Friday, November 23, 2007

More Christmas Music

I mentioned earlier that the Leroy Anderson Christmas Album was my favorite recently-released Christmas album. But I would probably rank it only in the top 10 overall among my all-time favorites. (I love making lists; I'm trying not to make yet another "all-time" list, but I don't have much will power!) My absolute favorite would be The Carpenters' Christmas Portrait, first released in 1978. It's got glossy production values, old-fashioned but creative musical arrangements, creamy choral backgrounds, and of course Karen Carpenter's lovely lead vocals. For many years, this album was only available in a truncated version combined with cuts from their second (and inferior) Christmas album, but a few years ago, A&M Records released a 2-disc Christmas Collection with both albums in their entireties, so that's the way to go. The album is best listened to as a whole, as most of the cuts (some of which are medleys of 2 or 3 songs) segue into one another. Whenever I hear any version of "Sleigh Ride," I always expect to hear it slide right into a rollicking piano figure followed by the lines, "It's Christmas time and time for a carol, time to sing about the little King..." The songs are mostly 40's and 50's secular holiday songs, though Karen sings a lovely version of the Bach/Gounod "Ave Maria" and the album opens with a nice instrumental medley of traditional carols.

#2 would have to be Carols for Christmas, a 2-disc collection by David Willcocks and the Royal College of Music Chamber Choir with some occasional embellishment by organ or brass. These are all traditional carols, in traditional arrangements, sounding like they were sung in a giant old cathedral; when I listen to this in the car, I imagine I'm in that cathedral singing right along. Practically all my favorite carols are here: "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," "O Come O Come Emmanuel," "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming," "Good King Wenceslas," It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," "Patapan," and a few I was less familiar with, like "O Little One Sweet" and "Whence Comes this Rush of Wings." The album was originally released in 1983 and was marketed as a tie-in with a book of Christmas art from the Metropolitan Museum. Sadly, both the book and the CD are out of print, but both are worth looking for, especially the album.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Three wise men

I've started the Christmas viewing onslaught with three films. First was It's a Wonderful Life, which is one of my top 3 movies of all time. There's nothing much to say about it now, though I enjoyed it more this year than I have in the past few years. Some years, the dark, almost noirish overtones are overwhelming, but this year it felt lighter. Next was a quirky one called The Ref, which I hadn't seen in a few years. This comedy from 1994 is about a quarreling yuppie couple (Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis) who are held up by a small-time crook (Denis Leary) who has just bungled a burglary and wants to get out of town. He makes the couple take him back to their house while he waits for his incompetent partner-in-crime to make getaway arrangements, and winds up serving as a marriage counselor during a very funny dysfunctional family Christmas Eve dinner. Wonderful Christmassy sets, a funny script, and strong performances from Spacey, Davis, and Glynis Johns as a horrible matriarch make this a holiday treat. The ritual watching of It's a Wonderful Life on TV even provides an important plot point.

The third wise man movie (after wise George Bailey and the wise burglar) is The Fourth Wise Man, an 80's TV-movie based on a classic novella. Martin Sheen is a Magi who wants to go off with the other Three Magi to find the Messiah, but keeps missing them, mostly because he stops to help others. Years later, old and sick, he is present in Jerusalem for the Crucifixion and finally has his moment with the resurrected Christ. Between the TV-movie feel and an broadly comic performance by Alan Arkin as Sheen's faithful slave, this was hard to get into, but it gains in power by the end. It looked like it was shot on location, but apparently it was all made in California. Not bad; worth a rental if not a purchase. (Apparently it's still shown on television occasionally, but trimmed from its original 75-minute length by about 10 minutes.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Cosmic Cowboy

I just finished "Twenty Thousand Roads," a new biography of fabled country-rock singer Gram Parsons by David N. Meyer. The author, while not making Parsons into a saint (he died of a drug overdose in 1973 at the age of 26), clearly feels it's his mission to set Parsons up as one of the most influential musicians of the rock era. I gotta say that based on the evidence of the book and his few extant recordings, he seems more like an interesting footnote, though he was undeniably an influence on the 70's country-rock and 90's alt-country movements. Parsons was a rich kid from a dysfunctional family living off a trust fund. He played in bands as a teenager, hooked up with The Byrds, hung out with The Rolling Stones, was the lead singer with The Flying Burrito Brothers (which included Byrd Chris Hillman and future Eagle Bernie Leadon), cut a couple of solo albums, and helped Emmylou Harris get her career going. He tried to bring "authentic" country music (an early idol was Buck Owens) together with rock, R&B, and gospel to create what he called "Cosmic American Music."

Meyer has done his research well and is honest about Parsons' prodigious drug and alcohol use; he makes it clear that Parsons was not the "tormented junkie" type, but someone who liked drugs and what they did to him. But I'm not convinced that Parsons had a strong enough work ethic or a coherent enough aesthetic to have done much more than he did before he died. The author is also very opinionated which at times is refreshing but also leads me to question the objectivity of his reportage. For example, he hates The Eagles for bastardizing Parsons' "cosmic" music into pop bubblegum, and every time the band is mentioned, it is with disdain and nasty adjectives. I'm not exactly an Eagles fan (though I do like their On the Border album a lot), but to be fair, the Eagles were after something different than Parsons was; it feels like Meyer is blaming the Eagles for Parsons' failure to stay alive and bring his amorphous musical vision to fruition. The author also tries to include all voices when there is a difference of opinion about some aspect of Parsons' life, but he also plays favorites without letting us know why.

