Tag Archives: Amazon Advent Calendar 2010

“Fairytale of New York” by The Pogues (Advent Calendar day 26)

Album Art

Fairytale of New York

The Pogues Featuring Kirsty MacColl

The Best of The Pogues

Genre: Pop

What’s your favorite Christmas-ish song?

Note the decisive use of the hyphenated suffix. If the lyrics include references to either the Batman or the Superman of this season (Santa and Jesus) then you can clearly file it under “Holiday.” Others, even some of the standards, are merely “seasonal.” I remind you, for example, that “Frosty The Snowman” is merely a winter-themed song. It only received its religious affiliations later in its life, when the last line “…I’ll return again someday” suspiciously became “I’ll return on Christmas Day.”

(Which was right about the same time when the Pledge of Allegiance became “One nation, Under God,” I think. Coincidence? Oh, absolutely. But I’ll change my tune if I’m ever booked to appear on a popular syndicated politically-themed radio show. Four hours is a lot airtime to fill and outrage, like methane gas, expands to fill the container into which it’s been introduced.)

Let’s also tip the hat to songs that simply use Christmas as a setting. There’s no real attempt to evoke the mood or the memory of the holiday. It’s just the day when These Things Happened.

I have two favorite Christmas songs. One secular, one very doubleplus not. The first tells a story of an event on Christmas Eve; the second talks about something that happened on Christmas Day. Both have the kind of lyrics that demand to be printed out and read as poetry.


Today is Christmas Eve. This is the day in the annual Musical Advent Calendar when I say “Screw it,” — maybe “sod it” would be more appropriate? — “I don’t care if this one’s a repeat from last year. It’s time for ‘Fairytale of New York’ again.”

There never has been, nor will there ever be, a better piece of music than this. I’m not saying that Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos weren’t as good; I’m simply saying that when you compare it to this epic song about regret, loss, and longing you must ultimately conclude that these are two very different pieces of music.

I don’t think the thought “I’m someplace where I really don’t want to be” ever penetrates so strongly as when it hits you on Christmas Eve. And the root cause isn’t always something as harmless as “Uncle Gob has cornered me and he insists that it’s my duty as a concerned parent to buy one of his $1200 water filters,” either. You can always stop payment on the check as soon as you can get outside and find a signal on your iPhone. But when it appears to you that your life has been a flawless sequence of self-destructive choices and that your remaining decisions have collapsed down to “live” or “die”…well, not even the end of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” or a tube of raw Pillsbury Sugar Cookie Dough can break you free.

That’s the spot that the narrator of “Fairytale of New York” is in. It’s hard not to take pity on someone who’s in jail on a night like this but still, it’s hard to actually root for him, either. But you’re keenly interested. After I hear this song I almost always visit the lyrics. I want to sift them for more clues to what’s happening with this guy.

He’s a drunk and a gambler and probably an addict. Is he learning anything tonight? Or is he distracting himself from his situation with delusions about a past relationship? Is he giving up? Does he have any hope for himself and the future? He spends part of the song reflecting on a time when he seemed to have the world at his feet. Do those memories encourage him, or do they only drive him deeper into depression?

And whatever happened to the woman? Clearly, she’s out of his life. That must have been a good thing for both of them. Is she spending that same day in her own version of the drunk tank? Or has she found some answers that continue to elude her former partner?

Would she be flattered to know that here, at his lowest point, he consoled himself with thoughts of her? Would she pity him?


It’s a very malleable story. You could just as easily interpret the lyrics to mean that he’d made it out, found a new source of hope, and from the safety of a better life he’s thinking back to the day when he hit rock-bottom and the only cheer he could find was in a ruined relationship.

That’s the hallmark of a truly great song. It was one specific thing when it was written and recorded but its final character and flavor is only assembled and defined by the palate of the person who hears it.

There’ve been a bunch of viral Internet creations where someone takes a self-portrait with identical composition and lighting every day of his or her life for years. That suddenly seems boring. The only thing the series will teach you about yourself is “You got progressively older and you tried out only two or three new hairstyles.” But what if you were to write about the same song — particularly one as potent as “Fairytale of New York” — on the same day every year? What would the next ten to twenty annual essays reveal about the path you’ve taken through life?

Changes in weight, beards and hairstyles are easy to spot. Your assessment of yourself, the world, and how the first thing relates to the second thing can only be tracked through close examination. I would dare say that the results could be far more revealing and mortifying than a temporary distraction into the world of mullets.

Listen to “Fairytale Of New York” on Amazon MP3.

For the record, I’m headed out to the first of about four or five different parties and gatherings over the next 48 hours. At the moment, I suspect that I’ll look back on this blog post and the only source of embarrassment will be the fact that back in 2010, I was using Amazon Associates links to get little kickbacks from my readers’ Amazon purchases.

Listen to “Fairytale Of New York” on Amazon MP3.

I might tsk-tsk and think “How cheap and exploitative!” early on. But then I’d remember the gorilla costume I ordered with the resulting Gift credits in 2011. And then every last lingering regret will be instantly dismissed.

“Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” by St. Nick’s Lonely Christmas Band (Amazon Advent Calendar day 25)

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Santa Claus Is Coming To Town

St. Nick’s Lonely Christmas Band

St. Nick’s Lonely Christmas Band

Genre: Holiday

Yes. Upon reflection, I do believe that we can categorize this album of Beatles-inspired Christmas standards as a “novelty record.”

But I hesitate to call it a mere “novelty song.” Anyone who owns a notebook with a built-in microphone can record a “novelty” version of the theme from “The Odd Couple” in which the melody is primarily articulated via hand farts. It’s not exactly hard work is it?

I want to show this song some proper respect. We should at least translate “novelty song” into…I dunno. French or something?


Oh, fab. Yes, let’s go with that. This is no mere novelty song: it’s a true chanson de fantaisie.

This group clearly worked very hard on this. It’s easy to get a little drunk with your friends and then joke around about a Christmas version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club band.” It’s automatic. Soon, everyone’s calling out titles like “A Christmas Day In The Life!” “What Child Is Leaving Home!”

Lesser men and women would have let the joke drop right there. Not these people. Oh, no. They’re professionals; they gave their souls to the Muse, willingly and gratefully. Once they hit upon a creative idea, they’re forced to prosecute it to the very end. And so they found themselves spending (Days? Weeks? Years?) working out how to make the accompaniment from “Within You Without You” fit with “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”

I have to imagine that when they finally figured out (on their very last day in the studio) that the thumpy-thumpy-thumpy beat of “Frosty The Snowman” would work quite well with “Getting Better All The Time” everybody leaped up and threw papers in the air and hugged each other and lit cigars, and overall they behaved like the Mission Control people did when the crew of Apollo 13 splashed down safely.

Not all of the songs on this album are gold. Most of them will have exactly the desired effect on the people at your party, shopping at your store, or riding in your car. They’ll instantly recognize the holiday classic. Their brains will want to click the song into the background, but then they’ll sort of recognize something else that’s going on. And then watch and behold, as their expressions mirror those of a Final Jeopardy contestant who was about to write “What is the Po?” but who now can’t remember if that’s an Asian river.

(Expect a phone call later that day. Have the name of the Beatles song ready.)

A tip of the hat to my BFF John. His annual mix tape (now CD) is as integral to the Ihnatko Christmas as the airing of that Hershey’s Kisses commercial where the candies are rung like tiny bells. Which is to say: completely. “St. Nick’s Lonely Christmas Band” was one of the 12 groups represented on this year’s 24-track selection of holiday wonderment.

Listen to “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” on Amazon MP3.

As always, my Amazon Associates ID is embedded in that link. Any purchases you make after clicking it will result in a small but valued kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits. I shall spend them lavishly, selfishly, and foolishly.

“Carol Of The Bells” by Rush Coil (Amazon Advent Calendar day 25)

Album Art

Carol of the Bells

Rush Coil

8-bit Christmas

Genre: Electronic

You’re all very correct to think so highly of me, sensation-seekers. Not only do I have an unfailing moral compass, but I often subject it to abnormal magnetic fields just to test its unfailing-moral-compassness, so that I can then make adjustments, as necessary.

