Christmas 2015: Hip Happy Hooray For Holiday Hits

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The holiday season started kicking in early for this audiophile-reviewer as news of upcoming Wintertime-festive releases started trickling down through the star making machinery (ie. publicists started pitching me). Some of these news items actually caught my ear and eye because they involved artists I liked a lot, but along the way I found some other surprises.

AR-LesPaulCheer225.jpgFirst off, on this year's Black Friday / Record Store Day, I was super-duper, uber-pleasantly surprised to learn that Universal Music was planning a reissue-of-sorts of a rare-ish Les Paul and Mary Ford EP -- called Chrismas Cheer from the early 1950s! Why would I be excited about that, you ask? Well, in case you didn't know, your friendly neighborhood audiophile-geek music scribe who is writing this very review is an enormous fan of the music made by Les Paul (inventor of multi-track recording and the Les Paul electric guitar, among other breakthroughs) and his wife, Mary Ford. Without going into too much detail, it might be easier to just say that I've been a fan since discovering one of Les & Mary's records when I was in 8th grade, being blown away by his sparkling sound and the still-shocking guitar playing within those pop miniatures from 1953 (Bye Bye Blues was my first exposure, for those of you who are interested). I've since gone on to write a college term paper on the man, visited his home with a writer and the publisher of a noted recording industry trade publication and have subsequently written my own features on him for other publications. You can find links to some of those articles on my Pinterest page link here.

Anyhow, this Les Paul and Mary Ford reissue is a gleeful release that you might want to snap up as it is.... well... fun! It was pressed on either red or green thick, quiet, well centered 10-inch-sized vinyl and features six percolating holiday songs. This reissue is a great thing for collectors as finding a clean copy of the original Christmas Cheer 7-inch EP with the cover art and disc in good condition is not easy. And, if you are like me, a completist, you'll appreciate having the single B-sides all in the same place. These include the comical kiddie-flavored recording of "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" which was on the backside of "Santa Claus is Coming To Town" -- vocal credited to "Lidda Marwy Ford" -- and "Jungle Bells/Dingo-Dongo-Day," the flip side to "White Christmas." I'm extra happy for this release since -- as organized as I am with my music collection -- I seem to have misplaced my 45 RPM singles of some of these songs (and they aren't on Les Paul : The Legend and the Legacy four CD boxed set)!

AR-LesPaulPlaying225.jpgNow, while we're here in the past, I have to take a little side track here to point you, Dear Readers, to yet another version of "Jungle Bells" that was issued about 10 years after Les Paul & Mary Ford's -- which I only discovered a couple years ago myself. It is on a generally pretty underwhelming Christmas collection by none other than those Jersey Boys themselves, The Four Seasons. Their version of this fun novelty holiday tune is particularly wonderful because they integrate into their by-then trademark sound -- march step drum beats, hand claps, four-part vocal harmonies and of course lead singer Frankie Valli's stunning falsetto -- a bit of Ska rhythm on a Christmas song about animals in the jungle. If that sounds odd and silly, well, it is! But, it also works really well and is a whole buncha fun! What's that? You don't believe me that The Four Seasons were playing around with early reggae rhythms in 1963/64? Check out the song sample at this link on Amazon and be prepared to be amazed. You might even want to buy the song!

Moving right along....

AR-BigStarXmasCover225.jpgThe past several years have seen a wave of releases from one of Memphis, Tennessee's legendary band of pop underdogs and this holiday season is not exempt from that trend. OnRecord Store Day / Black Friday this year, the good folks at Omnivore Records put out a limited edition 10-inch EP by Big Star. Featuring their now-classic pop gem "Jesus Christ," the song has been fleshed out to mini-album status with numerous rarities including an acoustic demo version of that song (previously only released on a 2009 compilation issued by Rhino) as well as two nifty "untitled" acoustic and electric instrumentals (from 1968 and the other from 1974, respectively). The demo version of "Big Black Car" is cool as is the song "Another Time Another Place." But for me the real gem here is the so-called TV mix of "Thank You Friends" which brings up the orchestral strings a whole lot more than on the original; this vocal-less version results in a piece that feels bigger and grander than ever, allowing the listener to hear the brilliance of the arrangements that were buried in the rockier original mix. And oddly, it feels a bit Christmas-y. With the EP you also get an MP3 download of the whole EP which is handy for your play-listing enjoyment. My only gripe related to this release is the price: $19 for six songs (frankly, old so ngs, one of which most of us already have multiple times over on LP, CD and download. And, even though a bunch of the new tunes were previously unreleased, the price seems a little steep. Maybe by the time you read this the remaining copies on store shelves or online will be coming down on price.

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