Monday, December 22, 2008

Christmas Music Roundup

Every year, for a solid month, Christmas music is everywhere. It's in retail stores, lobbies, groceries, and airports. Radio stations change formats to play it full-time. And we would probably be bombarded with it earlier if it weren't for the timing of Thanksgiving to set limits on the holiday season.

What's interesting is that rarely are the songs you hear in public or on commercial radio traditional Christmas carols like "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"- they're usually popular songs dating back no further than Burl Ives or Irving Berlin.

And with years of listening to this music you get a good sense of what songs you like and dislike. Here's a selection of the good, the bad, and the unbearable.

Underrated Christmas Carol- The Holly and the Ivy
This is a great, sometimes lively song with beautiful harmonies, and it doesn't get enough recognition. Holly and ivy are hardy winter plants, and the tradition was to keep some inside during the season with the hope of surviving like the plants. The red and green of holly and ivy are also the traditional colors of Christmas. The song also has nice pastoral imagery such as "the rising of the sun' and the "running of the deer"- perhaps vestiges of its pagan origins. When it is performed, a problem is that too many renditions are done by English choir boys who sing in annoyingly high registers. This carol sounds best when performed by deep, resonant voices.

Vince Guaraldi Trio- My Little Drum
The entire A Charlie Brown Christmas album is great, including original compositions like "Skating" and "Christmas Is Coming". But I'm most impressed with Vince Guaraldi's interpretation of "The Little Drummer Boy". For a song that's prone to plodding renditions, Guaraldi makes it stately yet cool with a jazzy piano phrasing for the verses. In place of lyrical parts, the children's chorus keeps a steady rhythm with their repititions of 'rum pa rum pum' behind the piano, and are a better illustration of a drummer keeping time than the orignal song. Things get even better when the children segue into the airy, dulcet "ooooohs". As mentioned earlier, children's choirs are tricky to do, but here, their gentle harmonies are a hymn sent up to the heavens.

My Little Drum - Vince Guaraldi Trio

Mariah Carey- All I Want For Christmas Is You

Everybody loves this song, even the people that say they don't. When they do admit it, it's usually prefaced by saying, "I'm not into Mariah Carey...but I love this song". (They're also lying because they love Mariah's other songs). A song in the 60's girl group style, it's accented nicely with familiar holiday sounds like a tinkling music box intro, bright chimes, and shaking bells that keep a sleigh-ride pace. It's the most upbeat Christmas song around. Each year pop singers record hundreds of new Christmas songs with hopes of at least scoring a minor hit. What's remarkable about this tune is that it was not just a hit, but an instant classic- taking a place with the likes of "White Christmas" and "Jingle Bell Rock" in the canon of popular Christmas songs.

YouTube- All I Want For Christmas Is You video

Bing Crosby with The Andrews Sisters- Mele Kalikimaka
The Hawaiian language doesn't have some of the sounds of the English language, such as the letter 'R'. So 'Mele Kalikimaka' is the Hawaiianized pronounciation of 'Merry Christmas'. I love how old-timey and hokey this tune sounds. About the only thing that sounds Hawaiian is the pedal steel intro, and then Bing Crosby starts crooning with a bravura that seems a little much for what's supposed to be a breezy tune. Then the Andrews Sisters join in next, recalling '50's telephone operators. You can almost imagine the voices of Crosby and the Andrews Sisters crackling out of an old tabletop radio.

Boney M- Mary's Boy Child/ Oh My Lord

In his book Touching the Void, British climber Joe Simpson tells of his experience during a life-threatening descent in the Andes. Injured, struggling to survive, and getting delusional, the song 'Brown Girl in the Ring' by Boney M is stuck in his head. Simpson recounts:
"I remember thinking, bloody hell, I'm going to die to Boney M".

I can totally understand how he feels. The worst part about another of Boney M's songs, the medley 'Mary's Boy Child/Oh My Lord', isn't that it's annoying, but that it gets stuck in your head and refuses to get out. Boney M were a manufactured 70's German pop group comprised of members from the West Indies. They were formed by German producer Frank Farian, the same person who would put together Milli Vanilli years later.