Overall, I enjoyed the book--it's a fast read and contains just enough lurid gossip to keep the pruriently-inclined reader interested. It also sent me back to Parsons' music, which I'm sure would make Meyer happy. He states that Parsons' Burrito Brothers albums are among the worst-produced "influential" albums ever, but I don't know that a glossier, crystal-clear production would have suited Parsons. I just heard a few cuts off of a "new" Burrito album of a live concert from the Avalon Ballroom in 1969--the sound quality is pretty bad, and Parsons is not in strong voice (according to Meyer, most of the Burrito live shows were total drug-fueled messes), but there is a good version of "Hot Burrito #2" and a great studio demo of "Thousand Dollar Wedding." And I also revisited Emmylou Harris' Elite Hotel album; I think that her version of "Sin City" is a masterpiece of creepy, apocalyptic beauty.

Which reminds me: though Meyer does a decent job discussing the music, he never touches on any of Parsons' spiritual beliefs, which might have provided some more insight into a guy who wrote a lot of songs about sin and death.

Monday, November 12, 2007

It's beginning to look a lot like...

Yes, I admit it, I'm a big Christmas fan. I love Christmas about as much as I love summer. If I had to choose between living in Eternal August and Eternal December, August would probably win out, but only by a smidgen because as I get older, cold makes me crankier. My first point to get out of the way: Christmas is really a secular holiday, or more precisely a pagan holiday in Christian clothing. Sorry, but Jesus is not the reason for the season: the reason is cold and snow and darkness and agrarian seasonal cycles, and the need for a little magic and partying and kindness and reassurance in the middle of the darkest and coldest days of the year. We've made room for Jesus and Santa, and both fit in fine, I guess (and frankly, Santa, as the impulse to give to others, is probably closer to the "reason").

My second point: Now that Halloween is over, the Christmas season can begin and anyone who complains is just not facing reality, because it's beginning whether we like it or not. Granted, I've always had a strong appreciation for the season (mostly because of my mother who always makes Christmas a wonderful season) so I don't mind seeing fully decorated Christmas trees in the local Kroger at 9 p.m. on October 31st, though I do understand the complaints of people who don't like hearing the music or seeing the decorations (or, in the case of my sweet partner, watching the "Santa riding the razor" TV ads) for 8 or 9 or 10 weeks. But because the structure of our economy has come to depend on the longer Christmas season, it's not going away--unless of course we get a nationalized health care system and therefore fall under the sway of godless communists.

I'll be writing about Christmas media over the next few weeks, so bear with me. I'll start with my new favorite Christmas album: A Leroy Anderson Christmas. Issued on CD in 2004, it's a compilation of recordings made some years ago (the woefully inadequate liner notes don't say when, but Internet sources indicate the 50's and 60's). I don't need another version of Anderson's most popular song, "Sleigh Ride"--my favorite version is the Roches' on their Christmas album We Three Kings--but the rest of the album is a gem. There's "A Christmas Festival," a long medley of several popular Christmas carols, followed by three "Suites" of carols, one for brass, one for strings, and one for woodwinds. The sound is cleaned-up 50's high-fidelity, which is just fine for this nostalgic album. Along with my absolute favorite seasonal album, The Carpenters' Christmas Portrait, this album plunks you down in the middle of a past Christmas that really only existed in fantasy, or fiction, or memories made perfect by their distance.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

A documockery?

If a mockumentary is a postmodern form which satirizes the documentary, what is a mockumentry which actually does some real "documenting" along with its mocking, further blurring the lines of fiction and non-fiction film? In the satirical film genre pioneered by Christopher Guest (This is Spinal Tap, A Mighty Wind), seemingly real situations are documented on film, but the people are all actors playing characters. Pittsburgh, a film directed by Chris Bradley and Kyle LeBrache, purports to be a filmed record of real events (the production by a local Pittsbugh theatrical group of "The Music Man" with Jeff Goldblum and his girlfriend Catherine Wreford in the lead roles), and does indeed follow real people, including Goldblum, Ed Begley Jr., and Illeana Douglas, around, but these real people are, at least to some degree, not "being themselves," but playing fictionalized personae. It all leads to some befuddled head-scratching for the viewer, but it's a pleasant befuddlement.

According to the film, Goldblum, who was born in Pittsburgh, goes home to take the lead in this musical so that Wreford, a Canadian citizen and musical actress, can get a visa to stay in America. He talks his buddies Begley and Douglas into going along for the ride, to play Mayor Shinn and his wife. However, it turns out that the director of the show doesn't necessarily think Goldblum is a perfect fit for the part--and indeed he doesn't seem to be, though to be fair we don't get a chance to see much footage of Goldblum on stage as Harold Hill. As Goldblum deals with his growing insecurity, we also see Douglas's dating relationship with singer Moby fall apart (he's too much into groupies and amateur porn) and we see Begley dealing with the problems of trying to market his "Solarman 2000" solar cell invention, with some somewhat reluctant help from Goldblum.

What's definitely real: The "Music Man" production in Pittsburgh, with Goldblum, Wreford, Begley, and Douglas (you can call up online reviews of it on Google). What's definitely made up for the movie: Douglas's relationship with Moby, who is perhaps the best sport in the film, making himself look like an insensitive jackass, breaking up with Douglas in public during a Mardi Gras parade. Everything else seems to be up for grabs. My own suspicion is that virtually everything else is fictional (go ahead and Google Solarman 2000; Begley is the next-best good sport in the film). The DVD contains deleted scenes including a couple of very funny moments with Scott Caan (inspired by mushrooms to produce a sprawling sci-fi trilogy in which he is cloned into a million-man army) and Bob Odenkirk (ranting that musical theater is dead and has been for hundreds of years). There is audio commentary by the directors and I am tempted to give it a whirl, but I don't know if I really want everything explained away. Little of the film is really laugh-out-loud funny like the Guest films, but it is consistently amusing and compelling.