I know two things about Lake Havasu City: the London Bridge is there, and its namesake body of water (a reservoir that’s built up behind Parker Dam) is popular with spring-breakers. In my head it’s grouped with about a dozen other rest stop towns and cities sprinkled around Arizona – convenient places to stop for food or gas on a roadtrip, but offering no reason to venture off the main drag. It’s not that the traveler forgets that people live, work, go to school, and have families in places like this- do the usual things that everyone does- it’s that there’s no reason to think of it in the first place. You pick the cheapest gas station, find the least offensive fast food joint and continue on your way. It’s jarring when the routine is broken.
Route 95 was closed that night when I passed through. I suppose I could have tried to navigate through some side streets to find a way to bypass the car accident but it would have been complete guesswork, driving in the dark on unfamiliar roads. I took the lead of most of the other drivers in front of me and turned off into a park to wait while the road was cleared. In an instant the scene changed from one of chaos to one of unexpected sentimentality. In one moment I was caught up in sirens, flashing lights and pissed off drivers, in the next, a little league baseball game. Like I said, jarring. Lord knows what the players and spectators were thinking as a parade of headlights entered a parking lot just beyond the outfield fence. I do remember what I was thinking about: my Pap, and a little league game of my own.
If there’s any Christmas song out there that comes close to being universally-loved, it surely must be Darlene Love’s version of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home).” With all the holiday music think pieces being written every season it’s a bit surprising there isn’t something of a backlash against it (and every other song from A Christmas Gift to You from Phil Spector) given the producer and co-writer of the tune was later convicted of murder. But when the performance is good I guess it’s not hard to overlook some things. A few singers have covered it since, but what’s the point? No way they do it better. (The last track on the album, “Silent Night,” is unlistenable, but would be even without the knowledge that Spector is a creep.)
44 years or so later, Love would finally cut her own Christmas album, It’s Christmas, Of Course. There are a couple of misses sprinkled about, but Love is still in fine voice. Some of the power may be gone, but her phrasing and instincts are better than ever. One of the standout tracks is a cover of The Pretenders’ “2000 Miles.” To say her performance is an improvement over the rather indifferent sounding original is a huge understatement. A good performance makes the song better – Who knew? It was her version of “What Christmas Means to Me” that came on while I was sitting alone on Christmas night, watching the clock approach midnight…
Christmas Music: Elvis Presley If Every Day Was Like Christmas If I Get Home on Christmas Day
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Judging by the plethora of Elvis Christmas albums one would be tempted to think The King had recorded a steady stream of holiday music during his career. This is merely an illusion however. In total he only recorded twenty Christmas songs, mostly in two sessions (1957 and 1971). These songs have been re-released, repackaged, and combined with other material countless times, giving the impression of a larger body of work. All part of the cash grab surrounding Elvis, of course. Everyone, from record companies on down to the lowliest hanger-on, wants their piece. Unnecessary and redundant compilations are just a small part of it.
Christmas Music: Harry Nilsson Joni Mitchell Lyle Lovett Randy Newman
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In my last entry I briefly mentioned some non-Christmas songs that have nevertheless made it into the standard Christmas music repertoire. It got me thinking about another group of tunes: songs that mention or take place during the holiday but don’t seem to fit under the label of “Christmas music.” They can allude to the season, be set during the holiday, or use it to add more depth to the content of the song, but aren’t necessarily “about” Christmas.
Why not Rotary Connection? That’s a question I ask myself more often than, well, everybody. But it often comes up around mid-November, when radio stations (at least 2 of them where I live) switch to 24/7 Christmas music. The playlists – even between rival stations – are so similar, so repetitive and limited, and are sprinkled with songs that have no Christmas content (“Baby It’s Cold Outside,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Let It Snow,” “Jingle Bells,” “Sleigh Ride,” etc.), that I wonder, why not throw something else into the mix? Why not Rotary Connection?
Christmas Music: Harry Belafonte I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day Mary Mary To Wish You a Merry Christmas
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When it’s going well, the act of listening to unfamiliar music can bring pleasant surprises. That is the point, after all, to find music that exceeds or challenges our expectations. And it can be interesting to examine where those expectations come from. In the same way a teacher might be impressed by his student (“I didn’t know you could play that well.”), a listener might come to a place where they reexamine what they thought they knew about a composer, genre, or performer (“I used to think I hated Brahms’ music until I heard his Haydn Variations.”).
Of course, there has to be something more there than merely “better than I thought it would be,” otherwise, it’s just novelty. And if that’s all it is, it doesn’t really warrant a second listen. Anyway, this is just a roundabout way to say that I really enjoy the Harry Belafonte Christmas album.