30 December 2016

Ponzi Schemes, And Other Tales

A few months ago, I happily signed up for a Ponzi scheme, perpetrated by the inimitable Citizen of the Month.

Neil is like some kind of internet era Pied Piper. I first encountered him years ago, when he was organizing the Great Interview Experiment. He is also the ringleader of the Annual Blogger Christmahanukwanzaakah Online Holiday Concert, which he started back in 2006, and which I have contributed to several times.

The schtick of the Ponzi scheme is that it's a book swap - instead of an old-style chain letter, or the recipe or poem chains that I get regular emails about - it was this:

WANTED: Participants for a book-loving social experiment. Comment if you want to participate and I’ll send you details. What do you have to do? Buy or locate your favorite book and send it to a stranger (I’ll send you a name and address). You will only be sending one book to one person. The number of books you will receive depends on how many participants there are. The books that will show up on your door are the other people’s much loved stories #SaveTheCulture #BookExchange #LongLiveBooks

So I duly mailed a book off to a stranger, and in return, had five books show up on my doorstep:

I'd read A Man Called Ove, but hadn't read any of the others - and they were all good: serious, interesting fiction. And even though I'd read Ove, I was happy to get a copy, because I'd read it as a library book, and I think my 13 year old will like it.

I was particularly happy to read the Flannery O'Connor. She'd been on my mind, because someone in my office loves her and talks about her a lot, but somehow I hadn't ever read her. The Violent Bear It Away is powerful, crazy, interesting and mind-bending - and the first thing I did when I finished it was take O'Connor's letters out of the library. Fascinating woman.

Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread is kind of shaggy, kind of meandering, kind of touching. I rather loved a passage about painting the swing blue, which reminded me of Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House, and turns out to be a contentious plot point. "I'm thinking a kind of medium blue, like a ... well, I don't know what shade exactly you would call it, but it's darker than baby blue, and lighter than navy. Just a middling blue, you know? Like a ... maybe they call it Swedish blue. Or ... is there such a thing as Dutch blue?" It goes on, winding though Mediterranean blue and sky blue and not powder or aqua or pale and back to Swedish blue.

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri is a rich family saga. Towards the end, she writes "In so many ways, his family's life feels like a string of accidents, unforeseen, unintended, one incident begetting another." In so many ways, every family's life is like that - this book and A Spool of Blue Thread are exceptional iterations of that age-old truth.

The Giant's House is beautifully written, but I vacillated between really liking it, and feeling like it was just going through the motions. Nothing really happens, but some of the descriptive language is beautiful and sharp and inventively odd. Like this:

Somebody did want his bones: me. Not just bones, or the quilted muscles that wrapped them, or the resistant but assailable cartilage in his ears. I wanted to ladle together my hands and dip them in him and cast from my netted fingers a net of blood onto the floor to read, untangle what was wrong and fish it out, see, no wonder you felt poorly, this was in your blood.

I found the ending to be tidy and preposterous - and if a book ends poorly, it leaves a bad taste. That said, I plan to read Elizabeth MrCracken's memoir, called An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, about her life in the aftermath of a stillborn child.

But what is my point? Not all pyramid schemes are bad. At worst, I'd have been out a book plus postage. That I got five books from complete strangers was gravy.

25 December 2016

25: Louisiana Christmas Day

And it's Christmas!

My sister-in-law texted me right around Thanksgiving:

I started before Thanksgiving, as post-election therapy. I'm referring, of course, to playing my Christmas music. Usually in the car, full volume, sometimes in the house, but only with earbuds. (Husband doesn't share my obsession.) And I'd like to recommend a song to you: Aaron Neville’s Louisiana Christmas Day. Wonderfully bayou (if you like that sorta thing). It's style is native to part of the country that was solidly Trump, alas, but I can't NOT play it.

I texted her back and told her I loved it, and that she needed to listen to Sharon Jones singing White Christmas - not that they're similar, but they'll both get you bouncing around the house.

Happy Christmas!

24 December 2016

24: I Am A Latke

And you thought I was going to skip Hanukah. NOT A CHANCE. I did, however, wait until today, because it is the first night of Hanukah. Light that first candle, and fry up some latkes. And make sure you've got Debbie Friedman channeling a latke: "I do not want to spend life in this blender".

