Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Pre-Season Mini Reviews Round 2

The pre-season listening of off-season purchases continues...

Christmas at Rao's  A Celebration of Family, Friends & Holiday Spirit

Now, this here is an interesting collection of Christmas music.  Rao's is an Italian restaurant on E. 114th St in New York, putting it in, if my NYC geography is correct, Harlem,  On a website there was a reference to "Italian Harlem" as the identity of the neighborhood.  Rao's has a couple other locations, and a retail Italian food business.  And, they apparently like Christmas music.

"Christmas at Rao's" is a really great collection of Christmas songs including Frank Pellegrino, Louis Prima, Dion, Tony Bennett, and Jerry Vale.  It's easy to conjure up an image of a grand ol' Christmas Eve celebration at the restaurant, wine flowing, pasta and meatballs bursting from the kitchen, and the many guest musicians taking their turn on stage as the soiree creeps through evening, night, and into the early morning.  What a cast!  

I don't know the backstory of this album, but it's curious to me that it almost seems like a private pressing, but commercially available on a Columbia label.  Regardless, one of the best and most surprising off-season pickups.  $1 (maybe $2) investment, at least $6 ROI.

Rejoyce: Songs of the Season 2001 (Kohl's Cares for Kids annual CD)

Every year Kohl's department releases a holiday CD as an in-store charity fundraiser, and they have a great track record of quality music.  There has been a tendency toward the oft-released songs of the classic genre, but that makes sense.  A charity CD should have wide appeal, and Kohl's CDs always do.

This 2002 edition, though, is one of the finest.  It has a superb track list, with some of the usual standards, but also cuts from Ferrante & Teicher, Lena Horne and The Mills Brothers.  Awesome pickup for a buck at the Goodwill Store!  I'll give this one an $8 return on the $1 outlay,

Santa Claus Lane - Hilary Duff

Well, if you know who Hilary Duff is from personal televisual experience, then all I have to say is that "Santa Claus Lane" is exactly what you would expect.  For the lucky and uninformed, Hilary Duff is a former Disney Channel tween star, of the program "Lizzie McGuire".  Now, "Lizzie McGuire" wasn't a bad program (especially compared to what came along later on the Disney Channel), and Hilary Duff was a more-than-capable young actress, quite suitable for a program aimed at 8-12 year old girls.  She had a good run on a decent show. and was an engaging and positive young performer.  "Santa Claus Lane", released in 2003, is squarely targeted at the same audience.  I won't begrudge them that marketing tactic - power to them.  That's why I say that this album is exactly what you would expect.  Mostly upbeat, poppy, dancey Christmas songs, some standards, some originals.  I'm sure it was a hit with the tween crowd.  I'll keep my criticisms to a minimum - Hilary has a thin voice, her singing enunciation is weak, and the song arrangements are cranked out and uninspired.  On the plus side Hilary does not appear to be auto-tuned, so I'll give her credit for that, and the musicians backing her are quite capable.  For being a Disney Channel star that I'm sure had making a Christmas album strongly suggested to her, Hilary Duff does a decent job.  But is it good Christmas music?  For me, no.  But, it's exactly what I expected.  $1 investment, heck I'll give it 75 cents ROI.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Pre-Season Mini Reviews

Dang, it was hot in Kansas City yesterday.  89 degrees on October 17th!  Nuts!  What better way to beat the heat than some pre-season mini reviews?

In the off-season I picked up quite a few used CDs at various thrift and used record stores, way more than usual, and my discriminating tastes were set by the wayside in hopes of finding a $2 gem,  Some have turned out to be pretty good, some not so much.  I want to offer up some mini-reviews of releases from years past.

Now, I usually don't write too much that's negative.  If there's something I don't like, I either don't review it, or try to find an appreciation vector and focus on that.  Some of tonight's reviews are a little less cheery than usual, dear reader.  You've been warned.

Tony Orlando & Dawn "A Christmas Reunion" (2005)

Those of us who are of a certain age, and who recall the glory of Tony Orlando & Dawn from the 1970's, probably have a pre-set expectation of a TO&D Christmas album, and you'd be pretty much right.  The sound and groove are generally the expected.  What was unexpected for me, was how much I liked this record.  The musical arrangements are fairly standard, but I really dug the vocal arrangements on several of the songs.  Mr. Orlando, Telma Hopkins, and Joyce Vincent do a really nice job with standards and a few originals.  Ms's. Hopkins and Vincent (collectively Dawn) do a stand-out job, either backing Tony or as soloists.  There is a really nice interplay happening here and there - quite pleasant.  "Mary, Did You Know" is very well done and "Savior's Day" was a completely wonderful surprise.  "I Lose It When I Hear White Christmas" has nice sentiment, but relies too much on Christmas references and catch phrases.  The low point - a bad arrangement of Emmylou Harris' uber-classic"Light of the Stable".  Erg.  Overall, though, at least a $6 return on a $2 investment.  Thumbs up.

Andy Griffith "The Christmas Guest: Stories and Songs of Christmas" (2003)

I love Andy Griffith as an entertainer.  Wholesome, down-home, friendly.  I have the utmost respect for him and his career accomplishments.  This collection of songs and stories, though, didn't hit my wheelhouse.  The stories are the bright spot, including the title track "The Christmas Guest".  I love the idea of "The Christmas Guest" story and like the actual writing, but I wish it would be mildly upgraded to improve a few dated phrases and some clumsy rhyming.  Andy Griffith is a perfect orator of this story, and his other spoken tracks are enjoyable.  His songs, though, sound like the old man sitting behind you in church singing too loudly.  Andy was past his singing prime when this record was made, and it's a tough go.  $3.99 investment, probably a $2.99 return.  My mom will like it, though.

