Friday, November 23, 2007

Santa Claus vs. The Go-Betweens - Christmas Music

There are two basic types of Christmas music - official and personal. You are aware of the former but may not recognize the latter.

First, a clarification: I’d call it holiday music, but I don’t know a damned thing about Hannukah or Kwanzaa, and when was that last time you heard a Thanksgiving song, anyway? So I hope you’ll bear with me when I simply call it Christmas music.

Official Christmas Music:

This is the music that pertains to the holidays. You know what I mean - the stuff you begin to hear in the shopping malls right after Labor Day. It goes into heavy rotation from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. If it’s played again after that, mass suicides are sure to ensue.

Once Thanksgiving passes, the wife and kids can’t wait to put Official Christmas Music (OCM) on in the house. I don’t see the point myself. If you’re going to be bombarded with it outside why bring it inside? I don’t want to hear OCM until Christmas Eve at six pm, when I’ve finally gotten my shopping done and I can get into the holiday spirit. (This lasts about eighteen hours.)

In mid-December 1979, while my roommate, his girlfriend and I were decorating our tree, I decided to put on some music. I picked something pretty, but definitely non-Christmas. I thought that the tree trimming combined with the music would be sufficient to get us into a holiday mood that we could call our own. To me, those are the best ones. But after a short while, my roommate’s girlfriend politely asked, “Ahem, do you have any, you know, Christmas music?”

Now I’ve got nothing against Christmas music per se. My strong preference is, of course, for good Christmas music, which I define simply as holiday music you can stand to hear more than once. So I’ve learned my lesson and have tried over the years to get some OCM for the sake family, friends (and myself).

Here are some of my favorites:

 The Bells of Dublin
The Bells of Dublin by the Chieftains
An Irish Christmas, musically, anyway. (The other kind, I don't know that I'd recommend.) It’s got the usual suspects (Elvis Costello, Ricki Lee Jones, Jackson Browne, etc.) as guest stars, which is normally a dead giveaway that it’s NOT a great album. But here, just about everyone shines.

I bought this record out of desperation because I was low on holiday music, and had set my expectations to…okay. But the sound was clear and bright, the musicianship excellent (and more importantly enthusiastic) and there is a commitment to each performance that rises above professionalism and into joy from all concerned that actually translates into music you want to hear over and over again. It’s got the best version of “Deck the Halls” ever.

A great Christmas album and a great album.

A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio
If you’ve seen the TV show, you’ve heard most of this music already, so you already know whether you like it or not. Play it right after everyone’s gone home and you can finally relax. A great example of making something new out of something old. A damned good jazz album, too.

 New Wave Xmas: Just Can't Get Enough
Christmas with electric guitars! Who could ask for more?
The ones you know: “2000 Miles” by the Pretenders and “The Little Drummer Boy” by David Bowie and Bing Crosby.
The one you may know: “Fairy Tale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty Macoll, which gets my vote for all time greatest modern Christmas song.
The ones you probably don’t know: “Christmas Time” by the Chris Stamey Group and “Mary Xmess” by Sun 60.
And many more. A real pleasure.

Personal Christmas Music:

“Personal” Christmas music, on the other hand, is the music you happen to hear around the holidays, but that otherwise has no connection to them other than the one you attach to it yourself.

 While OCM may bring back vague recollections of childhood Christmases, the advantage of PCM is that it can bring you back to the specific year in which you first heard it.

Since PCM is deeply subjective, I understand now that while it’s good for me, it probably isn’t good for guests. It’s too much to expect them to enjoy what I happen to be obsessing over at the moment. Maybe they’re already obsessing over something else anyway. And it’s probably an illusion to think that my current obsession is somehow more apt for the holiday season other than that it’s great music. I may have heard a great album in December that you heard in July. So that makes my holiday memories your summer vacation memories.

