (you know you want to sing it all out right now) so easy. Who knew this chorale carol could be for the family to sing along during a night of crafts, baking, or wrapping presents? We’re not in a grand and lofty church; Ernie brings the Christmas message home effortlessly and with a universal tenderness. Likewise, Caroling, Caroling isn’t too fast but just right in seasonal sway, mood, and melody. You want to join in! Despite his hymnal associations, A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special begins this Record 1 Side A with a somewhat neutral but festive sound. The classic carols and subtle spiritual are excellent for the traditional and faithful family or the secular office. Sing We Now of Christmas breaks down the holiday flak and presents Christmas at its most basic hearth and home symbols. Unfortunately, that innocence and simplicity makes for a dang short record!

Sing We Now of Christmas’ Side B, i.e. Record 1 Side 2 of A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special remember, begins with a wonderfully paced Good King Wenceslas. Rather than quick beats and lots of fast bells or vocals, the accenting choir and arrangement here is so pleasant. I feel like I’ve been using the word “pleasant” to describe a lot of these old-fashioned Christmas records, but the timeless tunes are indeed easy on the ear in comparison to the generic holiday noise of today.  Thanks to Ernie’s soft storytelling style, I feel as though I might have actually heard and understood these lyrics! So often, this one becomes one of those “songs you kind of know the words to” but not here. The Virgin’s Slumber Song’s lyrics, however, may really be unfamiliar as this charming little lullaby never quite caught on. I don’t know why; the tone is quite peaceable and touching, and this is actually a very beautiful little tune. Ernie takes the time to appreciate every note and so should we.

Although light hearted and filled with family friendly holiday faire, Twelve Days of Christmas is actually one of the few secular seasonals on Sing We Now of Christmas. Fortunately, the pleasant arrangements and easy rendition style carry over to this increasingly wacky, commercial carol. Ernie’s low sound alternates with the casual choir, and nobody gets out of breath as the cumulative chorus mounts in unexpected ways. No Japanese Transistor Radios here! What Child is This returns to the somber with just a bit more formality, but there is still a zesty medieval choir and courtly sway at work.  Instead of being old and stuffy, there’s a youthful pace and kingly style that shouldn’t be so surprising considering this is the Birth of Christ, after all. Ernie also shakes up the arrangement of Away in the Manger to close Sing We Now of Christmas.  It’s a good place to conclude. We had the festive and fun, and now the family can tuck in with the spoken, prayer-like lyrics here. Amen indeed.

Now that A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special is finished with the 1965 Sing We Now of Christmas sharing, Record 2 serves up the 1968 O Come All Ye Faithful album from Ernie’s holiday repertoire. Once again, the eponymous starter O Come All Ye Faithful sets the country church mood with big choir notes and full verses. Where Sing We Now of Christmas had some Meaning of the Season and a traditional holiday friendly working together for an overall enjoyable listen across the spectrum, this session is almost all down and reverent carols. Little Boy King may be less well known, but it’s a wonderfully innocent little story. This seems like what would be the Children’s Church segment of the hour, but there is a mature simplicity at hand, too. Love, brotherhood, peace on earth, goodwill, joy, freedom-these shouldn’t be estranged subjects to us, especially at Christmas. 

More somber and seriousness follows with Slumber Song of the Infant Jesus. This rendition doesn’t feel sing a long-able, it’s more of a sit back, listen, and be awed by Ernie’s down home church singing and power. I think sometimes with all our contemporary pop wintertime tunes, we forget that it is okay to be moved by the stillness of the season. Also becoming more and more rare, Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella is upbeat and lighthearted and not operatic as usually heard. Big T carries the choir as if this were a festive nursery rhyme. Hush, hush, up up- good little girls and boys won’t want to wake the baby even if they don’t understand the rest of the lyrics. Likewise, Good Christian Men Rejoice is hardly heard anymore, but it is darn catchy nonetheless with a joyous message, fun rhythms, and high notes to finish O Come All Ye Faithful’s Side 1.

