iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 25

O Holy Night

Donna Summer

Christmas Spirit

Genre: Vocal

Blah, Blah, Blah: Hands-down my favorite Christmas song. If I’m out and about and carols are in the air and a version of “O Holy Night” that I haven’t heard before comes on, I put my audio subprocessors in full spread-spectrum capture mode because I’m sort of eager to find a version that’s even better than my favorite version.

Again I come back to the observation that you don’t need to be religious to be affected by religious music. If you can listen to Bach’s Mass in B-Minor and not be moved, then you definitely need to have a fresh set of batteries installed somewhere because somethin’ ain’t workin’ right. Great music is created and performed by people who truly believe in what they’re doing, who feel as though this thing they’re creating is important; people who are very, very highly motivated to not screw this up.

“O Holy Night” is unusually potent because it’s such an effective piece of theater. It starts off quietly, cautiously. Then the singer appreciates the scale of what he or she’s talking about, and releases his or her joy. And check out the lyrics:

Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Any writer who penned those lines would have just cause to put the pen back in its holder, knock off work early, and go out for waffles. “The rejoicing of a weary world.” Crimeny. If you’re a writer and you don’t aspire to that kind of brilliance, then you need to sell your MacBook and get a job loading trucks at UPS.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: I’m not 100% convinced that this is my favorite version of “O Holy Night.” I think that honor goes to a live concert by operatic Iron Chef Kiri Te Kanawa. I had it on laserdisc and if that concert has ever made it to CD, I can’t find it. Can’t even find it on DVD.

I certainly couldn’t find a recording on iTunes. And so, the hunt for another Favorite was on.

It’s a tall order. I there are two things you can do to this song that call for an immediate technical foul and ejection. Most egregious is when the artist doesn’t trust the song to succeed on its own merits, and elects to “improve” it.

I mean, I’m not an expert on music. All the same, I promise you that the previous 140 years’ worth of performances were not just the build-up to your little slice of perfection known as “O Holy Lambada Night Mas Caliente!”

The second immediate DQ is when the singer carries the lyrics like an egg from start to finish. Sir or madam: read the lyrics again. World filled with sin. Jesus is born, the entire world is healed and rejoices. Your reaction to this should really be logarithmically greater than (say) the indifferent happiness you experience when you look under the cap of the Coke you’ve just cracked open and discover that you’ve won a free 20-ounce bottle with your next purchase.

This Donna Summer version is damned close to the ideal. Women who grew up singing gospel can always be counted on. In fact, I encourage you to hire gospel singers for any open positions within your corporations. A woman who can sing like this will almost certainly know what to do when a snowed-in airport means that FedEx won’t be able to deliver the company’s trade show booth to Las Vegas on time.

And for all my blathering about the need to play the song straight, the lady really opens it up after the first verse. That’s fine. She took care of the compulsories straight away and then she proceeded straight on to the Freestyle portion of the competition. Now here is a woman who feels as though her Original Sin has been washed away quite effectively.

So: congratulations, Ms. Summer. Well-done.

Now it’s time for me to complain about Lakeshore Records. I don’t know who at that organization has been put in charge of selecting content for the iTunes Store, but I’m reasonably sure that he or she was visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. I’m also sure that he told the whole trio to go **** themselves and then gave them intentionally-incorrect directions back to the interstate.

For Lakeshore Records is the publisher of the soundtrack to a fairly wretched recent holiday movie by the name of “Deck The Halls.” This film is in that major genre where comic actors past their peak of box-office power play hapless fathers who cling helplessly to wildly out-of-control and improbable vehicles.

Enough said about that. But the soundtrack has at least one thing going for it: “O Holy Night” as sung by Ms. Kristen Chenoweth. What a voice! Wikipedia tells me that she has a BA in musical theater and a Master’s in opera. Clearly, this is a woman who’s prepared to bring a gun to a knife fight. Each of her few tracks on the iTunes Store leaves absolutely no question that Ms. Chenoweth truly performs a song instead of merely singing it.

The thirty seconds’ worth of “O Holy Night” that I’d heard left me convinced that this version could be a world-beater.

But now we come back to the aforementioned dirty stinking bastards at Lakeshore Records. The “Deck The Halls” soundtrack is only available as an entire album. You can’t just snag the Chenoweth track for 99 cents. No no no.

I’m sure it’s worth it. Unfortunately for the ADSB @ LR, they’ve had the bad luck of selling this album in 2007, and not 1987.

In 1987? Sure: I might have bought a whole CD for one specific track. Back then, buying an album sometimes felt like opening a little Christmas present. You knew you were getting the hit single and you hoped that there’d be a few cheery little surprises hidden among the discs 10 or 12 other tracks.

Alas, I’ve just checked on the Internet and it turns out that as of today, it is indeed 2007. I do still buy actual CDs, but only after vetting all of its tracks on iTunes and determining that the thing’s so damned awesome that I must have it in the best non-compressed non-DRM’ed format.

Today, buying 12 tracks that I know I don’t want in order to get just the one I actually need seems offensively retro. I wouldn’t walk through downtown wearing a “Frankie Say RELAX” tee shirt. For similar sensible reasons, I’m willing to wait until Ms. Chenoweth inevitably comes out with a Christmas album.

