Monday, December 10, 2018

Christmas Album of the Year?

With all the great new-music Christmas blogs out there, it's hard for a new Christmas release to slip by, especially a near great, nay, a great one.  When you suddenly discover one, though, it's akin to being whomped in the face with a herring by the Grand Champion of the Fish-Slapping Dance, or as they say in Finland "Tanssikuningas peitteli kasvot silakalla".  So, imagine my utter shock at discovering "Having a Marfy Xmas!!!" by Mrs. Helen Marf on the tympani and her enclave of musicians.  Amazing doesn't begin to describe this masterpiece of seasonal songs.

Mrs. Helen Marf, legendary tympani player for Quilt Records in the 1960's, was approached by Quilt Records president Clancy Snarrup in 1966 about making a Christmas record, as a followup to her previous tympanic masterpieces released on the Quilt label.  Soon after, and following three strenuous days of recording, "Having a Marfy Xmas!!!" was born.  Where has this album been all these years?  Finally, it is now available for Christmas music lovers everywhere.

It's fudging amazing, I'll tell you, fudging amazing.  It's tympani-led music to soothe the babes and quiet the barnyard beasts.  Or, as the French say:

Cette musique tympanique apaisera tous
les bébés en pleurs et fera taire les
animaux de la ferme.

The album opener, "Deck the Halls" is an exercise in precision and jazzy interpretation.  Drummer Golly Awkward keeps the beat as if he is a human manifestation of a Swiss watch, unerring in exactitude and the demands of Mrs. Helen Marf's arrangement.   Hempal Goozer III plays a cautious Hammond Organ, and Hubert Grackfellow an intensly restrained tubular bells.  Heaven!

"We Wish You a Marfy Christmas" introduces 1) Mrs, Helen Marf's joviality with the play-on-words song title, and 2) Larry Trimpletskzyk-Klamph on bongos, along with Maria Losa shakin' the sleigh bells.  You'll be craving a heaping serving of figgy pudding before the song ends!

Oh my - track 3 - "The First Noel", performed on solo tympani by Mrs. Helen Marf.  Only through the rhythmic explorations of unaccompanied tympani can the new depths of meaning be found in this classic olde Christmas carol, or as the Portuguese say "O solo do tympani acrescenta profundidade e significado à música natalina."  The solo ends far too soon for this Christmas-music lover.

On "Silent Night", guest vibraphonist Tina "The Ghost" Freena joins the cadre, and Hammond organist Hempal Goozer III is featured, but following Mr. Goozer's turn in the spotlight Mrs. Marf returns, driving the classic melody with reckless abandon and wild yet tamed tympani rolls, commanding attention yet paying respectful homage to Franz Gruber, or as the Germans say "eine Hommage an Franz Gruber".

"God Rest Ye, Marfy Gentlemen" - could this be an uncredited arrangement by the great Henry Mancini?  Whaaaat?

The true highlight of the album is "Jingle Bells".  Mrs. Helen Marf unleashed her inner tympanic Kraken in this performance.  You think, yes you do, that she is sticking strictly to the rhythm as written, when Whoa!  there's an eighth note pause and a slight syncopation.  OMG!  There's an extra tympani beat with what is probably a staccato, probably not an ultra-staccato, mallet.  The strokes and rolls drive the song, once again accompanied by Mr. Awkward and Ms. Losa.  Mrs. Helen Marf plays with untold virtuosity and confidence.  And, right at the 3:00 minute mark of the song, it sounds like Mrs. Marf is late on a beat.  But, to me, this is just another example of her sheer brilliance.  It sounds like a late beat, striking not on the quarter or the eighth or the sixteenth, but in that nether region that lies outside the rhythm.  Oh, it's purposeful, my friends.  It COMMANDS your attention, lest it has wandered.  It brings you back for the denoument of "Jingle Bells".  It's a journey to jazz and back, all in a single note, or as the Bulgarians say "Falshivata propusnata belezhka e sŭshtnostta na muzikalnata nirvana".

Now, I'm not one to make musical recommendations, not being an actual musician and all that, but I've listened to my fair share of Christmas music (and probably yours too). And, y'know, if Mrs. Helen Marf decides to get the band back together for one more Christmas album, or even a single, I think she should give Professor Z.Z. d'Bingle a call. Known as the Theremin Jedi of the Plains, Prof. d'Bingle's theremin mastery might give the next Marf tune that little extra push for Grammy to take notice.