The Wassail Song rings in this final leg of A Tennesse Ernie Ford Christmas Special with the more familiar seasonal singable. It’s rousing in a different way. Where the obscure carols are all Christ’s meaning, this is happy. We do have reason to be happy come December, oh yes. The Friendly Beasts gives us more of the crèche story in a lovely little anthropomorphic tale- another amazing lesser-heard ode that says so much in its small way. He is Born, The Holy Child also forgoes the flair as Ernie sans music recounts the whole dang reason we are celebrating. The savior is born, say it merrily- what else is there?

Tennessee and his choir have a different pace with While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks but this quick refrain still works. Some today might perceive O Come All Ye Faithful as a bit dry, granted. How many birth carols can one have in row anyway before things get redundant? Fortunately or unfortunately, the tracks here are once again too quick. After so many less common great church going tunes, it is a bit unusual to end such a deeply spiritual album with so secular a staple as White Christmas, but it sounds perfect, with Ernie’s booming notes and Christmas blessing matching the old-fashioned cold we associate with mid century snows. Thanks to all these recordings from Sing We Now of Christmas and O Come All Ye Faithful, baritone listeners can choose which Ernie they want- seasonably safe and festive or soulful and obscure meaning. Not many today can do both- either vocally or commercially- but Tennessee Ernie Ford pulled it off- that’s why they combined both albums for A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special!

Previously, I’ve also written upon the 1958 best seller The Star Carol: Tennessee Ernie Ford Sings His Christmas Favorites. If you’re seeking the big name carols and reverence, then that’s the album to find the likes of Joy to the World and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Despite this combination reissue, it doesn’t appear that any songs overlap here or on Ernie’s two other seasonal albums, 1963’s Story of Christmas and C-H-R-I-S-T-M-A-S from 1971. Though Story of Christmas seems part and parcel available on CD, most of Ernie Ford’s holiday sessions appear unavailable digitally. The current Christmas Favorites CD looks to be the same as The Star Carol, but it seems like chasing vinyl is the best way to get your Ernie Ford December fix.  All these confusing releases, reissues, and similarly titled compilations make it tough to enjoy the music and the meaning, but pursuing A Tennessee Ernie Ford Christmas Special is worth the vinyl vintage, old-fashioned charm, and spiritual family faire.   

20 December 2012

More Christmas Shows and Documentaries

More Christmas Food for Thought Television
By Kristin Battestella

There haven’t been that many Christmas shows and religious documentaries on television in recent years, but here are a few fictional delights and debatable documentaries to help young and old work on the mistletoe mind and spiritual soul this holiday season.

A Charlie Brown Christmas – I’m not a serious Peanuts or Charlie Brown fan but fortunately, you don’t have to be to appreciate this quick, award winning 1965 cartoon classic. Now airing annually on ABC each December and available on video with features and treats, youth, young at heart, and families of any and all beliefs will delight in the pouty Charlie Brown, snotty Lucy, wise Linus, and of course, who doesn’t love Snoopy? The animation still looks great; it’s quirky, retro, and full of memories compared to the so often in your face, instant, and forgettable modern designs. The simplicity of a nickel for advice and adorning a broken little tree with love helps put the spirit of Christmas in perspective, “Deck them Halls and all that stuff.”  Unhappiness, commercialism, misunderstanding during the holidays- if Charlie Brown was so displeased then, imagine what he would think of our Christmas Creep and outrageous politically correct season now? Have we changed so much or so little in the last fifty years? This innocent look at Christmas and the birth of Christ is neither offensive nor preachy, and the dialogue affectionately lampoons some of the crazy aspects of the holiday season, such as obsessing over Christmas cards, seasonal plays, light displays, and letters to Santa. Capped off with famous carols, iconic Peanuts tunes, and that special Charles Shultz flavor, the surprisingly deep spiritual symbolism and childlike perspective can bring a tear to your eye year after year. 

