Friday, December 30, 2016
Capitol ST 2978
I bought this a couple of years ago when I became interested in Campbell after seeing him perform at the Hollywood Bowl. It turned out to be a dud. Campbell sings fine but the arrangements by Al de Lory are sappy and uninspired. There is a mix of Christmas classics and newer songs including two brand new ones by the redoubtable team of Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen. Unfortunately they are among the worst tracks on the album. "Christmas is for Children" is tediously slow and a bit inane in its description of adults becoming kids again on Christmas day. "It Must Be Getting Close to Christmas" is a little better although I hate the heavy-handed strings and the choir. The song is about how children behave better as Christmas draws near. The melody is more lively and memorable although the song is never going to compete with the classic Christmas carols. My least favorite track is Howlett Smith's "Little Altar Boy" which was a minor hit for Vic Dana in 1961. It is a maudlin song about a guy asking an altar boy for help in finding redemption from God. The song suggests that altar boys are pure and holy, which as a former altar boy myself, I think is a dubious assertion. The song is not really a Christmas song and I loathe it although Campbell sings it with a lot of feeling which is the only thing that makes it bearable for me. "There's No Place Like Home" isn't a Christmas song either, but Sammy Cahn wrote some new lyrics to make it one. I hate the schmaltzy arrangement but I can't deny that Campbell sings it beautifully. The standards are better but still underwhelming. "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is probably the best of them. The arrangement is pedestrian but the song suits Campbell pretty well. His performances of "Blue Christmas" and "The Christmas Song" are surprisingly lackluster and pale in comparison to the classic recordings by Elvis and Nat King Cole. I believe Campbell's version of "I'll Be Home for Christmas" is even slower than Bing Crosby's version and sounds lifeless in comparison. I'm unfamiliar with "Christmas Day" by Jimmy Holiday and L. White which has a 1963 copyright. It is a nice song although I'd like it a whole lot better if Campbell sang it at a faster tempo. Predictably the two best tracks are the country songs where Campbell seems most comfortable. Roger Miller's "Old Toy Trains" is easily my favorite track on the album. It is by far the most dynamic and lively performance that Campbell gives on the album. Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper" is a great song although I prefer Roy Orbison's version as well as Nelson's own versions, especially the one he cut in 1979. Are three good cuts enough to make an album worthwhile? Probably not, especially when there is also a stinker like "Little Altar Boy" on it. I'm not sorry I have it, but I'm not going to suggest you look for it unless you are a big Campbell fan. Recommended for people who don't have many Christmas albums.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
The New Possibility: John Fahey's Guitar Soli Christmas Album
Takoma TAK 7020
This is a reissue of John Fahey's Christmas album dating from the period when Chrysalis owned and distributed the Takoma label in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I gave it a spin while I was trimming the tree this year. Fortunately I was alone at the time or I'm sure my family would have demanded something else. Fahey is definitely not for everyone. I'm a fan but there are times when I have no patience for his highly structured and deliberate guitar work, not to mention the lethargic tempos he often employed. On this album Fahey takes a bunch of mostly familiar Christmas classics and renders them in his distinctive folk-blues style. They are all fine, but my favorite track is not a carol but rather derived from an obscure hymn by John Henry Hopkins. It is entitled "Christ's Saints of God Fantasy" and while all the rest of the cuts on the album are short (generally under three minutes) this is a ten minute long extravaganza that features Fahey's most invigorating picking on the record. The song begins with an ethereal sound which gradually shifts into a more dynamic passage with more fast-paced playing than is typical with Fahey. The song shifts gears again as Fahey switches to a more measured and stately approach to the tune before jumping into a lively country-flavored style. There is another tempo change and Fahey slows the song down and heads back into the mesmerizing music from the beginning. Truly a remarkable track that allows Fahey to spread his wings and show the full range of his musical skill. My other favorite cut is a country-blues style performance of the traditional African-American spiritual "Go I Will Send Thee" where Fahey's robust style of playing brings out the feeling of the song admirably. I also like Fahey's adaptation of the 16th Century German hymn "Lo How a Rose E'er Blooming" which mixes ancient and modern creating a delightful hybrid. "Auld Lang Syne" is of course more of a New Year's Eve song than a Christmas song. Fahey plays it at a glacially slow pace that reveals the beauty of the tune to me for the first time. The Christmas classics are less interesting to me but I like them all. My particular favorites are a bluesy take on "Silent Night" that features interesting tuning and an evocative slide guitar sound. On some tracks like "The Bells of St. Mary's," "What Child is This?" and "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear" he slows down the songs so much that they almost become abstract despite their familiarity which I find appealing. On his medley of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and "O Come All Ye Faithful" Fahey adds a jaunty contrapuntal melody to the familiar songs giving the track a charming country flavor. "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman Fantasy" also begins with a country style arrangement that is just a starting point for an extended deconstruction of the song by Fahey. It is another track that I admire. You may notice that there are no secular Christmas songs on this record. Fahey apparently did not approve of Santa Claus. The original pressing of this album featured liner notes by Fahey in which he explained the title of the record and his motivations in recording it. "The New Possibility" came from an term by the German theologian Paul Tillich referring to the birth of Jesus as "the gift of reconciliation between God and man." In his notes Fahey rejected the commercialism and pagan aspects of Christmas and stressed his attempt to musically celebrate and rejoice in the birth of Christ. Personally I kind of like the pagan side of Christmas, but I respect Fahey's perspective and even sympathize with it even though I am no longer a believer myself. When it comes to spiritual Christmas albums this is one of the best ones I've ever heard. It is completely lacking in displays of sanctimonious piety and stuffiness nor is its religious expression heavy-handed and preachy. Fahey brings out the feeling in the music without beating the listener over the head with it. The music is refined and elevated, no trace of the vulgarity of most commercial Christmas records. However Fahey's playing is so tasteful and lovely that even a hardened atheist is likely to find pleasure in it. Recommended for a New Age Christmas party.