On Letterman: “MacArthur Park”

Why did the CBS Orchestra pack the Ed Sullivan Theater stage with 33 musicians and play a five and a half minute version of “MacArthur Park“? Because recently, Letterman was driving around with his son and the satellite radio played this song so many times in a row that the kid screamed “No more caaaaaake!!!”

So, to simultaneously please and annoy his son, Dave asked Paul if the band could do the song on the show. This video encapsulates so much of what I love about the Letterman show. That they could do something so silly and so complicated (and expensive) just because Dave thought it was a funny idea. And: that they have a band that can do damned near anything.

Here’s a coincidence for you: earlier on Monday, a friend of mine and I were talking about late-night talk shows and he praised The Roots as being every bit as good as The CBS Orchestra.

I didn’t disagree with him per se. But I had to raise the point that Late Show With David Letterman presents The CBS Orchestra with many, many more opportunities to show their range and talent than The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon creates for its band, and they’ve had 30 years in which to show off. The band doesn’t just play the show out to commercial and back again. They’re also the house band. Over the past thirty years, they’ve backed up every style and genre and generation of musical guest. I hope The Roots are given the same opportunities (because they’re a terrific band) but I doubt it. It’s a shame, because in their Late Night and Late Show incarnations, Paul Shaffer’s band has proven an immense range and depth of skills.

Here they are, backing up Sammy Davis Jr. as a jazz quartet:

And here they are backing up Mandy Patinkin, playing a Depression-era classic. Stick with it as it builds, all the way to the end:

Backing up Warren Zevon in his final public performance, a goddamn heartbreaking version of “Mutineer”:

Sorry, yes, that’s a huge downer. Hey! Here they are, rocking all the hell the way out with Bruce Springsteen:

Yes, good point…Paul Shaffer assembled his band around the needs of 60s and 70s rock, pop and funk, so that’s well within their wheelhouse. Fine. How about opera? How about a special Top Ten list in which they have to play ten opera pieces?

I wondered if the show might have decided to keep it simple and just hire in a small group of recital musicians with experience in this repertoire, and stuck them behind the scrim. The show often does that when there’s a Broadway performance…the show’s regular musicians are just a few blocks away, so it just makes sense. Well, not only does Renee Fleming seem to be getting her cues from the usual bandstand, but this non-official version includes a cutaway to the band, which shows that the CBS Orchestra is playing appropriate instruments. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Will Lee playing an upright bass on the show before.

Backing up Will Smith for an unexpected extended performance of the smooth hip-hop “Summertime”:

Could the band play classic Broadway if they had to? Sure thing:

Speaking of Kristen Chenoweth, I don’t think Paul Shaffer knew that she was going to sing during her interview, what she was going to sing, or that she was going to sing it in such an unusual key. Nonetheless:

And speaking of spontaneity. Dave was so pleased by The Orwells that he asked them to encore the song as they rolled credits. Well, their guitarist had ripped out his strings during the finale, and the rest of the band didn’t really do anything with the request…so the CBS Orchestra (on hearing the song once, likely) jumped in and performed the encore themselves:

But let’s finish off with something we rarely get to see: the band just playing. Here’s a clip of the music they play during the commercials. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the show in person four or five times over the years and I can attest that the band interstitials are easily as entertaining as the rest of the show. I hope that before Letterman ends his run, he does a whole show of just the band playing:

“Good heavens, Andy!” you would comment, if this blog allowed you to shame me in public comments. “You wasted a lot of time this morning building this list of clips, didn’t you?”

Nope! The Letterman show has had so many fantastic musical moments that I could pluck almost all of these out of an existing YouTube playlist. The others were easy to find because my favorite musical segments of the show stand out just as sharply for me as my favorite interview and comedy moments.

So add this to the list of things I’m dearly going to miss when Letterman retires: getting to hear this phenomenal band on a nightly basis. I’ve read that each of them are busy musicians outside the show, so I don’t suppose there’s much chance of them putting together a tour in 2015. But if they do…wow, that’s gotta be the easiest $77.50 I ever spent!

Rachele Gilmore’s 100 MPH Fastball

For maximum effect, you should watch these two videos in sequence. It’s the same aria in the same 2009 Metropolitan Opera production of “Tales Of Hoffman” being sung two very different ways.

Today, opera has pretentious undertones that scare people away. Okay, yes, it’s probably the undertones and all of the foreign speakey-talk. I myself didn’t really get into opera until I learned that reading the libretto beforehand wasn’t considered cheating.

Anyway, it’s a shame that so many people don’t give opera a try. Opera was never meant to be inaccessible. There was a time when it was simply the popular entertainment of the day, just like movies are now. Opera stories go all over the map. You have your intense dramas, your light comedies, your action and fantasy productions.

“Tales of Hoffman” has elements of many genres. It’s an anthology piece. Hoffman the poet is killing time in a tavern until his latest crush, an opera star, gets off stage. He’s entertaining the house with stories of unrequited love from his past. The first tale is about Olympia, a lifelike windup automaton whom Hoffman thought was a real woman because he’d been tricked into putting on magic eyeglasses.

(See? Opera doesn’t seem so highfalutin’ when you read the librettos. Michael Bay would have used a plot like that without thinking twice.)

And there’s another similarity between opera and movies: mainstream audiences wanted to be thrilled and excited. Witness “The Doll’s Song,” which is the coloratura equivalent of a scene in which giant robots throw each other into skyscrapers. It’s designed to push a performer almost to the limits of what the human voice can do. When this aria comes up, even modern audiences lean forward in their seats a little; they know they’re going to see something spectacular.

In this first video, Olympia is sung with vim, precision, charm, and humor by principal performer Kathleen Kim.

Why is it that you often see Craigslist cattle calls for TV singing competitions, but you never see one for a coloratura soprano role? Here’s the answer. The number of people who can perform at this level is miniscule. For proof, search YouTube for other performances of this aria. Even when they’re sung extremely well, if a performer is the least bit intimidated by the piece or if they only have 99% of the technique necessary to meet its high demands, that’s crystal-clear in thirty seconds.

Kim, an elite professional, accelerates through every curve. She seems to have no limitations; every note she sings is a conscious choice and she’s in full control of her instrument throughout. And keep in mind that as impressive as this performance was, it was all in a day’s work for her. She would do it again and again and again throughout the show’s run.

So. One night, Kim got sick and Rachele Gilmore was forced to make her Met stage debut on just three hours’ notice.

This second video is an example of what happens when a highly technical role is performed by a talented, hardworking person who knows that:

(1) This next performance is a huge moment in any singer’s career;

(2) This is an aria in which the singer is actually supposed to showboat during the reprise;

and maybe most importantly

(3) She doesn’t necessarily need to protect her voice for the next two weeks of performances.

Do watch the whole thing — it’s so worth it — but skip ahead to 3:35 if you only have time for the fireworks:

When she gets to the reprise, smoley hokes! Yes, you are hearing the audience gasping at what Gilmore is doing. The popular consensus is that her A-flat above high C was the highest note ever sung in a Metropolitan Opera production.

Whether it was or it wasn’t, just look at that response! The audience simply refused to allow the production to move forward until they’d worn out their arms and their hands applauding. Yeah, she probably did pretty good, there.