A Christmas Carol – No, I never get tired of divulging in this perennial Dickens classic, and the 1951 Alastair Sim as Scrooge adaptation is perhaps the most faithful in atmosphere, structure, and melancholy compared to other happy, colorful, condensed editions.  Of course, there are still a few tweaks and character changes in Scrooge’s past and an iffy colorization, but all that’s forgivable thanks to the chilly Victorian frost, morbid silver screen flavor, and fun smoke and mirrors ghost effects.  The wailing and frightening music is mixed with perfectly period carols in this swift 90 minutes, but remember, there are some dang fine scares here that might be too much for super young kids. Sim – who also took part in the 1971 animated edition, which might better serve those young family audiences – is perfectly ugly and unlikeable to begin as Scrooge and yet the Christian undercurrent from Dickens comes across thanks to the mostly intact famed dialogue and near complete ghostly visits. Some of the cast may seem like uber Brit caricatures today because we are so familiar with the tale-and my goodness that Cockney, ear damaging “‘Pen my bunle ‘ext, Joe! Calico!” However, this version helped create the pattern we expect most A Christmas Carol adaptations to follow. It still tugs at our heartstrings- not because of the charming story, but because we’ve been the miser who will “weigh everything by gain” and sacrifice those around us in pursuit of the “golden idol.” In many ways, the economics haven’t change one bit, and this encapsulation reminds us that redemption is indeed possible at Christmas or year round.   

In Search of Christmas – This 2001 History Channel documentary takes its full 90 minute time to explore the entire scope of Jesus’ birth. From Mary’s virgin status, the tax collection and location of the nativity, the Star of Bethlehem, the Magi and astronomical clues to Biblical versus historical accounts, calendar significance, Joseph’s role, and more; scholars, clergy, theologians, and skeptics from a variety of religious schools, universities, and backgrounds provide point and counterpoint. The presentation is intelligent, with insightful depths that respect faith and the miraculous aspects of Christmas- unlike purely scientific programs that seem to mock or scoff at believing the sight unseen. The focus stays on the spiritual exploration and historical importance of Christ’s birth here - unlike other quickie History Channel shows such as Christmas Unwrapped. Those hours about Santa or secular holiday traditions are fine for their purpose, but such documentaries further push Christmas as synonymous with toys, reindeer, fruitcake, and all that is nonreligious. Fortunately available on DVD for a Sunday school discussion or reverent showing, I wish there were more programs like In Search of Christmas on television- and there is no reason why History should stop showing this and other religious centric Ancient Mysteries and Mysteries of the Bible programming.  There are decades worth of these traditional documentaries- so why are we stuck with more and more reality crap on their networks?

What Would Jesus Buy? – This 2007 docufilm about the increasing commerciality of the Christmas season is very weirdly filmed, with askew angles, jerky zooms, and fast-paced images.  The Zany host Reverend Billy does not help, either. He and his choir singing the anti-shopping theme is just a bit unappealing, padding what could have been an objective and intelligent look at how we pointlessly commercialize Christmas. Even the most interested viewer hesitates to support the cause here because of this juvenile presentation. Why almost parody the very religious atmosphere you are trying to turn folks back to? Obviously, this is not the right approach, but I am glad a full hour and a half was taken. Though I would have much preferred realistic, straight film making and the news and numbers are slightly dated; the statistics of people in debt and shopping excessiveness are still very telling. One little old grandma says, “Why do the CEOs earn 500% more than the one at the bottom?” (hey, Occupy people, what kept you?) The essential message here almost gets lost because of the dumb theme, but the examination of how the price tag became more important than the thought or the why is a critical one.  How did we come to have our entire economy depend on Christmas shopping? When did the financial black become more important than the light and love at earth’s darkest hour? Ironically, what sells this documentary most is that the commerciality and financial situations have gotten worse since its 2005 filming. How can we as intelligent folks trade our beliefs for this Buying = Love concept?  How effed up are we? What Would Jesus Buy? does its best when it puts the bologna away and shows people crying over the precious simplicity of a homespun lifestyle and how Christmas used to be.

