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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

'Twas the Night Before Christmas/Dave Koz

In 1997, jazz saxophonist Dave Koz released a holiday album called December Makes Me Feel This Way. Thirteen tracks are listed on the back of the CD case, but below that in small print is a message that reads: "Hint: It ain't over 'til it's over. 'Twas The Night Before Christmas before we figured out there was more on this here disc!" The final track listed, "Auld Lang Syne," has a running time of 6:55, but Koz's rendition of the traditional New Years' tune only runs 1:51. When that fades out the casual listener might reasonably conclude that the CD is over, but for those too lazy to get up and put on another disc there is a payoff.  After a full minute of dead silence, a hidden selection starts to play: a recitation of Clement C. Moore's 1823 poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas," often referred to as 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. The vocal is provided by the late Phil Hartman, the comedian and actor best known for his work on Saturday Night Live and the sitcom NewsRadio, who died under tragic circumstances the year after Koz's album came out. Hartman performs an abridged version of Moore's familiar work in the style of a Beat poet, with jazz accompaniment and the occasional improvised lyric, e.g. When what to my wondering eyes should appear/But a wonderful sleigh and eight groovy reindeer. Koz recorded a new version of the piece for a 2001 follow-up album, A Smooth Jazz Christmas; this time vocal duties were shared by musicians Peter White, David Benoit, Brenda Russell, Rick Braun, and Koz himself.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas Is Interesting/Jonathan Coulton

Jonathan Coulton's Christmas Is Interesting, from his 2003 album Smoking Monkey, overflows with references to Christmas as it is depicted in popular culture; here we'll focus on the literary ones. The song's second line--It's time for a long winter's nap--is a quick nod to Clement C. Moore's 1823 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (aka The Night Before Christmas), but that is followed by a meatier reference to O. Henry's 1906 short story The Gift of the Magi: He takes your watch and he gives you a hairbrush/Your wife gets a wig on a chain. Near the end of the song we are present for the visit by Marley's ghost from Charles Dickens' 1843 novel A Christmas Carol: You go to bed and wait for Jacob Marley/He comes to make you feel brave/But under his cloak he is nothing but smoke/And a finger that points at your grave. Other references include the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special, Citizen Kane, and It's a Wonderful Life. Penning lines that compare Christmas to a knife in the heart or a stick in the eye, Coulton clearly has some issues with the season; but his song still makes us want to put on our feety pajamas.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jacob Marley's Chain/Aimee Mann

Most of us are all familiar enough with Charles Dickens' 1843 classic A Christmas Carol to know that Scrooge's deceased partner, Jacob Marley, carries the weight of his selfish, wicked deeds into the afterlife in the form of an enormous chain. "I wear the chain I forged in life" Marley's ghost tells Scrooge. "I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it." Aimee Mann adapted the image of Marley's burden a bit for her song Jacob Marley's Chain, from her 1993 album Whatever. "I felt that was a really apt metaphor for the way that you can feel weighted down by events that have happened to you or things that you've done in the past," Mann said when she performed the song on the BBC's "Words and Music: American Stories 2." But it's not like life's such a vale of tears/It's just full of thoughts that act as souvenirs/For those tiny blunders made in yesteryear/That comprise Jacob Marley's chain.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Immortal/Eric Woolfson

Eric Woolfson, a founding member and creative force behind The Alan Parsons Project, passed away yesterday at the age of 64. Woolfson ended his partnership with Parsons in the late 1980s in order to pursue an interest in musical theater. He wrote and scored a number of shows, including Edgar Allan Poe, a musical about the writer who inspired the very first Alan Parsons Project album in 1975, Tales of Mystery and Imagination. "I envisaged a Volume II though when we moved to a different record company, they were not interested in Volume II because they didn't have Volume I," Woolfson recalled. "I had to wait many years before revisiting Edgar Allan Poe--the man whose life and works inspired me probably more than any other." The song "Immortal" provides the climax to Woolfson's musical and includes the Poe-inspired lyric All that we see/All that we seem/Is but a shadow of a shadow/Of a dream within a dream. Steve Balsamo, who starred as Poe in the show, sings the song on both the soundtrack album, Edgar Allan Poe: A Musical By Eric Woolfson, and on Woolfson's long-delayed "Volume II" of Poe-inspired songs, 2003's Poe: More Tales of Mystery & Imagination. However, in the version on the album Eric Woolfson Sings the Alan Parsons Project That Never Was, released earlier this year, Woolfson handles lead vocals himself. "I think it is a good example of the composer at work singing his own material," he wrote in the liner notes, "and it is certainly a song I consider to be one of my best." It is a fitting song to mark his passing: Free as the wind/Lighter than air/Free from the jealous minds/The scornful bitter words/Won't hurt me there/And I will live/Forevermore/If you remember me/I am immortal.