Witness this selection. Also witness the fact that the link goes not to the Amazon MP3 Store, but to iTunes. See, there was a differrent track that I wanted to recommend, but it hasn’t been formally published anywhere (more on this, anon). So I went off looking for something similar that I liked just as much, and I found this track by Rush Coil on iTunes.

Cool. Then I went to Amazon.com for the link. Alas, they don’t have it.

Were I the possessor of a fallible moral compass, I’d have chosen something else. “Screw you, the trusting reader of my work!” would have been the statement. “Don’t you feebs realize that the whole point of this Advent Calendar exercise is to line the velvet pockets of my Amazon account with gift credits, so that I may purchase things like a Novelty Electronic Yodeling Pickle without ever asking myself ‘Why the hell do I waste me money on crap like this’?”

But no. I assure you that the primary purpose of here is to share music that I actually, genuinely like. And the prime mover for choosing Amazon instead of iTunes isn’t the kickbacks (though they’re very, very nice. It’s because I know that anyone can click an Amazon link and hear the music sample and buy it without having to download and install a separate app. If it were an iTunes link, you could only do two of those three things.


Listen to “Carol Of The Bells” on the iTunes Store.

Allow me to close off this meta portion of the post by confirming that my strength is as the strength of ten men, for my heart is pure.

Onward to the song itself. It’s been a slow build, but “chiptune” music (songs that sound as though they were being played by the soundchips in vintage game consoles) has steadily made its way from Novelty to Meme to a legitimate, established genre. And I can honestly say that I like this version of “Carol Of The Bells” on its own merits, not because it’s such an odd way to arrange and record a tune.

I guess the lesson is that “on its own merits” is a very, very complicated thing, even with more traditional music. Pandora.com has got it exactly right: there’s a molecular profile to every song that links it backwards to every song you liked before you heard this one, and forwards to every song you hear after it. And the metrics of this phenomenon go beyond tempo, instrumentation, and vocals. There’s also a sense of time and place.

“American Graffiti” was the first big pop-culture phenomenon that underscored how powerful the phrase “Gosh, this is just like the stuff I liked when I was a kid” is in influencing what we like as adults. It’s true that your favorite songs in high school and college will almost always remain your favorites as you enter your thirties and forties and fifties. They have their own merits, yes, but they’re enmeshed with other pleasant memories, like a wad of gum in a shag carpet.

(Bad simile, Ihnatko: a shag carpet is a pleasant memory for no man or woman. Except for those who owned a carpet store in 1972.)

This sort of reaction isn’t quite as mainstream as “This song was playing on the radio the night I first made out with the woman who would one day become my wife.” But “Oh, man, this is just like the game that I spent all summer trying to beat in high school!” works, too.

(Aside: and “Carol Of The Bells” is clearly the soundtrack to a “jink your spaceship up and down and left and right, and shoot at waves of attacking aliens” kind of game. Other chiptune songs are clearly “sidescroller combat games.” Games are so burned into your subconscious that you can even pick out the nonviolent “momentarily stun the cartoon lizards and pick up the flowers” games as well.)

Let’s not get mired in that junk, though. I like chiptune music because by necessity, it launches a very clean and no-nonsense attack on the melody. It’s why a four-piece jazz combo can accomplish things with a song that a spongy 40-piece orchestra can’t. Every instrument and every melodic line is front-and-center and there’s no room for extraneous flourishes.

I mean, I’d love to get a hold of the soundtrack to the “Batman” Game Boy game. I long ago gave my Game Boy and all of its carts to a nephew (your correspondent can be quite a dope). But a vid of this game is up on YouTube. The music is a little sparser than I remember it, but yup: I’d definitely buy this track if it were available anywhere.

Which brings us back to the chiptune track I wanted to recommend. It was an version of “Mele Kalikimaka” arranged by “Mafialligator,” a (god-damned) genius on Something Awful’s forums. He’s released four annual collections of Nintendo-ized holiday music, under the series title “A Very 8-Bit Christmas.”

The bad news: no, you can’t buy “A Very 8-Bit Christmas” on iTunes or Amazon.

The good news: it’s a free download, according to the descriptions on Something Awful.

The bad news again: …but there’s no new release this year. And the older releases are old enough that they’ve aged back behind Something Awful paywall.

So I’m in kind of a pickle, here. And not the electronic yodeling kind. I’ve located other download links for the albums. But are they legit? I dunno. I’m going to post one set of links here, because as near as I can tell the content is behind the Something Awful paywall only as a “it costs us money to host these files” sort of thing, and not because access to these tracks is an exclusive perq of Something Awful membership. I’ve also been unable to find any links to Mr. Mafiassassin’s own site.

Also: this particular page-o-links contains a whole list of chiptune Christmas music collections, not just the Very 8-Bit releases.

The Page Of Chiptune Christmas Links In Question.

But head straight to the “Very 8-Bit Christmas” links first. Did I say that I was going to recommend “Mele Kamikimaka”? I meant to say “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas.” No, wait: “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas…”

Yeah, there are plenty of winners, here. Mafialligator has real skills as an arranger. He’s not just copying down notes from a simplified set of sheet music. These are true, polyphonic performances.

These tracks get plenty of airplay in my house during the holiday season. When I set up and decorated my Christmas tree this year, I was listening exclusively to an “8-Bit Christmas” playlist.

(Streamed to my Apple TV from my iPad via AirTunes.)

(My parents and grandparents would recognize the melodies and the phrase “decorated my Christmas tree.” The rest of that would have required extensive explanation.)

Well, as I said, I went ahead and selected an iTunes track even though the link won’t win me a single sou in associate-link kickbacks. But if you’re really keen on kicking my back a little, or you’re just wondering if I was making up that thing about the Yodeling Pickle:

Yodelling Yodel Pickle TOY Novelty Retro Gag Gift

This link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. And after you click it, all of your Amazon purchases will result in a commensurate percentage of the final tally coming back to me in the form of gift credits. The fact that I was well aware of the existence of this consumer item indicates the fine, fine ends to which I will be applying these credits.

“You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” by Kasio Kristmas (Amazon Advent Calendar day 24)

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You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch

Kasio Kristmas

Kasio Kristmas

Genre: Holiday

Here’s a song with real crossover appeal. And not that weak kind of crossover either, where a longtime fan of a quirky, iconoclastic performer eagerly buys her first mainstream release and is bewildered to find that all of a sudden, she’s covering both Ann Murray songs and the Misfits tattoo on her forehead.

Nope, I mean “crossover” in the sense that this is a Christmas song arranged like a spooky Halloween tune. You know that scene in “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” where the Grinch snips the pieces for his Santa suit out of a set of red curtains? Okay: substitute “the flayed skin of a still-living human victim” for “curtains” and you’ve got the idea of this version.

Well, close enough, anyway. It provides excellent value for money in that you can start playing this in mid-October and not give it a rest for two whole months.

I’ve suddenly realized that the same could be true of a Grinch lawn ornament. It just seems like too much bother to decorate the house for just a couple of weeks, to say nothing of the expense and all of the storage problems. I could certainly get behind a decoration that you can keep on your lawn for a quarter of the year.

It wouldn’t be perfect. I’d still have to stow the Grinch’s Santa suit until “Gosh, you still have your Halloween decorations up?” transitions to “Gosh, you’re already putting up your Christmas decorations?” But if you’re willing to stretch it all the way to “When are you going to take those Christmas decorations down, Andy?” I could be covered through February.

Listen to “You’re A Mean One Mr. Grinch” on Amazon MP3.

As always, Amazon music links on this site are embedded with my Amazon Associates code. Everything you purchase after clicking it results in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits. I assure you: they shall be spent joyously and foolishly on fun things.