And for gravy? Here's the US Army Band & Chorus doing Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah.

Here's to latkes! And may your oil last for eight nights.

23 December 2016

23: Angels We Have Heard On High

Angels We Have Heard On High is one of my favorite carols to sing, what with all the melismatic Glorias - they're so much fun! Here it is, done nicely by Chanticleer, an all male chorus based in San Francisco.

If you like this, there are other Christmas songs available to stream on the Chanticleer website. (And how goofy is that Yule log of a video?)

22 December 2016

22: The Christmas Song

Right. The proper title is "The Christmas Song" but do you ever call it anything but "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire"? Maybe that's just me.

It has been recorded over and over and over - the Wikipedia page for the song lists over a hundred "notable renditions". I myself have 29 copies of it, including two by Ella Fitzgerald. She recorded a disk of Christmas songs in 1960, and when it was rereleased on CD in 2002, they included an alternate take.

Anyway, here's Ella, swinging. Listen to how she works with the beat. It's just splendid.

21 December 2016

21: The Nutcracker (Selections)

A Christmas round-up just wouldn't be complete without something from the Nutcracker. Me being me, I not only have the whole score, but I also have the Duke Ellington suite based on it, a klezmer version by the Shirim Klezmer Orchestra, and a few odd one-offs. Herewith, three selections:

Duke Ellington

Tants Chinese
Shirim Klezmer Orchestra

Candy Cane
NYCB Orchestra

* Despite it being called an Entr'acte, and placed in the middle of the Ellington Suite, it's based on the Overture, so I put it in first place.

20 December 2016

20: Vauncing Chimes

When it comes right down to it, what I like about the Christmas music is the plethora of interpretation. You take a body of work, and let a whole mess of people at it, and you get a whole mess of variety. Seventeen recordings of Beethoven's Op. 111 are all going to fall within a narrow range - all the notes will be there, and while there's a little room for interpretation in tempo and dynamics, it's going to be pretty straight ahead. (But Maurizio Pollini's is the best.) Seventeen recordings of Silent Night are going to be all over the map. Vocals, no vocals. Brass band, full church choir, musical saw. Straight 3/4 time, swinging 5/4 time.

The covers by jazz performers are some of the best. Take something you know, and pull it apart into seventeen explorations. Or maybe, create something new using lots of familiar elements. Like yesterday's River, today's Bobby Watson track, Vauncing Chimes, starts with a riff on Jingle Bells, goes off on an ecstatic jazz explication, weaves in some Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and blows the roof off the house.

Besides, who can resist something called Vauncing* Chimes?

* Yeah, look it up. It's an obsolete word meaning to advance.

19 December 2016

19: River

Sometimes I live in a fog. Really, it wasn't until very recently - like weeks ago when my brother sent me the Spotify playlist of Pitchfork's 50 best Christmas tunes - that I had any idea that Joni Mitchell's River had kind of entered the Christmas music canon. And honestly, I'm not sure that it belongs. Well, it starts and ends with a minor key riff on Jingle Bells, and it begins and ends with lyrics about Christmas:

It's coming on Christmas
They're cutting down trees
They're putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace

But it isn't really about Christmas, and it's certainly not terribly happy, and when I cued up the version by Madeleine Peyroux and k.d. lang, my sister burst into tears and I had to turn it off.

So, I'm not entirely sure why I'm including it at all, except that that Peyroux/lang cover is gorgeous.

Me being me, I had to poke around on the tubes. Despite finding a Washington Post article titled How a ‘thoroughly depressing’ Joni Mitchell song became a Christmas classic, I am still rather mystified. It seems awfully reductive to assign a song to the Christmas canon simply because it mentions Christmas.

But I am embracing the flow of that frozen river.

18 December 2016

18: A Ceremony of Carols

For most of December, I am content to put the holiday playlist on shuffle and listen to whatever comes up. Sometimes that doesn't work so well, like when you get that excerpt from a long form piece - like the odd recitative from the Handel Messiah, or a bit of business music from the Nutcracker - in between the Silent Nights and Joys To The World.

There's one long form piece that, for me, works both ways: Benjamin Britten's A Ceremony of Carols. I find that the individual carols flow within the shuffle, but it's also good to listen to it straight through. It's also amazing to sing, and because it's written for a three-part treble chorus, the choir at the women's college I attended was able to sing selections from it.