Live performance means real people immediately responding to the work of real people. Each performance is unique and some are devastatingly exceptional. That night, the audience saw something being done as well as any human being ever will, even under sub-optimal conditions. And because it was live opera, they had a chance to make their reaction immediately and fully known to the performer instead of just Tweeting about it during intermission.

The applause went from a visceral reaction to an emotional one, too. Once the initial thrill dissipated, the audience realized that this young performer had made her debut on one of the world’s premier stages on three hours’ notice and she’d absolutely killed. It just made them cheer longer.

It reminded me of another thing I love about live theater. How does the company deal with the unexpected? “The Doll’s Song” was written as a showstopper. Even so, the performers and musicians have no idea how long the applause will last after any given performance of the aria. That night it went on more or less forever. It continued for so long, in fact, that the people onstage needed to do things to keep the show moving even though it had stopped moving forward. I love how the man playing Spalanzani (the inventor) eventually chose to mill about behind Gilmore, accepting the handshakes and congratulations of the partygoers, as though the extended ovation were for his character’s engineering virtuosity instead of for Gilmore’s vocal virtuosity. He did it without taking the spotlight off of her, either.

The way the Met staged “The Doll’s Aria” was interesting. In that part of the story, Olympia is supposed to be performing to crowd of partygoers, so it’s perfectly in character for Gilmore to react to the Met audience’s applause by bowing. The other performers onstage are supposed to be muchly impressed and entertained by the demonstration of this amazing windup automaton, so it’s perfectly in character for them to react to Gilmore as though they were muchly impressed and entertained. Of course. That’s how they rehearsed the scene.

I’ve been watching the onstage audience. I don’t think they were completely acting. They couldn’t have been surprised by Gilmore’s performance (rehearsals, you know) but I still think they were almost as delighted as those people out in the real audience. They had much better seats and they got paid!

Added: Paul Henkiel was so impressed that he ran the audio through a spectrum analyzer and posted the video on YouTube. Check out the precision of those stair-step escalating notes.

Added: I’m getting lots of nice comments from people who’ve never really dipped into opera before. If you enjoyed this aria, you should definitely sample two albums by my favorite coloratura soprano, Diana Damrau.

Coloraturas” contains track after track of what I think is technically-termed “Goddamned gorgeous singing.” This nice little behind-the-scenes video of the recording of the album includes (at 2:10) a full performance of the explosive first track, “Je veux vivre” from “Romeo and Juliet.”

“Arie Di Bravura” contains both of the Queen of the Night’s arias from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” This is the role that established Damrau as an international star, beginning with an incredible performance in a 2003 Royal Opera House production.

The more famous of the two arias is “Der Hölle Rache.” It’s so intense, in fact, that it defines the soprano vocal range. Mozart wrote this part specifically for the skills of his supremely talented sister-in-law and afterward, the International Committee Of People Who Decide Such Things said “Look, we’ll let you have this one. But moving forward, let’s all agree that if you expect a woman to sing notes higher than this top F6, you’re kind of being a d***.”

“Der Hölle Rache” is considered the coloratura aria. When I tell you that the title line means “Hell’s vengeance burns inside my heart” you get the idea that it’s going to get fairly Intense. The Queen of the Night feels as though she’s been betrayed by her daughter, Pamina. She hands her a dagger and orders Pamina to murder Sarastro, the Queen’s enemy. And if she fails, the Queen promises to bring the full furies of vengeance upon her head.

Many productions portray the Queen as a harpyish villain. Damrau plays her as a strong, independent woman who, after her husband’s death, has been dismissed and marginalized by male-dominated society. It’s almost literally sung in the story: “Silly, emotional, stupid woman. We strong, wise, and rational men are taking your daughter and your objects of power away from you because, honestly, a role of esteem and responsibility would only make you all confused and emotional.” Can you blame her for getting rather cross?

But her first aria is my favorite. It’s both emotional and subtle. The Queen is imploring Tamino, the Handsome Young Prince™, to infiltrate Sarastro’s temple and rescue her kidnapped daughter. She sings of her sorrow; she could hear her daughter’s cries for help as she was being abducted, but she could do nothing. She promises Tamino her daughter’s hand in marriage.

I must have seen this video a hundred times but I still can’t decide if the Queen is manipulating Tamino or if she’s being wholly sincere and requires his help in Pamina’s rescue so urgently that she’s not above playing on his emotions a little.

That’s what makes Damrau’s performance so gripping. It’s impressive enough to simply stand in the middle of the stage and sing this aria well. But her singing and her acting are ten out of ten. It seems superhuman to be able to sing something so technically difficult and have it read to the audience as a real, three-dimensional character. It’s like performing the role of Hamlet entirely while riding a ten-foot unicycle around the stage, and integrating this stunt so tightly into the role that a theater critic forgets to mention that detail in his review.

“The Magic Flute” is, incidentally, a great “first opera.” The Royal Opera House production is gorgeous. It’s true to the original spirit of the piece while still feeling thoroughly modern. It’s on DVD and Blu ray.

Amazon Advent Calendar 2011: The Preamble

And so, this is Christmas…and what have you done?

I can only speak for myself. I’ve done a little advance gift shopping. I’ve given a smidgen of thought to making photo cards this year (but if I were to actually follow through on that, I’d be breaking a beloved holiday tradition that I’ve kept up my whole life). Let’s see. I also gave the kitchen a good cleaning, though that was really just something I would have, and should have, been doing anyway.

And I’ve assembled a new iTunes playlist entitled “2011 Advent Calendar Candidates.” This is the time of year when I look through all of the music I bought since last November and think “Holy mother of Great Zarquon! Did I honestly buy nothing but zither music and Tin Pan Alley songs that in one way or another attack every flavor of immigrant known to angry, simple-minded men of the 1910’s and Twenties?”

Which then sends me off to buy some new music. Because although my annual Musical Advent Calendar is unabashedly and unapologetically a showcase of my taste and music and mine alone…well, why pass up an opportunity for a little spin control.

“Look at some of these selections!” one will hopefully marvel. “Such breadth! This Ihnatko fellow has a hunger for discovery and an enthusiasm for all kinds of music…not just the stuff that he liked when he was a kid!”

(Which is a pretty ambitious lie. Whenever I need to create the impression that I have any clue about current popular music, I just download the latest “Weird Al” Yankovic album and check out the source tracks for his latest parodies. Mark my words, children: twenty years from now, Al will still be doing song parodies and you will use that tip.)

Anyway. Yes: Advent Calendar time. Every day between now and Christmas, I’ll be recommending a new track that’s available for download on the Amazon MP3 Store.

Why Amazon MP3? Because at the moment, it’s still — marginally — the best store from which to make purchases. The selection and prices are damned-near identical to what you’ll find in the iTunes Store. With the Amazon MP3 Downloader app installed, your purchases automatically land straight into your iTunes library, just like an iTunes purchases.

And here’s the kicker: iTunes Match doesn’t care where a track comes from. If you’ve subscribed, iTunes simply notes that a copy of The Captain And Tennille’s “Muskrat Love” has appeared in your library, noted to its own shock and horror that this same track is also available via iTunes, and presto, it’s instantly available for play on your iOS devices with no syncing necessary.

Meanwhile, your purchases also appear in Amazon’s cloud locker and you can play ’em through a webapp or an Android app. So you get two additional wins over buying stuff from iTunes.

Oh, yes, and then there’s the fact that all of my recommendations are quietly embroidered with my Amazon Associates ID. Now that you mention it, I suppose that I will get a small kickback from all of your Amazon purchases during that visit. Couldn’t have been further from my mind, honestly.