Here, the group puts a campy calypso spin on 'Mary's Boy Child', originally recorded by Harry Belafonte. The over-pronounced delivery of the lyrics is just maddening. Add to it a lame spoken-word breakdown and you've got one of the cheesiest Christmas songs around. To be fair, the original tune 'Oh My Lord' is more enjoyable, especially when compared to the first half of the medley.

Perhaps most baffling though is that Boney M has two of the UK's All-Time Bestselling Singles, with 'Mary's Boy Child/Oh My Lord' at Number 10. The song was the Number One UK Christmas Single for 1978, which is kind of a big deal over there, as you may remember from the movie Love Actually.

Something else about this song that bothers me is the lyric, "And man will live forevermore, because of Christmas Day". Maybe it's my penitent Catholic upbringing, but I thought it was because of Easter, not Christmas, that mankind was saved. Jesus died for your sins, people! I'm no theologian, and some might argue that without Christmas there would be no Easter, but as Bob Marley would say-"It's just a part of it, you've got to fulfill the book".

Mannheim Steamroller- Deck The Halls

Who actually enjoys this stuff? Apparently a lot of people do, since Mannheim Steamroller has sold over 36 million albums. I think it's the people that like to wear tacky holiday sweaters unironically. Mannheim Steamroller is the project of musician Chip Davis, who gives New Age arrangements to beloved Christmas carols, infused with false energy and devoid of feeling. On 'Deck The Halls', the synthesizers don't sound retro, but dated. Fortunately, I was never exposed to Mannheim Steamroller until college. I like to think that my parents were too classy to wear tacky sweaters or be into this.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra- Christmas Canon

I think of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra as a kind of successor to Mannheim Steamroller, as they're another group bent on ruining the classics. Also like Mannheim, they have an inexplicably large fanbase. If Christmas makes you think of faux-metal orchestras playing self-indulgent arrangements of carols and classical music- all set to seizure-inducing lasers and pyrotechnics- then this group is for you.

The thing about Trans-Siberian Orchestra is that hard-rocking songs like "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24", dramatic as they try to be, fail to elicit any emotion, positive or negative. Hell, even Boney M could do that. As far as music goes, that's its greatest fault.

However, a Trans-Siberian song that bothers me is "Christmas Canon", where the group shows off its sensitive side with an interpretation of Pachelbel's 'Canon In D Major'. Here's another instance of a children's choir, this time used in the worst way. The problems are right from the beginning, as a metallic piano intro leads to the children repeating "Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas" ad nauseum. The music from 'Canon In D' starts up, and the choir intones over the harmony part, bookended by another unbearble run of phrase repetition with "on this night, on this night, on this very Christmas night". The Vince Guaraldi children's choir sounds innocent and sweet. Here, the kids are just irritating.
File Under: Worst Christmas Song Ever

Christmas Canon - Trans-Siberian Orchestra

P.S. Trans-Siberian Orchestra torments us with another version of this song called "Christmas Canon Rock". Imagine the kids grown up with a full-on hair metal accompaniment.

The Waitresses- Christmas Wrapping

Everything about this song is awesome, starting with the pun in the title. The Waitresses, best known for their new wave hit, "I Know What Boys Like", released this song in 1981, just as rap music was getting greater exposure and the same year that Blondie released their rap single "Rapture". Compared to Debbie Harry, singer Patty Donahue sounds like even more of a white girl, and her unabashedly square delivery is what makes the song endearing. Her flow is almost nonstop, only taking breaks for the romping and irresistibly catchy saxophone and bass interludes.

On "Christmas Wrapping" she recounts a year of missed connections with the cute guy she met at the ski shop. She loves Christmas, but is overwhelmed and wants to sit this one out- something everyone can relate to. But with a last-minute errand and a realization of "You forgot the cranberries too?"- for a moment all is right with the world.