Anyway - it is a stunning piece of choral music, and I can smell the gingerbread wafting through the kitchen as I listen to it.

My favorite record is one from King's College Cambridge, in which the processional and recessional are recorded in space - you hear the singers approaching during the processional, and retreating at the end:

I couldn't find that recording on YouTube, but I did find a nicely filmed version sung by Sankt Jacobs Ungdomskör. It's cued up at the forceful Deo Gracias, but start at the beginning if you'd prefer.

17 December 2016

17: Party This Christmas

A couple of weeks ago, there was a profile in the New York Times of a guy named Bill Adler. For years, he's been making a jolly holiday mixtape for his friends. My reaction? Why don't I know him??

Happily, the article was shot through with links, including a truncated Spotify playlist - I had lots of fun poking around, and loved this new to me Christmas zydeco tune by Rockin’ Sidney, called Party This Christmas.

It's got a great groove.

Now, ring the bell. Ring that bell.

Jingle bell.

16 December 2016

16: Santa Baby

No countdown of Christmas tunes could be complete without Santa Baby - and it has to be the original. Eartha Kitt's sultry divine letter to Santa, with its delicious internal rhymes, gets me every time.

Santa cutie, and fill my stocking with a duplex, and checks.
Sign your 'X' on the line,
Santa cutie, and hurry down the chimney tonight.

15 December 2016

15: The Little Drummer Boy

If you are in the Little Drummer Boy Challenge, you might want to look away. Or at least, don't click on the YouTube link.

I go back and forth. Sometimes I think The Little Drummer Boy is just appallingly horrible pablum, and sometimes I rather like it. It has been recorded A LOT. The Wikipedia page for the song lists an impressive number of recordings, but the one I picked is not on that list. [Maybe I should add it!]

Gregg Miner is a multi-instrumentalist with a deep collection of musical instruments, self-styled as the Miner Museum of Vintage, Exotic and Just Plain Unusual Musical Instruments. As a way of showcasing his "museum", he recorded two disks of Christmas music. The Little Drummer Boy is done on sitar and tablas, "which turned out quite interesting."

The drone of the sitar is quite effective, given the inherently repetitive nature of the song.

After I had written this, but before it posted, an old friend (like, I've known her since she was about 5) sent me a link to a wackadoodle sultry Grace Jones appearance on Pee Wee Herman's Christmas show, once upon a time. So, in case you need it too, here's Grace Jones singing the Little Drummer Boy to Pee Wee:

14 December 2016

14: Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town

My initial thought was that Santa Claus Is Comin' To Town had to be the delightful version by Bruce Springsteen. But then I remembered the Joseph Spence. His rendition of the lyrics defies transcription.

So here you go, a twofer - two iconic versions of Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town.

13 December 2016

13: Children, Go Where I Send Thee

Obviously, the Twelve Days of Christmas is a counting song. So is Children, Go Where I Send Thee (a/k/a Born In Bethlehem), which starts (and ends) with "one for the little bitty baby". I love Odetta's version - her timing is fabulous and you will want to dance around the kitchen while you're baking the cookies.


12 December 2016

12: The Twelve Days of Christmas

It's really easy to find AWFUL versions of The Twelve Days of Christmas. It's so damned repetitive, and just not very interesting. Somehow though, in a live performance, Jane Siberry pulls it off. It's rather ecstatic.

I mean, don't you feel like you're at a party now?

11 December 2016

11: The Wexford Carol

As one does, I fell down an internet rabbit hole and ended up with today's selection. I was actually looking for a song by Sara Bareilles called Love Is Christmas - a song I didn't know, but which had been recommended by my sister's girlfriend. Over on the side, in the related videos column in YouTube, I spotted this collaboration between Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma. It blew me away.

Unlike a lot of songs on YouTube, this one is an actual video of them actually recording the song - in other words, it's worth watching, and not just listening.

10 December 2016

10: Oh Come, All Ye Faithful

Sometimes, you just can't go wrong with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, even though they sing in English.

I confess a deep and abiding confusion about the English title. Oh Come, All Ye Faithful? O Come? O, Come? Is it O or Oh? Is there a comma?