Mmm…yes, I probably had your indulgence up until the point where I unwisely chose to end that sentence with the word “Honestly.” Please strike that from the record.

Let’s just put that unpleasantness behind us. I should simply say that I sincerely believe two things: first, that Amazon is the best place to buy music from at the moment, for the reasons I’ve already stated; and second, that by the time the holidays are over I’d really, really like to have earned enough credits for an iPad 3.

Onward!

It’s The Beatles

Beatles image on the front page of Apple.com.

Yes, It’s The Beatles. Which surprised me a little when I became convinced of it last night because in recent weeks I’d been working under the theory that bringing the Beatles catalogue to iTunes was a high priority only for Apple…not for the Beatles or EMI. Record companies would like for us to buy the whole CD if they can. CDs still account for something like 80% of all music sales and The Beatles might be the only group whose albums are so valuable as entire units that the public would be just as happy to rip the discs themselves.

I think it’s more about exposure than unit sales. The Beatles broke up just about when I was born (I had nothing to do with it, I should add). So when I entered that phase where I started to develop my personal musical tastes, much of this music was already nearly two decades old.

Today, this stuff was released forty years ago. Was I terribly interested in The Andrews Sisters or Eddie Cochran Domino when I was 18? I was not. It doesn’t matter how good “Twenty Flight Rock” might have been…it was ancient and remote and it was nowhere on my radar.

So I think it’s more a case of EMI and the Beatles trying to give the music an extra push to make sure it’s available — and that it seems fresh and relevant — to new generations of listeners. Why did the Beatles license their music for Cirque du Soleil? Why did they allow a special version of Rock Band? Why does Yoko allow footage of John Lennon to be used in commercials?

It’s all down to the same reason. The Beatles don’t need the money. What they really want is to make sure that “Hey, Jude” remains part of the world soundtrack. They want to ensure that future generations, like every generation since the Sixties, will have that one Beatles song that resonates so deeply with a specific moment in their lives that the first few bars will always stop them cold no matter where they are or what they’re doing. A move towards the iTunes Store is yet another move towards that goal.

What does this mean for Apple? I dunno. I still can’t say whether or not there’s been a tidal wave of pent-up demand for digital downloads of The Beatles and if it’ll translate into another comma being added to Apple’s quarterly profits statement. It’s definitely an important acquisition, for the same reason why signing Letterman was an important deal for CBS. In an increasingly-crowded market, it underscores the message that Apple, and iTunes, is where it’s all happening and that there is indeed a difference between the iTunes Store and Amazon MP3.

As for me…I’ll tentatively say that I called this one correctly. I didn’t embrace the Beatles rumor, but I didn’t reject it, either. I was consistently saying that it would be a content announcement as opposed to a “new feature” one, though I wasn’t certain what kind of content it would be.

I didn’t start to have real confidence in the Beatles story until late last night, when a bunch of additional assets came through. Before then, all we had were a bunch of theories about what the wording of the announcement was and what the clock faces represented. Apple does like its puzzles. But I resolutely insist that someone who insists that it was all clearly spelled out in vague title fragments and by the fact that “there could only be one reason why Apple included four of those” is probably also someone who fell for the “Paul Is Dead” rumors back in the Sixties.

I reckon they did a little too much LDS back then as well.

I won’t be buying these tracks. Like most people, I already own the CDs. I even bought second copies of two or three of my favorites when they were remastered and re-released. As usual, if I really like the group or the album I don’t bother with MP3’s. I’d rather buy the disc. I get the whole album in an uncompressed format, and over the coming years I can easily remaster them into new digital formats.

One final comment, though:

"Beatles Top Sellers" on iTunes. The #2 and #3 slots are held by audio interviews.

I’ll predict that it won’t be long before “Press Conference In America” gives up its longstanding top spots on iTunes’ list of best-selling Beatles tracks. I know, it’s shocking…it’s like when “The DaVinci Code” was knocked off of the #1 spot on the New York Times list.

What can you say? Musical tastes are fickle and the producers of those interviews should just be proud that their work had such a long and well-received run.

The Worst Idea Ever. EVER!

I was playing “American Idol” on the PS2 with some friends last night. And an idea came.

Let’s not identify the person or persons who came up with this idea. We wouldn’t want this individual or these individuals to be embarrassed. For it is indeed the worst idea ever.

The idea is for me to arrange a New England Karaoke Tweetup.

This would be like any other Tweetup — a place and a time is announced, and a group of Twitter followers show up and socialize — except that the place would in fact be a karaoke bar. And so everybody would be expected not only to mingle with strangers and pay for their own drinks…but also get up and work their way through “Endless Love” as best they can, with said strangers in the audience.

But I mustn’t announce that sometime next month, I’ll be setting up the first New England Karaoke Tweetup. I won’t even start looking for a karaoke bar somewhere in Eastern Massachusetts that would be suitable for such an evening.

I mustn’t. Because it is indeed a horrible idea. A horrible, terrible, fractid idea that really, is best driven back into the pit of Hell from whence it came.

Horrible, horrible idea.

Let’s not even discuss this.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 22: “Fairytale Of New York”

Fairytale Of New York

The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl

The Best Of The Pogues

Genre: Alternative

Amazon MP3: Fairytale Of New York

There’s just a narrow window during which I can sling “Fairytale Of New York” into the Advent Calendar and I keep missing it, year after year.

To those of you who have asked: no, I don’t start putting a list together weeks in advance. I don’t have a list at all; I write it daily, “live” as it were, as a play in three acts:

Act I: Superawesome songs in general. I head straight for an iTunes Smart Playlist that automatically maintains my personal Billboard Hot 100 of high-rated, high-playcount tracks and look for likely candidates. I keep a particular eye peeled for tracks that I bought this year and which folks aren’t terribly likely to have heard before.

Act 2: (Let’s return to this in a moment.)

Act 3: Actual holiday-themed songs. As Christmas draws nearer, the tracks have to start passing an important test. If I were playing this on the Apple TV while trimming the tree, and neighbors stopped by unexpectedly with a festive bundt cake, would I immediately think “Oh, ****…how long have they been at the door hearing this song?” If I’d suddenly dive for the remote and desperately click forward to another song, dear God, any other song…then I prolly don’t want to include it in the Advent calendar. Not so close to the actual holiday, anyway.

The Advent Calendar always officially ends with my favorite Christmas song, presented without irony or smirk.

Act 2 is that brief period when I’m in the mood for real holiday-themed tunes, and there’s still enough air between today and December 25 that I don’t mind talking about a drunk in jail on Christmas Eve musing about how, hell, his alcoholism will probably kill him before New Year’s, let alone the next Christmas Eve.

But a Twitterer reminded me about this classic Pogues tune and I was instantly filled with regret. Yes, for failing to use this song year after year. And at least because at the time of that important Tweet, the next song was going to be one from the soundtrack to “The Christmas Shoes,” which is utterly the sappiest Christmas movie ever made. I’m not wrong in thinking the reason why the protagonist in “”Fairytale” got so violently drunk was because he saw parts of this Hallmark special.

No, wait: I must be wrong. Because if he’d just seen that show, he would quite simply have drunk himself straight into the grave and wouldn’t have survived to sing the song.