I should add that it’s not quite enough for my PCM to only be great music. “Daydream Nation” by Sonic Youth is a good album, but it’s loud and harsh, and not a good accompaniment to a Thanksgiving morning preparing hors d’oeuvres and dressing a colicky three month old for a long drive. So, I’ve learned to hedge my bets a little and, when given the choice, pick positive over negative, soothing over intense, emotional over intellectual. This is a no-brainer for people other than me.

And I’ll now admit to what may already be obvious - that I’ve come to “engineer” the whole thing by making sure to visit the record store a few days before Thanksgiving. This is stupid, pathetic, over-determined, non-spontaneous, and worst of all, fallible. But since these words apply equally well to me, I still do it. And when it works – more often than you’d think – it’s magical.

A word about new holiday songs, by which I mean either new songs, or new versions of old ones. If they’re bland or forgettable, they will simply be added to the vast store of Official Christmas music and get recycled for next holiday season. But if they are really good – an old song kept fresh (The Pretenders version of “Have Yourself a Merry Christmas”), or a great new one (ditto, “2,000 Miles”) - you can end up with the best of both worlds - a hybrid of the Official and Personal.

Another great example is “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses, which brings me right back to the moment I first heard it. But this is rare. Most of the time, the song is either one or the other.


The difference between the OCM and PCM is the difference between what means a lot to the outside world and what means a lot to you. Depending on how much you’re in synch with the outside world, you might be quite satisfied with OCM, and not have a single song to call your own PCM. So score one for Santa.

What it really boils down to, in essence, is this: the difference between OCM and PCM is that OCM reminds you of the good things that have happened while PCM tells you that good things are still possible. This is why I will always need PCM. It’s also why I do this blog.

So I feel compelled to tell you about a couple of my favorite PCM records. They were heard around the holidays, and thus, made those holidays better:

I bought this “best-of, plus rarities” in 1990 during one of my traditional pre Thanksgiving shopping trips because I had heard and loved “Streets of Your Town”. We listened to it (along with the six others I got that day, but I’m better now) on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, while preparing hundred layer dip for the next day’s dinner at mom’s house.

I could tell from the very first listen that this record was going to stick with me, especially when I heard “Bye-bye Pride”, “Second Hand Furniture” and “Right Here”. I’ve hesitated to recommend this record because the G-Bs are like a good bottle of wine in a soda pop world - the first taste is a bit dry but before you know it, you’ve finished the bottle.

So the singing could sometimes be better, or the melody occasionally takes a back seat to the words, but that’s fine because the band always finds the best way to put each song across, whether it’s the slammin’ drummer who just happens to be a lady, the occasional strings and brass, or the guitars - usually one acoustic and one electric – the former never tired, and the latter always reminding you that this is not folk music. Oh, and by the way, the songs are awesome.

Now playing: The Go-Betweens - Bye Bye Pride
\via FoxyTunes  

Oceans Apart
The G-Bs then went on hiatus for twelve years. The songwriters – Robert Forster and Grant McLennan - released a number of solo albums before getting back together in 2002, and doing three more records. Since then Grant McLennan has passed away.

On my most recent pre-Thanksgiving music trip, I decided to give this, their last record, a try. I am happy to report that our 2007 holiday season has already been indelibly marked by this marvelous record. Robert Forster’s “Darlinghurst Nights” is a high point, and Grant McLennan may have been saving his best for last. “Finding You”, “Boundary Rider” and “The Statue” are among the best songs he’s ever done. So long live Grant McLennan.

This band consistently made music that achieved the very rare balance of beauty and resilience. Autumnal. Quirky. Proud. Long live the Go-Betweens.

Now playing: The Go-Betweens - Boundary Rider
via FoxyTunes

And The Winner Is…

I can’t expect anyone to believe that these two records mean more to me than all the Christmas music I’ve ever heard. So I guess that means that Santa Claus wins. But let’s face it, he had help from Jesus.

But that leads me to this question – What would Jesus listen to? That’s easy. The Go-Betweens.

Happy Holidays.

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