Now for the good news - you too can share in the works of Mrs. Helen Marf. An unreleased version of "Bring a Torch, Jeanette" is on Soundcloud - here's the link: Bring a Torch.

And, you too can own your own copy of "Having a Marfy Xmas!!!" You can buy a download on Bandcamp here: Marfy Xmas!!! You can even buy copies for your friends, which I think you should do.

And hey - here's the official promo video for "Having a Marfy Xmas!!!"  Youtube link  You know you have to go watch.

It's reported that Kansas City musician Jason Beers has some connection to this album....

The album is real, the review is for fun. Thanks Franny and Jason...

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Birchwood Pops Orchestra "Silent Night"

Tonight's share comes from a clean-out of my wife's Second Grade classroom that she undertook last year. After having been in the same classroom for well over twenty years, it was time for a purge, and she brought home a few records that had made their way, somehow, into the room.

"Silent Night", by the Birchwood Pops Orchestra on the Pickwick label, was a very pleasant surprise.  It has a 1980 date on the album, but to me it sounds of an earlier time.  It's a very pleasant background Christmas music album, well performed, arranged to be very true to the essence of the classic carols, but still original enough to be interesting and ear catching. 

It's a short album - 9 tracks and about 24 minutes.  I like the song selection, with a few A-listers - "Silent Night", "White Christmas", "The Christmas Songs - but it also includes several still well-known but not as frequently recorded songs, such as "Toyland", "The Coventry Carol", and "The Bells of St. Mary's".

This is a really enjoyable album, arranged to really showcase the brass instruments.  I think you'll like it.  Oh, and please forgive the "Henton" written in black marker in the over - that was the telltale mark of belonging in my wife's classroom :-) 

Enjoy "Silent Night" by the Birchwood Pops Orchestra

download link

Thursday, December 6, 2018

1940 Christmas Poems

At a local used bookstore this summer, where I had thankfully done some inventory research before going and created a list of books I wanted to see, because man, the bookstore was jam-packed and I needed to jsut turn over the list to the proprietor to have any shot at finding them, I picked up this little gem of a book, titled "1940 Christmas Poems".  It was published locally in Kansas City as a result of a poetry contest co-sponsored by the Kansas City Star newspaper and WDAF, a local radio station in 1940, now also a television station.  I've included the first few pages explaining the origins of the book, and also a few of the poems.

What is striking to me is the artwork on the endpapers.  In the upper left is a military wife, home for Christmas, by the tree with presents abound, missing her husband.  In the lower right, her husband, fighting in the war, praying to be able to someday return to his home.  In the middle, a stark image of warplanes.  It's a very moving illustration.  And, although it's hard to see in the picture, the cover is embossed with the same picture, sans planes.  One could place a paper on the cover and shade with a pencil to reproduce the picture.  Love it.

The book contains a collection of the poems submitted for the contest.  KC readers - I didn't recognize any of the names of the poets.  I wouldn't expect to know anyone from 1940, but I thought perhaps that there would be a recognizable local name, maybe a Kemper, a Rockhill, a Bodine, or another family name from local media, but there are none that I could identify.

Here are the introductory sections and a few sample poems.  If I can safely scan a few more poems I may add them in later.  Enjoy this piece of Christmas history from Kansas City.

I also found a vintage copy of "Miracle on 34th St." at the bookstore that day.  'Twas a good day of book shopping...

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

What's the name of the reindeer leading Santa's sleigh?

No, What is pulling second.
I'm not asking you who's pulling second. 
Who is leading the sleigh.
That's what I'm trying to find out!  Who has the red nose?

Ok - enough of that feeble attempt to add a Christmas spin to the classic Abbott & Costello routine.  Why, you may ask? (He's in Center... no, no, no...)  Well, tonight's share is a Christmas radio broadcast from Bud & Lou, performed on December 12, 1946.  Side A of the album, titled "Christmas Stocking" from the Holiday label, contains the radio broadcast, and side B has, of course, "Who's On First" along with "Costello's Farm".

A few words about "Who's On First".  It's freakin' genius comedy.  You probably knew that already, but the genius really comes out after you've heard many different versions of it.  I have several A&C records, all with some version of "Who's On First", and it's just slightly different each time.  Of course the basics and the structure and flow are the same, but there are little, teeny idiosyncrasies, mainly led by Lou, because you never really know where exactly he's going next, that give each version it's own identity.  And frankly, listening to Bud keep up without ever losing a beat is amazing.  Go hit the internet and listen to several different versions and you'll see what I mean.

