Friday, December 24, 2010

Quintessential Carols – My Favorite Versions of Classic Christmas Songs

If you enjoy Christmas (or Christmas-themed) music as much as I do, you know how easy it is to amass a large collection. New compilations come out every year. As a result it’s not uncommon to have several versions of some of the classics.

Here are the versions of some time-honored classics that I like best.

In no particular order:

“O’ Tannenbaum” – Vince Gerauldi Trio

What would the holidays be without the A Charlie Brown Christmas album?

There are plenty of classics covered here, but it’s Gerauldi’s jazzy take on the classic German ode to evergreens that leads off the disc and establishes the mood.

“Carol of the Bells” - David Benoit

I can still vividly recall the first time I heard this jazzy version: December 1988, and I was standing in line at the Wall To Wall Sound record store in the Neshaminy Mall, when it came on over the PA system. Such a big sound - and they made a Christmas carol swing! “Wow – Dad would love this,” I thought. “Hell, I love this.” I got out of line and asked a clerk who it was. He showed me The GRP Christmas Collection, Vol. I. I bought it immediately.

It was my introduction to the jazz label, and their amazing Christmas Collections. Volumes II and III would follow and also become valued parts of my holiday music collection. But Volume I, and specifically this song, will always stand out. Dad and I still love it.

“Silent Night” – John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting

Ondrasik pulls off something really tricky here – he puts a Burt Bachrach-esque spin on this classic without losing any of the solemnity that the song requires. Nicely done.

“Jingle Bells” – Duke Ellington (Robbie Hardkiss Remix)

Tradition, shmadition - this hip-hop-infused take on Sir Duke’s be-bop version of Jingle Bells will move you with its beat alone.

“O Holy Night” – Weezer

There’s something about River Cuomo’s earnest yelp that seriously works for this hymn. I can almost picture the band as teenagers playing this in a school auditorium at the annual Holiday program, proud camcorder-wielding parents on folding chairs in the audience smiling at how pious this ostensibly rocking version turned out.

“Last Christmas” – Sarge

Jimmy Eat World’s version almost took this one, but Elizabeth Elmore’s voice will always do it for me. Not the best-produced version, but I suppose that’s part of the charm.

“Little Drummer Boy (Peace on Earth)” – Bing Crosby and David Bowie

I can actually remember seeing this on Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas special on ABC in 1977. I can’t imagine how weird a mash-up that must have been at the time – Ziggy Stardust appearing before the Lawrence Welk Nation.

I love the fact that this version, with the “Peace on Earth” counterpoint, has become a standard in its own right.

“Happy Xmas (War is Over)” – John Lennon & the Plastic Ono Band

Because sometimes, you gotta go with the original.

I have at least a half-dozen versions of this song. All have their charms, but none are an improvement on the source.

(YES this does count as a Christmas Carol. It’s 2010 for chrissakes.)

“Silver Bells” – The Ventures

When my friend Jack started putting out his famous Conshohocken Christmas collections in 1999 (on the short-lived Persico Productions label), he included many selections from The Ventures' Christmas album. And rightly so – surf rock proving to be quite the breath of salty sea air among pious orchestral and other traditional carol arrangements.

This one isn’t as rollicking as the others, but is nonetheless a lovely take on a holiday favorite.

“White Christmas” – Lee Ritenour

Another selection from The GRP Christmas Collection, Vol. I. Just the perfect chord-melody arrangement for this song.

“The First Noel/Mary Mary” – Sarah McLachlan

Yeah, it’s kind of a mash-up, but I had to include something from McLachlan’s Wintersong album here, as it’s become a permanent fixture in my holiday listening.

My fave from the disc is really her version of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” but this is ostensibly a list for classics, and this is the standout of McLachlan’s re-workings. I especially love her deep, bluesy intonations on the “Mary Mary” portions – it’s a side of Sarah’s voice rarely heard on her singles.

“Sleigh Ride” – The Ronettes

“Ring-a-ling a-ling a-ling a-ding-dong-ding!” A sentimental choice, yes, but certainly not deservedly so. There’s a reason Ronnie Spector’s NYC Christmas concerts were always so popular, and this song captures why.

“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” – The California Guitar Trio

If I were awarding 2nd place on any of the above songs, many would be taken by The California Guitar Trio. 3 acoustic guitars make for a quintessential Christmas sound, at least for me.

“Deck The Halls” – Mannheim Steamroller

For some reason, this cheese-tastic Moog-driven version has always resonated with me since the first time I’d heard it – oddly enough, as the background music for a radio station’s Christmas contest promo from the mid-1980s. It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve heard it again. I finally learned the artist and downloaded it last year.

Perhaps because it reminds me of the Early 80s when despite the Cold War, there was still that capital F Future* out there – where Santa in his hover-sled would deliver toys to your geodesic-dome house, and all Christmas music would be performed on synthesizers.

(*tip o’ the hat to William Gibson for that phrase)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Gary Numan @ The Trocadero in Philly 10/21/10

Geez, it's been well over a year since my last post here. Despite some occasional contributions to my Flickr page, I really haven't had much to say. But I definitely wanted to chime in about the Gary Numan show I was fortunate enough to attend last Thursday.