In the meantime, the soundtrack has a MySpace page. You can listen to the whole track there.

Some of you might even choose to do something clever but morally dodgy.

I’m just sayin’.

Oh, and one final note to the aforementioned dirty stinking bastards at Lakeshore Records: even if it were1987, I still wouldn’t have bought this album. In 1987, I was an impoverished student and the only way to get me to buy a $15 CD would be if there were $20 worth of Subway coupons tucked inside.

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 24

The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On an Open Fire)

Tony Bennett

Snowfall – The Tony Bennett Christmas Album

Genre: Holiday

Blah, Blah, Blah: Honestly, I think the only thing you need to say when linking to a Tony Bennett song is “Ladies and gentlemen…Mister Tony Bennett.”

This is my second-most-favorite Christmas song, sung by my single most favorite singer. I’m absolutely not an atheist, but I’m not religious either. Though I certainly appreciate and enjoy the songs that celebrate the birth of Jesus, I can’t really relate to them on the same level as someone who Believes. Primarily I like them because a Believer has sung them with considerable passion and joy.

But The Christmas Song pushes my buttons. What I like most about Christmas are the huge collection of positive sense-memories I’ve acquired over the past 219 years, plus the fact that everyone seems to declare a cease-fire for a couple of weeks. No matter what your faith (or non-faith) we all sort of agree not to act like d***s for this narrow window.

And that’s what this song is all about. It offers a cascade of sights and sounds and smells that digs up all kinds of treasures from that part of your brain where your deep-mojo happy thoughts are stored. And it ends with the phrase “Although it’s been said, many times, many ways: Merry Christmas to you.” Which sums it up for me: it’s a basic sentiment that people are going out of their way to wish people well.

Incidentally, my pal Mark Evanier has a terrific story about the most incredible performance of this song he’s ever witnessed. Read it. Lots of happy chemicals will be dumped into your bloodstream.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: I refer you to the words “Tony Bennett” prominently displayed among the track info.

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 23

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Whitney Houston

A Very Special Christmas, Vol. 1

Genre: Holiday

Blah, Blah, Blah: What a voice. Whitney Houston shouldn’t have to answer for all the female singers who came after her, who did nothing more than caricature her style, and who helped to make both the Billboard Top 100 and “American Idol” into colossal disgraces for which Humanity shall one day be forced to answer.

Gospel has a long history of feeding pop music but I’m not sure if anyone ever wielded gospel tools so skillfully, with so much precision. The difference that elevates a singer to a vocalist is the ability to make shrewd and deliberate choices about how a lyric should be delivered. Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera tend to just fill empty spaces with more notes. Whitney Houston appreciates that some words and passages are more effective when there’s some air around them.

“Do You Hear What I Hear?” is a perfect match for her style, too. Maybe you’re a Christian, maybe you aren’t; maybe you’re one of those Christians who is grateful to Jesus Christ each and every day, maybe you just go to church on Christmas and Easter and generally agree that JC said lots of sensible things. But gospel music is filled with fire and passion because it’s generally performed by people who believe, dammit. And when a singer truly believes in the music they’re making (be it Johnny Cash singing “Why Me, Lord?” or Janis Joplin singing “Ball And Chain”) good things happen.

This tune isn’t technically gospel, but it gets to the heart of what a true Believer focuses on about Christmas.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: I heard it in the mall way too many times. I’ve always liked Whitney Houston’s voice but never bought any of her music before. Seemed like the right time.

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 22

White Christmas (1947 Single Version)

Bing Crosby

20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: The Best of Bing Crosby

Genre: Vocal

Blah, Blah, Blah: Not much to this song, is there?

It’s charming, it’s been flashed into the cultural NVRAM, and even if we wanted to kill it, “White Christmas” has corrosive acid for blood so taking it out once and for all would probably create more problems than it solved. That said, if Irving Berlin hadn’t written “White Christmas” I’m fairly sure that it would have been written eventually. Possibly by a kid poking listlessly at a Casio keyboard in a midwestern Wal*Mart.

Also problematic: it reminds me that we live in an imperfect world.

In a perfect world, “Holiday Inn” would have become a familiar and cherished holiday TV staple. Lots of nice songs and it features both Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Instead, the best song from that musical inspired a musical of its own: “White Christmas,” which is probably one of the most baffling “classic” movies in my personal database.

The thing makes no sense. Which normally isn’t a problem, but I’m telling you that it makes no sense even compared with other musicals. The last time I sat on my sofa and watched a plot that was this random, with characters who were this poorly-motivated and brought to life this poorly, I had a game controller in my hands.

The chunk of road salt that acts as the cherry on this sundae of beach mud is the fact that it’s probably the ugliest musical ever made, outside of the Iron Curtain. There are too many examples to count — plus, c’mon man, it’s Christmas; don’t make me think about such things — but I’ll single out the desperately monochromatic art direction. This is probably the only movie shot in color that needs digital colorization.

Seriously. The next time it comes on, pay close attention to the color palette. It’s as though the guy who designed the sets did it during breakfast at Denny’s, and he decided to just use the four-pack of crayons that they give kids to color with.

There’s a (really dumb) reason why, though: “White Christmas” doesn’t just recycle one of the best songs of “Holiday Inn”…it also re-uses the same sets. And that movie was shot in black-and-white which means: gray walls, white trim, black floors…the whole movie’s a singing, dancing monument to Prozac.