Another thing about Who's On First is that no one else can really do it.  I have this album by The Links (actually it's my daughters but she won't take it)(I call them the Will Ferrell Trio)(We thought it was the Kinks - boy were we surprised)(It's signed - it's harder to find The Links records unsigned than signed ones) and it has a version of Who's On First.  It's well-rehearsed, well-paced, performed with energy, delivered clearly, and it's awful.  It doesn't have a trace of Lou's manic energy and the spontaneity of A&C, even after they'd done the bit a million times.  Compare and contrast, my students.

One last thing - I had (he's passed now) a "step"-brother, raised by but never adopted by my father, whose name was Bud Abbott.  Seriously.  Eugene was his given name, but he was known as Bud.  Bud was 40 years older than me, and we never lived in the same home, and having Bud Abbott as a brother confused the heck out of me as a child once I discovered Abbott & Costello.

So, anyhoo - there's a lot of extraneous information packed in here tonight, so I'll stop and let you enjoy "Christmas Stocking" by Abbott & Costello.  Final word - there are a few scratches/skips that I could not repair during the transfer process.  My apologies, but that's part of the vinyl game....

Monday, December 3, 2018

"Peace" by Ruth Acuff

With so many other Christmas music sites that do new music so much better than I do (Stubby's, Christmas Underground, Christmas-a-Go-GoMistletunes to name a few), once the season is in full swing I don't do too many reviews of the new stuff, unless I can add in an artist interview or something that can complement what these other great blogs serve.  Still, every now and then something really special comes along that I want to share with my readers.

"Peace" by Ruth Acuff is one of those very special songs.  Ruth Acuff is a (near) local artist for me, residing in Columbia, MO.  She is a professional harpist and singer/songwriter, and has previously fronted the psychedelic rock band The Royal Furs and the alternative folk rock band Rutherford.  Stepping aside from her rock personas, Ruth has produced a single that is completely beautiful, in voice, instrumental performance, and message.

"Peace" is an inspiration in times that may be troubling.  Every year there are many for whom the holiday season is not one of joy, but of sorrow.  "Peace" reaches out to them with, and also to those who find our nation's and world's politics discouraging, or worse. Ruth admittedly cites political tensions as an inspiration for this song, and her words are moving:

When the world seems a hardened place,
you’re doing everything you can to love the human race. 
Peace will be your saving grace.
When you have no other choice, when your heart cannot rejoice.
Peace, a warmth in your soul.
You, yourself celestial.

Ruth's vocals are sublimely sweet, like a fairy princess in the moonlight, and her harp playing gives the song an otherworldly quality.  Although "Peace" is not overtly a Christmas song, it is perfect for the season where we celebrate with joy Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men.

I hope that Ruth will make her way from Columbia toward the West for a Kansas City performance.  She is a special talent with an extraordinary song for this season.

Ruth Acuff website
Ruth Acuff on Facebook

"Peace" single on Bandcamp and Amazon, also available on your favorite digital music sources

Sunday, December 2, 2018

"Seasons Greetings" from the United States Army Band

My first album share this season is the wonderful "Seasons Greetings" by the United States Army Band.  The album features several different combinations of musicians from the US Army Band, including the US Army Chorus, the Chamber Orchestra, and the Brass and Woodwind Ensembles, all under the direction of Leader and Commander Colonel Eugene W. Allen.  There are fifteen tracks on the album, including a leading track "A Christmas Medley" consisting of four well known carols.

There is an interesting note on the back cover "Not For Sale/Public Service".  So perhaps the album was distributed only to members of our armed forces?  If a reader has some insight, please comment and share.

So, without further ado and with respect for all of our servicepersons past and present, please enjoy this fine album, "Seasons Greetings" from the United States Army Band.

download link

Sharing Season

You may consider the previously shared single a bonus preview of sharing season, and the forthcoming share the official kickoff.  This announcement is a bit of a potential disclaimer for this year's shares.  A stylus change may have contributed to a few ripping idiosyncrasies this year.  I've tried to catch them and re-record where possible, but since it's December, if there are any hiccups, I won't have time to re-record.  If you find any, please comment and I'll try to re-share next season.  Otherwise, caveat emptor (I don't think there is a Latin equivalent of "downloader").  My apologies for any aberrations in the quality this season.