“The Spirit Of Christmas” by Ray Charles (Amazon Advent Calendar day 23)

Album Art

That Spirit of Christmas

Ray Charles

The Spirit of Christmas

Genre: R&B/Soul

How many Christmas songs can there be, do you reckon?

And I’m not throwing my hands in the air and whining that there are too damn many of them. I’m saying that there seems to be a fixed number of Christmas songs that we’re willing to accept, in the same sense that in baseball, you’re limited to a 25-man active roster and a 40 man expanded roster. And whenever there’s a hot new left-hander whom you want to bring up from the minors, you’re forced to send a broken-down left fielder back to Indiana to work at his cousin’s Volkswagen dealership or perhaps testify at some kind of hearing.

Is it…fifty songs? Whatever. There’s definitely a ceiling to it. It’s not as though every year, we become aware of more and more Christmas songs. “The Hanukkah Song” explodes and from that point on, some old standard that was scrabbling for survival gets dropped from our consciousness, never to return. All I can say is that it’s a good system. I don’t think anyone would deny that when “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer” finally pushed “Stuff An A-Bomb In Hitler’s Stocking, That Nasty Nazi Rat” off into oblivion in 1949, it was a long time coming and a positive step forward in healing the wounds of war.

What are the chances of a song like “The Spirit Of Christmas” becoming a Holiday standard? It’s forced to knock timidly on the back door and hope that this is the year when we’re all finally sick of “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” I think I heard it twenty times before I actually bought it. I bet you’ve heard it, too. I think it’s even possible that you’ll be able to place it, once you hear the sample.

Yes, it’s from the “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” soundtrack. You hear a snippet of it while Clark is trapped in the attic, and is watching 30-year-old home movies. It’s a lovely, (mostly) secular tune that underscores the basic concept that whether you’re a Christian or not, it’s nice that there’s this spot on the calendar during which people are at least supposed to try not to act so much like d***s.

And it’s from Ray Charles. He’s like Johnny Cash in that his performance makes any song hard to date. What a sneaky tactic. This song is good enough to displace any of the lesser tunes on the Christmas Roster. I bet the composers were hoping that everyone would just assume that it was already a classic.

I’m willing to forgive. It’s quite a solid tune.

I’m curious about when it was written, though. The first name on the list of contributing songwriters is Mable John, who has a decades-spanning history with Ray Charles (as a Raelette and then as the director of these same Raelettes). Was it written especially for Ray Charles, maybe? It sure sounds like it. There are a handful of other versions of “The Spirit Of Christmas” rolling around but none of them truly distinguish themselves.

It’s a great tune for the “cooldown” phase of the holiday. Its tone is a little too solemn to be heard over the din of a Christmas party or the unwrapping of presents, but it’s still not the best choice for the “C’mon Everyone…Let’s Take A Moment To Be, You Know, Kind Of Solemn And Stuff, Okay?” part of the proceedings. But it’s the perfect thing to send to the AirPlay speakers in the living room while you contemplate a room full of torn wrapping paper and decide to have another gingerbread donut instead of cleaning it up right away.

Listen to “That Spirit Of Christmas” on Amazon MP3.

Sing it with me: “As always, the above link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. All purchases you make after clicking it will result in Amazon sending me a small kickback in the form of Amazon Gift Credits. Which, I assure you, will be spent foolishly.”

“Christmas Time Is Here” – Amazon Advent Calendar day 22

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Christmas Time Is Here (Vocal Version)

Vince Guaraldi Trio

A Charlie Brown Christmas

Genre: Holiday

We’re at Kringle Minus 6, people! Clearly it’s time for me to stop diving deep into the back-catalogues and give up any attempt to make myself seem like the Ahmet Ertegun of my generation. Although yes, admittedly, inserting a reference to one of the 20th century’s seminal discoverers and promoters of musical talent is definitely a nod towards hipness. It’s a fair cop.

But look, we can’t waste precious minutes arguing over my desperate need to mask my own straight-from-squaresville tastes! We’ve got limited time left to talk about Christmas songs! So screw it: I’m going obvious. Yes, it’s That Song We All Love from That Christmas Special We Can’t Even Pretend We’re Sick Of.

Don’t think I don’t know what just happened. You’re on the Internet and you’ve just read a blog post in which the author has made a definite statement of some kind. You’re like a largemouth bass who’s just seen a jelly worm at the end of a Red Devil spoon lure splash down in front of you. You just have to snap at it, even as your rational brain says “No good can possibly come of this.” You’ve already clicked the “Reply” button and pasted in a mockingly dismissive LOLcat that you encountered on a gaming board a few days ago, haven’t you?

Fine. I know you have to keep proving to yourself that you ride at the gates of dawn and that your likes and dislikes cannot be predicted by any Earthly king. I suppose that this video clip does absolutely nothing for you, then.

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Are we agreed that “Christmastime Is Here” is a tough, tough song to cover? It’s so indelibly associated with “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Plus, it’s perfect for a children’s chorus: it feels as though it was written and arranged to ensure that it can be sung well by 24 middle-schoolers whose vocal abilities range from “she’s good enough to become a serious student of vocal technique” all the way to “that one, with the hair: we’ll just give him two red sticks to bang together.”

That’s not a slam against the song, mind you. I mean, dammit, this song works. It seems as though the only way you could ruin it is by trying to turn it into a showcase of anybody’s talents as a singer, arranger, or producer. Would any singer — even an American Idol finalist — accept and implement the direction “Don’t think. Just sing”?

Am I starting to get mired in nostalgia, here? God, I hope not. I’m at least thirty years too young and have been in several wars too few to get nostalgic about anything. And yet this song puts me right back in my parents’ living room, having counted down the days to the Charlie Brown Christmas airing for two weeks. It also puts me right back on a stage at the far end of a middle-school gym, standing on a folding metal riser, trying to pick out my grandparents in the audience while the music teacher gets more and more frustrated by her ability to make all of us focus, and getting closer and closer to losing it right there in front of the principal.

Well, it’s Christmas. It’s the appropriate time to stare out the front window at the snow and feel a little Wistful about things. And it’s at least more genuine if you get nostalgic about a (rightly) beloved Christmas special instead of, say, caroling door-to-door. A Charlie Brown Christmas is a part of my actual childhood. It isn’t someone else’s memory of a Traditional Christmas. I’m glad I have memories of lying on my belly on my parent’s forest-green carpet, instead of freezing my butt off singing about the arrival of the Christ child to a neighbor who was too polite to say “Didn’t you see the mezuzah nailed to my door frame when you stepped up to ring the bell?”

Listen to “Christmastime Is Here” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

Continuing another Beloved Holiday Tradition, the above link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. If you click it, all of the purchases you make during that session will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon Gift Credits. I promise to spend them joyously and foolishly.

“Feeling Good” by Nina Simone (Amazon Advent Calendar day 21)

Album Art

Feeling Good

Nina Simone

Feeling Good Hit Pack

Genre: Vocal

Most of the popular cover hits are songs that have already been nationalized by our socialist cultural system. Nobody “owns” it and everybody’s free to do their own thing with the song, free of preconceptions.

But some songs become the iconic property of one performer. Don’t record your own version of anything that Janis Joplin had already made into a major hit, for example. It almost never turns out to be a wise move. Previous soul singers poured the concrete for “Piece Of My Heart,” but it didn’t fully set in the public consciousness until Joplin put down the whisky bottle and picked up the microphone.

It’s not even a taste issue, honestly. It’s about pre-programming. There’s nothing wrong with a talk show set in which the guest sits to the right of the host’s desk instead of the left. And yet…yeah, everything’s wrong with that. This show could feature the ghost of Johnny Carson interviewing Jesus Christ, who’s there to plug his upcoming Comedy Central roast plus deliver some important tips on how to prepare for the upcoming armageddon. It wouldn’t matter. I still couldn’t focus on his instructions on what to do when the ground beneath my feet dissolves into a pool of fire until he moved to the other side of the desk.