The Stranger's Advent Music Calendar: The Waitresses

The Story of "Christmas Wrapping"

Christmas Wrapping - The Waitresses

Paul McCartney- Wonderful Christmas Time

People are pretty divided over this song, which is understandable. Those that hate it can't stand the synthesizers and the repetitive, broken chorus of "sim-ply, ha-ving a wonderful Christmas time". But count me as a fan. I love the way the synthesizers seem to zip across the sky and the how they reverberate on the downbeat (apparently it's the same type of synthesizer that Radiohead uses on 'Everything In Its Right Place'). It sounds retro, as well as nostalgic for children of the 80's. I also love how the synthesizers tumble out of step with the beat later on. Lyrically, the song is pretty mindless- and it seems like the verses are just there to fill in space between the choruses- but it's mindlessly fun.

The Stranger- Track Review

Wham!- Last Christmas

Christmas- the time of thoughtfulness and good deeds, and George Michael is moping about the time he got brushed off. It's part of what makes this song great- wanting to be self-absorbed when the season calls for being selfless and cheerful. The people that enjoy wearing holiday sweaters ironically are most likely to love this song.

Musically, "Last Christmas" has a groovy keyboard rhythm to back Michael's hushed, woe-is-me delivery. There's a lot of memorable lyrics, like
"Tell me baby, do you recognize me? Well, it's been a year, it doesn't surprise me" and "My god I thought you were someone to rely on. Me? I guess I was a shoulder to cry on". There's also a nice sub-melody starting with the line "A face on a lover with a fire in his heart...". Self-pity never felt so good.

There's a lot of music I haven't mentioned. What are the Christmas songs you love or hate?

NPR Feature- Holiday Songs You Love and Loathe

Monday, October 20, 2008

Brian Wilson at the Hollywood Bowl

My first concert in LA couldn't have been more Californian- Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys at the Hollywood Bowl. Known for its iconic band shell and also as the summer home of the LA Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl might be the best place to see a concert. From its beautiful setting in the Hollywood Hills to the tradition of taking along a picnic meal, the venue itself plays a huge role in the enjoyment of a show. I always dreamed of seeing a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, and this was the perfect opportunity. The tickets were as cheap as $10, graded on up to $114 for the best seats. I really appreciated the option for inexpensive tickets, which is unheard of these days in the rest of the concert industry, though not for the Hollywood Bowl. To this day, the venue still offers $1 tickets at the top of the Bowl for many Philharmonic concerts. My $12 ticket placed me 3 rows from the back, but there's not a bad view in the place. Though tiny, I had a clear sight of the stage and the Hollywood sign behind it (I later learned that if you're back far enough to see the Hollywood sign, then your seats are pretty bad...)

Billed as an 'End of Summer Fireworks Spectacular', Brian Wilson performed with his backing band The Wondermints and the LA Philharmonic. The show began like an orchestral concert, as the LA Phil performed a selection of Brian Wilson's favorite classical works:
Mozart- The Marriage of Figaro Overture
Bach- Toccata and Fugue in D minor
Gershwin- Girl Crazy Overture

From the intricate arrangements and orchestration of his Beach Boys tunes, it makes sense that Brian Wilson is an enthusiast of classical music, and it was interesting to hear the influences that come through in his songs. Next, Brian and his band joined the orchestra to perform a few songs from his new album That Lucky Old Sun. Even more so than his previous work, the record is a love letter to Southern California, and is filled with the trademark lush harmonies that he was known for with the Beach Boys.

Brian Wilson Sings A Love Letter To California- Performance and Interview on World Cafe

"Forever My Surfer Girl"

Video- Live Performance on Yahoo Music

Next, the group played 'God Only Knows'. For such a genius chamber pop composition, watching it live backed by the LA Phil seemed like the real way to hear it.
After an intermission, Brian Wilson and his band returned to finish the night with a mix of his solo work and Beach Boys favorites. Naturally, 'Do You Wanna Dance' got the crowd dancing the most, on top of the benches and down the aisles. And Californians are really proud of 'California Girls'. It was also a treat to hear the beautiful 'Our Prayer' segue into 'Heroes and Villains' from his album Smile. With the fireworks, feel-good songs, and beautiful setting, it was the perfect end of summer celebration.

