23 Dec 2018

Christmas Goodies

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 23 December 2018

William Dart makes it down the chimney with treats from Sufjan Stevens, John Legend, Big Maybelle, William Shatner, and Aretha Franklin of course.

Biestle Santa Claus Face wall decoration

Biestle Santa Claus Face wall decoration Photo: Flickr User yensid1998, CC2.0

Poor Brahms.

Imagine spending 21 years squirrelling away at your first symphony, let alone waiting until you’re 43 to hear it played . . . only to have one of its tunes unceremoniously nicked by Rod McKuen. The husky-voiced master of the unctuous, tarting it up with very unBrahmsian bells, soupy strings and frou-frou harpsichord.

What an irony, that in what should be a season of giving, others just take.

And Brahms is not the only victim. Consider the infamy of the 19th-century American Lowell Mason, chopping up phrases from Handel’s Messiah to graft onto some not very distinguished verse by Isaac Watts.

Here given the full diva treatment, with all the trumpetry that Heaven and Decca Records can muster.

I would imagine that the upper vocal limits of Dame Joan Sutherland would be out of range for the innocent tenor of Sufjan Stevens.

And maybe pilfered Handel is more palatable in a humbler setting, this one taken from the American’s mega-lovely Songs for Christmas, a 5CD set to cherish.

Apart from Bridget DeCook tracing a few vocal trails behind him here, Stevens is basically a one man band, with acoustic and electric guitars, sleigh bells, tambourine, mistletoe and tidings of comfort and joy, we’re assured.

All the time managing to create the same sensation of blurry trance that could well be the result of a surfeit of liquor-laced egg nog.

Usually, it’s a case of wringing hands and bewailing the inanity of the new, just-released CDs for the Yuletide season. But this year, hands could well stay firmly unwrung. And there are actually a few treasures in amongst the corn and the dross.

Take Rodney Crowell’s new CD, Christmas Everywhere, an album of mostly originals, including a new and agreeably sly investigation of Santa’s very intimate relationship with chimneys.

It’s always so difficult to keep Santa out of any of my Christmas specials, with his zingy red suit and jolly ho-hos, the chap with the job that no one in his or her right mind would ever want, be they Pākehā or Māori.

Just imagine being constantly put-upon by the avaricious of the world, and it’s getting worse and worse, ever since Eartha Kitt purred this plea to "Santa Baby" back in 1953.

And they’re still singing the same song all these years later, totally lacking the droll, feline style of the divine Eartha.  

Forget the charmless Madonna back in 1987, and the equally charmless Kylie Minogue just two years ago. There’s also very little to recommend when it comes to this year’s cupiditous minx, Lindsey Stirling, with her swoopy fiddle and baby doll vocals locked over a grid of merciless beats.

In our liberated times, it’s not only the fair sex that’s eyeing up Santa’s bulging sleigh.

You’d think that the young Oxford men of the a cappella band, Out of the Blue, wouldn’t be looking for a handout. Surely good careers are assured for them, with their degrees and diplomas from one of the world’s finest universities? But no. They’re on the make too.

Am I the only one to sense a certain desperation with that lift in tempo and touches of frenzied vocalese. Those young men need to get a grip of themselves and settle down, for sure.

Maybe Janet Devlin’s new EP might be a calming influence. This young Irish singer is far, far from being a material girl. She’s looking for the man rather than a sleigh of goodies, although somehow I can’t imagine that her "Christmas Kiss" would have been on the playlist when she sang for the Dalai Lama a few years back.

This year sees American singer John Legend making his first play for the Holiday Market and the title of his album, A Legendary Christmas, is nothing if not ambitious.

He and producer Raphael Saadiq have gone for a big band sound and a sense of comfy retro. He even plays safe with two celebrity duets, bringing in Stevie Wonder for "What Christmas means to me" and Esperanza Spalding for "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas".

But for me the song which justifies the legendary on this album’s title is a cute piece of psychedelia that Marvin Gaye recorded way back in 1965. Although his "Purple Snowflakes" didn’t fall on the ears of Gaye’s fans until 1992, eight years after the singer’s death.

The band charts behind John Legend don’t miss a flickering trick, from swirling strings and harp to a trio of backing vocalists led by sassy Sy Smith.

And, for the home run of the song, there’s a jivey Latin outro that may well have you pulling out your plastic maracas.

Never underestimate the power of a singer who, by dint of sheer personality and chutzpah, can make light celestial break forth from the dreariest Christmas carol.

Mendelssohn’s rather stodgy "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is far from the finessed fairy frolics of his Midsummer Night’s Dream. With its four-square harmonies and sing-song predictability, it’s more of a midwinter morning nightmare. Singing it as a boy soprano many decades ago, how I waited for the David Willcocks descant that let us soar to freedom and escape the choral trudge.

My conversion with this hoary old carol came ten years ago when Aretha Franklin released her second holiday album, titled This Christmas. And what a revelation it was when the Queen of Soul took Mendelssohn’s earnest little tune for a wild ride on a gospel train.

It’s almost as if she was hanging her very own heart on the Christmas tree, her passion supported by Timothy Heintz on piano, sumptuous strings and the unquenchable fervour of the aptly-titled Fire Choir.

Listen to these songs and several more by clicking on the 'Listen' link above.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title
(Label)

'The Carols of Christmas' (McKuen) – Rod McKuen
A Stanyan Christmas
(Stanyan)

'Joy to the World' (Trad, Watts) – Joan Sutherland
Joy To The World
(Decca)

'Joy to the World' (Trad, Watts) – Sufjan Stevens
Songs for Christmas
(Ashmatic Kitty)

'When the Fat Guy Tries the Chimney on for size' (Crowell) – Rodney Crowell
Christms Everywhere
(New West)

'Santa Baby' (Javitts, Springer) – Eartha Kitt
Christmas Belles
(Rhino)

'Santa Baby' (Javitts, Springer) – Lindsey Stirling
Warmer in Winter
(Concord)

'Santa Baby' (Javitts, Springer) – Oxford Out Of The Blue
Santa Baby (Charity Single)
(Oxford Out Of The Blue)

'Christmas Kiss' (Devlin) – Janet Devlin
Little Lights
(Insomnia Music)

'Purple Snowflakes' (Gaye) – John Legend
A Legendary Christmas
(Columbia)

'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing' (Mendelssohn) – St Paul’s Cathedral Choir/Andrew Carwood
Carols with St Paul’s Cathedral Choir
(Decca)

'Hark! The Herald Angels Sing' (Mendelssohn) – Aretha Franklin
This Christmas Aretha
(DMI)

'Silent Night' (Gruber) – Big Maybelle
The Christmas Album
(Savoy)

'Silent Night' (Gruber) – Joseph Byrd
A Christmas Yet to Come
(Takoma)

'Silent Night' (Gruber) – Twinset
Christmas Puddin’
(Twinset)

'White Christmas' (Berlin) – William Shatner, feat. Judy Collins
Shatner Claus
(Cleopatra)

'Silent Night' (Gruber) – William Shatner, feat. Iggy Pop
Shatner Claus
(Cleopatra)

'Twas the Night Before Christmas' (Moore) – Liberace
Merry Christmas with Liberace
(Serious Class)

'Twas the Night Before Christmas' (Moore) – Aretha Franklin
This Christmas Aretha
(DMI)