18 December 2012

Christmas Through the Years Box Set

Christmas Through the Years A Dynamite Little Set
By Kristin Battestella

I think I paid a whopping $5 for Christmas Through the Years, a special 1984 holiday record collection from Reader’s Digest Music. With five LPs each themed on a decade or topic, there are more than enough Christmas tunes here to meet one and all’s December listening needs.

Entitled “Christmas Favorites Forever,” Record 1’s debut is excellent- from the opening Boston Pops’ Sleigh Ride to the somber Silent Night by Bing Crosby. There’s plenty of Perry Como to go around with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Silver Bells, and The Christmas Song, too. The erroneously forgotten soldiers’ ode Christmas Eve in My Home Town by Kate Smith is absolutely dynamite. I’ve played it so many times, now it skips! Side B serves up more Perry with Home for the Holidays, and Bing’s Rudolph rendition is old time fun for all. Christmas Through the Years may be worth the holiday hunt just for this record alone. The common classics and heart-warming rarities alike are that good indeed.

Yes, it is a little dated with essential kid staples ala Leave it to Beaver, but Record 2’s “Christmas in the 50s” block is Christmas Through the Years for the whole family. Santa Claus is Coming to Town from Lawrence Welk, Here Comes Santa Claus by Eddie Fisher, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus by Spike Jones, and Nuttin’ for Christmas are all youthfully annoying and yet strangely endearing- except for I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. I’ve never understood how they made a kids song out of that kink! Hello, holiday role-playing, anyone? Fortunately, Harry Belafonte’s Mary’s Little Boy Child is far more tender and Bobby Helm’s Jingle Bell Rock is grooving fun for all. Bing Crosby’s A Marshmallow World is somehow more sophisticated for adult memories, too, and Perry Como’s It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas is always timeless.  Unfortunately, Record 3’s “Christmas in the 60s, 70s, and 80s,” might be weakest part of Christmas Through the Years, only because it’s more split with dated rather than enduring tunes. The Singing Dogs version of Jingle Bells is fun- once, the first time you hear it, when you are five. Otherwise, the barking novelty is amiss. This track is also stuck in the middle of the glories of Pretty Paper by Roy Orbison and Brenda Lee’s iconic Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree. Suffice to say, it’s not the right place for it!  O Holy Night and The Christmas Waltz by The Letterman are soft, easy, and pleasant but also irrevocably trapped in their certain sixties harmony or glee club style. Ironically, Perry Como’s I Wish It Could Be Christmas Forever- a 1982 release-sounds more mid century idyllic.  Kate Smith’s medley of Deck the Halls/Joy to the World/It Came upon a Midnight Clear is, of course, simply stunning, and Jose Feliciano finishes strong with Feliz Navidad.

I’m not really sure why Christmas Through the Years goes out of order, as Record 4’s theme is “Christmas in the 40s.”  Fortunately, there’s more booming Bing with Adeste Fideles and I’ll Be Home for Christmas, and of course, more pleasing Perry with Winter Wonderland. Love it or hate it, you’re getting I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas, and Spike Jones returns for All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth. I might have preferred an album side or whole record in Christmas Through the Years be dedicated to all these goofy, dated and silly kids tunes, that way all the classic memories and melodies wouldn’t be so interrupted. However, I suppose the intermixed family placement encourages young ones to listen to all, and everything here is child friendly anyway. The soft vocal of ‘Twas the Night before Christmas is so tender and charming- I’m surprised there aren’t more musical versions of this poem ala the recordings of The Lord’s Prayer. And hello! Glenn Miller’s smooth Jingle Bells rendition is the way this song should be. End of story, and that’s a fact! Surprisingly, The Merry Christmas Polka isn’t half-bad, either.  Record 5 concludes Christmas Through the Years blissfully with a focus on “Beloved Carols,” although the inclusions of Twelve Days of Christmas and We Wish You a Merry Christmas keep this segment from being purely spiritual faire. Amid today’s lesser-heard staves such as O Sanctissima, Angels from the Realms of Glory, and The Holly and the Ivy, the heartfelt choirs and harmony vocals offer affectionate and traditional odes such as the robust Hark The Herald Angels Sing, orchestral We Three Kings, and a wonderfully medieval What Child Is This.  I haven’t even touched upon all sixty plus songs, and yet the smart categorizing of these LPs and its built-in options to pick and choose keeps Christmas Through the Years viable almost thirty five years on. Old-fashioned Yule for Grandma, classic holiday sing a longs for the kids, refined December traditions for dining adults, crèche focus for a night in with the whole family- Christmas Through the Years has it all!

