Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Harmony is Real - Songs for a Happy Holiday - The Living Sisters

Harmony is Real - Songs for a Happy Holiday
The Living Sisters
Vanguard 78431-1

This album spent a lot of time on my turntable this past Christmas season.  It only has three traditional Christmas carols on it, but for me that is a plus.  Given how long the Christmas hype has become, I'm generally tired of the traditional songs well before Christmas rolls around, so the abundance of original songs on this album appeals to me.  Becky Stark's "Harmony is Real" opens the album but it is not a Christmas song.  It celebrates harmony, both the vocal kind and the fellowship kind.  It could be the Living Sisters' theme song since they are among the most harmony oriented groups in contemporary music.  As is often the case with Stark's work it has a childlike simplicity in its melodic structure although the horn arrangement gives it some musical sophistication.  Eleni Mandell's "Kadoka, South Dakota" celebrates an old-fashioned small town Christmas.  The swinging song evokes memories of the Andrews Sisters or other vintage female pop ensembles but Jeremy Drake's jumping guitar lines give the song some rock and roll oomph.  It is one of my favorite tracks.  The Sisters' version of "Jingle Bells" similarly mixes vintage harmonizing with a western swing style arrangement featuring some lively guitar and piano work.  Inara George's "Merry Happy Christmas" combines heartbreak with Christmas cheer in a striking manner.  George's lead vocal is full of emotion in the verses but the song has a more cheerful 1950s doo-wop flavor in the ensemble chorus.  Alex Lilly's "Skip the Sugar (Good Girl)" is about being good to please Santa although it is given an adult twist with references to not breaking hearts or stealing party dresses.  In keeping with the eclectic sound of the album, this track has a punchy reggae flavor to it.  Lilly and George co-wrote "Christmas in California" which is a slightly satirical celebration of spending Christmas in California although the content of the song seems more specific to Los Angeles.  The elaborate, rocked up arrangement of the song reminds me of Phil Spector's "A Christmas Gift for You."  The rock and roll sound continues on side two for Mandell's "Baby Wants a Basketball for Christmas" which veers between vintage piano and guitar driven verses and music hall style choruses.  The song cleverly mixes gift giving references with sexuality in describing the give and take of a relationship.  "Little Drummer Boy" is given a traditional arrangement that showcases the Sisters' vibrant ensemble harmonizing.  Mandell's "Neon Chinese Christmas Eve" provides a Jewish perspective on the holiday as she describes taking her Christian boyfriend to Chinatown for a Christmas Eve dinner.  It is a slow, but lovely song enlivened by an engaging horn arrangement.  Mandell extends the Jewish theme with her "Hanukkah" which humorously celebrates the Jewish holiday.  The Sisters take turns singing the lines and the song sounds wonderful.  It channels 1950s pop music and vintage harmonizing.  It is another one of my favorites.  "Silver Bells" is right in the Sisters' wheelhouse and sounds gorgeous.  The album concludes with Stark's "Don't Go To Sleep" which like her other song has no references to Christmas.  Apparently the holiday is not her thing.  It has a simple melody driven by Stark's piano lines and some beautiful vocalizing.  It gives the record a romantic but also rather somber finish.  Mandell is the star of this record.  She wrote almost half of the original songs on the record and her contribution is the most diverse and liveliest of the music on the record.  I'm a big fan of the Living Sisters and I adore this album which should to appeal to anyone who likes ensemble singing.  The record is pressed on snow white festive vinyl and is handsomely packaged.  Recommended to fans of the Fleetwoods and the Chordettes.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas with the Everly Brothers and the Boys Town Choir - The Everly Brothers and the Boys Town Choir

Christmas with the Everly Brothers and the Boys Town Choir
The Everly Brothers and the Boys Town Choir
Warner Bros. Records  W 1483