Similarly: anybody who tries to do “Piece Of My Heart” has to deal with the simple fact that for at least the first minute, my brain will be thinking “But that’s not Janis Joplin.”

It’s not your fault, Ms. American Idol Finalist. It’s my fault. Until you fail to do anything constructive with it, at which point I will option-click on Pandora’s “Thumbs Down” button until the icon switches to a different finger, and then I’ll make my full displeasure known.

“Feeling Good” is somewhere in the middle. Even if you don’t know who Nina Simone is, you associate the song with this performer and this specific recording of the tune, where the singer is backed by heavy orchestration that keeps a certain reverent distance from the vocals. But there’s been no shortage of terrific covers of the song.

I bring this up because today’s selection was going to be the version that Muse released last year. I love it, but ultimately I recognized that what I really love is the Virgin Atlantic ad that used it for the soundtrack:

Yeah, it’s sexist. But it’s well-done sexism. I’m willing to give it a pass, in the same way that I’m willing to overlook the Italian-American stereotypes in “The Godfather” but not the ones in the old Olive Garden commercials.

No, when you see this ad, you’re not offended by the imagery. You want a goddamn gin and tonic. And you want to have sex with a goddamn enemy double-agent. And you want to goddamn track down a goddamn Russkie rogue general who’s stolen a ****ing nuclear missile and kill that sonofabitch with an iPhone and a camera battery and an pack of gum that click together to form a pocket-sized magnetic railgun that propels slugs at hypersonic speed!!! **** yeahhh!!!!!!!

(pant pant pant pant)

So you see what I mean. It’s a lovely cover song, don’t get me wrong. But when I listen to it without the visuals…yeah, it’s not as satisfying. Muse’s intense, 007-driven interpretation is out of sync with the lyrics. Also: I always do a half spit-take when a random verse of a song inexplicably uses the “old-timey recording/radio broadcast” audio treatment. It has a real “Hey, what does THIS button in Garageband do?” impact.

I guess it just demonstrates how high the stakes can be when you try to do a cover of an established song. If Muse’s version was the first time you’d ever heard “Feeling Good,” you’d think it was a killer production. But then you see what others did with the exact same ingredient and what once seemed Fab now seems…well, just sort of okay.

And yes, a second slam against The Olive Garden is implied within that last sentence. I leave its extraction to you, the reader, as an exercise.

Listen to “Feeling Good” at the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, my Amazon Associates code is embedded in that link. If you click it, any purchases you make during that Amazon session will result in a small kickback to me in the form of Amazon Gift Credits…which I will spend on heroically silly things.

“Creep” by Scala & Kolacny Brothers (Amazon Advent Calendar day 20)

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Scala & Kolacny Brothers

Creep – Single

Genre: Alternative

You’d like to think that your musical tastes are fair, pure, and shrewd. You’d like to believe that you simply have an ear for good music and that if you applied a controlled, peer-reviewed scientific protocol for evaluating a song and deciding whether or not it’s worth ninety-nine cents to you, you’d find that the same input data would draw the same results every time. You’re not swayed by the fads of the day or by whatever mood you happen to be in at the time.

But of course, that’s rubbish. The tracks in your music library are the residue of that one specific moment in time when the song seemed to make sense to you. If you’re lucky, most of those tracks will continue to justify their places in your playlists and they’ll receive continued play. Inevitably, though, you’ll find yourself scrolling through the whole library and asking yourself “Why the hell did I buy this Celene Dion track?!?” and then the whole Incident will come rushing back to you.

(Lesson learned: if you agree to dog-sit your friend’s adorable terrier for a whole month, you should plan on a short period of emotional vulnerability after you give him back. It only lasts until you stop expecting little Corby to leap up at you and lick your face every time you come back home.)

(Shut up.)

And that’s just your personal life. You’re also being influenced by the culture at the time and by the trends that are controlling all of the popular music. For example, each generation’s youth-oriented anthems have had a slightly different response to a parent’s question “Why didn’t you go to school today?”

The 50’s: “I was way, waaaay too drunk.”

The 60’s: “Your generation went to school every day…and look how you screwed up the whole planet.”

The 70’s: “…Huh?”

The 80’s: “**** you and your ****ing corporate mother****ing manipulative bull****. I don’t have to ****ing go to school if I don’t ****ing want to. Did I say ‘**** you’ already? I feel like I haven’t said that. Well, my apologies if I’ve covered that ground already.”

The 90’s: “Because I’m stupid and I’m ugly and everybody hates me and I’m probably just going to kill myself next week anyway so what’s the point?”

When Radiohead released “Creep” in 1992, I was probably right in the middle of their target demographic. But I rejected it completely. Nirvana had proven that Self-Loathing Mopiness was extremely marketable. Dozens of labels noticed this. By the time “Creep” was all over the radio I’d had enough of that kind of music. Fortunately, music companies aren’t technically required to destroy all copies of every track that’s no longer a Top 100 hit. “Creep” resurfaced this year as the soundtrack of a brilliant teaser trailer for “The Social Network.”

The song is such a natural fit for Facebook and the rest of the social-networking experience that it seems incredible that nobody had ever used this song that way before. Just look at the lyrics:

I don’t care if it hurts,
I wanna have control
I want a perfect body
I want a perfect soul

I want you to notice
when I’m not around
You’re so very special
I wish I was special

But I’m a creep
I’m a weirdo
What the hell am I doin’ here?
I don’t belong here

See what I mean? Facebook and Twitter and the rest aren’t inherently good or bad. I reckon that most of its users regard it as simply part of a balanced breakfast of social interactions. Facebook is the bowl of Choc-O-Berry Cookie Blasters in the middle of a tray of fruit, milk, juice, whole-grain toast, and a small plate of liver.

But too many people use it as a shabby, last-ditch outlet for the fundamental human need to say things and feel as though people are listening to you. Nobody knows your name at work and you’re certain that if you quit today, the new guy could sit through a training video and then do your job just as well. Or maybe you’re a kid, and your older sister with the drug problem and your younger brother with the good grades get all of your parents’ attention.

Whatever: Nobody ever interrupts you on Facebook. And at any given moment, no matter where you are, you can thumb a few buttons on your phone and see that there are 18, 32, 71, 139 people listening to everything you say.

That’s not really a good thing. “I want you to notice when I’m not around” is the line in the song that resonates so well with how social networking can be abused. Virtual communities are so attractive because they’re just so easy. You might even have 100,000 Followers on Twitter. That’s a thrillingly high number and isn’t it lovely that they sometimes say nice things to you?

But what have you done for them?

Aha: that’s the point. These people notice when you’re not around and they make you feel Special. But they’ll never phone you at midnight to ask if you could meet them at a parking lot 40 miles away and jump-start their car. They’ll never ask you to help them move. They’ll never come to you for support when someone they love is terribly sick and they’re scared. You’ll never be required to sit on the opposite side of a table at a restaurant and help them walk through a decision to end a relationship that isn’t working out.

When you’re in the middle of doing nothing at all, do you find yourself thinking about these people?

When you say or do something selfish via Facebook and you wind up hurting someone — and it doesn’t matter that you were simply careless and thoughtless — do you have to acknowledge your actions and deal with the consequences?

World Of Warcraft allows you to battle powerful people and creatures in close combat. But it’s all fake; there’s no chance of getting hurt. Facebook is a fantasy game of a different sort. It simulates social interaction, while removing all of the personal risk as well as most of the consequences of your behavior. That’s what makes it such a shabby substitute for the real thing. It’s not enough to want others to notice you and hear you. The goal is to give as good as you get.

The movie trailer brought “Creep” back to my attention at a time when that kind of song wasn’t part of a popular trend. I think my larger problem, though, was with the song’s original arrangement. It was laid out like a traditional rock song, which didn’t work for me. You can’t sing about how lonely and cut off from Society you are when you’re clearly surrounded by musicians and standing in front of 3,000 screaming fans, can you?

Further, it’s too aggressive. The lyrics are profoundly self-loathing and the anger should be all inward, not out.