Brian Wilson at the Hollywood Bowl- Live review from LAist

Some of my favorite Beach Boys songs:
'Don't Worry Baby'

Brian Wilson's ode to lost youth- 'Caroline, No' from the masterpiece Pet Sounds
"Where did your long hair go? Where is the girl I used to know? How could you lose that happy glow?"

'The Sad Song Awards'- a clip from David Cross and Bob Odenkirk's old sketch comedy program Mr. Show. The parody of 'God Only Knows' is spot-on, from the melancholy, boyish vocals to the accompanying percussion, though the spoof of Eric Clapton's 'Tears In Heaven' is pretty cruel.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Oddly RIC

The Odd Lyric has a new home. In August I packed up my things and moved west to Pasadena, CA. So I've traded the River City for a city without its own water supply. Goodbye, Ukrop's- Hello, In-N-Out.

It's exciting to be in Los Angeles. There is so much going on here and I'll have many new musical discoveries to share. Growing up, I used to knock Richmond for its struggling scene. Venues such as the Flood Zone closed right as I entered high school, leaving a gaping hole in the music scene and my adolescent concert-going experience. For nearly a decade no venue took its place, and t
he occasional big-name act that came through usually played in the field of an office park. Things were so spare that I found myself jumping to see Toad the Wet Sprocket or whatever decent act came to town (no offense to Toad the Wet Sprocket, but still...). I got used to the long drives to shows in DC, as well as Charlottesville and Norfolk, which wisely filled the void that Richmond left. The success of live venues in both cities only further illustrated Richmond's incompetence, as any touring act passing through the city on I-95 has to go out of their way to get to Cville or Norfolk.

The city itself had no lack of talent or creativity, just a good venue to host local and national acts. The local artists found their outlet in coffeeshops, house shows, and artspaces, evidenced in the vibrant underground scene. But now things for Richmond are looking up. In the past year two new venues have opened- The National theater and Toad's Place, drawing national artists and providing a more prominent stage for local ones. Leave it to Richmond to get its act together just as I leave.

I really grew to love Richmond, though, despite (and perhaps because of) its struggles, and I'll always consider the city home. And as my sister pointed out, the title of my blog can be read 'Oddly RIC', a fitting name that I unknowingly gave. I really look forward to life in LA and all it has to offer, but I'll always take pride in Virginia and the experiences there that shaped me.

A Trip To Southern California- A poetic introduction to Weekend Edition's episode on Los Angeles.
"Millions from across the world begin new lives here in places like Pasadena, West Covina, East Los Angeles, and Compton...Most people in LA are not in the film business, but almost no one, anywhere, is immune to the dreams that are hatched here."

The Hollywood sign on a clear day
...and on a not so clear day

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sasquatch Extras

With this year's stellar Sasquatch lineup, there were bound to be schedule conflicts, and the resulting tough decisions to make. Overall, I was comfortable with my choices. I skipped Okkervil River (whom I had seen a month before) in favor of of being rocked completely by M.I.A., and opted for the sunshine pop of The Little Ones over the guitar jamming of Built to Spill. Following are some acts I missed out on.

Vince Mira with the Roy Kay Trio
Of all the acts I missed at Sasquatch, I wish I could have seen Vince Mira most. While watching Fleet Foxes perform on the main stage, suddenly you heard Johnny Cash's 'Ring of Fire' blasting out of the speakers on the Yeti Stage, followed by the crowd over there going nuts. I thought to myself, "Why are they getting so excited over a Johnny Cash recording?". As I later found out, it wasn't a recording of Johnny Cash, but rather Vince Mira covering him, and the crowd had good reason to be excited.

Vince Mira sings exactly like Johnny Cash, but what's really incredible is that Vince Mira is a 15 year-old Latino kid. A lot of people could probably do a good Johnny Cash impression, but it's just unbelievable to watch Vince Mira and hear that voice coming from his mouth. Many people have taken notice, as Vince has performed on Ellen and Good Morning America. His album was even recorded at Johnny Cash's cabin in Nashville and produced by John Carter Cash, the son of Johnny Cash and June Carter.