Check that. Sorry, wrong again: there isn’t enough alcohol to scrub away the stain left behind by “The Christmas Shoes.”

(Later, my sweeties…later.)

I’m not sure that most fans of “Fairytale” really get this song, due to the peculiar romanticism associated with a literate inebriate. Like the old man at the pub who’s wrapped in wool and sitting by the fire, making his stately way through a whiskey bottle, and telling you about lost loves, pages not yet written, opportunities lost, making it through to live another day and drink another night, et cetera.

Ah, but you see, the next morning, you’ll be at work, or with your family and friends, thinking about what a pleasant time you had listening to the man’s lyrical wisdom. At that same moment, the old man is still drunk somewhere, or he’s setting into motion the chain of events necessary for him to get drunk again. Maybe he’s even even planning a setlist of the stories he’ll tell at the tonight’s bar, to charm someone else into buying him a grade of alcohol that he hasn’t been able to afford since the days when he had a job and a family and friends.

“Fairytale Of New York” is a charming song. It becomes a powerful song when you really focus on the lyrics. Which isn’t easy, I admit. Shane McGowan has selfishly chosen to sing them in his natural voice. That’s fine for the Irish and the English, but isn’t it about time the needs of Americans were met, just once?

I urge you to head on over to the Pogues’ site and read the words. There is no joy in Poguesville; Mighty Casey has passed out. This isn’t a case of a man who spends a Christmas Eve in the drunk tank, thinking about failed relationships and missed opportunities, convinced that this is the last one he’ll spend aboveground.

No, clearly, this is a man who spends every Christmas Eve this way. Maybe even every day. He’s locked in a cycle and will never break out of it. His life is a series of wounds that have scarred over themselves so thickly that he’s barely even aware of that he keeps cutting himself in the exact same places day after day.

But that’s not us.

I hope that’s not us.

If it’s us, I hope we get some help.

When you don’t focus on the lyrics, you wind up dismissing “Fairytale Of New York” as merely a charming Irish song that serves as an edgy counterpoint to the vacuous jingle bells being rung at every mall. That denies the Pogues their due. “Fairytale” is a satisfying essay which presents a series of basic observations, while having enough respect for the listener to leave the final lessons unsaid.

And just like the drunken old man in the pub, the lyrics are…well, lyrical. I call your attention to the ending:

He: I could have been someone

She: Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you

He: I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you

I wonder what became of that girlfriend. Is she spending that same Christmas Eve in another drunk tank somewhere? Is she dead? Or did she have a transformative moment of shocking self-awareness that set her free?

Hmm. See, the trouble goes beyond a simple lack of self-awareness. It’s important to be able to observe yourself and your choices dispassionately but I’m certain that most drunks are perfectly aware of what their drinking has cost them. The missing factor is usually Hope…an utterly irrational but critically-important belief that things can get better.

Which is why I rather enjoy Act Three of the Advent Calendar.

Hope is generally a bear market, both in its practice and its promotion. It’s quite a relief to be able to spend a few weeks talking about peace on earth and goodwill to all mankind without having to follow it up with a YouTube of some skateboarder getting hit in the nuts by a parking meter, just to make sure people don’t think you’re all sappy.

Even in the Holiday season, I’m not such a sap that I won’t encourage you to buy this track via Amazon MP3, which will put a few pennies in my pocket:

Amazon MP3: Fairytale Of New York

And yet I still offer you the iTunes Store link as an alternative. I guess I really am just an old softie at heart.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 21: “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)”

The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)

Tony Bennett

Snowfall: The Tony Bennett Christmas Album

Genre: Holiday

Amazon MP3: The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)

Doing a musical Advent Calendar is a piece of cake, honestly. If you have any taste in music at all, then you have nearly every album Tony Bennett ever recorded. Just choose one at random and post it every morning. There. Done. And you couldn’t be doing your readers a better service.

I’m not pursuing this obviously sensible algorithm myself, but only for the same reasons why Olympic divers don’t just cannonball off the side of the pool. It’s a foolproof and effective method of transferring from air to water, true. You can’t help but think that you’ll make a bigger impression if you just change it up a little.

We’re now in the shank of the season, when I’m encouraged to go exclusively with holiday-themed tunes. Even when I limit myself to the Bennett catalogue, I’m paralyzed with choices. He is, quite simply, The Man. You could argue that he’s had a greater singing career than any other performer of the 20th century. He never had any ambition to be anything more than a singer, so he never got distracted into movies or TV shows. He never got so famous that his audience’s expectations got in the way of his continued growth as an artist. He never got so bored with his career that he either became a parody of himself or simply walked away entirely.

Even Sinatra got typecast in the role he created. He got so trapped in it that his audience refused to accept him as any other kind of singer, performing any other kind of music. audience’s insistence that he never break character stymied any attempts to innovate. Maybe it actually killed the desire that made him such a force between the Thirties and Fifties.

Not Bennett. His career had a perilous downswing (not entirely unconnected to a period of recreational drug use that thankfully never swung fully into addiction) but through it all, he was free to keep on working, keep on picking the best songs and working with the greatest musicians.

I’m choosing “The Christmas Song” because it’s just about a perfect pairing of material to singer. No wonder. The song was written by Mel Tormé, another virtuoso interpreter of songs. When Bennett makes his way through these lyrics it’s like Jeff Gordon settling into the cockpit of a racecar designed by Richard Petty. It’s a song that demands excellence. The lyrics and the melody stroll along together at the same pace, but never in the same step. The singer can either tool around the course at a safe and stately pace, or crash into the first or second turn. Bennett is one of a handful of singers who finish it by doing donuts and burnouts in the infield, doing a backflip off the roof, and then chugging the whole quart of milk.

Yes, I know: the milk thing is Indy racing, not NASCAR. Look, as it is I had to check Wikipedia to make sure that Richard Petty was the guy I thought he was. Cut me some slack.

And tip some coppers into my Amazon Associates account by purchasing this song via Amazon MP3, where all tracks are sold DRM-free and at high bitrate. Viz:

Amazon MP3: The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)

At this time of year, when abundance abounds and Want is so sorely felt…what’s that, Mr. Scrooge? The treadmill and the workhouse? Why yes, they remain in working order, Mr. Scrooge, though I wish I could state otherwise. Yes, and the iTunes store as well, sir…

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 20: “Sleigh Ride (The Ventures)”

Sleigh Ride

The Ventures

The Ventures Christmas Album

Genre: Holiday

Amazon MP3: Sleigh Ride

Standards and covers. I love ’em. I love the idea of throwing the exact same piece of music at several different artists and seeing so many different solutions emerge.

It’s particularly keen with a tune like “Sleigh Ride.” You’d think that the world had heard enough of this song, but nope…singers and bands keep finding new things to do with it every year.

Not all bands, of course. Some groups will just crank out a cover without putting their own stamp on it. Result: the song sinks without a trace, like a spoonful of  Minute Rice on top of a bowl of Uncle Ben’s.

But others use this as an opportunity to answer the question “As an artist, who are you, and what brought you here?”

“The Ventures” is a band record nothing but instrumentals. And no wonder. Why would you allow vocals to cover up this kind of guitar playing? They’re synonymous with virtuosity. They’ve reached that stage of technical perfection where they can make their instruments do exactly what they want it to do at any given time. You never get the sense that they would have liked to have put in a fill riff that goes bing-bing-TWANNNG-twang-thummmmm right there, if only they knew how.