I much prefer the solo, acoustic version, which came out on a reissue of “Pablo Honey” recently. This one comes across more like a problem that the singer thinks he’ll never solve, as opposed to the reason why he ordered all of those guns off of the Internet.

This third version in the “Social Network” trailer is haunting. Despite my earlier protestation that this song shouldn’t be performed by a whole band, “Creep” displays some powerful shading when it’s sung by a choir of young women. One person singing about loneliness is sad. A dozen or two people singing those lyrics at the same time can be profound. It illustrates the irony of the problem. Your feelings of being completely disconnected and cast out from society only underscore how human you really are. Everybody feels that way.

I’d like to believe that if any of these singers were able to shake themselves out of their self-loathing long enough to look around and see the other people in the room, maybe someone would say to another “OMG! You’re a creepy loser whom nobody would ever like? Me too!!! We should totally hang out!!!!”

(And then maybe the next tune would be something from “Mary Poppins.”)

Listen to “Creep” by Scala and Kolacny Brothers on Amazon MP3.

As always, the above link is embedded with my Amazon Associates ID. If you click it, any purchases you make during that Amazon session will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits. I swear to God I won’t spend them on anything necessary or sensible.

“And I Wonder?” by The Slackers (Amazon Advent Calendar day 19)

Album Art

And I Wonder?

The Slackers

The Question

Genre: Alternative Rock

Maybe the most sophisticated version of the Turing Test for any given technology is actually the simple question “Is it capable of helping us and screwing us at the same time?” Then and only then can we say that a machine is truly Human.

“And I Wonder?” is one of the songs I bookmarked last night on Pandora while working away from the house. It’s good stuff: peppy, with a ska/rocksteady sort of vibe. I also have a lot of affection for music that clearly wasn’t beaten to death by heavyhanded production. I could believe that this group just set up some mismatched microphones in the apartment of whichever band member had the most-sympathetic neighbors and then they recorded it on someone’s MacBook in just three takes.

When I got home, I looked through everything I’d bookmarked and I bought the track after another listen. This morning, I did a quick Spotlight search on it, just so I could drag it into a couple of different playlists, and that’s when I saw the other copy that I’d bought from another store a couple of years ago.

See what I mean? In the old, analog days I didn’t have anything like Pandora, which can extrapolate an endless stream of new music that’s likely to please me, after I name just a single artist as a starting point. Thank you, digital music! But back in the Nineties, by the time I wound up at a CD store I’d forgotten all about that great song I’d heard on the radio or at a party. I was unlikely to buy anything at all. And I certainly couldn’t buy something so quickly that I wouldn’t realize that I already owned it. So go to hell, digital music!

But I could never stay mad at you, Pandora. It seems like I only discover new music in three different ways: via Pandora, when it’s used as a soundtrack to something (such as a TV show or a YouTube video), or when I occasionally go out on Twitter and say “Recommend a song. One song only, please.”

Pandora offers discoverability and vocabulary. You’ve sampled “And I Wonder?” and you liked it. It occurs to you that a lot of the music you like is kind of similar. How do you Google for “music has kind of the same thing going on as this other song right here?” You have no idea how to describe it.

Pandora gives you the opportunity to turn to the side of the box the song came in and read the list of ingredients:

Features Of This Song:
ska roots
a subtle use of paired vocal harmony
mild rhythmic syncopation
a busy horn section
major key tonality
electric pianos
classic rhodes sound
subtle use of acoustic piano

So if you memorize that list and then walk into a city record store and tell the clerk “I’m looking for music with ska roots, a subtle use of paired vocal harmony, mild rhythmic syncopation…” you’ll definitely not come across looking like some hick who buys most of his songs from QVC in the form of windup music boxes shaped like porcelain clowns.

It’d be fab if other aesthetic tastes worked this way. I’ve only ever drunk two beers that I liked enough to finish off, and wines are a real scattershot sort of thing. If I’m trying to find a soda pop I like, I know how to describe it. I can say “I like colas with natural sweeteners, a slight acidic tang, and a slightly peppery aftertaste. I hate citrus-flavored sodas.”

But if I enjoyed a glass of wine at a restaurant, I have no idea how to describe it to a clerk at a wine store. “Glass bottle,” I’ll say. “It was definitely in a glass bottle. The label had something like a horsie on it, or it might have been a dragon wearing a saddle.”

It works out for the best, I guess. When you walk into a wine shop and look like a blatant ignoramus, the clerk knows he’s not going to get more than twelve dollars out of you. You’re clearly not as vulnerable to the upsell as everyone who tries to bluff their way through the transaction by overconfidently misquoting phrases they heard Paul Giamotti’s character use in “Sideways.”

Listen to “And I Wonder?” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, this link is tagged with my Amazon Associates ID. Click it, and any purchases you make during that session will result in my getting a small kickback in the form of Amazon Gift Credits. I swear to God that I won’t spend those credits on anything sensible.

“Shine On Your Shoes” from “The Band-Wagon” (Amazon Advent Calendar day 18)

Album Art

A Shine On Your Shoes

Fred Astaire

The Band Wagon

Genre: Soundtrack

I don’t want to get into the exhausting argument “Which is the greatest musical ever made: ‘The Band Wagon’ or ‘Singin’ In The Rain’?” It’s tiresome and unproductive and it misses the entire point of MGM’s Golden Age.

The point being that the only reason why “Singin’ In The Rain” is part of that question to begin with is to provide a framework from which to further clarify your understanding of why “The Band Wagon” is a true masterpiece.

Okay? Moving on.

Let’s say you’re having just a Biblically crummy day. And I mean “Old Testament” bible, not the huggy-lovey New Testament kind. The one where you’re not sure exactly how you’ve come to piss off God so badly, but if you have to drag your son and a big knife to the top of a mountain to make Him leave you alone…well, that’s just one fewer Christmas present to buy, isn’t it?

Rather, if Christ had been born before then, there’d be one less present to buy.

Wait, I forgot: Holy Trinity. So, the part of God that was going to have His first birthday in a thousand years or so was already there. And He would have been all-knowing, so even pre-birth, he’d be expecting a present on December 25.

(No, that’s the pagan holiday. Will He be more upset with me for worshiping a tree, or for forgetting to celebrate the the date that He knows I understand to be His birthday?)

Cripes. Can you understand why people back then got so mental about figuring out God’s laws?

But I digress. “Shine On Your Shoes” is one possible answer to the “Crummy Day” problem. You can play this song and it’ll get you bouncing in your seat and possibly — if you’re absolutely sure you’re alone in the room and that nobody can see through the windows — dancing across the floor.

You can even go out and get a shoeshine.

Yeah, it’s silly. But there’s some wisdom, there. I’ve always liked that scene from “The Hustler,” where Fast Eddie is shooting pool against Minnesota Fats in a marathon match for huge stakes. After hours of play, Fats is completely on the ropes and close to defeat. So he calls for a break. He goes to the men’s room where he puts on a fresh shirt, washes his face and hands, spritzes on a little cologne, and then steps back to the table.

“Fast Eddie,” he beams, “Let’s shoot some pool.” You know that he’s going to come back with the win and of course, that’s exactly what happens.

Yeah. I’m having a hideously bad week. A song like this one reminds me that while you can’t completely control the events that are contributing to a bad mood…your moods are at least 90% voluntary. A warm-reboot can work wonders and something as simple as a fresh shirt or a $10 shoeshine can push that button for you.

Just now, for example, I’ve fixed myself a bowl of oatmeal with three strips of chopped bacon in it. I can’t tell you what the key to happiness is, but the keyhole appears to be bacon-shaped. You’re free to conclude whatever you wish from that.

Anyway. Back to the movie itself. So many of these MGM musicals seem to have made very…odd…choices in music. “Why did they even pick some of these weird, completely out-of-place songs?” you wonder. It becomes clear when you learn about “jukebox” musicals, where the whole thing is meant to celebrate the work of, or at least line the pockets of, one specific composer.