My vinyl box set of Christmas Through the Years also contains a very nice little “Music Program Guide” booklet inside with brief histories and detailed information on each track-that’s always a nice treat. Obviously, this is a pretty generic and multi used title, so having any concrete information is a premium. It seems there was an early, brief, and/or rare CD edition, but beware on some of the uber high pricing that apparently comes with an elusive digital edition.  Unfortunately, no other MP3 or download correlations seem available either, but at least there are cassettes! Perhaps it is fitting that the Christmas Through the Years vinyl set is actually fairly easy to find. After all, the faux-Yule log snap, crackle, pop adds to this must have seasonal charm. Shop now and keep Christmas Through the Years for many Yules to come.

16 December 2012

Wynonna's A Classic Christmas

Wynonna’s Classic Christmas Just That
By Kristin Battestella

Wynonna, the dynamic daughter half of eighties country pop sensation The Judds, makes an utterly blissful holiday debut with this 2006 release, appropriately titled A Classic Christmas. With big notes, seasonal sway, and a fine mix of traditional sounds and new spin arraignments, one would never suspect the country ancestry behind this chart topper.

The Christmas Song sets the tone for A Classic Christmas with an easy, jazzy, and festive feeling. It’s mellow, but full of holiday memories and timeless sound. Wynonna has a few long notes and room to stretch the rhythm and it all works wonderfully. Winter Wonderland continues the sophisticated style with the snowy echoes and fun bells.  It’s happy, even jolly, but also mature, adult, and not in your face one bit. This is a very pleasant listen indeed, but White Christmas is dynamite, too. No big production values are needed here- in fact, A Classic Christmas sounds like a quiet, intimate studio session with a few musicians and lots of egg nog. The melodies are dinner for two friendly even if you can hear a hint of country in some of Wynonna’s lyrics here. We’re only three songs into A Classic Christmas, and already there’s no doubt about Wynonna’s sentimental capability.

Nay, it’s quite the contrary.  I’ll Be Home for Christmas doesn’t sound like the country Wynonna some might have expected. I’m not a country fan myself, but Wynonna almost sounds like a soulful black singer from the sixties, with big, deep notes, total heart, and gospel. I can’t think of another way to say it, but I absolutely mean that as a compliment. There are shades of Ella and Mahalia on A Classic Christmas, and it keeps the set both modern and contemporary cool for today’s urbane listener and very old school traditional debonair at the same time. On a random radio listen, one might very well take pause and question in what year these songs were made. For a holiday album needing a perennial shelf life, this is the golden ticket.  Santa Claus Is Coming to Town adds an upbeat jingle with kids singing along in a fun moment for the whole family. Fortunately, this isn’t as hokey and overdone as most child tracks are. It’s not bad, but a bit unlike anything else on the album. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas returns to the refined style with a fresh opening and melancholy interludes. The expected bittersweet is excellent, simply put. I’ve no doubt Wynonna could have gone bigger with these secular staples. However, the fact that she keeps these tunes easy on the ears but vocally solid and strong note in and note out is so refreshing amid this century’s new wave of, well, singers who can’t actually sing. All that electronic voice box crap- give me someone who can carry a Christmas tune and put an amen to it!