The only spots in a Ventures track when they’re playing in a simple and direct manner are when the band thought “We need a slower passage right here, to set up the next run that’s coming” or possibly “I can use these forty seconds to plunge my right hand in a bucket of ice water and get some relief from this excruciating muscle and joint pain.”

These boys attack their guitars as though they caught it in the backseat of a Chevrolet with their sisters. Surely this took a physical toll on their knuckles.

Of the overall remarkability of their version of “Sleigh Ride” I can only state that they have won an amendment to Ihnatko House Resolution 28.281.R, which states that “All approved recordings of ‘Sleigh Ride’ must contain a simulacrum of a whip-crack at the end of the line ‘Giddyup, giddyup, giddyup let’s go’.”

All the same, they knew not to press their luck: sleigh bells are indeed jingling rhythmically throughout. Though I reckon that this track is sufficiently awesome that if they’d “forgotten” to put it in, the DA would be encouraged to find some technicality, and decline to prosecute.

Why yes…the track is available from Amazon MP3, as an unlocked, high-bitrate MP3! And well, if you insist on my embedding my Amazon Associates link, well, who am I to deny your request? Here you go, hon:

Amazon MP3: Sleigh Ride

iTunes appears to have it as well. You can purchase it from the aforementioned store via this link.

But will that fill that gnawing void you’ve been feeling for the past eleven years? Will it?

It’s time to put away such things and move on. There’s only one thing that will help to spackle that emotional gulf. You know it and I know it. You must face the golden, unfolding down and promise to only purchase your music in such a way that it puts me closer to getting a free lens for my camera or something else cool.

Really. I’m a doctor and everything. I just don’t like to flash around my Harvard medical degree like some insecure physicians I could mention, who don’t feel like they’ve accomplished anything unless they have an office and a medical practice and a medical degree that isn’t largely hypothetical.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 19: “Still Alive”

Still Alive

GlaDOS and John Coulton

The Orange Box (Original Soundtrack)

Genre: Soundtrack

Amazon MP3: Still Alive

Let’s discuss the concept of a person or a thing being “world-famous in Poland.”

This is one of my favorite lines from “To Be Or Not To Be” (the 1942 film with Jack Benny, or the 1983 remake with Mel Brooks). It’s wartime Poland, and a national theater company (owned by its two stars, a husband-and-wife team) is by turns adapting to German occupation and trying to find a way out of all this trouble.

The German general in charge wants to shut the theater down as a nonessential waste of electricity and resources. The wife meets with the general in private, trying to reverse his decision by talking up the importance and popularity of the theater.

“I’m surprised that you’ve never heard of my husband,” she says. “In Poland, he’s world-famous.”

And here you have in a nutshell the whole concept of Internet-vectored Fame. In my culture, in my community, the Tron Guy is famous. So much so that I think I can make a reference to him in polite society and everyone will know who the hell I’m talking about.

This rarely goes smoothly.

I, too, am World-Famous In Poland. I’m amazed that in certain specific places — again, Poland — people come up and tell me that they read and enjoy my work and ask if they can get a picture with me. But I don’t fool myself into thinking that this sort of notoriety extends even one meter beyond the Polish border.

(But on those rare occasions when I’m recognized in the street and a there happens to be a friend with me to witness the event, I’m smart enough to pretend that this happens to me alllll the time and that it’s just part of the burden of being an internationally-beloved Industry pundit.)

In Poland, “Still Alive” — the end-credits tune from the awesome puzzle/action game “Portal” — is every bit as big a hit as any track from The Beatles’ “Abbey Road” album. And at this moment, the Polish among you are mentally (or actually) pumping your fist in the air and shouting “Yeah! GlaDOS! I KNEW it just from the title!”

The rest of you are thinking “You mean there’s a video game that ends with that 1970’s disco song?”

It’s amazing. The nature of Internet Fame means that “famous” is becoming a binary setting. I may have never seen “I Heart Huckabees” but at least I’m familiar with it. Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman play quirky alternative pop-psychologists who follow the protagonist around…er…for some reason.

Well, there you go. The movie is genuinely famous. I didn’t see it but I couldn’t escape awareness of it.

In “Internet Fame” it’s not possible to have merely heard of “Still Alive.” Either the track’s in your iTunes library and it’s in a whole bunch of your top playlists and maybe you even went out and bought the game after buying the song, instead of the other way around. OR, you were completely unaware that the song ever existed. Never heard of the composer, never even heard of the game.

Binary fame. On or off. No middle ground

(Possible spoilers for “Portal” now follow)

“Still Alive” is indeed one of the top songs in my library, and not merely because I’m (metaphorically) Polish. It’s a great tune, with a unique signature that’s more or less impossible to cover. The lyrics also have that same sort of double-meaning that marks some of the best Broadway songs.

Check out these lyrics:

I'm not even angry.
I'm being so sincere right now.
Even though you broke my heart and killed me.
And tore me to pieces.
And threw every piece into a fire.
And as they burned it hurt because
I was so happy for you.

Very lithe and malleable. You kind of want to meet the woman who sings these lines. She seems a bit intense, perhaps, but it’d probably be an interesting lunch all the same.

But of course you wouldn’t want to meet the woman who sings these lines, because the woman who sings these lines is GlaDOS, the self-aware computer that’s already killed every human in the entire research facility and did her damnest to kill you as well.

GlaDOS is one of the most wonderful characters ever created for a game. The end-credits song is an extended “Nyahh-nyahh” to the player: despite what you thought when you chucked her orb-like ore into the fire, GlaDOS is still alive and well, thank you much, and the fact that you temporarily shut it down means that it’s just become smarter about how to defend itself. The next human to enter the complex will face much more effective weapons and tactics.

But there's no sense crying over every mistake
You just keep on trying till you run out of cake
And the science gets done and you make a neat gun
For the people who are still alive.

It is probably the most troubling testemony to optimism and determination that’s ever been set to music. Not exactly “Hello, Dolly!” is it?

Back to the idea of cover versions of this song. I keep thinking of tunes like “If He Walked Into My Life” from “Mame.” Jerry Herman wrote it as a straightforward character piece (or so he claims), in which Auntie Mame wonders if she raised her nephew well and if she’d repeat the same mistakes if she had to do it all over again. But then Shirley Bassey and others started recording it as a torch song, and the same (or just lightly-tweaked) lyrics took on a new meaning.

“Still Alive” has too many problems to ever make it over the border. It’s a pleasant tune all by itself and I think this recording works. But for it to ever make it across the border and be covered by other singers, every copy needs to come up with a note of explanation about  who GlaDOS is and what she’s done or else the lyrics don’t make much sense. In the Jerry Herman song you can sort of gloss over lines like “Why did I ever buy him those damned long pants?” but making guns and killing people…well, no. Obama is coming over and we have to make the place look nice. We can’t have lyrics like that in our house.

Also, the recording itself is just too idiosyncratic to ever be covered. You need the electronic, deceptively-innocent  voice of GlaDOS. There’s a version recorded by the song’s composer which simply doesn’t work.

For reasons best left unexplored, I have been amusing myself for the past few minutes by singing “Still Alive” as though I were Robert Goulet:

Free MP3: Andy Ihnatko IS! Robert Goulet AS! GlaDOS IN! “Portal!” Singing! “Still Alive!”