I will wind up this conversation about “White Christmas” by mentioning that Vera Allen (the Haynes Sister who is not Rosemary Clooney) is painful to watch. In 1948’s “Words And Music,” she was a vivacious blonde Betty Page, dancing “Slaughter On 10th Avenue” with Gene Kelly. By 1954, she was battling anorexia. In fact, the disorder was taking such a visible toll that her entire wardrobe had to be designed with extremely high collars, to cover up her neck.

Well, Merry Christmas, dammit. It’s still an awesome song. More comments on Bing Crosby coming later.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: Another one of those deals where I bought it for the Advent Calendar and wound up listening to it a lot. Don’t just trust the mall sound system to deliver your holiday classics, friends.

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 21

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Judy Garland

20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: Season’s Greetings (Box Set)

Genre: Holiday

Blah, Blah, Blah: There are Christmas songs, and then there are Christmas recordings. “Frosty The Snowman” is a Christmas song. Everyone’s recorded it and some of these tracks are pretty fab, but just like cheese pizza, one is as good as another, given a certain minimal standard of quality.

“Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” is a Christmas recording. It’s sung by Judy Garland. No negotiation on that point. It’s not as though the alternatives are bad. Great gravy, iTunes can sell you versions recorded by Sinatra, Bennett, and Ella Fitzgerald.

No matter who the singer is and no matter how well the they sing the song, though, your brain still substitutes the Judy Garland vocals for whatever you’re actually hearing.

(All right: with Ella Fitzgerald, maybe you hear it as a duet.)

Why I Bought It In The First Place: Bought it for the Advent Calendar. There seems to be very little need to actually buy a track like this. If you can spur yourself to leave the house a few times between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, you’ll hear it plenty of times.

But when it’s in your library and you finally get a chance to listen to it at your own pace and on your own terms, you stop taking it for granted.

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 20

Christmas Time Is Here (Vocal Version)

Vince Guaraldi Trio

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Genre: Holiday

Blah, Blah, Blah: I suppose that on some purist level, your opinion of a piece of music should be based on the track and nothing but the track.

Fine, Poindexter: I acknowledge that you’re a nobler and purer music critic than I. But any of the two or three signature songs from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” puts a big honkin’ smile on my face that lasts long after the music ends.

A song that hooks into your most pleasant memories of childhood has some powerful mojo behind it. This song shows up on Shuffle Play and immediately I hear that slappy, “snare drum falling down a flight of metal stairs” drum riff and I see the word “SPECIAL” whirling in front of a black background. For the nth time in my lifetime, I wonder just what the hell “Dolly Madison Snack Cakes” were, and if there were anything like the fine Twinkies and Suzy-Q’s of the Hostess Corporation.

If “Christmastime Is Here” comes up on my iPod while I’m talking my constitutional, it’s all I can do to not try to ape the sawtooth-like walk of Charlie Brown and Linus. I’ve never heard it while skating, but I’m guessing that I’d start moving in those tight, lazy circles of the kids from the opening scenes.

I haven’t been skating in years. In fact, the last time I was on skates it was at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, aka Snoopy’s Home Ice in Santa Rosa, California. This is the ice rink next to Charles Schulz’ studio, which he built and operated (at a violent monthly loss) out of his own pocket, just so that the community would have an place to skate.

(And so that Schulz himself would have a place to play hockey with his friends after leaving his studio for the day.)

But apart from these technically irrelevant features, this recording features the immeasurable charm of kids singing like kids. Sometimes I think the best way to destroy a kid’s potential career as a singer is to appreciate that he or she (come on: “she”) sings well. They start teaching her to sing like the current flavor of the month instead of letting her grow into her voice and her talents.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: Another one of those albums that I’ve bought two or three times, on cassette and then CD.

And now, I’ve bought it on iTunes…just so that I’d have the album art for this very feature. I do and I do and I do for you kids…

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 19

Santa Claus, Santa Claus

James Brown

James Brown’s Funky Christmas

Genre: Holiday

Blah, Blah, Blah: If I were a middle-school music teacher, I’d quickly become a local treasure and a national legend. Or else I’d be invited to take the whole rest of the my contract off at full pay, starting immediately. I can’t imagine any sort of a middle ground there at all.

The principal would instruct me on my duties, the very first day. “And of course, you’ll be taking care of our annual Holiday Choral Concert,” she’d say. “Specific Christmas themes are kind of a touchy subject, so try to keep your song selections in the ‘sleigh bells’ and ‘that special time of year’ sort of vein.”

“Is Santa Claus okay?”

“Borderline. Usually Santa songs mention Christmas.”

“So: Santa yes, Christmas no?”

“Right.”

“No sweat. I know just the number.”

And that would be my priority from September through December. Locate one kid — just one kid — who can do a perfectly adequate James Brown. If need be, I’d even contact the local musician’s union to see if they had any soul singers under 4’6″ whom I could hide behind a Santa beard or something.

Because this would be the greatest middle-school holiday chorale of all time.

Yes, James Brown recorded Christmas albums, just like everybody else. So don’t get all sniffy when you’re in Barnes & Noble and see “The Cast Of ‘Lost’ Sings For A Very Special Season” on CD.