Who can know these things? In Latin, it is Adeste Fidelis, and I confess a love for the Latin:

Adeste fideles læti triumphantes,
Venite, venite in Bethlehem.
Natum videte
Regem angelorum:
Venite adoremus, venite adoremus, venite adoremus

09 December 2016

9: Rebel Jesus

I asked my sister what her favorite Christmas carol was (and told her that she couldn't pick one that I'd already posted). She said "Oh! Rebel Jesus!" I looked perplexed until she reminded me that it's on the McGarrigle Christmas Hour - and yes, I have that. But because I am very bad at listening to the lyrics, I didn't make the connection between song title and actual song.

It is moving and apposite, and not a little subversive, written by Jackson Browne with a stanza that reads, in part:

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

This atheist would like to say:
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus

08 December 2016

8: Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy

And we veer back to the odd: A Toolbox Christmas.

There are a lot of "novelty" records out there. Can one forget Meowy Christmas, by the Jingle Cats? A whole record of cats, meowing out Christmas carols. The Toolbox Christmas is similar-ish - in that the entire contents of someone's wood shop are used as musical instruments. Honestly this is a record that you cannot listen to straight through, but one track once in a while seeded into a holiday playlist is a beautiful thing.

07 December 2016

7: Baby It's Cold Outside

I know.

But Elf. There's that scene where Zooey Deschanel is singing in the shower and Will Ferrell joins in on Baby, It's Cold Outside. It's delightful, and a little creepy, because Ferrell's elf is so socially awkward.

But elsewhere in the movie - or just on the soundtrack? - Deschanel sings it with the divinely anachronistic Leon Redbone. It's the best rendition.

06 December 2016

6: Carol of the Bells

I'm not all and only idiosyncratic. Sometimes you need the classics, like the New York Choral Artists singing the Carol of the Bells. It's just about perfect. Clean, clear, unmannered.

05 December 2016

5: Star of Wonder

The Roches are three sisters, who sang as a mostly a cappella trio. Their Christmas record is mostly delightful (though a few tracks are pretty twee). Their Hallelujah Chorus is fabulous, but the haunting Star of Wonder is today's pick.

If you are given to singing around the fireplace or with a chorus, the sheet music for Star of Wonder is on the Roches website - with a note from Terre Roche who says:

I encourage anyone who would like to sing "Star of Wonder" at Christmas time to do so. I consider myself to be the channel through which this little song came into the world. I don't "own" the song. Nobody does. It belongs to all of us! The thought that people are singing "Star of Wonder" at Christmas time makes me feel great!

04 December 2016

4: All I Want For Christmas

...is you.

Maybe you first encountered All I Want For Christmas when Mariah Carey released it in 1994. Maybe you know it from Love Actually. Or maybe you caught it when Mariah Carey reprised it on Jimmy Fallon with the Roots "on classroom instruments". I succumbed to it when my sister gave me the Puppini Sisters Christmas CD in 2010.

03 December 2016

3: Silent Night

I've given you Patti Smith. I've given you Sharon Jones. You've probably figured out that my taste in Christmas music is a little idiosyncratic. Here is one of my all time favorites: Silent Night on the musical saw.

It is haunting and lovely, and just what you want to listen to after everyone's gone to bed on Christmas Eve and you're left downstairs with a little whiskey and a few more pistachios, candles guttering and the lights down low.

02 December 2016

2: White Christmas

Every year, I try to add a few tracks to my expansive holiday playlist. (Yes, "holiday" - it's not all Christmas.) The best of the lot from last year is, hands down, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings doing "White Christmas".

Alas, she died a couple of weeks ago, so there'll be no more rollicking covers of the standards or deliciously subversive additions to the canon (like Big Bulbs).

Do yourself two favors:

1) Cue up It's a Holiday Soul Party, and
2) Check out the sad and lovely slideshow of photos of Sharon Jones's last year.

01 December 2016

1: O Holy Night

Although I grew up in the kind of atheist household in which Christmas was celebrated with abandon, we never had an advent calendar. I think my mother thought they were too religious for the likes of us, although it seems like not much more than a countdown to the 25th, one tiny door at a time.

So as an adult, I've never had an advent calendar - at least, not a physical one. A sweet friend of ours sends the online Jacquie Lawson one every year, and that's kind of delightful. But it got me thinking: I will (try to) post a song a day from now until Christmas.

Up first? Patti Smith singing O Holy Night at the Vatican. Enjoy!