This is why, for example, “White Christmas” is such a bum steer. It’s all Irving Berlin music. Fab composer, no lack of talent there…but by the time they got around to making this movie, the only Berlin songs left were the cuts of the cow that are normally put into hot dogs. It explains why two of the most talented singers of the 20th century had to be good sports and sing songs about about a the lack of aftercare in the military pension program, and one’s desire to use snow as a haircare product.

And yet so many movies have pulled that kind of stuff off so well. “Shine On Your Shoes” is a song about the use of footwear maintenance services as a viable treatment protocol for stimulating dopamine pathways. You’d think that if the movie were going to use it at all, they’d stick it in the “musical within a musical,” where the cast can sing pretty much anything they want without having to justify it. But no…they found a way to make it serve a purpose in the story. All scenes in a story need to either define character or advance the plot. This song establishes Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire’s character) as a guy who’s capable of feeling genuine melancholy, but also of putting it in perspective and doing something about it.

I might be wrong here but I’m getting a weird vibe from some of you. Like you’re about to post that I’m wrong wrong wrong and that “SIngin’ In The Rain” is in any way a better musical than “The Band-Wagon.”

Well, I didn’t want to have to do this but you leave me little choice:


Don’t you feel foolish now? Thank you; it speaks well of your character that you now admit how wrong you were.

Listen to “A Shine On Your Shoes” (from The Band Wagon) on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, the above link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. After you click it, every purchase you make during that Amazon session will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits. I promise to spend them on wonderful and foolish things. Like an electric bicycle. But only if it turns out that Amazon doesn’t sell an electric unicycle.

“Genius In France” by “Weird Al” Yankovic – Amazon Advent Calendar day 17

Album Art

Genius In France

“Weird Al” Yankovic

Poodle Hat

Genre: Comedy

Today’s artiste is a callback to two previous Advent Calendar selections.

I’m seriously convinced that at some point, “Weird Al” Yankovic talents will be fully appreciated. He’s most famous for his straightforward song parodies and he’s so successful at it that when choosing an example, I immediately think “No, not that one; everyone’s heard of it. Not this one, either” before settling on “Trapped At The Drive-Thru.”

As terrific as his song parodies are, nobody can build a successful 35-career in music just by piggybacking onto current hits. He’s a legitimately talented musician and performer. Long, long ago, my favorite tracks on every “Weird Al” album stopped being the song parodies: instead, I look forward to the style parodies.

Like this one. I’ll get the crass part of out the way first: this is a nine-minute song and in terms of metric tonnage per dollar, there are few greater values on the Amazon MP3 Store. The true selling point, though, is that it’s a masterful attempt to write a new song based on Frank Zappa’s musical DNA.

It sends you scrambling to see if the song is actually based on a Zappa original. I can easily be fooled like that. Even when I was 18, I wasn’t really plugged into what 18-year-olds were listening to at the time. When “Straight Outta Lynwod” was released, I didn’t even recognize “Trapped At The Drive-Thru” as an R. Kelly parody until months later.

What marks “Genius In France” so immediately and unmistakably as a Zappa style parody? Hell if I know. I lack the music geek’s vocabulary as well as the musicalolologist’s suede elbow patches. I can’t do anything more than cite the heavily-layered melodies and the sudden downshifts in tempo.

More than anything, though, it has Zappa’s sense of play. The song isn’t out to tell a story or establish a mood so much as it wants to bat around an idea for several minutes.

Here’s the thing, though: Yankovic does this on every album. DEVO frontman (callback #2) Mark Mothersbaugh once claimed that Yankovic recorded the best DEVO song ever: “Dare To Be Stupid,” from the album of the same name.

Just as with “Genius In France,” this is a clean hit. It seems like it’d be cheap to even call it a “parody.” Yankovic lifts nothing — it kind of evokes the back-melody of “Big Mess” — and exaggerates nothing. Yankovic just has a highly-refined ear for a band or composer’s signature elements, and enough chops as a composer and an arranger to articulate those concepts into brand-new pieces.

He’s as legit as they come. I’m tempted to compare him to a Brill Building composer. He’s definitely capable of hearing during breakfast that Phil Spector was looking for an uptempo number for the Ronettes and then writing something perfect for that group by lunch. Or maybe he’s like Sir Arthur Sullivan (of “Gilbert And…”) fame. Sullivan would be staring at the libretto for “Iolanthe” in front of him and think “You know, this score could really use something sort of Mendelssohn-ey right about here.” And off he’d go.

But “Weird Al” Yankovic’s true musical ancestor is Carl Stalling. He scored nearly every cartoon that Warner Brothers produced during its Golden Age. Every seven-minute opus had to mix original themes, popular melodies of the day, and flatly functional phrases to underscore that Wile E. Coyote has just spotted the Rocket Boomerang circling back towards him.

I’ve always wanted to see what Yankovic would do with a movie score. I bet he’d be excellent at it because the task seems to call for the same unique talents he puts into play on all of his original composition. Writing music that’s both Original and Evokes A Familiar Tone is like holding both Tea and No Tea at the same time…but that’s how you win the game.

Above and beyond all of that: I just flat-out love this song. If I didn’t know who Zappa was, I’d still be humming “If I were any dumber/They’d have to water me twice a weeeeek” after fishing crushed-up iPhone parts out of the garbage disposal.

“Weird Al” Yankovic: a real goddamn musician. So long as he keeps making albums, I’ll always find money to buy them. That’s been the case since way back when I bought cassettes with paper-route money. I don’t think any other performer has maintained that position in my musical tastes even half that long.

Listen to “Genius In France” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, this link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. If you click it, anything you buy during that Amazon session will result in my receiving a kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits…which I shall spend foolishly and extravagantly on fun things.

“Por Una Cabeza” by Carlos Gardel (Amazon Advent Calendar day 16)

Album Art

Por una cabeza

Carlos Gardel

Remasterizado año 2010

Genre: Latino

1992’s “Scent Of A Woman” had two positive impacts upon our culture. First, it expanded the vocabulary of any valid Al Pacino impression. To “It was you, Fredo. You’re the one who broke my heart” and “Say hello to my little friend!!!” the movie added the guttural exclamation “WROOOO-hawrrrr!

It’s simple, punchy, and effective. If you just bark “WROOOO-hawrrrr!” when the room falls silent and it seems as though everybody is looking to you for some sort of reaction to what’s just happened, you’ll at least get a gentlemanly C+ for recognizing the moment and ending the awkwardness.

I’m convinced that lines like these are why every office is filled with Pacino impersonators and Schwarzenegger impersonators, but very few Jack Lemmon impersonators. Everyone knows and loves Lemmon but did he ever get that one, signature line that will autopilot you to 75% of the brand recognition required for a successful impression?

Moreover, is there ever going to be a social situation in which the perfect zinger in response to an offhand remark is “One summer, I was just a kid, we were playing in some divey hotel up in the mountains — we had a vocalist. Everyone in the band was making it with her, except me. I had a crush on her. She could sing ‘These Foolish Things’ and put you right in Paris. Before a number she’d lean over — a blonde girl, eyes, perfume, the whole whiff of her was out of the Lion House — and she’d whisper to me, ‘Light on the brushes…light on the brushes, kid.’ We’d throw our dreams around. How she was going to sing with Dorsey and how I was going to play drums With Goodman.”?

Answer: it’s not impossible, but highly unlikely.

“Scent Of A Woman” also gave Carlos Gardel a boost, via That Tango Scene that everybody remembers:

Of course everyone remembers it. It’s a beautiful moment. This is the job of every great movie scene: it documents the depressing distance between fantasy and reality. Any one of us would love to be on either side of that tango. You’d love to be that sort of dashing figure who can charm someone onto a dance floor by using a gentle, improvised sequence of Exactly The Right Thing To Say At This Exact Moment-s. You’d also — whether you’re a man or a woman — like to be the sort of person whom strangers, without any thought of personal benefit, are compelled to charm.