See for yourself why both Vince Mira and Ellen are awesome:

The Stranger- "Sasquatch Saturday: Vince Mira Almost Caused a Riot"
Vince Mira MySpace

Photo Credit:
I missed seeing Battles in order to catch Flight of the Conchords on the main stage, but I bet they would have been fascinating live. The technically experimental band features ex-members of Helmet and Don Caballero, and its songs can be intricate and strangely catchy. As a kind of gimmick, drummer John Stanier raises his crash cymbal as high as possible, and part of the fun of watching them live must be the anticipation of waiting for him to hit it. On the song 'Atlas', Tyondai Braxton sings with a vocal pedal that warps his voice into a high-pitched squeal. A YouTube viewer noted that the song sounds like a demented nursery rhyme, and it's true. The song has an irresistible quality and it's hard not to sing along, "the singer is a crook, ohh wayyy oh"

'Atlas' on Jools Holland, with lyrics from Drowned in Sound printed below. Inhale a helium balloon and sing along:

People won't be people when they hear this sound
That's been glowing in the dark at the edge of town
People won't be people, no
The people won't be people when they hear this sound
Won't you show me what begins at the edge of town

The singer is a crook
The kitchen is the cook
The scissors are the barbers
The singer is a crook
The chorus, full of actors

Throw Me The Statue

Throw Me The Statue specializes in catchy indie-pop- the kind with xylophones and hand-clap beats. This time, the schedule conflict was with Beirut, who played one of their last shows before going on hiatus. Below is Throw Me The Statue's ode to obsession, the video for 'Lolita'.

Throw Me The Statue MySpace

Thursday, July 31, 2008

New Music: M83

The French group M83 is named after a spiral galaxy 15 million light years away, which perfectly characterizes the lush atmospherics that the act is known for. Formerly a duo, since the 2005 album Before The Dawn Heals Us it has been the sole project of Anthony Gonzalez. France has produced a lot of great electronic-based acts, such as Air, Daft Punk, and Justice, but M83's songs have a more organic, tuneful quality. Many songs follow a more traditional rock arrangement, influenced by shoegaze bands like My Bloody Valentine, with hushed vocals bathed in a wash of synths.

The music mostly conjures two themes in its imagery- gloom and teenage nostalgia. But as the picture above illustrates, it's a more youthful sense of gloom reminiscent of Halloween- romanticized and borderline goth. Anthony Gonzalez has an abiding fascination with the 80's, and many of the music videos mimic the plot of a John Hughes film. Even the cover of the new album, Saturdays=Youth, features an exact look-alike of Molly Ringwald. As Gonzalez writes in the album liner notes, "Thanks to all the friends, music, movies, joints, and crazy teachers that made my teenage years so great!"
I discovered M83 with the gorgeously hazy 'Run Into Flowers', which I highly recommend, though its music video isn't much more than a Windows 95-era screensaver. M83's subsequent videos are much better, usually profiling a teenage girl and her unrequited love.

In the video for 'Graveyard Girl', our subject likes to hang around pet cemeteries and has a crush on the popular boy in school. Will he ever notice her? It reminds me of the Emilio Estevez/Ally Sheedy relationship from The Breakfast Club. In a spoken segment midway through, she asks with adorable melodrama, "I'm fifteen years old and I feel it's already too late to live. Don't you?"

New single "Kim and Jessie"

Standout videos from the previous album Before The Dawn Heals Us. I love how they're both connected.The video for the pummeling "Don't Save Us From The Flames" reminds me of a cross between E.T. and Donnie Darko. Two girls both like the same guy. Whom will he choose?

The song 'Teen Angst' sounds like 8-bit video game music for Mega Man. This video features the other girl from the love triangle. Was the previous story all just a dream?

Sunday, June 1, 2008

New Music: My Morning Jacket

photo from Pitchfork
My Morning Jacket's new album, Evil Urges, comes out June 10th, and from what I've heard there's a lot to be excited about. Early on the band was considered Southern rock rivivalists, but their 2005 album Z showed impressive musical growth. There still were the blazing rockers and slow-burning porch ballads, but there were also songs with elements of soul, reggae, and funk, proving that they defied easy categorization. Also, it's hard to imagine the Allman Brothers or Lynyrd Skynyrd wearing white moon boots onstage. Some artists you don't like to see change, but I'm thrilled by My Morning Jacket's new directions and continuous experimentation, whether it's throwing a prom concert or playing with the Boston Pops.