I put this one on while we were trimming the tree and didn't make it through side one before my wife demanded I take it off and put on some "real Christmas music."  I get her point, this is the least festive, most solemn Christmas record in my collection.  It is extremely "churchy" which has some nostalgic appeal for me because I grew up singing many of these songs in church accompanied by old ladies with high voices and an organ, which is pretty much what this record sounds like.  The liner notes refer to the Everlys singing Christmas carols as boys with their neighbors back home in Kentucky which seems like a charming idea for an album - get the Everlys a small back-up group like the Jordanaires to harmonize with, maybe a piano and a guitar and make an intimate, heartfelt Christmas album.  That is not this record.  The choir dominates this record, overwhelming the Brothers' low key vocals with their lovely but lifeless vocalizing.  The Everlys seem like guest performers on their own album.  There are even two tracks, "Away In a Manger" and "Angels, From the Realms of Glory" that don't feature the Everlys at all just the choir.  The Everlys' contribution to the album is so slight, it feels like a rip-off.  I suspect the boys just went in the studio and knocked out their contribution in a couple of hours.  I was extremely disappointed when I first heard this album and it is only my immense love for the Everlys' work that keeps it off my purgatory shelf.  I think it is by far their worst record.  The arrangements are stodgy and lethargic, the album lacks emotion and inspiration.  Nonetheless there are parts of it that I do enjoy.  The first verses of "Adeste Fideles," "The First Noel" and "Silent Night" sound terrific but then the choir takes over and I lose interest.  Don's solo vocal on "What Child Is This?" is very appealing with only minimal interference from the choir.  This is my favorite track and it suggests what a good record this might have been without the choir.  Phil's solo turn on "O Little Town of Bethlehem" is nice as well but suffers from the obtrusive choir being too high in the mix.  I wish there was some way I could erase the choir from this record, even though I would be left with only about 10 minutes of the Everlys singing given the fragmentary nature of their contribution.  This record rarely makes onto my turntable, but I do play it once in a while on a chilly December night when my family is not around to complain about it.  In the darkness of the living room with the Christmas tree lights blinking it brings back not entirely welcome memories of school pageants and midnight Christmas Eve masses.  Recommended to people who consider Santa Claus sacrilegious. 

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Strangers in the Night - Frank Sinatra

Strangers in the Night
Frank Sinatra
Reprise Records  FS-1017

There has been a lot of hoopla about Sinatra's centennial of late so I might as well jump on the bandwagon too.  I would not describe myself as a big fan of him even though I have about 20 of his albums.  He has long been a part of my life though, I knew who he was long before I knew about the Beatles.  Some of my earliest musical memories are my father playing his albums.  As best as I can recollect my father only had his Reprise albums even though most people (myself included) think he did his best work for Capitol Records.  I didn't particularly like what I heard as a child, I thought Sinatra was one of those adult things like alcohol, sex and cigarettes that was part of the world of my parents and their friends.  My stepfather was also a big Sinatra fan and he was the first person to point out to me that Sinatra sounded different with different arrangers.  When I saw Sinatra on TV back then I was repelled by him, he seemed arrogant and remote.  I greatly preferred his cohorts Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. as well as warmer crooners like Andy Williams.  After I got into rock music I wanted nothing to do with this stuff.  I only started to like Sinatra when I started watching old movies and saw him when he was young and more likable in films like "Anchors Aweigh," "Guys and Dolls" and especially "On The Town."  I started buying his albums when I was in my late 20s and I admired his peerless vocal technique, the rich timber of his voice and the quality of his material.  Nonetheless when it comes to pop crooners I've always preferred warmer and jazzier singers like Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald.  This album is far from my favorite but I think it is one of his more interesting ones for Reprise.  The title track was a hit single and one of Sinatra's best known songs even though he supposedly hated it.  I like the song's overt romanticism although the arrangement is pretty corny.  It is the only song on the album not arranged by Nelson Riddle and it sounds different from the rest of the record.  "Summer Wind" is my favorite track on the album and one of my favorite tracks from the Reprise era of Sinatra's career.  Riddle's arrangement is brash and swinging, it gives the song plenty of oomph which seems to inspire Sinatra.  "All or Nothing at All" swings even harder, it is another one of the best tracks on the record.  Sinatra recorded the song several times throughout his career but this is by far my favorite version.  Riddle slows down Tony Hatch's "Call Me" for Sinatra, it sounds different than the familiar versions by Chris Montez and Petula Clark.  The arrangement suits Sinatra's style but it also exposes the inane lyrics.  Sinatra goes back into the past with Walter Donaldson's "You're Driving Me Crazy!" from 1930.  Riddle gives the song a swinging modern arrangement that makes the song almost unrecognizable.  Sinatra muffs the lyric at one point but I guess he was okay with that.  One of the perks of owning the record company I suppose.  Side two opens with "On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)."  My father used to play Barbra Streisand's version often which is a lot more dramatic.  Riddle's arrangement is looser and punchier given almost a bluesy feeling from the piano and organ.  Sinatra's vocal is a bit laid back, even sloppy in places but I prefer it to Streisand's perfection, it has more life.  "My Baby Just Cares for Me" is another Donaldson oldie that Riddle breathes new life into with punchy brass and swinging organ lines.  Sinatra's swagger serves him well on this cut.  Sinatra borrows another song from the Petula Clark catalog with "Downtown."  It is an uptempo arrangement that Sinatra practically clowns his way through.  He makes the song sound silly and exerts little effort to hide his contempt for the song.  He takes a third crack at a Walter Donaldson oldie with "Yes Sir, That's My Baby" from 1925.  Riddle makes the old chestnut swing and Sinatra sounds like he's enjoying himself as he belts out the lyrics.  Riddle saves his most exciting arrangement for the album closer, Rodgers and Hart's "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World."  Driven by frenetic bongos, the band races through the song inspiring Sinatra to deliver an energetic and forceful interpretation  It is another one of my faves and gives the album a rousing finish.  I suspect the album was just another day at the office for Sinatra, he sounds uninspired even disdainful at times but he was so gifted that he sounds good even when he's not really trying.  Nelson Riddle does manage to get a rise out of him a few times and he does an admirable job of keeping things interesting when Sinatra checks out.  Even though I'm older now than my parents were when they were big Sinatra fans, he's never going to mean as much to me as he did to them.  I like his music, I admire his voice, I can even respect his vision, but I don't relate to him like they did.  I'm practically the same age as Sinatra was when he recorded this album, but to me he is always going to be that old guy who represented the values and experiences of my parents' generation.  He was their voice.  For me that role was fulfilled by the Beatles and Bob Dylan.  Nonetheless I'm happy to acknowledge his upcoming 100th birthday and express my appreciation for his spectacular body of work.  Recommended to people who believe that "it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing."