In the movie, they used a modern instrumental recording of “Por Una Cabeza.” This track here is the original, which Gardel made famous in the Thirties. What a strong, confident baritone. The song itself (composed by Gardel and Alfredo Le Pera) is so strongly identified with the genre that I bet if you walked up to any orchestra conversant in Tango and asked for “that one I heard in that thing” they’d probably strike up “Por Una Cabeza” without any further questions.

Like all songs whose lyrics are in a language I don’t understand, I was cautious before allowing myself to love it. Foreign-language songs can bite you in the butt. There you are, bopping along to a incredibly peppy French pop tune, eventually becoming so familiar with it that you can even sing some of the lyrics in the shower. And one day you learn that it’s about a guy who lights houses on fire and then gratifies himself sexually while watching the conflagration from behind a nearby bush.

Fortunately, the lyrics to “Por Una Cabeza” are quite sweet. A gambler is talking about how he keeps coming close to finding his true love, but in the end he always loses “by a head.” But it’s worth the gamble, so he keeps trying.

I first heard this song sung and performed by a substitute high school Spanish teacher. He was a proud and merry Argentinian who, clearly, had found a life that he really enjoyed. He was a legitimately talented teacher and he always found opportunities to talk about his home country. He played a pretty mean guitar, too.

One day, he told us the story of Carlos Gardel, an Argentinian cultural hero. Gardel had died Buddy Holly-style: young, in a plane crash, and at the very height of his career. During the flight (so my teacher explained), there was an argument between Gardel and another man over a woman. The other man at Gardel, but Gardel ducked and the bullet killed the pilot instead.


Double-oops, actually. I was hugely disappointed to find that the whole story is an urban legend that spread in the Princess Di-style international hysteria that followed Gardel’s death.

To this day, though, I think of that story whenever the subject of TSA security comes up. I’m really not afraid of terrorists. I’m afraid of some idiot getting into an argument on board my flight and doing something impulsive and stupid.

It’s a rational reaction. To my knowledge, I’ve never met a terrorist. But I’ve met lots of idiots on planes, and they’re often sitting just one or two rows away from me. If this woman refuses to stop her seven-year-old-child from standing up in his seat and loudly singing whatever word and note comes into his disease-ridden mind…good God, what else might she be capable of?

Listen to “Por una cabeza” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, this link is embedded with my Amazon Associates code. When you click it, any purchases you make during that session will result in my getting a small kickback in the form of gift credits. I promise to spend them on rank foolishness.

“Sue Me” (from “Guys And Dolls”) – Amazon Advent Calendar Day 15

Album Art

Sue Me

Nathan Lane and Faith Prince

Guys And Dolls (New Broadway Cast Recording)

Genre: Soundtrack

Damn. This is the third Monday in a row that I’ve chosen a show tune as an Advent Calendar selection. We all have a little bit of OCD in us and something now compels me to simply designate Monday as permanent Show Tune Day.

Hey, no problem: I have dozens of favorites. But how will this affect my quarterly P&L? Does my usual Monday traffic respond to content of that type? Can I compensate for any dips in the metrics with some more finely-targeted SEO?

I really don’t know. I barely can explain what any of those terms mean. But writing a paragraph like that makes me feel like kind of a big shot and there’s every chance that paragraphs like that one will elevate me to the sort of speaking gigs where rich people hope to get even richer. The buffets at those kinds of conferences tend to be exceptionally good; in addition to my speaking fee, $5 for a box of store-brand Ziploc baggies can parlay itself into saving three weeks’ worth of grocery budget.

This track is from the early-Nineties revival of the classic. It’s also known as the show that made Nathan Lane, Peter Gallagher, and Faith Prince into stars who could get paid far, far more money for working way, way less hard. It’d definitely be one of my Desert Island Discs. Here they are, performing this number on TV:

It kind of breaks my heart a little. It’s such a damned shame that these legendary productions dry up and blow away after the original cast moves on and the show closes. You can buy “Riding The Bus With My Sister” on DVD. You can see “Family Guy” every hour of the day or night on multiple cable channels. It’s cheap, low-grade horsemeat but it’s on film and it’s on video, so it’s going to be preserved somewhere.

Live theater? It was made to be seen live. From both a creative and a legal point of view. I made this lament to one of the many people in this world who are smarter than I am and they explained that it’s not as simple as plonking a few cameras on tripods in the theater and hitting the “Record” button on them before the curtain goes up. Everyone on the stage, everyone in the orchestra, and everybody behind the scenes has a financial stake and the negotiations between all of the respective trades to make a video production happen generally aren’t thought to be worth the trouble. It’d be easier to move a suspension bridge a bit to the left.

So: if you want to see that episode of “Two And A Half Men” where one and a half of the men have a farting contest inside a closed car and the one man loses when he craps his pants, you’re in luck because it’s in a boxed set. If you want to see the 1992 revival of “Guys And Dolls,” well, that’s just insane.

I’m picking this specific song chiefly because I heard something absolutely wonderful about it last week, during a “Fresh Air” podcast in which Michael Feinstein talked about the career of Frank Loesser…the show’s composer. I already knew that Sam Levene, the show’s first Nathan Detroit, was hired for his skills as a character actor. He was an awful singer. What I didn’t know, and what was absolutely stupidly obvious when Feinstein mentioned it, was that Loesser baked a melodic support system into his one big song.

Not only are all of his notes in the same octave…but the melody “walks” him up to the right note. If Levene had to simply sing “Sue Me…” he’d have been completely off-key. “Hire-A-Law-Yer-And…” lets him dialing it up closer and closer to the “real” lyric.

Isn’t it neat? This kind of machinery was lurking inside this song all the time, unnoticed by me.

Stage music is full of tricks like that. Like Loesser, Mozart had to write music for “The Magic Flute” that would help a very weak Papageno get through his big aria. The orchestra plays his entire melody before he has to sing it…and it ends on the note that he has to start on. It’s a built-in cheat sheet!

Mozart’s first Queen Of The Night, on the other hand, was his sister-in-law and a renowned soprano. Listen and you’ll notice that she gets no help whatsoever from the orchestra. If anything, the orchestra has to keep up with her. Meanwhile, the composer is throwing everything at her he can to make sure that she dies a deathly death of dying.

Listen to “Sue Me” (From “Guys And Dolls”) on the Amazon MP3 Store.

When you click that link, any purchases you make during that Amazon session will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon Gift Credits. I shall use them to buy silly, but manifestly wonderful, things.

“Carousel” by Circus Contraption – Amazon Advent Calendar day 14

Album Art


Circus Contraption

Grand American Traveling Dime Museum

Genre: Jazz

“Circus music, Roger!”

Circus music, Jeff?”

“Absolutely! For the past twenty years, our label has always been one step behind on every hot new music trend. By the time we get around to trying to sign a Thrash Gospel band, or a group that’s been playing all of the Velcro Cheese clubs, or can play anything danceable involving a steam radiator, we’re left with the dregs. Well, no more, Roger. Not this time.”

“And you think circus music is the next big thing.”

“I have no idea. I just know that nobody’s onto it yet. Okay, yes, it’s a gamble. But if Kanye West ever should go off on an insane rant about how some day, every city will have a big tent shaped like his head, where performers will play ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ 24 hours a day on tubas and calliopes…we’ll already be right there on the ground floor.”

“You know what? I was skeptical about this idea until you brought up Kanye West.”

“That guy might say or do anything at any time for any reason.”

“Indeed. He might be as nutty as a set of linoleum underpants, but I can’t deny that he’s a tastemaker.”


So why isn’t circus music a popular genre, with its own category in every music department? Wait, actually…

I’ve just checked iTunes and confirmed that there’s no musical genre for “Circus.” Which surprised me. Have you ever scrolled through that entire popup list? There’s even a genre for “Finance.” Really? What stylistic elements typify a good Finance song?

(I’ll now confirm the thought that’s in all of your heads right now: “Every song every band has made since their third album should be filed under ‘Finance’.”)

