Another visit to the mal-illuminated recesses of the LGM garret; the stacks of vinyl (and – whisper it quietly – quite a few of those modern-fangled compact disc things that are apparently all the rage with hipsters and trend-setters). Digging about, it transpires that I own exactly two albums relating to this time of year – which surprised me a little, considering how I harbour a deep and reflexive aversion to anything even vaguely related to Christmas; I’d be quite content to hibernate from the moment my Best Albums list is finalised to some vague February retro-future – ideally so that one or two stunning new releases (and some really good coffee) are ready waiting for me.
Still, even if we put aside the prejudices held by drunken, misanthropic music bloggers, there remains an enduring and fastidious sinkhole dominating any mid-December skyline. Because what is the relationship between yuletide and popular music if not entirely fashioned from a base and mawkish sentimentality? Some lowest-common denominator affair in which our profound and necessary requirement for aural benediction is, at best, defaced.
In other words: Xmas songs are fucking risible. Even ‘Christmas Wrapping’ by The Waitresses.
And yet I still exchanged my cold hard cash for two festive discs – presumably after several vodkas had been consumed. And as I haven’t played either for a considerable amount of time, I thought it might be amusing to stick each on the turntable, just on the off-chance that I become so consumed by good cheer, any uncharacteristic “buy-in” of the Noël vibe might just be worth reading.
(Actually, that last sentence is horse shit. It’s just that I had to spike the piece I was writing – something about cultural identity in an indie rock context – because it was growing sprawling and aimless and looked so much better after the delete key had had its wicked way. Only I grow jittery if I haven’t posted here for a few days, when the number of page views plummet and rumours start spreading that I’ve been run over by that ice cream van from the Smashing Pumpkins’ ‘Today’ video. Hence these words, which I’m sure will read better if we believe that Christmas cheer excuse).
I’d love to know how Phil Spector slots into the pop culture lexicon twenty or thirty years hence. Will it be as bad man in a bad wig with a bad gun, or as the architect of that Wall Of Sound? Either way, A Christmas Gift For You From Phillies Records continues that Hollywood / Broadway tradition of Jewish creatives – from composers and lyricists through to studio moguls and theatre impresarios – feeding the public’s near-insatiable appetite for Xmas schmaltz (Irving Berlin’s ‘White Christmas’ being the most prominent example, but there are many more: this site goes into detail if this theme piques your interest). It’s also a record that’s retained its place as some kind of default option. A Christmas record for many an occasion, up to and including hip soirées and the type of party LGM would never be invited to (it’s a disc many audiophiles I’m acquainted with have in their collection).
As for the record itself; four tracks by Darlene Love, three each by the Ronettes and the Crystals, two from Bobby B Soxx And The Blues Jeans, all topped off with a treacle-smeared monologue from Spector himself, overlaid across ‘Silent Night’ as played by the type of string ensemble last seen in Monty Python’s ‘Christmas in Heaven’ sketch. As an end piece it’s both insincere and wildly over-the-top – which actually segues with the tone of the rest of the album. For however much each track works in isolation (and the Ronette’s versions of both ‘Frosty The Snowman’ and ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus’ are as close to definitive as you could wish for – if, that is, definitive versions of these particular songs are what you’re looking for), the texture behind each song is so big and coarse and never changing that it only takes a few tracks before you feel battered into submission.
I think that I’m on safer ground with A Charlie Brown Christmas by the Vince Guaraldi Trio – part of the cultural canon in the US, but far less ubiquitous here in the UK (where, broadly speaking, we’ve never really understood the nuances underpinning Peanuts). In direct contrast to the Phil Spector disc (released in 1963), this (released 1965) is wonderfully light and playful, the interplay between piano, double bass and percussion something sprightly, and thus engrossing. It helps of course that not every track is specifically Christmas-related (whilst even those that are take delicious detours); included on this record is the iconic ‘Linus & Lucy’, used through-out Peanuts‘ animated history. It’s simple yet deeply evocative, a motif that bounces underneath the piano’s lid before doing the same around perception; representative more of childhood in general than a specific December vibe. Which comes in as a kind of moral I suppose; the best Christmas records work at any time of year. Just don’t play me those intended exclusively for December.
Vince Guaraldi Trio / Linus & Lucy