Some of these tunes are pretty peppy, as you can imagine. But clearly, “Santa Claus, Santa Claus” is the song you play when you’re decorating the tree with garlands of cigarette butts and an upside down bottle of Night Train for an angel. Sample lyrics:


It seems I waited
A little too long
What I once had
I found out it’s all gone

I ain’t got nobody

Santa Claus! Santa Claus!
You’re my last hope!
(HELLLLLLLLLP-meh! PLEASE!)
Don’t let me suffer so!

You’ve got the one kid who’s a terrific singer, and he’s doing all of the heavy lifting out front. The rest of the kids are beghind him up on risers, swaying left and right, singing in response as needed.

And every middle-school choir has that one kid who can’t even handle banging two red sticks together. No need to leave him out…I’d put that little boy on Cape duty.

“Remember, Jordan: Casey is going to be on his knees for a lot of this song but don’t come out until he collapses completely. And then what do you do…?”

“I come out, I throw the cape over his shoulders…and then I walk Casey offstage.”

“And when he spins out of the cape and runs back to the microphone?”

“I take three steps towards him, stop, then I fold the cape over my arm and walk off the stage, glancing at Casey and shaking my head mournfully.”

“Good lad.”

Admittedly, this show would be more about entertaining myself rather than entertaining the audience or even just giving the kids an educational experience.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: I started feeling a little guilty about this iTunes Advent Calendar having so few actual holiday songs. “Thank You Very Much” barely qualifies. When I added “Living In Stereo,” I found myself almost writing “…And there are sleighbells in this, so technically, it’s a holiday song.”

So here you go. I give you a man at the very end of his tether, in his moment of most desperate physical and spiritual need, pleading to an advertising mascot of the Coca-Cola Company for help instead of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.

(Merry damned Christmas.)

I suppose this actually makes James Brown look like a uniquely kind and thoughtful individual. I’m sure that Jesus would normally be the go-to guy in a case like this. But it’s pretty rude and insensitive to hit a guy up for such a big favor so close to his birthday.

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 18

Eric the Half a Bee

Monty Python

Monty Python Sings

Genre: Comedy

Blah, Blah, Blah: In 1948, Sir Larry Olivier played the titular prince in “Hamlet.” In 1969, John Cleese played Eric Praline in “The Dead Parrot Sketch.”

Both men had plenty of reason to just coast on through the rest of their careers. You’re certain that your place in history is assured; why knock yourself out? But both men are true artists; junkies for excellence in artistic expression, they live their lives craving their next fix.

Olivier went on to star in a disastrously comical remake of “The Jazz Singer” which was designed as a vehicle for Neil Diamond’s career as a dramatic actor. Cleese, knowing that it’s best to give the pubic what it wants, reprised the Praline role in “The Fish License Sketch” just a year later.

Thus, John Cleese is a much better actor than Sir Laurence Olivier.

And The Fish License Sketch spawned this song from Monty Python’s Previous Record. So we can safely say that Cleese is a much, much better actor than Larry, particularly if we meanspiritedly overlook the rest of the films in Olivier’s Shakespearian cycle and bring up “Clash Of The Titans” instead.

(The sketch in question:)

I wish more songs like this were being made. It’s pure silliness. When the composer finished writing it and sent it to the studio, I’m sure he hoped that it would do well but he was probably pretty sure that it wouldn’t become a great boon to Humanity. I mean, Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” empowered an entire generation. McCartney’s “Hey Jude” continues to offer courage and hope to hundreds of thousands of people. Even Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy-Breaky Heart” induced a certain demographic to spend millions of dollars on CDs and concert tickets instead using the money to get hooked on meth.

“Eric The Half A Bee” won’t help its composer win a a Nobel Prize or get into Heaven or anything. All this song did was give me a reason to hum cheerfully while doing something exceptionally tedious…but hey, that’ll do.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: The best endorsement you can make for a certain song is to keep buying more copies of it over the years. I’m pretty sure I bought Monty Python’s Previous Record secondhand on LP, and then I got this track on CD as part of the Monty Python Sings compilation, and then I bought this specific track from iTunes because I really, really wanted it on my iPod and I couldn’t find the CD.

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 17

Moving In Stereo

The Cars

The Cars

Genre: Rock

Blah, Blah, Blah: A songwriter must think it’s the coolest thing in the world that their songs take on lives of their own once they’re in the hands of the public.

Or maybe they think it totally sucks. Yeah. I can see that. I can imagine Bob & Jackie Scott leaning back in satisfaction after composing their biggest hit.

“I feel as though just I’ve torn out a piece of my soul,” said Jackie, as they both admired the sheets of handwritten music spread across the table.

“I was just thinking the exact same thing,” Bob replied. “But in a good way. I feel as though I’m finally starting to come to grips with Caroline’s death.”

“How many times did we play this song for her?”

“God. She knew that if she asked us to play it right at her bedtime, she’d get to stay up an extra fifteen minutes.”

“We just had to say ‘no’.”

“Like that was ever going to happen! I don’t know who enjoyed the song more…Caroline, dancing and jumping around our home studio in her little pajamas, or us, watching her.”

“You’re sure it’s all right to release this? It was always her special song, after all.”

“Just think about how much joy Cee Cee’s Song will bring to other little children. All over the world…for years to come. It’ll be a lasting memorial.”