For the two songs from the band's SNL appearance, "I'm Amazed" is a catchy, straightforward rocker, while "Evil Urges" is sultry R&B. Jim James' voice is one of My Morning Jacket's main weapons, and here he sings in a groovy falsetto. And just when you think you have the song figured out, the song breaks down into a dueling guitar jam. But my favorite part about these performances are the priceless poses the band strikes at the end of each song. I love this band.

"I'm Amazed"

"Evil Urges"

The making of
Evil Urges

Friday, January 11, 2008

New Music: Vampire Weekend

The buzz band of the moment is Vampire Weekend, and their unique sound is a mix of indie rock and afro-pop. The band calls their music 'Upper Westside Soweto', which is a pretty accurate description, like an edgy version of Paul Simon's album Graceland. It's different and catchy stuff, so there's substance to go with the hype. You'll find yourself bobbing along to 'Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa' and its offbeat lyrics "But this feels so unnatural / Peter Gabriel too".

The members met while attending Columbia university, and their Ivy League pedigree seems most apparent in the lyrics. I had to consult Wikipedia to find out what was a Mansard Roof or Oxford Comma, but I learned some neat things. For instance, a mansard roof has two slopes, with the lower slope steeper and the upper slope shallower. One example is the roof of a typical McDonald's restaurant. And an Oxford comma refers to the specifics of comma use before a conjunction in a list of three or more things (like in me, myself, and I).

Below are a few songs and videos from their self-titled album, which comes out January 29.
Interview and In-Studio Performance on KEXP

World Cafe Feature- Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa and Mansard Roof

In this clip for "Mansard Roof", Vampire Weekend seems to play up its Ivy League stigma with footage of the band lounging on a yacht:

The band doesn't miss a beat in the jittery stop-action video for "A-Punk":

And on "Oxford Comma", Vampire Weekend shares their greatest wisdom- "Lil' Jon, he always tells the truth."

Friday, January 4, 2008

Brain Food

Want to improve your vocabulary and help end world hunger at the same time? This is the brilliant idea behind The non-profit website's addictive vocabulary game provides players with a word and choice of definitions. Choose the correct definition, and 20 grains of rice is donated to the UN World Food Programme. The rice donations are funded through advertisements, and so far enough rice has been earned to feed over 325,000 people.

Like some great ideas, Free Rice had an unlikely origin. Computer programmer John Breen was trying unsuccessfully to prepare his son for the SAT, and so he devised a computer game to improve his son's vocabulary. Breen runs the advocacy site, so he tied the two objectives together and came up with Free Rice.

The best feature of the game is that it adjusts to your vocabulary level, giving you harder words after correct answers or by dropping a difficulty level after incorrect ones. There are 50 levels of difficulty, which accordingly makes the game challenging for students of all ages and those learning English as well as the most knowledgeable wordsmiths.

I find that Free Rice is great to play during down time at work with a guilt-free conscience. And some teachers are using it in class with their students. I've made it up to Level 47 so far. Anyone up for some friendly competition? Bring it!

NPR Feature Story on

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Iowa Caucus Yeahhh!

Remember the last Iowa caucus? That night in 2004 I'd just returned to my dorm for the spring semester and met up with Victoria in the deserted UC lobby to watch the caucus returns on the big screen. Thinking back on this elicited two reactions:
1. Thank god
it's been almost 4 years, and
2. Holy crap! It's been four years!

Besides that reminder of aging there were also fond memories, like the same "Is this really happening?" look Victoria and I had as Howard Dean roared off every state he planned to visit and promptly devour. And there was the Daily Show coverage (something we won't have this time), where Jon Stewart showed off the bumper sticker "Dated Dean, Married Kerry, Finger-banged Kucinich". This writer's strike needs to end soon or it will be a very unfunny election.

YouTube- Dean's Iowa Caucus Speech