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.

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