Wednesday, December 14, 2016

A Real Gone Christmas, part 1

Real Gone Music is a reissue label run by one the founders of the great reissue company Collector's Choice Music. They license music of the past from record labels such as Columbia and RCA and do historical reissues of albums long out of print. This fall, I bought some of their CDs of newly reissued Christmas music from four groups and artists of the 60s: The Robert Shaw Chorale, The Norman Luboff Choir, Mitch Miller and the Gang, and The Ray Conniff Singers.

These albums run the gamut of traditional Christmas styles of choral group recordings of the 1960s (as opposed to solo singer albums). As I listened, I realized that the four here are all examples of different kinds of choral recordings, and as I have no real knowledge of the musical vocabulary used in the field, I'll use my own jargon. The Robert Shaw Chorale's Christmas Hymns and Carols, Volume 1 is an example of the traditional choir, one you might hear in your own church or local concert hall. It's a full sound, numbering I would guess between 30 and 50 singers, and it's given a large, echoey ambience, as though recorded in a cathedral or hall. I would assume their repertoire would be mostly sacred or classical. The voices are arranged and recorded to be well-blended, with individual singers not standing our from the crowd. Depending on the song ("O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "Silent Night") it can be a rather hushed sound, especially as all the songs are unaccompanied by instrumentation, so I had to crank the volume while I was in the car, but this one comes closest to a traditional Christmas Eve album, at least in my house. 3 stars out of 4 for this one.

Next is the Norman Luboff Choir who, despite its name, is more a chorus than a choir. There is apparently not a hard and fast distinction, but the Luboff group sounds smaller than the Shaw group, their arrangements are generally more "popular" in style, and the voices are not as well blended, whether due to arrangement or recording--you can hear the occasional distinct singer bleeding through the choral mix. This CD contains two albums. The first one, from 1956, consists of acapella traditional carols; the second one, from 1964, features full orchestral backing and markedly more modern arrangements, and though it repeats a handful of carols from the first album ("Joy to the World," "The First Nowell"), it also contains a number of contemporary songs such as "Silver Bells" and "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." As such, it is practically an archetypal example of the 60s pop choral Christmas album. The recording is clear and shiny, and digital cleanup makes it sound much more recent than over 50 years old. 3 stars.

My personal favorite of the four albums is Christmas Sing-Along with Mitch Miller and the Gang. Miller's group had a hot streak in the late 50s and early 60s with albums and a television program in which he conducted a male chorus in mostly old-timey standards; the Sing-Along part relied on printed lyrics provided with the records and lyrics at the bottom of the screen for the TV show. On this album, a few female voices join the men. The carols (all traditional ones) are mostly unaccompanied except for occasional bells or a harp starting a song off. The singing is robust without needing tricked-up arrangements and, again, the remastering makes it sound crisp and strong. 4 stars.

Now, the strange one. The name Ray Conniff always conjured up smooth, easy listening elevator music to me. But this CD, The Complete Columbia Christmas Recordings, is mostly anything but. Actually, individual songs could easily slip in and out of one's consciousness without leaving a mark, but some of the arrangements are fairly jazzy, and sometimes way out in left field. The singers are surrounded by a lush and playful orchestra, and the singers sometimes make an effort to sound like they're indulging in impromptu horsing around, as in "Sleigh Ride" when someone yells, "Hey kids, wanna go on a sleigh ride?" and the response is a gruff, deafening cacophony of yelling, and not even particularly joyous yelling. Many of the songs have been modernized; added lyrics to "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" include, "He had a red schnozzola/It was like a traffic light." I'm not sure I can give this style of singing a name--it's a middle-class white 50s middle-of-the-road jazz chorus? I can't take too much of this in one sitting, but it does make for something different. 2-1/2 stars.

Next post, some musings about these albums and the establishment of the Christmas song canon, and a curmudgeonly complaint aimed at Real Gone Music.

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