“Every time we hear it on the radio, we’ll think of her.”

And then they spent the next ten minutes simply holding hands and listening to the demo tape.

“Cee Cee’s Song” became a monster smash hit, of course. Except the publisher renamed it “Yakkity Sax” and it became Benny Hill’s signature tune. So instead of being associated with an adorable little girl, it universally conjures up images of a busty half-naked woman being chased in serpentine fashion by bobbies, milkmen, firefighters, construction workers, nurses (also half-naked), gorillas, and a 50-year-old man dressed as a giant baby….in double-fast motion.

Still, I suppose all those royalties came in handy, right?

If you’re of a certain age, dear reader, you know precisely why I’m bringing all of this up. To an entire generation — specifically, to the straight men and lesbians of that generation who saw “Fast Times At Ridgemont High” in a real movie theater at any point during puberty — “Living In Stereo” is a very, very happy song.

Very happy.

Of course, you do need to mentally edit out the Judge Reinhold bits from that scene. Ideally, you’ll physically edit them out. But ask any of the aforementioned straight men or lesbians and they’ll tell you that editing out everything except the Phoebe Cates bits is way, WAY worth the three hours you’ll spend ripping the DVD and then cutting it down in iMovie.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: In New England, the nights are very cold.

Very cold.

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 16

How Sweet to Be an Idiot

Neil Innes

Keynsham (Remastered)

Genre: Rock

Blah, Blah, Blah: I love this song first and foremost because it’s such a sweet, simple and effective tune. But also because though it’s been one of my favorite songs for a long, long time, I’ve never been completely sure what it means.

I’ll tell you what it means to me: being an idiot renders you immune to a great deal of the crap in life that really doesn’t matter anyway, and it allows you to enjoy simple pleasures.

Instead of “being an idiot” perhaps we should say “being an ‘idiot’.” I can’t say that my behavior has been directly influenced by this song, but thought life I’ve found that being a willful idiot on occasion is a pretty useful tool.

(“Yes, Andy…we’ve heard your podcasts.”)

See what I mean? An idiot wouldn’t be worried that the person who said that — oh, you know who you are — was trying to put him down or make him look foolish. An idiot would recognize the joke, then he’d chuckle, and then he’d move on, which is entirely the right response.

Whereas a person who’s committed to more complex forms of thinking might worry about losing face, or they might try to figure out a way to extract revenge or an apology. Which is nonsense. The person who made the remark probably said it out of reflex and forgot all about it five seconds after the words left his lips. Why let it ruin your day?

Honestly…how frequently do we miss the point or trip ourselves up by thinking too deeply about things?

An idiot isn’t consumed by a harrowing fear that the man with the heavy backpack who just boarded his subway car is a terrorist carrying a dirty bomb. The idiot offers up his seat, because he notices that the guy looks like he’s completely exhausted from carrying that thing around. When an idiot sees a Big Mac wrapper on the sidewalk, he doesn’t start railing against the megacorporations who choose to crush individualism under the iron bootheel of a nice, tidy, national McMarketplace. The idiot simply picks it up, puts it in a nearby trash can, and continues to enjoy his walk.

Neither of those two actions require any kind of a subtle understanding of the inner workings of the planet and our Society. A simple awareness of what’s going on right in front of you is all you need. And both of those hypothetical actions would do much, much more to improve the world than any hand-wringing blog post speculating about a presidential candidate’s policies concerning Iraq.

So that’s my own take on this song. But I’d really like to know what Neil Innes had in mind when he wrote it. It’s possible that the song’s narrator is, truly, an idiot, oblivious to the meaning of anything. The song’s bridge also makes me wonder if the narrator is on his way to, from, or even currently inside a mental hospital.

It’s tricky. There are plenty of people out there who think The Who’s “Squeeze Box” is a pleasant little ditty about a mother who enjoys playing the accordian. Should we try to prevent these naive innocents from making fools of themselves in public, or is it best not to spoil things? Hmm.

“How Sweet To Be An Idiot” comes up on my internal soundtrack quite often. Frequently, I start hearing it when I’m taking a long walk with no set agenda. Naturally, there are times when thinking six or seven moves ahead is vitally important. But there occasions when I’m truly grateful for the ability to switch off my higher brain functions. It allows me to stop and enjoy the sight of a small dog who’s passionately trying to chase a french fry from the bottom of a paper bag that it’s found.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: I first bought this track in the mid-Eighties…on vinyl, in fact. As a kid, I never really got into popular music but whenever I passed by a secondhand music store, I’d head straight for the Comedy/Spoken Word section. Then as now, out-of-print comedy albums were low on the priority list for being issued on CD, so if I wanted to listen to The Goons or The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Radio Drama, I had to get it on LP and then dub it to cassette on my Dad’s stereo, which I really wasn’t allowed to touch.

I think Dad knew that I was messing with his hi-fi gear, though. He’d screw it up on a bimonthly basis by randomly unplugging things and throwing switches. Eventually he had to have figured out that there was some reason why his stereo would magically start working again a few days later.

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 15

That Thing You Do!

Various Artists

That Thing You Do! (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

Genre: Soundtrack

Blah, Blah, Blah: This song was an absolute lock to win the 1996 Academy Award for Best Original Song. It was precisely the sort of song that the award was meant to honor: a piece that makes such a significant contribution that you couldn’t possibly imagine the movie without it.

