Written by 4:42 am Audiophile Music

Christmas 2015: Hip Happy Hooray For Holiday Hits

Mark Smotroff explores fun holiday music for everyone


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.

]]>Another Big Star-related reissue this year is on CD only, an expanded version of Christmas Time, the mid-80s holiday collection from Chris Stamey and 

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his mates in The dBs. Comparing it to the original LP (which was fun but never a huge sonic wonder), the new CD — now called Christmas Time Again! fares well with a big sound and pleasant jangle to rock away all your holiday blues. This new edition includes a number of fun new tracks from the likes of Yo La Tengo, Jeff Tweedy (Wilco), Robyn Hitchcock, and others. But perhaps the biggest stand out is the — as far as I know, first-time official release of a — track by Big Star’s Third, the all-star musician assemblage that has been touring the country, paying tribute to Big Star and their oft misunderstood and numerically titled Third release. So here we get that band playing a live version of “Jesus Christ” which features Mike Mills of REM on lead vocals backed by original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens plus The dBs’ Chris Stamey, uber producer Mitch Easter and The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow among others. Even if you have the original 1985 12-inch EP (as I do) or the subsequent update with some additional tracks — such as Big Star leader Alex Chilton doing Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song” and Marshall Crenshaw doing “(It’s Going To Be a) Lonely Christmas” — you’ll want this new version as the most complete and updated, and arguably the best sounding. A fun jingle-jangle-filled spin!

AR-hollygolightly225.jpgWrapping all this holiday goodness up is something completely different (to borrow a para-phrase from Monty Python’s Flying Circus). Not so much a full on holiday record, the new album by roots rockers Holly Golightly and The Brokeoffs include a final track tucked at the end of their fine new album — cleverly titled Coulda Shoulda Woulda — called “Christmas Is A Lie.” So, yeah, maybe that isn’t the holly-jolliest of holiday messages for many of you, but how often does one come across a Country-Western anthem for the non-believers in the room? Actually, I’m not entirely sure if the song is particularly against the holiday itself or simply the commercialism underlying its marketing in these modern times… its hard to make out all the lyrics, frankly… but whatever it is, rest assured that “White Christmas” this ain’t. That’s not a bad thing mind you and the song somehow fits where it is tucked away at the end of their generally fine — and fine-sounding — roots rock flavored episode. I’ll describe their sound this way: if you take the rootsy-er side of bands like X — and perhaps bits of their country-fried side project, The Knitters — as well as The Blasters, and whip them all up in a big old funky blender with The Cramps, Tom Waits and The Pogues… well, then, you may well like Holly Golightly’s raw ramp.

And nothing adds up to holly jollier Christmas than a mash up of The Cramps, Tom Waits, The Pogues and X, right?

Right!

So… there you have it…

There truly is music for every occasion and for everyone out there for the holidays this year!

Happy Merry, y’all…

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