I started buying Circus Contraption tracks after watching a marathon Thanksgiving showing of the fantastic PBS multipart documentary about the Big Apple Circus. It’s a tremendously entertaining series…and all six hourlong episodes are online at the PBS website.

“You’re a damned liar, Ihnatko” you say? How sad. Witness:

Watch the full episode. See more Circus.

Guess you feel pretty stupid right now, don’t you?

The show has a cool soundtrack. I do wish that its signature theme (by The Features, a band that I hadn’t heard of before, but who I really, really like) were longer. It runs just a little over a minute. It’s not about the “Beats per measure per dollar,” you understand; it just seems like “Whatever Gets You By” has some real legs to it.

Producers who were looking for music for their circus documentary and who also had access to a search engine were inevitably going to discover a band called “Circus Contraption.” It’s good, classical circus stuff. Strike that: I mean that it’s clearly modern circus music. It doesn’t trip into the cartoony worn-out cliches that come to mind when you think “circus music.”

The important thing is that their music doesn’t swing into that equally boring area of “Ooooo…it’s a circus, but it’s a darrrrrk and scarrrrryyyyy circus. That’s my innovative twist, you see. I’m really quite proud to have come up with that. Oh, sure: I suppose all of those soccer moms out there might not having their heads blown like that but I’m at the mercy of my Muse. I’m an artist; I ride at the gates of dawn and I take no prisoners.”

I’ve had some of these tracks in my music library for a couple of weeks now, though, and I must caution you that they can be dangerous when they come up on shuffle play. You’re culturally-programmed to respond to this kind of music in a specific way. If you’re in the kitchen and a recipe calls for three eggs, then those eggs will be juggled on their way from the fridge to the mixing bowl. If you’re out taking your daily Constitutional and there’s anything narrow and linear on the ground along your path, you will hold out your arms for balance and walk across it like a tightrope.

When you walk your dog at night and he finishes taking a whizz against a streetlamp, you will suddenly point to him there in the spotlight in a broad and flourish-ey sort of way, as though to encourage the audience to applaud his wonderful trick.

It will happen. If this music comes on in your headphones and it doesn’t inspire you to behave as though you’re wearing something colorful and spangly and 300 people are hanging breathlessly on every graceful move you make, then something inside you has definitely gone dead.

Listen to “Carousel” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As always, I remind you that my music links are embedded with my Amazon Associates code. If you click, any purchase you make during that Amazon session will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon gift credits…which I will spend on fun and foolish things.

“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” by Kristin Chenoweth (Amazon Advent Calendar day 13)

Album Art

I’ll Be Home For Christmas

Kristin Chenoweth

A Lovely Way To Spend Christmas

Genre: Miscellaneous

This is probably the perfect time to slot in a song like this. It’s a modern recording of a Christmas classic, sung so very sweetly. Yes, it’s Kristin Chenoweth. Even when she’s singing an angry tune about throwing out a wretch of a boyfriend and vowing to never allow his presence to darken her thoughts ever again…it’s Sweetly Angry. As the boyfriend, you’d feel like it’s best to just pick up all of your clothes and books and CDs off of the front lawn, get them into the trunk of the car, retreat to Panera for a few hours and then circle back and try to fix the situation.

(But if you drove past and saw a smoking slab in the driveway that used to be your Playstation 3, you’d probably conclude that it’d be best to keep on driving and try again later, maybe after catching a movie.)

Why is this weekend the exact right time to put this song into the lineup? Oh, I can give you three reasons. I can also slightly draw this introduction out, to make absolutely certain that the album artwork doesn’t interfere with the formatting of the list.

Okay, we should now be clear to proceed:

  1. It’s the first weekend after the Thanksgiving holiday, and many of us are probably spending some of this time tending to holiday advance-prep. I myself put a half-gallon of apple cider in the fridge the other day, anticipating that this would be the big weekend that I set up my Bachelor Tree.
  2. Not only is “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” a timeless Christmas classic, but it’s also a timely reminder to book your reservations early if you’re traveling over the holidays.
  3. It’s still three weeks before Christmas, and we haven’t yet begun that slow transition from Grinch Personality Mode to Cindy Lou Who Personality Mode.

…Which means that I can cave in to my three-sizes-too-small sentiments and complain about these bastards at the record companies who know damned well that there’s only one good song on the CD, and cynically refuse to sell it to you online unless you buy the whole album.

I speak not of this track, of course (which you can purchase all by itself). I speak of Chenoweth’s fantastic rendition of “O Holy Night.” It’s the gold wedding ring that got dropped into the dark, rank grease trap known as “Deck The Halls (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack).”

Yes, of course it was a terrible movie. What a question!

It stars Danny DeVito and Matthew Broderick. And if this were the 80’s, that’d be terrific news. As-is, it’s not a warning per se but suffice to say that we will study the trailer carefully before making a buying decision.

And oh, dear…there it is: the scene in which “Dad” is inside, or clinging on top of, an improbable and out-of-control vehicle or contraption, screaming and flying through the air.

Another example:


It’s such a common sign of an actor’s desperate need to begin Act Three of his career that I wonder if it doesn’t amount to a “suicide by cop” sort of tactic on the part of the actor or his agent. That is, he doesn’t have the courage to pull the trigger and end all pretensions of still being able to carry an entire movie by himself, so he has critics, audiences, and executives do it for him. Mark my words: ten years from now, there’ll be a movie trailer in which Johnny Depp will be seen riding an out-of-control rocket-propelled snowmobile over a snowbank and straight into a septic truck as his adorable kids look on.

(Honestly, it’s the best thing. The actor takes a few years off and then, free from the pressure to keep earning those A-list paychecks, he can begin his highly successful Act Three. He’ll re-emerge, usually as a producer of some well-regarded TV shows and as a strong supporting actor in independent dramas.)

Sorry…let’s get back to this song. The “Deck The Halls” soundtrack CD consists of 13 holiday songs. Eight of them are forgettable. Four of the rest are nice, but they’re so familiar that if you want to hear them you hardly need to actually spend any money. You pretty much just need to stand near a speaker placed in any public spot where more than nine people are likely to gather.

And then there’s Track 9: Kristin Chenoweth’s rendition of “O Holy Night.” It’s one of the loveliest versions I’ve ever heard. I’d buy it in a heartbeat. Ah: but it can only be purchased as part of the complete album.

Friends, there have been times when I’ve gone into a transaction knowing full well that I was being rooked. That this was a badger game. That this company or individual’s entire business plan was based on the concept that they could indeed push around people like me — humble, hardworking men and women, who work the land with their bare hands and are responsible for putting the food on America’s tables — get away with it.

Once, I ran out of gas on the highway, called AAA (if you’re a member, they’ll send a truck out free of charge), and then when the truck operator told me he didn’t have any change on him, I pretended to believe him…and that I was delighted to tip him $15 for the $5 worth of gas he’d just put in my car.

Once, I bought an unlocked phone which, no matter how hard I tried, couldn’t connect to AT&T’s digital network. After lots of runaround with Customer Service, and ultimately speaking to an engineer who’d been working there so long that he had been there through two different corporate takeovers and renamings, I learned that the solution was simply to swap my original 16K SIM card for a new 64K one. When I got back in touch with Customer Service and they told me that they couldn’t give me a new SIM without putting me on a one-year contract, I was angry, and I told them that I might switch to another carrier over this, but ultimately I agreed to the new contract.

(OK, yes, it helped that I already knew that AT&T was almost definitely going to become the exclusive carrier of Apple’s upcoming and unnamed new iPod Phone.)

But — my comrades — I cannot bring myself to allow the record industry to make me pay ten dollars for a song that should only cost $1.29, maximum.

The line has been drawn…HERE.

Listen to “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” on the Amazon MP3 Store.

As usual, my Amazon Associates ID is embedded in that link. Anything you buy during that shopping session will result in a small kickback to me in the form of Amazon gift credits…which I will then spend on foolish and wonderful things.