I'd been a fan of the song "Cars" forever, but my interest in anything else Numan had to offer is relatively recent. My friend Jack's inclusion of "Cars" on a massive 80s compilation CD set a few years back re-ignited my interest in the song. Over the following years, Numan began to enter my conciousness in other ways: both Nine Inch Nails and the Foo Fighters covered his songs ("Metal" & "Down in the Park," respectively), then Numan himself guested on Fear Factory's cover of "Cars." Finally, my friend Chris played "Airlane" on his vynil (!) copy of Numan's debut albumThe Pleasure Principle. I was hooked.
I downloaded the album myself and loved it. (Tangentially, got to like the Basement Jaxx's "Where's Your Head At," after being able to recognize their sample of Numan's "M.E." in it.)
I took a mild interest when the Trocadero announced a date for Numan earlier this year. But when I found out recently that he would be performing The Pleasure Principle in it's entirety, it became a must-see show for me.

There were a few things about this show I found surprising:
1) Numan's fans ("Numanoids") were among the most dedicated I've ever seen, with a very conspicuous Fan Club presence and activity. They only became annoying when Gary tried to address the crowd at one point, and the diehards in the audience took it as a cue to try to have a conversation with him, their shouting nearly drowning him out as he was explaining his recent throat problems (more on that later).
2) I was expecting Gary to do more of the "heavy lifting" keyboard-wise. But he left most of the recognizeable lead-lines to his back-up band, and stuck to the bass-end of the keys. I suppose it allowed him to concentrate more on his vocal performance...?

Backed by a 5-member band (bass, drums, 2 dedicated keyboardists and one guitar/keys/percussion multi-instrumentalist), Numan began by plowing right through The Pleasure Principle non-stop.
A couple of songs in, he explained that recent throat problems were still giving him trouble, and that there were some songs on the album that were in a register that was just too high for him to sing. During these songs, he just turned the microphone to the audience and lead them through the vocals.

Of course when he played "Cars," it was a high point in the show. His multi-instrumentalist even hit the percussive accents on the his keyboard, just like in the video.

But it was when The Pleasure Principle was done that the show really took a turn. The SST Virus synths were put away, the guitars came out, and the music got heavy and industrial. It was here that Numan morphed into the proto-Trent-Reznor-Robert-Smith-goth-punk-demigod that his fans love.

And yes, even Mr. New-Wave-Synth-Rock himself picked up a six-string.

It was a powerful sound, easily on par with NIN or Stabbing Westward. The band rocked it hard. And Numan turned out to be a charismatic performer who could pull it all off.

All in all, it was a cool show. It certainly made me appreciate the breadth of Numan's career much better. I'll likely be checking out his later offerings soon. I don't know if I'd ever go to see him again, but I definitely won't rule it out.
I'll also likely be checking out opening act Rasputina soon (supplemental blog post to hopefully follow).

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Alice in Chains, Filmore @ Irving Plaza, 9/8/09

It's been a while since I've posted here, but I have much to share after seeing Alice in Chains in New York on Tuesday:
a) my review of the band, featuring new singer William DuVall
b) show my first attempts at concert photography. I realize I'm no Todd Owyoung or Carrie Musgrave, but all things considered, I'm fairly happy with the results.

Since my trusty H1 is a point-and-shoot, I was free to snap away all show (DSLRs and other "professional" cameras would've required a photo pass). And thankfully, the lighting was usually bright enough to get relatively stable shots without long exposures. Granted, the H1 is very noisy at ISO 400 (its max), so I've also had to experiment with Noise Reduction.
The H1's zoom was invaluable in getting shots as the sold-out crowd would not have been easy to traverse.
So, how is the "new guy"?
Truth be told, it was initially hard to tell - the crowd singing along with openers "Rain When I Die" and "Again" all but drowned the band out! But as the set progressed, it became clear that DuVall had both the chops and charisma to carry this band.
Duvall and guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Jerry Cantrell make a good team. It's Cantrell's harmonies and guitar riffs that maintain the Alice in Chains sound on new tunes like "Check My Brain" and "A Looking in View."
Duvall's guitar contributions helped fill-out the band's layered sound.

The crowd was very loud and enthusiastic, eating up old faves like "Down in a Hole" and the multipart new offering "Acid Bubbles."
Even an old, beat-to-death-on-rock-radio standard like the set-ending " Man in the Box" whipped the audience into a crowd-surfing frenzy.
This show demonstrated that Alice in Chains are not destined to be a 90's grunge nostalgia act. Energized by their new singer and the public's warm reception, they are a band with a future.

A sample setlist can be found here. It's not exactly the show I saw, but it's pretty close.

Thanks again to friends Brian & Colleen for the extra ticket and overnight accommodations! Good to see you guys - and Jeff - again!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Ghost Leaves

 I've been wanting to capture an image of the phantom images left by rain-soaked leaves on our sidewalks and paving-stones for a while now. Thankfully I remembered before tomorrow's impending rain washes them away.

Speaking of things I've been meaning to do: it's National Blog Posting Month again. Obviously, I'm not taking part this year. Though it was a good clearing-house last year for all shots that have been piling up. So even though it's too late to go with NaBloPoMo in earnest, I do hope to get into a regular posting habit again.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Another Mantis

Found IN MY DINING ROOM, this past Friday morning before work. After some tense moments, I was able to let her out the window safely!

Friday, August 29, 2008

Roman Numerals

For this week's Photo Hunt topic of "Old School communication," I decided to go with this shot from our Coliseum tour.
There are 80 arches around the exterior of the Coliseum (actually, the "Flavian Amphitheater" is its proper name), and each one is numbered. Ancient Romans were issued tickets directing them to a specific # arch for entry to the stadium.
The original numbers are still visible on the exterior, such as #53 above.

More shots from our Italia trip on my Flickr page.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Truth in Signage, Part II

There was a lot of expensive shopping in Italy. Especially in Roma, where we found this store that didn't mince words!

I'm using this as my entry into the
JorjDotOrg Photo Hunt subject "Sign Language."

For "Truth in Signage (Part I)," click