Like the albums of Yuletide yore, Wynonna saves the spiritual and carols for the second half of A Classic Christmas and starts the reverence off big with Ave Maria. You would not know this woman is not a Catholic opera trained Italian soprano who speaks Latin on a regular basis.  No production spectacle or orchestral take over is needed here. The hefty notes are retained and yet Wynonna keeps this lofty ode a soft, respectful lullaby.  The church choir comes out next to introduce O Come, O Come Emmanuel and the combination keeps this brooding medieval anticipatory seasonably solid. The somber instruments and grand but personal, quivering delivery would seem fit for a rousing Christmas Eve candlelight service. However, Wynonna creates an edgy household appeal and modern arraignment in ye spirit of olde. Though its one of the longer tracks here, I wish more people could do this carol this way- the way it deserves. Although I could do without the way Wynonna says ‘yonder’ and this rendition isn’t as traditional as expected, O Holy Night starts slowly and sweetly rises accordingly in music, high notes, choir sounds, and perfection. Today it seems most pop or songsters don’t bother to do O Holy Night- probably because they can’t vocally- much less ad lib and update what we often take as a serious and brooding carol.  It’s hefty and reverent with all the works to the hilt, but again, Wynonna’s innocent, almost private, and intimate delivery is a very pleasing listen.

Likewise, Silent Night is slightly more upbeat than the norm, with almost a happy ring instead of somber reflection. It’s as if Wynonna has the kids sitting on the floor in the studio while she sings about a mom, a baby, and the smile they put on her face.  Sometimes we make the religious carols so depressing and too heart tugging. Particularly since the recent massacre in Connecticut, I keep thinking of the blissful yet tragic closing line here. All those children who are sleeping in heavenly peace instead of opening presents that were probably already lovingly wrapped and placed under the tree. Obviously, such horrific things at this supposedly peaceful time of year can irrevocably shake us up. Fortunately, the spiritual purpose of the season is the opposite of evil and sadness. It’s a birthday party for all here and above to attend.  Instead of concluding with Silent Night or some big secular spectacle, Wynonna finishes A Classic Christmas in strong spiritual fashion with It’s the Messiah.  Previously I’ve heard the track on Kenny Roger’s Christmas album The Gift- which also includes Wynonna’s Mary Did You Know duet.  While Kenny kept this ode soft and country easy swag, Wynonna slows it down for a meaningful church finale. It’s not so extravagant that you can’t sing along, but held lyrics and choir heights make the listener pay attention to the tale being told. We’re lifted up with the titular refrain, and this exiting number finishes A Classic Christmas with Wynonna’s big and wonderful, “He’s come at last!”

As I said, I’m no country lover, but severe country fans might actually dislike the absence of down home elements and country sounds on A Classic Christmas. With Wynonna Judd’s vocal range and crossover capabilities, this could have been a much more grandiose album, too. Just based on the number of big and difficult carols in need of Wynonna’s vocals, this could have easily been a double album or box set. Marketability and sale pricing had something to do with that, I’m sure. However, this surprising and unexpected holiday delight is consistent throughout, and I hope Wynonna does another Christmas album soon. The titular class and sophistication cross musical genres and season spirits. This very pleasant and feel good listen doesn’t skimp on the music and the meaning and is perfect for the dinner table, a family activity night in, the car, or office. If you like Christmas music and the women who can carry a serious and refined tune, forget country.  Forget needing to like The Judds. Even if you never hear anything else by Wynonna ever again, get this Christmas album ASAP. 

13 December 2012

The Carols We Love

The Carols We Love is Missing a lot of Passion
By Kristin Battestella

Originally published as Sounds of the Season, this quick 2002 holiday devotional by Daniel Partner is subtitled The Story Behind the Story of Twenty Two Classic Christmas Carols.  Unfortunately, at only 95 pages and a hefty second hand price of twenty-five cents, the wealth of musical material possible is never fully explored.