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Keep On Singin' - Andraé Crouch and the Disciples

Keep On Singin'
Andraé Crouch and the Disciples
Light Records LS-5546-LP 

I picked this up in a thrift store in Williams, Arizona awhile back.  I had no idea who Andraé Crouch was at the time.  I'm not a big fan of religious music, but I dug the cover and hoped that the music was funky or soulful.  When I got home I gave it a spin and was dismayed to hear that much of it sounded like smooth sunshine pop.  It was so not what I was expecting that I stuck it on my purgatory shelf planning to discard it.  Then last January Crouch died and I came across several lengthy obituaries of him that praised his work and its significance in the history of gospel music.  I remembered that I had one of his records and pulled it out to listen to it again.  It was pretty much as I remembered but this time it didn't bother me.  Without my false expectations to prejudice me, I heard the music differently.  I appreciated its eclecticism and its pop appeal.  You might think I was just swayed by the critical praise of Crouch's work, but I think it is more of a case of me being motivated to listen to it more attentively.  The record opens with "I Don't Know Why Jesus Loved Me" which like all the songs on the record was written by Crouch.  It is sung by one of the Disciples, Perry Morgan.  This song has more of a traditional gospel sound with a prominent organ line and soulful ensemble vocals.  This is my favorite track on the record.  Crouch sings lead on "I'm Gonna Keep On Singin.'"  This is a more upbeat track bolstered by brass and winds and very poppy harmony vocals led by Crouch's twin sister Sandra who was also a member of the Disciples.  It is a slick and accessible production that shows off Crouch's pop smarts.  If it wasn't so religious I could imagine it as a top 40 single.  Disciple Billy Thedford and guest singer Tremaine Davis sing "I'm Coming Home, Dear Lord" with a lot of feeling.  The song is less dynamic than the previous track but shares the same elaborate pop style arrangement.  Crouch takes the mike again for "Along Came Jesus" which is a jumping number with a catchy melody and energetic vocals.  The record slows down for "Jesus (Every Hour He'll Give You Power)" which boasts a stirring vocal from Crouch.  Side two begins with Crouch singing "Take a Little Time" which is another soulful performance with an elaborate pop arrangement.  "What Ya Gonna Do?" is a jaunty number that almost sounds like a show tune.  It is mostly sung as an ensemble with a solo passage sung by Crouch.  It concludes with an odd bit of musical cacophony that sounds almost psychedelic.  "I've Got Confidence" is a rocker that is driven by a stinging guitar line.  It features a dynamic lead vocal from Crouch and it is one of my favorite cuts on the album.  Thedford is the soloist for "My Tribute (To God Be The Glory)" which is a dramatic ballad.  I find it sappy and overblown.  For some reason fake applause is dubbed in at the end of the song.  The album concludes with Crouch singing "I Must Go Away" which is country-flavored.  I find the song appealing, particularly the harmonica work and tasteful piano lines.  I'm not a Christian but I admire Crouch's expression of his spirituality.  He's not preachy or self-righteous and his lyrics have some memorable images and language.  Mostly though it is the music that gets to me.  Crouch and the Disciples were all terrific singers and their vocal interplay is consistently engaging.  Crouch was also a skilled arranger and I appreciate the variety of instruments and styles he employs throughout the record.  Although I was initially turned off by the poppiness of the record, I'm hardly the sort of person who does not like a big juicy hook and Crouch sprinkles them liberally throughout the record.  Crouch wanted to make religious music that would appeal to a broad audience and on this record he succeeded.  Anyone who is a fan of sophisticated 1970s pop-soul or sunshine pop ought to find stuff to like on the album.  Recommended to religious fans of the Fifth Dimension and Gladys Knight and the Pips.