“That Thing You Do!” follows the meteoric rise of a local band as a replacement drummer’s impulsive change in tempo transforms a drippy romantic ballad into a monster hit that takes the entire nation by storm. Okay, so the screenplay’s written, the budget is in place, the movie’s been cast, the actors are learning how to fake their way with guitars and drums, and frumpy men and women are fanning out and securing locations. Now all you need to do is to line up that song.

You know…the song that’s catchy on such a Darwinian level that in the space of just a couple of months, The Wonders go from playing a college talent show to playing for thousands of screaming fans and appearing on the nation’s top-rated live network variety program.

(No pressure or anything.)

The movie would have failed completely if this song hadn’t been absolutely perfect. How many other movies have screwed this up? You’re watching a movie about tortured artist for whom depression and addiction are the unbearable price he pays for his God-given gifts. His paintings are works of desperate genius that cause sinners to repent upon first sight, and each new piece sends a struggling world one step further down a road towards Healing. This latest work of his is consuming all of the artist’s energy and passion and he’s so consumed by his Vision that he has shut out the outside world entirely. He is utterly convinced that this is the masterpiece that God called him down to Earth to create…and that once this piece is finished, he will never paint another and he will finally be free to lay down his metaphorical sword and shield.

At the very end of the movie, you finally get to see the actual painting. But despite what everyone in the movie says about it, it’s clearly crap. If you put it up for sale at a local church craft fair, the only way it’d sell would be if you pasted a few felt squares onto it and offered it as a caddy for remote controls.

But “That Thing You Do!” is the real deal. Every year, there’s this one song that you can’t get away from all summer long. You totally believe that this could be one of those songs.

Again: an utter lock for Best Original Song. The winner, of course, was “You Must Love Me” from “Evita.” This outcome was doubly-lame because the song wouldn’t have been written in the first place if any of the songs originally written for the stage musical were eligible for an Academy Award nomination. Apparently, Andrew Lloyd-Webber didn’t want to live in a world in which there was an award or an accolade that he hasn’t won.

In my old age, I refuse to even joke that he should have killed himself rather than compose the song that beat “That Thing You Do!” But I’m still young enough that I checked his Wikipedia page to see if a 1996 Lloyd-Webber suicide might have prevented some future abomination from happening as well.

A “Daddy throws himself onto the floor and beats his feet and fists in the carpet and insists on getting an Oscar nomination for his musical” win isn’t as bad as the Oscar going to a song that only appeared in the movie’s end credits. But add the fact that “You Must Love Me” appeared in a movie that featured Madonna in a dramatic role, and it’s definitely one of those outcomes that encourages you to throw your hands up and stop caring right then and there.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: Another one of those Stimulus-Response things. The year when you’re able to download a Big Mac straight to your notebook anytime the impulse strikes you is the year when my weight and my cholesterol both break 300.

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 14

What Is Hip?

Tower Of Power

Tower of Power

Genre: R&B/Soul

Blah, Blah, Blah: The Tower of Power was founded by horn players. So in philosophy at least, it’s more or less a horn section with enough of a support system around it to allow it to move independently, like a four-poster bed with a four-cylinder engine and a set of golf cart wheels underneath it. The formed at the beginning of that ten-year period when it was mathematically impossible for a band to attain desired levels of funkiness without a horn section. Guitars? Pfft. Those were rhythm instruments. The real driving force was the 320 pounds of brass over at the left of the stage. Admittedly, it was good to have a bass player in there as well but really, you bought yourself a bassist with the money you had left over after you’d paid for the brass players and whatever quantities of metal polish they required for the tour.

I do love a good horn section. I saw the Brian Setzer Orchestra once and immediately admired the horn section’s work ethic. In a band like that, musicians are blessed with free time. The guitarist is showboating at center stage, you’ve got something like eight measures before you need to jump back in…it’s not enough time to send a few text messages, but it does give you a chance to rest your trumpet on your knee and think about whether you’re going to order the tuna salad or the chicken club from room service later tonight.

But that’s not what Brian Setzer horn section did. There’s this little thing called showmanship, sir. Eight measures with no notes to play is eight measures during which you can be spinning the instrument, and pumping it in all four compass directions one at a time, and turning 90 degrees in your seat while feigning disinterest so that you can just sort of blink back into position a split-second before you need to start playing again. This was a horn section who committed to the philosophy “People paid to get in; hell, we might as well entertain ’em.”

As for the song itself: try not to listen to it in public. It’s impossible to listen to “What Is Hip?” without moving in a funky sort of fashion, and if you’re unlucky enough to be in plain view of Mean Girls, it won’t be pretty.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: Some gain Wisdom through quiet contemplation and meditation. Some simply wake up from a three-month coma and clearly understand that a camcorder, a YouTube account, a shopping cart, and a cylinder of compressed air are perfectly safe individually but often a recipe for disaster when they’re combined in a parking lot that empties into a two-lane state highway.