Despite some serious history behind carols such as Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Go Tell It on the Mountain, What Child Is This, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, and the titular claim to get the behind the scenes scoop; there isn’t much beyond basic common knowledge given on the barely there two or three page accounts. The selection of songs is seemingly random, with We Wish You a Merry Christmas among more recent or fringe and increasingly obscure carols such as Lo How a Rose E’er Blooming, Let There Be Peace on Earth, and The Little Drummer Boy-  which receives four pages of a fable repeating the song’s exact tale. If we are going with global, far reaching, or contemporary, where are In the Bleak Midwinter, Mary Did You Know, Deck the Halls, I Saw Three Ships, or hello God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen? The included carols aren’t in any order- be it by date, county of origin, or even alphabetically. Half of the spotlight is taken up by lyrics that also carry no rhyme or reason.  Some are a complete verse and chorus, but others, sadly, are the most famous quick refrains.  It Came upon a Midnight Clear’s 5 verses are completely omitted, Joy to the World is the chorus only, O Come All Ye Faithful offers no Latin lyrics, and Away in the Manger is only four lines. The Carols We Love would have increased its shelf life ten fold had it simply given all the lyrics and music and made itself a multi-faceted songbook. Instead, a brief devotional or story is attached with an often unrelated verse and random prayer.

It sounds horrible to say such things, I know. Unfortunately, there seems to be no explanation for the layout here. The opening musical bar of each tune is also included, but it often cuts off mid measure, breath, and note. Why bother unless you were going to go with a full-blown playable accompaniment? Suffice to say, if you’re looking for an extensive choir book or coffee table tome with detailed musical annotations and information on the origins of such timeless carols as Silent Night, O Holy Night, or O Come O Come Emmanuel, you won’t find it in The Carols We Love. Forget lyrics in other languages or even the composer or dates in some cases; with such a massive topic, an entire series of devotionals could have been done with blocks of carols paired from around the globe and thru the centuries. Why not a spiritual and meaningful Chicken Soup type collection of famous folks each saying what a particular carol means to them? The possibilities in revisiting why we sing the same Christmas carols year after year are endless, but The Carols We Love somehow missed everything but the bare minimum. Sure, some of our crèche classics have obscure beginnings or anonymity behind them, but that in itself is a tale to tell and others have really great multicultural and medieval stories to share. Perhaps this is all expecting too much of a decade old ‘value book’ that originally retailed at ninety-nine cents. However, if you’re seeking any kind of mature religious depth, historical insights, or adult scholarly into the origins of our Christmas melodies, The Carols We Love can only be a disappointment.

Nonetheless and all that aside, if The Carols We Love had expressly geared itself toward a youth audience instead of a desperate reach for devotional blasé, there could be some potential here.  Young and budding musicians or an elementary Sunday School Christmas reading and discussion might work for these simplistic tales. The passages are still all over the place in information, character, lyrical analysis, or lack thereof, but a better Biblical companion reference, musical prayer, or questionnaire worksheet would go a long way.  The profiles as written are definitely thin and totally impersonal, but one classroom question at the end of each carol might have made all the difference. Like the Magi, what gift would you bring?  How do you keep Christmas if you have a family member in the military? How will you make room in your heart for Jesus this December? Instead of going thru the motions, The Carols We Love could have really struck a holiday heartstring or educational, songful explanation.  Otherwise, a quick adult read over a few days can leave one feeling cold and without meaning at Christmas- and for a believer interested in this kind of book, Christ is certainly not either of those things.

I feel so harsh! Negatively writing on an innocent devotional that I’d like to think had some honest intentions even if the execution was flawed. Perhaps The Carols We Love isn’t all that bad. For readers of Advent devotionals, those interested in the musical subject matter, or ones hoping to bring carols into the classroom in an easy, simple manner, this quick session has its own superficial meaning.  It’s passionless, far too brief, ill prepared, and has an undefined audience, but one can find a piece of his own redeeming merit in The Carols We Love. 

12 December 2012

Christmas Vinyl 2012!

And Yet Still More Christmas Music Vinyl!
By Kristin Battestella

Yes, I’m still listening to some rare, unusual, elusive, and downright spiffy old warped Christmas Records! Aren’t you?