Mojo Nixon "Horny Holidays" (1992)

Mojo Nixon's "Elvis is Everywhere" is freakin' awesome.  The song, the video, everything in all its Elvisness glory.  Alas, "Elvis is Everywhere" is not on this CD.  If listening to your drunk a-hole brother-in-law sing Christmas carols is your idea of a good time, this is the CD for you.  (BTW, I have neither drunk nor a-hole brothers-in-law, just to set the record straight)  Otherwise, it's painful, and not funny.  There were a couple moments on the original songs where there seemed to be novelty/comic potential, but no.  They faded fast.  Novelty Christmas songs are very hit or miss for me - I like a few, dislike many, and want them all to retain the spirit of Christmas even in their novelty.  Not so here.  This is crude and abrasive, and I'll never listen to it again.  $0 return on however much I paid, even $1 was too much.

Destiny's Child "8 Days of Christmas" (2001)

I found this at a Hastings store in Manhattan, KS, and decided to spend the few bucks to check it out.  Beyonce, you know.  She's pretty darned good.  Destiny's Child was a hot group, though I never listened to them because they just weren't my thing.  I had low expectations because their style is not compatible with my taste, but high hopes because you never know where you'll find a nice little treat of a song.

Most of the album was pretty much that - just not to my taste at all, but I tried to appreciate the arrangements, new lyrics to old standards, and general production of the album.  I wasn't really liking it, but I was tolerating it, and giving it the "gotta play it all the way through once" respectful treatment.

Then came "O Holy Night".  Sorry DC fans, but this was the most ear-splitting version of the song I've ever heard.  Michelle Williams, to my ear, can't hit the notes in this performance.  She is flat 80% of the time, sharp 10%, and nasally.  I couldn't make it all the way through the song.  And, apart from the intonation, the runs and vocal gymnastics just messed up the most classic of all Christmas songs.  Two songs later, "This Christmas" came on, and out came the CD from the player.  About $4 investment, I'll take a big ol' loss on this one.  Maybe I'll give it away to someone who actually likes DC to begin with.  Or, perhaps an Evil Secret Santa gift Bwa ha ha ha ha.

That's it for tonight.  Hope no one was offended by some not-so positive reviews.

Anyone want a barely played Mojo Nixon?

Saturday, October 15, 2016

200 Days of Christmas

Here in the 'pre-season' we're doing some miscellaneous posts, stretching the blogging muscles, preparing for the last 61 days of the year.  So you'll be seeing some posts about various topics here in the next couple of weeks.

Today is notice of one of the best things ever to hit Facebook:  200 Days of Christmas.

If you're a regular reader of this blog, and you're not following 200 Days of Christmas on Facebook, you need to.   Matt, who writes the daily entries on 200 Days of Christmas, is a veritable treasure trove of Christmas music knowledge.  He picks a Christmas song daily, shares a link to Youtube or other source for the music, and gives the song a quick write-up.  We have the song info, artist history, facts about the genre, other music by the artist, and a whole bunch more.  It's like a Daily Devotional of Christmas music.  I've learned so much about so many great songs - thanks Matt!

I could be greedy and ask for it to be upgraded to 365 Days of Christmas next year, but man, even Santa needs a break.  I'll be happy for 200 Days every year!

Here's that link again: 200 Days of Christmas  Head over to Facebook, "Like" the page, and enjoy!

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Christmas with the US Department of Agriculture Radio Service

A few months ago on one of my lunchtime browsings around the Internet Archive, I came across a collection of documents from the US Department of Agriculture Radio Service.  Each document was the transcript of a 'Housekeeper's Chat" or a "Homemaker's Chat" that was read on the USDA Radio Service.  I found many transcripts related to Christmas, the oldest from 1927, and the most recent from 1945.

There are many topics covered in the transcripts, such as selection and care of Christmas greenery and trees, budgeting, games and activities, the creation of a Christmas dinner, and many recipes.  There are also several transcripts about Christmastime overseas, meals for our military, and other topics related to our involvement in World War II.  December 15, 1941 is about shipping food packages to "the boys at camp".  December 16, 1942: "Christmas Trees and Greens in Wartime".  December 25, 1942: "Christmas Dinner Abroad".

I found these to be fascinating glimpses into Christmas in the first half of the 20th century.  And, if you think about it for a moment, 1927 is not far from being one hundred years ago.  We think of the Christmases of Charles Dickens as 'a hundred years ago', but time is flying my friends.  Some of us right now may have 100 year old recordings in our collection.

I worked through the individual PDF files of the USDA transcripts and removed the blank pages.  I then created a master file of all the individual files merged together into one.  Then I printed the merged file, 10 sheets/20 pages at a time over several days at an undisclosed location. then took them to Kinkos and have them spiral bound for my reading pleasure.  (Printing at Kinkos would have been in excess of $300; spiral binding was $4.95).  The final product is 254 pages of Christmas vintagery.

I wanted to share these with you in case you also love items from Christmases long past.  There are two links below, one for a zip file of the individual files, and one for a zip file of the merged documents.  I hope you enjoy them.

Oh yeah - they include a few different fruitcake recipes (like the one pictured above, from 1929)  :-)  I'll be trying out a new variety or two this season.

Individual files:  download link

Merged file: download link