But Wisdom is Wisdom, regardless of the path you walked (or rocketed, screaming) to get there. On that basis, I suppose I shouldn’t be sheepish about saying that (yes) I first heard “What Is Hip?” when it was used as one of the annual dance videos on “The Drew Carey Show”:

I have so much respect for that show. This was an expensive 3 minutes to produce (three minutes that had absolutely nothing to do with the actual episode, remember) and God only knows how long the regular cast of non-dancers had to rehearse for each one of these things. It would have been much simpler to just shoot three pages of script. Yet they did the dance number anyway.

There are ways to tell when the folks who make a TV show or a movie love what they do for a living. One big tipoff: they do stuff like this every now and again.

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 13

Tell Her I’m Not Home

Ike & Tina Turner

The Best of Loma Records – The Rise and Fall of a 1960’s Soul Label

Genre: R&B/Soul

Blah, Blah, Blah: Well, now he’s dead. I don’t know if there was any sort of ongoing wagering about when Ike Turner would die, but even if you had “December 12” in the pool I seriously doubt you would have picked “…peacefully in his sleep.” Never bet against the house, kids.

The next round of wagering will center on how history is going to negotiate the thorny problem of Mr. Turner’s reprehensible extra-curricular behavior. The fact that Ike is more well known for domestic abuse and drug use than for his music is a fairly staggering statement, considering all he accomplished as a musician.

I mean, imagine a parallel world in which Albert Einstein accomplished everything in the field of physics that he did in our own. Except that in this other reality, science isn’t the thing he’s most famous for.

Honestly…what the hell could Einstein possibly have done to overshadow E=MC²? Get caught in a Grand Central men’s room having sex with a tank of lobsters? Hunt, kill, and eat each of the 1937 Chicago Cubs, in alphabetical order?

And that’s the problem presented by Ike Turner. As a Nobel Prize winner, sex with crustaceans would only have made Einstein more colorful and quirky. And though serial murder and cannibalism are (rightly) considered to be horrifying hobbies, you sort of have to tip your hat to the dedication that’s involved in downing over a half a ton of stringy, gamey meat. Then you grudgingly add some style points for doing it from Clay Briant to Tuck Stainback. Even more so if Einstein ate them in the off-season, when the guys would be scattered all over the country instead of all gathered together in the same hotel or something.

Acts of regular, brutal violence against your wife and kids? I don’t want to come across as glib here…but when you turn up at the big processing center in the sky, that’s definitely the first thing that’s going to come up in the pre-interview. Indeed, it might be quite some time before the regional subdistrict associate-angel who gets you logged into the system even mentions how awesome “A Fool In Love” was, and how it’s, like, always on his iPod and everything.

Which is both fair and unfair. When you evaluate Ike Turner’s recording career, a picture of a true rock pioneer quickly resolves itself. He ought to have spent the last ten or twenty years of his life being interviewed by Charlie Rose, recording tracks with Bruce Springsteen and Eric Clapton, and picking up lifetime achievement awards.

(That could have been Little Richard, too, but he’s had a freakish amount of plastic surgery and by all firsthand reports the man believes himself to be surrounded by invisible elves at all times. I mean, the position of Elder Statesman of Rock was standing vacant.)

It certainly isn’t right to sum up a 76-year lifespan with the phrase “He was a druggie and a wife-beater.” But of course, any damage to Ike Turner’s reputation was self-inflicted.

In a weird way, dying is probably the best thing Ike could have possibly done to enhance his legacy as a musician. He (as half of “Ike And Tina Turner”) was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1991. It appears that the nominating committee raced into action when they figured out that there was little chance that Ike would actually show up to collect the award, given that he’d be serving a prison term at the time. So the Hall of Fame got the best possible result: honoring a seminal body of work, getting the lovely and beloved Tina Turner up on stage to accept an award and maybe sing a couple of numbers…and no awkward moments with Ike.

Suffice to say that Ike is now incapable of making anybody uncomfortable, unless a “Weekend At Bernie’s” type of situation develops. There were many people who were unwilling to honor the man but who would have happily paid tribute to the man’s musical career. Now, the two have been divorced from each other, leaving the latter with a chance to shine and thrive, finally. There’s irony for you.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: Seriously, folks…”The Best Of Loma Records” is one of the best damned values in the iTunes Store. 53 tracks for $9.99! And there are at least seven or eight favorites and two or three certified classics in the batch. You’ll probably see another Loma track in the Advent Calendar by the time Christmas rolls around.

I bought “Tell Her I’m Not Home” as a package deal. At some point I’d purchased so many of the individual tracks from the album that I just one-clicked the rest of ’em. The first time I heard this track, it came up on shuffle play and I didn’t know what it was.

For the record…yeah, I thought it was being sung by a guy.

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 12

I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)

The Proclaimers

The Best of the Proclaimers

Genre: Rock

Blah, Blah, Blah: “My, my…Mr. Ihnatko seems to fancy himself as quite the highbrow snooty music expert, doesn’t he? Some of these Advent Calendar blatherings aren’t merely pretentious…they’re downright pretwentytious.”

Okey-doke. To help balance things out, today I present The Proclaimers. Why do I like this song?

Because they have funny foreign voices.

I like to exaggerate their Scottish accents while I sing along:

Ooond EHHHH woood wouk foive HOON-dred moyles oond AYYYY woood wok foive HOON-dret moohrrrre…

To find the “sweet spot” for this accent, just keep pushing it up and up and up, further and further into the extreme. Start at Craig Ferguson, move past Billy Connolly, and then work your way through Scrooge McDuck and Groundskeeper Willie. When the accent becomes so extreme that it actually becomes racist, back it down exactly one notch and bang, you’re there.