Charles Dickens Classics: A Christmas Carol and Mr. Pickwick’s Christmas – The Dickensian bicentennial love has spilled over into our holiday snap, crackle, and pop with this record reading by Ronald Colman and Charles Laughton.  Soft carol interludes and complete sound effects accent Colman’s condensed Side A as Scrooge. Some of the tale is merely a necessitated part and parcel reading, but other segments are the famous dialogue as drama, and all the quintessential scenes are there. It’s more like a radio production than an audio book thanks to all the bells and whistles and kids today will most definitely still get a kick out of this. Though not as famous, Mr. Pickwick’s Christmas told by Laughton on Side B is a lovely encapsulation of the Victorian of Dickens and the post-war sound. It’s the perfect late night listen for wide-eyed children and gets folks to pay attention to some humor and holiday memories.  This record is perfect to cap off a seasonal classroom or family baking night with young ones. 

Favorite Christmas Carols from the Voices of Firestone Volume 1 – Big vocalists Rise Stevens and Brian Sullivan lead this debut set of perfect carol medleys such as the lively Joy to the World, sweet Away in the Manger, deep We Three Kings, happy Hark the Herald Angels Sing, stunning Silent Night, and more.  Full operatic editions of O Holy Night, The First Noel, a darling It Came upon a Midnight Clear, and a catchy O Christmas Tree are ideal for a mellow holiday dining room, too. The shrill alternating choir sounds of What Child Is This and O Come All Ye Faithful won’t be for everyone, nor the wobbly O Little Town of Bethlehem. However, the family friendly and old-fashioned sounds of Jingle Bells, Up on the House Top, Deck the Halls, and Jolly Old Saint Nicholas keep the album charming for all.

Sing We Now of Christmas: The Harry Simeone Chorale – There’s plenty of spiritual and holiday fun in this packed choir set- from the innocent softness of Away in the Manger and Good King Wenceslas to the festive shaker styled Go Tell It on the Mountain and Rise Up Shepherds. O Holy Night is big and reverent with all the right notes; What Child Is This and We Three Kings are wonderfully ancient and brooding.  Lovely lesser-known carols such as O Come Little Children, The Friendly Beasts, and Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming might be jarring to some amid the famous and sing-able, but it’s nice to discover new old carols, too. Likewise, less commonly heard renditions of O Tannenbaum, The Coventry Carol, Ding Dong Merrily on High, and the Latin Adeste Fideles are a treat. There’s a little bit of everything here, something fast and fun for the whole family with spoken verses amid quick choruses and near medley editions of a rousing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and a tender O Little Town of Bethlehem. Though not for uber modern families who dislike traditional high-pitched notes, this one’s fun for old school families.

A Very Merry Christmas Volume 1 – The Ray Conniff Singers open this 1967 debut of the Columbia record set for Grant’s Stores with a typically styled Little Drummer Boy, and the rest of Side A is a confusing mix of country, pop, and unfamiliar tunes. Though Johnny Mathis is always strong for O Holy Night, Patti Page sounds surprisingly poor for Santo Natale. Simon and Garfunkel are also a miss with The Star Carol, but fortunately the flip side wins with traditional family fair. A medley of carols including The First Noel, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, and O Come All Ye Faithful; Do You Hear What I Hear by Bobby Vinton; a fun Twelve Days of Christmas with Burl Ives and Percy Faith; a wonderfully medieval God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman; and a big Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah finish this first volume in fine form.

A Very Merry Christmas Volume 2 – Mitch Miller’s Joy to the World and Robert Goulet’s O Holy Night skip on my copy of this second LP from Grant’s, but both are still delightful, as is Mahalia Jackson’s slow and soulful rendition of O Little Town of  Bethlehem.  Here we Come a Caroling sounds a little strange thanks to the lyrical swapping of Wassailing for Caroling, but kids can single along with this and Side 2’s Jingle Bells opener. Doris Day isn’t super brooding like we expect for Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, but it is bittersweet nonetheless. Although it’s made a bit too lullaby-esque, it’s great to hear Johnny Cash sing I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.  Common recordings like We Need a Little Christmas, What Child is this from Bing Crosby, and Johnny Mathis’ Silver Bells can be found almost anywhere today. However, these record anthologies often have a few rarities that you just can’t get elsewhere, and this second attempt is a more polished and pleasant listen.

 And to think, I have even more Christmas records!!!