Let’s just back away from that slowly and end this post before more people get hurt. But before I do, I will call your attention to the fact that Robert Goulet himself can’t sing “Still Alive” because he isn’t.

Quick, while you still continue to live! Purchase “Still Alive” from Amazon MP3 and send a few coins into my Amazon Associates referral account:

Still Alive

And if you’re so upset about the Goulet impression that you want to make sure that I profit not one sou from this post, you can purchase the track from the iTunes Store instead.

I’ll miss the cash, but in this case…I understand. Really.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 18: “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

The Reverend Horton Heat

We Three Kings

Genre: Holiday

Amazon MP3: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

My BFF John has really screwed himself. Truly.

At one point or another, many of us have spontaneously decided to put together a Christmas mix tape and make a dozen copies and send them out to our friends. Maybe we even did it again a year or two later. But pretty much it’s a one-and-done proposition.

John does it annually. Which was a big enough blunder, but then he compounded it by turning out nothing but awesome compilations. Year after year, every track is pure Tabasco. So much so that sometime in November I start sleeping out by the mailbox until I’m rewarded with the delivery of a padded mailer from New York.

And lo…the Holiday season begins.

So you see John’s problem: he’s been at this for well over fifteen years now and at this point, the only excuse that his friends and family will accept for not coming through with these two dozen tracks is The Sweet, Cold Kiss Of The Grave.

(Even so: is that really an excuse, John? Would it be that hard to make up a few of these collections for post-mortem release, just to give us all ample time to line up a new supplier? We’re really sorry about the speeding bicycle courier knocking you into that open manhole while a crowd of laughing and jeering onlookers did nothing to aid you while you floundered and drowned in sewage — I’m guessing; but you work in New York City, so it’s not all that unlikely. All the same I’m sure that you would want us to move on with our lives at some point.)

This year’s anthology (“ALTER-NATIVITY IV”) is up to his usual high standard and contains 25 tracks of awesome.

I could save myself a lot of trouble by just posting one of John’s tracks every day, for the duration of the Advent Calendar.

But no, I couldn’t. I have this unfailing moral compass, you see. Also, I just came up with that idea now, eighteen days too late.

The delivery media has changed over the years. The first ones were cassettes. I’d rip open John’s mailer right in the front seat of the car and presto, that was my holiday soundtrack during every drive for the next few weeks. Then John moved to CDs. Those were still fine because I had my Discman in the car.

Now I have to rip it into MP3s. Which is kind of cool because John’s holiday mixtape is the only playlist on my iPhone whose songs are labeled only as “Track 01…Track 02…Track 03…” Which means that I don’t know that I’m about to hear The O.C. Supertones’ edition of “Joy To The World” until I’m hearing it.

The online music revolution has added a new wrinkle: now, if I like a certain song, I can quickly hit the iTunes store or Amazon and check out the whole rest of the album. And so I have come to own “We Three Kings,” the Reverend Horton Heat’s holiday album. On principle, I can’t recommend the track that John included in this year’s compilation (“Frosty The Snowman”), but in the universe of made-up Holiday characters, Rudolph has always been Batman to Frosty’s Superman.

(Wait, Frosty’s hat is magical. And magic is Superman’s sole weakness other than Kryptonite. But Rudoph’s backstory — a childhood during which he learned that the world is a cruel place where only the strong endure — is a better fit for Batman, isn’t it? Maybe Frosty is Bizarro-Superman, who is only vulnerable when the magic is removed?)

(I might be overthinking this.)

(Or unintentionally writing a “Big Bang Theory” spec script.)

(Continuing.)

I love the Good Reverend. And this is the sort of Christmas cover song that I like: the musicians seem to be  envisioning a day when they’ll be playing this tune for their own kids. So there’s no need for clumsy, self-conscious “edginess,” adding lyrics about how Santa is going to butcher Rudolph into stew meat for the elves if he doesn’t drag his ass into harness and pull the damned sleigh.

It does provoke you to muse a bit about how well these various editions work. It’s said that despite your attempts to change or deny your tastes, they’re set pretty firmly by the time you get out high school. If you hate a certain movie, it’s at least partly because it’s nothing like a similar movie you enjoyed as a kid. Ditto for music, ditto for TV shows, comics…anything.

I associate most of these standard Christmas songs with childhood Christmas Eves at my grandparents’ house. So when I think “Frosty The Snowman” I think of music pumping out of a blondwood console stereo, either tuned into a 60-year-old couple’s favorite FM station, or spinning an old LP pulled out of a sliding compartment underneath the turntable.

But the kids today, with their flared trousers and their Spacepages and such! Will they define “Rudolph” by the modern versions? Or will all of these bedrock standards just die off completely in favor of songs recorded in the Eighties and Nineties?

Hmm.

Well, back to you, John. I’d like to see a rough cut of the 2009 edition by…shall we say January 20? That’ll give you plenty of time. And don’t even try making this one suck in an attempt to get out of doing this every year; I’ll see right through that trick.

Linky-linky, Amazon MP3, you please to buy now, thank you:

Amazon MP3: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer

Purchasing the track from the iTunes Store remains an option. You’ll get it at puny 128K bitrate and it’ll be shackled in the unjust furious chains of DRM. And I won’t get those few coppers from my Amazon Associates link.

But yes: you can buy it from the iTunes Store. I didn’t figure you for being “that guy.” Well, it’s a free country.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 17: “Joy To The World (The Klezmonauts)”

Joy To The World

The Klezmonauts

Oy To The World

Genre: Holiday

Amazon MP3: Joy To The World (the Klezmonauts)

The spaceship is on its dull, free-return-trajectory back to Earth, about to re-enter the atmosphere…when the crew suddenly sees a purple glow enveloping the blue planet! It flashes out to overwhelm all there is!

And all is normal again. Or is it?

They splash down and the recovery chopper quickly finds them. Presently, the crew sees the goggled face of a Navy diver peering in expectantly through the grimy capsule window. They flash him a thumbs-up to signal that the crew has “safed” the craft, precisely according to the mission plan, and the divers duly remove the hatch from the outside and lean inside to welcome the crew back to Earth.

But they instantly leap backwards in a blind panic. “Aliens!” they shout into their radios, in a voice that seems too high and chittery for humans. “The crew has been captured and eaten by horrible aliens!”

And just as the capsule’s commander is shouting for the divers to settle the hell down, the sun finally catches their rescuers’ faces in the right way and he’s shocked into silence: the divers are basically human in form…but they’re BADGERS!

As a Zodiac boat filled with furry, lumpy sailors skips across the waves towards the capsule, every one of them with a weapon drawn and aimed, the crew wonders just what the hell that purple flash was…and where they’ve wound up!

Or!

(Deleted: Unnecessarily-long story about a physicist who proves time-travel is possible by traveling 150 years in the past and shooting hi-def color video of grimy, industrial London, successfully evading any interaction with history; but he’s denied the glory of the discovery because when he gets back, he finds that every method of scientific and mathematical notation created since 1858 is now different. In the eleven months it takes him to re-learn all that stuff so he can successfully defend his paper, a rival from another university completes and publishes his own time-travel research.)

Yup, that’s a staple of time travel. The “Whew! My time travel didn’t affect the present in the very least! …Or DID it?!?” thing.

You write these stories from back-to-front, you see. You have this idea for The Big Revelation and then you wonder just what the hell could have happened to the timestream so that everything else turned out exactly the same, except for this one thing that you’ve come up with.

