Sunday, December 12, 2010

Simple, Honest Pleasures

Each year, the plethora of Christmas music increases, almost exponentially. By now, it's hard not to look at each successive release as a fairly blatant money grab, given the growth industry that Christmas music has become. Even if the singer in question is an "artist," admired and respected.

Why else would Bob Dylan skewer the whole genre so beautifully last year and give us all a great, cosmic laugh?

No, sadly, the years of non-commercial explorations of Christmas song have long since passed, CDs by Sufjan Stevens and Shawn Colvin being the last examples of "legitimate" Christmas albums that I know of, since both seem to have been motivated by family first and since both bring interesting new songs to the genre.

And, continuing my lifelong search for purity in art, I look for it in Christmas music, too, and, as is also typical of me, I establish subjective criteria that allow me to find it. Forget that Vince Guaraldi's A Charlie Brown Christmas was written as the soundtrack for a television special, and forget that its performances are now ubiquitous--for me, it retains its purity because I got to enjoy for so many years when it was under the radar and unpopular and because it never did become popular until long after Guaraldi's death.

So here are my wacky criteria for "honest" Christmas music:
1. It does not appear to have been done for commercial reasons.
2. Even if it was done for commercial reasons, it was blatant or particularly successful.
3. It adds something new and valuable to the genre.


One of the greatest gifts I received for Christmas in recent years was the turntable that allows me to turn old record albums into mp3's (except that an annoying, unnamed woman assumes I will convert her albums to mp3 whenever she feels like it, but, a minor nuisance). And one of the conversions that I made in the last year or so was an old Christmas record, A Collection of Favorite Christmas Carols by The New American Guitar Ensemble. Sounds like the New Christy Minstrels or something.

Not the catchiest name, nor, if you look at the graphic below, not the most eye-catching album cover. When I got it, I had to order it through the mail from some obscure record label, and it came cheaply packaged, with the front and back text and images glued onto a white album cover. Not available in any store, as they used to say on late night TV.

But it's a sly little record, if for no other reason than there is no New American Guitar Ensemble, there's just a guy with a multi-track recorder. And he's a guy, Lewis Ross, who can play the guitar, in this case, the steel-stringed acoustic guitar.

If you've ever doubted that acoustic guitar and Christmas were meant to go together, give a listen to the tracks below. No rhythm tracks, no studio enhancements, no vocals. Just that guitar, or those guitars, when he's feeling fancy. The other thing you can tell, if you are a player, is that these are sweet guitars--aged, mellow, rich with depth of sound and their own natural reverb. The kind that don't need enhancements.

And the arrangements are clever, too-the way the melody mutates on "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman," the layering of "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" over Pachabel's Canon, the beautiful stringbends on "The First Noel," the pairing of "O Tannenbaum" with "Good King Wenceslas," the dirge-like quality of "We Three Kings" that sends you into a blissful contemplation.

So if you're always a Scrooge like Billy, or if you're just already a bit worn out from the ever-increasing commercialism of this holiday, give a listen to this aural equivalent of Charlie Brown's Christmas tree--likely to be overlooked, but a thing of beauty when given some attention. Sometimes the most relevatory experiences are the simplest and least-technical. And if someone complains about the snaps and pops, tell them it's just the logs in the fire.


Billy said...

This collection of songs is enough to warm the heart of even the coldest Grinch. Even a Grinch who sits in his office while thousands of his brethren and sistren in education cozy at home.

This crap will get played by me at any time I'm in the mood to have my cynicality briefly thawed.

And then, when I want the cynicality back, I'll listen to "Where Are You Christmas?" by Faith Hill, a song I actually like... yet still leaves me reminded of the whole overcommercialized thing. And the fact that it's ABOUT the overcommercialized thing doesn't exactly free it of being guilty on its own rights.

Thom Anon said...

Nice stocking stuffer.

Thanks, Bob.


PS--I've always had a particular fondness in my heart for the Dean Martin Christmas album, which was a total cash-grab, but, as with so much of Dean's work never made any bones about it.

troutking said...

This is good stuff, thanks. There's nothing I hate more than money-grubbing Christmas albums...unless it's gelt-grubbing Hanukkah albums!

The Wolf swears by Jon Anderson's (of Yes fame)Christmas album. I say No to it.

dougysue said...

Thanks for sharing. Wish I had one of those turntables. I'm looking forward to comparing these versions with my John Fahey versions.
Please don't take this as a gripe, but #11 isn't downloading right.

Bob said...

Doug, try it again; it seems to work fine from here. I also own and the Fahey album and enjoy his accomplished guitar playing, but I think it lacks the warmth of these recordings.

dougysue said...

Yup, works fine now. Swear yesterday and earlier this morning it kept trying to download as a .html file not .mp3. Thanks!

jed said...

nice gift to all of us, Bob!