I think you’ll enjoy the results.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: I know there’s a connection to “Trainspotting.” I’ve just checked IMDB and Wikipedia and was surprised to discover that “500 Miles” isn’t on the soundtrack. I don’t have my DVD handy and I can’t be arsed to screen it again just to check if the song’s actually in there anyway. So I guess after spending an hour and a half listening to Scottish accents that were so thick that X-rays couldn’t penetrate through, it simply got me thinking of these guys again.

iTunes Advent Calendar: Day 11

They Didn’t Believe Me

Elvis Costello & Marian McPartland

Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz Radio Broadcast (With Elvis Costello)

Genre: Jazz

Blah, Blah, Blah: I have such love for songs like these. I’ve also just realized that this track represents several values of “the sort of song I love,” which sort of underscores the reason why it’s become one of the favorites in my Purchased Music playlist.

So, yes: songs with a high level of craftsmanship in how the lyrics are fitted together; recordings that are so confident about the material and the performers that all production artifice is banished from the studio; songs with a great deal of intimacy between the performers and the listener. Absolutely.

But the property that I originally had in mind is the way that the listener knows more about the singer than the singer knows about himself. You don’t just listen to the words…there’s a quality in Elvis Costello’s performance that compels you to truly hear it. And while on the surface this might appear to be a very sweet song…it isn’t. It leaves you convinced that the man singing these words will never, ever find the courage to approach this woman. His worshipful love will always be utterly unexpressed and unrequited. If you listen to other versions of “They Didn’t Believe Me” on the Store, you’ll see that most of them are far more upbeat. But when you listen to this one it’s pretty clear that Elvis got it right and everybody else has gotten it wrong.

Let’s also take a moment to talk about Mr. Elron Costello. As a kid, you’re adventurous and you have relationships will all kinds of bands. That’s just natural. Men Without Hats’ “The Safety Dance” — well, we both knew in that it was just a fun little fling. At least it wasn’t like that one-nighter I had with Dexy’s Midnight Runners, which left me filled with an awkward remorse that I took out into the backyard and then buried someplace very, very deep.

But this thing with Elvis turned out to be a lifelong deal. Yeah, “My Aim In True” came out when I was still in grammar school…but like all Wisdom, I found it when I was ready to accept it into my life. He’s been taking a portion of my annual income ever since.

What a rare career. 90% of all musicians with hit records wind up selling wholesale flooring within five years of leaving the Billboard 100. 5% move on to a sitcom, or some other job that allows them to remain famous without having to spend so much of their year sleeping on a bus five feet away from a chemical toilet and a stoned bass player. 4% stay in the music business, but are content to tour with their Greatest Hits catalogue…or they give up entirely, and record a CD of standards from the American Songbook.

(Which makes complete sense if you’re a virtuoso vocalist like Cyndi Lauper. But Billy Ocean? Mmmm…no.)

Elvis is in that glorious final 1%. Over the past three decades he’s steadily expanded and infiltrated, like radon gas through an old building. Only it’s the kind of radon gas that experiments with new styles and modes, collaborates with all sorts of musicians whom the general public would otherwise have never heard of, and keeps releasing new albums that fit next to each other like successive chapters of a great novel. He’s definitely not the sort of musician who’d give you lung cancer.

It’s easy for a musician to reinvent himself every few years. It gives the illusion of a long and successful career, when in truth, they’re just having a long sequence of short ones, propelled by the strength of their name as a marketing brand. That’s not our Elron. His career is a continuum in which he keeps building on what he’s done before.

Oh, and he hasn’t turned into a complete nutbar in the process, like Prince.

“They Didn’t Believe Me” also demonstrates Elvis’ remarkable (and underappreciated) skills as a vocalist. I’ve had some bitchy fun here at the expense of all those pop stars who record desperate albums of standards years after their creative wells have run dry (along with the public’s interest). So I ought to concede that okay, fine: this tune is from the Jerome Kern catalogue. It’s from a 1915 musical called “The Girl From Utah,” of all things.

But clearly, Elvis isn’t just taking part in some sort of Pop Singer Fantasy Camp here. He has an unconventional voice, true, but what separates a true vocalist from a mere singer is the ability to make deliberate and correct choices about phrasing and presentation. When Rod Stewart sings a classic, he turns it into a Rod Stewart song (albeit one backed by a full orchestra). Elvis can take a semi-forgotten song from a definitively-forgotten musical and turn it into something brand new. This version of “They Didn’t Believe Me” is much bigger and far more powerful than what Kern originally had in mind, I’m sure.

Why I Bought It In The First Place: I was actually hunting for something completely different. I was gonna post about “When I Was Cruel (Part 2),” which I’d already ripped from CD. But I came across a whole bunch of stuff that I’d never seen before while searching for it on the iTunes store…including this track.

So looking to spend 99 cents for an .M4P edition of a track that I already had as an .MP3 wound up costing me something like $21. I already owned the version that Elvis released on “The Juliet Letters,” in which he was backed by a string quartet. This version beats it hollow. The “Juliet” track merely heads off towards the destination that Elvis finally reaches here with Marian McPartland.