I promise you: this has relevance to today’s Advent Calendar tune.

Over on Twitter, @acdolph recommended this version of “Joy To The World.” I searched, I listened.

And then, like Charlton Heston in “Planet Of The Apes,” I blinked hard. “A planet where Klezmer music was developed by the Christians?!?” I sputtered. “It’s MADNESSS!!!!

The whole album is like that. I want to lean back and sip at something cold and refreshing and try to figure out how that alternative reality managed to diverge from our own. I am unwise in the ways of timestream disruption and Jewish services. Would it be sort of an even-trade proposition? In the Yom Kippur services in this world, does the cantor solemnly approach the lecturn, clear his throat, and then belt out the prayer using the melody and energy of James Brown singing “The Old Landmark” during Baptist services in “The Blues Brothers”?

I leave further speculations as an excercise for the reader.

This is great music. It’s damned peculiar to hear a song rejoicing about the coming of the Messiah performed in a style that’s so inseparably associated with Jewish culture, but what can I tell you: the Humans are an odd and unpredictable species.

But here’s one thing I can predict with utter certainty: if you purchase this track via Amazon MP3, I will spend the Amazon Associates kickback I receive in a way that will make you proud. I will spent it foolishly. Not on food or clothing or junk like that. I will spend it on stuff that will do no good for me or anybody else. Bang:

Amazon MP3: Joy To The World (the Klezmonauts)

Or, you can buy it from the iTunes Store. This is one of those rare tracks that’s in iTunes Plus, and can be downloaded at high bitrate and free of DRM…just like every track from Amazon MP3.

An iTunes Store where every track is high bitrate and free from DRM?!? It’s SENNNNNSIBLE!!! SENSIBLE, I tells you!!!

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 15: “By Myself [from The Band Wagon]”

By Myself [from The Band Wagon]

Fred Astaire

That’s Entertainment!

Genre: Soundtrack

Amazon MP3: By Myself [from The Band Wagon]

Okay, “The Band Wagon.” You need to know two things about this movie: One, that it is indeed “The Band Wagon” and not “The Bandwagon.” Getting it wrong is a rookie mistake and the true film snobs to whom you were so shabbily attempting to ingratiate yourself will see to it that you’ll never get into a Max Ophuls film festival in this town again.

Secondly, that it is the single greatest musical ever made.

We film snobs are a crafty lot and our predecessors produced “Singin’ In The Rain” just to smoke you fakers out. When we ask a newcomer “What’s the single greatest musical ever made?” we are trying to see if he or she actually watches movies. So many people are just there to stare at bright flashing lights for a couple of hours. “Singin’ In The Rain” — though a very pleasant movie — is two hours of bright, flashing lights. “The Band Wagon” is a movie.

This song is a key case in point. Fred Astaire plays his age in a role that might have felt a little to close to real life for comfort. He plays Tony Hunter, an aging song-and-dance man. He’s a celebrity, but a nostalgic one; he’s a relic of the black-and-white top hat and tails-era of musicals and hasn’t made a decent picture in years. Today, Tony Hunter would be judging a TV reality dance competition.

He takes a train from Hollywood back to New York to recharge his batteries. Upon arrival, he’s delighted and slightly relieved to find that the press has learned about his trip and is waiting for him at the platform. But after a minute or two of interviews they abruptly dash away; they were actually there to get photos of Ava Gardner, who is now stepping off the train.

And then Fred Astaire strolls into the terminal, singing “By Myself.” It’s not a maudlin song about loneliness. Nor is it a brave anthem about independence and self-reliance. It’s a simple matter-of-fact acknowledgment. From Tony’s perspective, it’s more than how things are at that moment. It’s how things seem to be in general.

(And to prevent the audience from feeling sorry for Tony, he’s met by a couple of pals as soon as the song’s over.)

That’s the difference between a great movie musical and one that’s merely Good. Is there any song in “Singin’ In The Rain” that does any heavy lifting? I’m replaying the flick in my head and I can’t think of a single on that reveals anything about the characters or advances the plot. The only songs in “The Band Wagon” that do nothing apart from sounding pretty are the ones in the show-within-the-show.

So that’s settled, then: “The Band Wagon” is the greatest movie musical ever. Let’s hear no more of this “Singin’ In The Rain” nonsense.

I do love this song. I hum it almost every time I’m walking through an airport, particularly during the walk to the baggage carousels at the end of my trip. The director of life, just as the director of that movie, uses that scene to underscore to the audience that this man is unattached. I walk past the little kids who drop their glittery “Welcome Home!” signs and run from the feet of one parent to the arms of the other one, who’s been away for far too long. I walk past the friends hugging. I step over the couple on the floor who really ought to show a little decorum, honestly.

It’s the perfect situation in which to find yourself reflecting upon the status of being single.

I'll face the unknown
I'll build a world of my own
No one knows better than I myself
I'm by myself, alone

As in the movie, it’s not self-pitying; it’s just reality. For the record, when I visited a dear friend of mine last week, I was met at the train station and I immediately received a hug of true chiropractic intensity.

I am forced by Duty to now embed a whole bunch of links. Yup, here’s the tune itself, courtesy of Amazon MP3:

Amazon MP3: By Myself [from The Band Wagon]

But honestly. How can I not also insist that you at least consider buying the movie? Amazon has the two-disc special edition DVD for $25, but they also have box set that includes that exact same edition plus four other musicals for just five bucks more:

Amazon.com: The Classic Musicals Collection – Broadway to Hollywood (Easter Parade Two Disc Special Edition / The Band Wagon Two Disc Special Edition / Bells Are Ringing / Finian’s Rainbow / Brigadoon)

Brace yourselves. My Amazon Associates referrals today have jumped from a dollar to $30. And now it’s getting even pricier. Deep breath, now:

Amazon MP3: That’s Entertainment! [Digital Version]

When I looked for “By Myself,” I discovered that one of my favorite music boxed sets of all time had arrived in the MP3 Store.

I did one of thos squealy things that a heterosexual man can only get away with if he works at home.

The “That’s Entertainment” set contains damned-near every fantastic piece of music from every great MGM musical ever made, ever. I bought it on CD years ago and I’ve re-ripped it at least three times, as encoding technology improved and the capacities of my iPods have expanded.

As to the expense, it’s probably better if you don’t think about it. Just hold your thumb over the corner of the window where the price will appear and click “Buy It Now.” Look, it’s 132 tracks and they’re nearly all winners.

(Sigh. At this point I sort of regret making all those jokes about scamming my readers via Amazon referral fees. But those of you who like this sort of thing will LOVE this sort of thing. And to be honest, if I regretted it all that much I would have embedded a plain old link, wouldn’t I?)

As usual, I offer small penance by also including an iTunes Store link, from which I reap naught but the satisfaction of steering my readers towards an eminently diggable track.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 14: “Santa Claus Is Back In Town”

Santa Claus Is Back In Town

Elvis Presley

Elvis Christmas

Genre: Holiday

Amazon MP3: Santa Claus Is Back In Town

Well, let’s be adults and acknowledge this right at the top: this is a song in which Elvis promises to visit each one of his female fans on Christmas and have sex with them. Possibly right on top of all of her visiting relatives’ coats there on the bed.