Learn more about Eric Woolfson's life and work at http://www.ericwoolfsonmusic.com/.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Christmas at Sea/Sting

We are now on the cusp of the holiday season, and new offerings of seasonal music have been arriving for weeks. Among these is a collection from Sting called If On A Winter's Night.... It's not a holiday album in the usual sense, but a few of the songs specifically address Christmas, including a selection called Christmas At Sea. The lyrics are from a poem of the same name by Robert Louis Stevenson, from his 1890 collection Ballads, and have been set to music attributed to Sting and harpist Mary Macmaster. Both poem and song tell of a sailor battling the elements aboard ship, within sight of the town where he was born--close enough to see the snow on the roofs and the smoke from the chimneys, and even smell the meals as they're prepared. The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer/For it's just that I should tell you how (of all days in the year)/This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn/And the house above the coastguard's was the house where I was born. "I was attracted to Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem 'Christmas at Sea' because it describes so well the powerful gravitational pull of home that Christmas exerts on the traveller," Sting writes in the liner notes. "When Mary Macmaster started to sing the Gaelic song 'Thograinn Thograinn', a women’s working song from the Isle of Skye, I thought the melody would make a perfect counterpoint for the longing of Stevenson’s sailor..." The song depicts the sailor's concern for his aging parents, sitting by their fire in the town above and worrying about the son who has gone to sea. However, once the ship is out of danger, the poem carries that theme through to a final, wistful stanza not included in the song: And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me/As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea/But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold/Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Frankenstein's Daughter/Elliott Murphy

I crossed the forest/With the daughter of Frankenstein, Elliott Murphy sings in Frankenstein's daughter, from his 2008 album Notes From The Underground. She was so pretty/And I could see/When your daddy's a monster/It's just not so easy. No doubt Murphy was inspired by Mary Shelley's 1818 novel Frankenstein when he wrote the song, though it's possible that such cinematic incarnations as The Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Frankenstein's Daughter, and yes, even Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter may have crossed his mind. "That title was from a long line of Frankenstein's relatives," Murphy said in an interview with the web site Dave's On Tour. "The amazing thing about Frankenstein and Dracula is that the two legendary monster figures were created the same rainy night in a little chateau outside of Geneva, Switzerland. Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley were there and the thought was for everybody to write a monster or horror book. Shelley's future wife Mary, who was his mistress at the time, wrote Frankenstein. A friend of Lord Byron's, physician John Polidori, was inspired by fragments of a story Lord Byron wrote about vampire legends. He wrote a book, called The Vampyre, although other vampire books written years later, including Bram Stoker's Dracula, became more famous. With my song, I tried to carry on a tradition that's worth following." The album takes its title from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1864 novel, and as Murphy's website reveals, he is himself the author of multiple short story collections, the most recent being Café Notes (Hachette), as well as two novels, Cold And Electric and the neo-western Poetic Justice (Hachette.) A new novel, Tramps, is expected in 2009.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Somewhere in England 1915/Al Stewart

November 11th is observed by many countries around the world--in the United States as Veterans Day, in the British Commonwealth as Remembrance Day, and in other countries as Armistice Day or the Day of Peace. Each of these holidays began as an observance of the armistice that ended the First World War, signed at 11:00 am on November 11, 1918--the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Al Stewart's song Somewhere In England 1915, from his 2005 album A Beach Full of Shells, takes us back to that conflict with a series of dream images that feature World War One British Poets. First up is Rupert Brooke, who served in the British Army during the war and died in 1915 (though not in combat). In his poem The Soldier, written at the beginning of the war, Brooke penned the familiar lines: If I should die, think only this of me:/That there's some corner of a foreign field/That is for ever England. In the song, Stewart depicts a woman standing on a beach, watching a troop ship sail away. She is identified only as an English Prime Minister's daughter--a reference to Violet Asquith, daughter of British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith, who bore an unrequited love for Brooke. She's there to see him off to war, and while Stewart doesn't identify Brooke by name, the allusion is clear: And she watches the ship disappear for the length of a sigh/And the maker of rhymes on the deck who is going to die/In the corner of some foreign field that will make him so famous. In the next sequence, Stewart depicts the horror of the battlefield and mentions two other poets, this time by name: And a skull in a trench gazes up open-mouthed at the moon/And the poets are now Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. While Brooke's poetry depicted the war as patriotic and a soldier's death as noble, the poetry of both Owen and Sassoon contrasted sharply in tone, depicting the stark, horrific realities of war. Like Brooke, both of these men served in the British Army. Sassoon survived the war; Owen was killed in action one week before the armistice.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

One Fast Move Or I'm Gone: Music From Kerouac's Big Sur/Jay Farrar & Benjamin Gibbard

Jay Farrar of Sun Volt and Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie were asked to provide original songs for the film One Fast Move Or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur, a documentary about Jack Kerouac and his 1962 autobiographical novel Big Sur. The book is based on several visits Kerouac made to a cabin in Big Sur, California, seeking time alone to deal with the stress of his fame and with his alcoholism. Farrar and Gibbard had never met before but enjoyed working together on the songs they created for the film and shared a mutual interest in Kerouac's work (Gibbard had even stayed in the same cabin Kerouac writes about in Big Sur when he was composing songs for Death Cab For Cutie's album Narrow Stairs). They decided to keep the collaboration going and expand it into an album-length project, One Fast Move Or I'm Gone: Music From Kerouac's Big Sur, released last month. Farrar did the lion's share of the writing, taking the lyrics for all of the songs directly from Kerouac's novel. He also derived several songs (Low Life Kingdom, Sea Engines, The Void) from the poem "Sea: Sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur," which was included at the end of the book.