There. I said it and the world didn’t end, did it? Aren’t you glad that it’s all out in the open? Your 18-year-old daughter, home from her first semester in college. Glancing at the front door all during dinner on Christmas Eve with an eager anticipation you haven’t seen in her since she still believed in Santa Claus.

Oh, a man in a red suit is stopping by tonight. Count on it. Except it’s close-fitting leather, not flocked velvet. And the “elves” are two muttonchopped walls of muscle who wordlessly station themselves at the bottom of the stairs after “Santa” leads your giggling daughter up to the second floor, and who offer to trade a crisp $100 bill for the film in your 11-year-old son’s camera.

We who were born about thirty or forty years too late for this stuff are made to believe that American men feared this scenario far more than the idea of atomic war or Communism. They imagined that Elvis had a huge, hangar-like command center dominated by a map of the United States, with red light bulbs marking the homes of daughters he had yet to have sex with, and bits of string plotting out the most efficient and economical routes between them.

It seems like such an irrational fear. And yet a song like this did nothing to reassure these crewcutted fretters. For such men, the only reassuring sign to be found anywhere in “Santa Claus Is Back In Town” is the fact that there are no suggestive references to Elvis’ South Pole, candy cane, etc. So maybe (quote) “Santa Claus is coming down your chimney tonight” (unquote) could be taken at face value.

Sorry, but…no. Elvis so totally had sex with your daughter. C’mon. She had that big, stupid grin on her face all the way to New Year’s. Do you think she liked the Paint-By-Numbers Last Supper you gave her that much?

If it’s any consolation, Elvis left her with an enviable library of high-definition memories that helped her to sail through ten years’ worth of efficiently-executed marital coitus. Don’t those three adorable grandkids more than make up for your need to send your fist through the wall every time “Viva Las Vegas” comes on  TV?

Buy the track from Amazon MP3. I get a small kickback and I’m told that am Amazon MP3 purchase will prevent your own daughters from having sex with The Game.

Amazon MP3: Santa Claus Is Back In Town

Or, you can buy it from iTunes and just take your chances.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 13: “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!”

Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

Dean Martin

Christmas With Dino

Genre: Holiday

Amazon MP3: Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1998 Digital Remaster)

It’s time for a couple of actual Christmas songs, fellow sensation-seekers.

Every September and October the stores are jammed with new Christmas CDs from every Tom, Dick, and former “American Idol” contestant making one last stop in the music industry before returning to Jiffy Lube and picking up where he or she left off a couple of years ago. There’s no law stopping them from recording “White Christmas” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” and “The Christmas Song.”

(This is just one of the many reasons why I voted for Obama this year. It’s time for us Americans to find our pride again.)

But even if the singer in question is actually a talented vocalist, it’s just Holiday Karaoke. You can sing “White Christmas” as sweetly and perfectly as it can possibly be sung, discovering new layers and nuances with every phrase. Your audience will still just applaud politely and then say “We’ll be sure to get in touch with you if every single 78, 45, LP, 8-track, cassette, CD and digital copy of the Bing Crosby version is ever destroyed.”

Even thirty-years dead, Bing Crosby owns “White Christmas.” Occasionally some green kid with a belly full of whiskey steps into the Holiday Music Thunderdome and challenges the old man. But older, wiser, and more sober heads quietly lead him back out again before Der Bingle even becomes aware of his presence.

Dean Martin doesn’t have quite the same lock on “Let It Snow!³” but he’s risen to six consecutive challenges (also with a belly full of whiskey) and proven that his version is the product that people want.

It’s a perfect match of subject to singer. It’s cold outside, and it’s snowing and dark. But who would want to leave? You’re “stuck” for an indeterminate amount of time, but you’re in a cabin with Joan Baez!

See? Of course: the only sensible thing to do under those circumstances is to just take your chances with the blizzard. Sure, Jack Nicholson froze to death at the end of “The Shining” but at least he went with a smile on his face. That’s not the face of someone who spent the last four hours of his life being lectured about the need to prevail upon the Great Spirit to come down from the Tree of Life and finally do something about the rise of chromium levels in Chilean waterways.

But who wouldn’t want to be stuck in a cabin with Dean Martin? You acquire +30 Charisma and +50 Smooth points just by breathing the same air as him for an evening.

Also, at least a .30 blood alcohol level. Hell, it’s not like you’ll be driving anytime soon.

Dean Martin definitely would have used the Amazon MP3 store if it had been around ten years ago. Buy “Let It Snow!³” from there and the whole world will see you in a new and highly positive light (and I’ll get a small kickback).

Amazon MP3: Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow! (1998 Digital Remaster)

Or you can buy it from iTunes. Clay Aiken swears by it.

Amazon Advent Calendar Day 12: “Higher And Higher”

Higher And Higher

Jackie Wilson

The Ultimate Jackie Wilson

Genre: R&B/Soul

Amazon MP3: Higher & Higher

This is precisely what I was talking about when I discussed Tenor Envy yesterday. Good God. I hope I have enough common sense not to trade away a single day of my life under any circumstances, but if I was offered the ability to sing just one time like Jackie Wilson in exchange for dying a week earlier than scheduled…well, I know I’d have to sleep on it before inevitably saying no.

“Higher And Higher” is an articulation of pure joy. Shameless, uninhibited, uncontainable, dancing in the street joy. It puts the damnest smile on your face and it makes you feel slightly ashamed about every cynical thought or action you’ve ever been responsible for.

I’m sitting here and trying to think of a cynical thought or action that I might be ashamed about. I’m coming up blank, here. I’m smart enough to know that this can only mean I’ve been a cynic for so long that I’ve long-since stopped being ashamed about it.

Which of course means that I ought to put this song on Repeat and listen to it over and over again during an hour’s drive I’ve got scheduled for this afternoon.

Its restorative powers are unstoppable. I often listen to these Advent Calendar songs while I write about them but it can’t be done with “Higher And Higher.” My butt might be planted in the chair but my upper body is in full celebration mode, with each arm interpreting a different one of the dance moves that the kids in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” perform.

This is not wholly conducive to touch-typing.

Jackie Wilson earned the nickname “Mr. Excitement.” Here I think they were just reading the birthmark off the back of his head. Surely the Bible foretold of the coming of one such as he, or else the book doesn’t even halfway live up to its hype.

Speaking of the Bible, “Higher And Higher” is often included in spiritual compilations. Okay. I can see that. Change a couple of words to eradicate any implication of wanting to get to second base and it becomes a song about the joy that certain believers feel about being loved by God.

I do enjoy a certain spiritual component in this song myself. “Higher And Higher” proves that there is indeed Joy in the world. It’s there. Just be open to it, and you’ll find it.

On second thought, maybe I’ll just listen to this song over an over again while I prepare to go out and do my errands. “Higher And Higher” is truly prescription-grade stuff and use of a motor vehicle while joyful is probably contraindicated on the packaging.

Naturally, it would give me great joy if you were to buy this track from Amazon MP3. I promise you that the money I get from the referral fees will go towards no charity or Good Cause whatsoever. I will spend the Amazon credits on an as-yet undetermined object in that broad category of “Machines That Go ‘Ping!’.”

Amazon MP3: Higher & Higher

But go ahead and buy it from the iTunes Store if you must. I should point out that this is one of those piddling few tracks on iTunes that are actually sold at high bitrate and DRM-free, just like every single track on Amazon.

Go ahead. I’ll get by. Jackie Wilson will cheer me up. That’s how powerful this track is.