Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Santa Claus Blues (Jass Records)

Since the beginning of the year, I've been spotlighting new CDs that were given to me as genuine Christmas gifts. Although this one isn't "new" as in "newly released" last Christmas, this rare compilation definitely qualifies as a true present!

It was found by my brother Rafael in a second hand store in the deep South (Cleveland, Tennessee). As is standard practice by members of my immediate family, he called me first to ask if I had this CD. I asked for the playlist (my standard practice) and heard many familiar names - Benny Goodman, Louis Prima, Lionel Hampton, and lots of Louis Armstrong. But on a "blues" Christmas album?

Upon opening it on Christmas morning, I was astounded to discover his CD was pressed in Canada from Jass Records in 1988. It's getting more scarce finding CDs pressed before 1998 these days, even more so for Christmas albums. So to find a 20 year old Christmas Canadian import is simply mindboggling and exciting!

The cover artwork was a thrill to look at (over and over). I didn't spot the 78s for sale at first, did you? I thought I spotted Mickey Mouse on another look. And what about those Christmas ornaments?

And yes, it did contain a lot of Louis Armstrong but the remaining tracklist more than made up for that:

A good 2/3 of this album I already own in my collection but it's the remaining 1/3 that counts! There are some amazing tracks from Ozie Ware, Ted Weems, Putney Dandridge, Dick Robertson, Al Bowfly, and Johnny Otis that I've never heard before and that was good enough for me!

Used copies of this CD at Amazon.com are fetching a pretty penny. I can only imagine the prices it's going for on eBay. This might be the steal of the year (both last year and this year). And it was a Christmas present to boot!

Thank you, oldest brother Rafael! Bet you didn't know any of this when you bought it!


Thursday, January 17, 2008

Joe Gibbs - Reggae Christmas

This was a Christmas gift from my about to turn four year old daughter Josie (purchased with her mom's help). I don't think she's ever heard any reggae before in her life but she's a HUGE fan of The Backyardigans and they've sampled every musical genre under the sun so...

By the way, this isn't THAT Joe Gibbs (Hall of Fame football coach, NASCAR car owner). This Joe Gibbs was working in a music store in Jamaica back in the late 1960s who decided to become a record producer. Working with groups in the back of his music store, he soon began signing artists to his successful label and became an authentic music mogul.

Throughout the 1970s, his empire expanded. He set up a new studio, started three new record labels (Jogib, Shock, and Pressure Beat), and was everywhere on the reggae scene and helped record many of the top artists of the day.

This album was originally recorded in 1979 under the title "The Joe Gibbs Family Wishes You A Merry Rockers Christmas". It features many of his family of artists on the lone eight tracks (barely 45 minutes total). However, there's more great sounds and reggae Christmas fun here to power two FULL reggae albums!

The first track is entitled "Medley: Joy To The World / We Wish You A Merry Christmas" that lasts nearly eleven minutes. I was pleased to find snatches of "Deck The Halls", "O Holy Night", "O Come All Ye Faithful", "Jingle Bells", "Hark! The Herald The Angels Sing", "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town", "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer", and "The First Noel" sung throughout! They never broke stride once... amazing!

Track two was a fun version of "The Twelve Days Of Christmas" followed by "We Three Kings" that has a great (dare I say it) funk feel to it. "Deck The Halls" is the fourth track and the shortest song on the album (it sounds like they upped the speed on the recorder!).

"Winter Wonderland" is track five and features Beres Hammond, whose voice cuts through the reggae beat and catches your attention. Not to be outdone is Horace Andy who is featured on "O Little Town Of Bethlehem" (track six) and does an amazing job.

The seventh track is "Let X-Mas Catch You On A Good Mood", the lone original song on the album and, by far, the standout track of the album. It's a great mix of reggae and Christmas. This song will rattle around in your head for quite some time and you won't mind one bit!

The album ends with another stellar Christmas medley called "Sleigh Bells Chant / Auld Lang Syne". Hidden inside this medley are great takes of "Jolly Old St. Nicholas", "The Little Drummer Boy", "O Holy Night", "The Christmas Song", "I Saw Three Ships" (WOW!), "Caroling, Caroling" (DOUBLE WOW!), and "Silent Night".

That's the amazing thing about reggae - its simplicity allows you to adapt and expand any song into its pulsing, bouncy beat. This is a Christmas album anyone can listen to anytime of the year that doesn't have the total sound of a Christmas album!

Years before this release, Joe Gibbs had J.C. Lodge record a cover of a Charley Pride tune called "Someone Loves You Honey" that became a HUGE international smash hit. Unfortunately, Gibbs never paid a single dime in royalties to Pride, who sued Gibbs and, after a lengthy legal fiasco, won a massive settlement.

Gibbs was unable to pay and called it a career. Shortly before he closed up shop, this album was re-released in 1982 as "Reggae Christmas". Many copies of this re-release LP have been floating around eBay - seldom have I seen a copy of the original 1979 version.

Back in 1993, Gibbs began reissuing much of his music catalog on the "Rocky One" label (started by his son Carl) and dabbling in new recordings. Teaming up with VP Reggae, Gibbs has launched a new label - 17 North Parade (the music store address) and is continuing to reissue more catalog releases.

Thanks for the Christmas present, Josie!


Monday, January 14, 2008

Oh Santa! New & Used Holiday Classics (Yep Roc)

One night last month, my wife and son huddled around the computer, shopping for my Christmas gifts. When they came across this one, my son laughed out loud at the artwork and selected this one for me.

Yep Roc Records was founded in Chapel Hill, North Carolina back in 1996 and has grown to be a quite reputable independent record label. Some of the artists who have released albums for them include Robyn Hitchcock, Los Straitjackets, The Minus 5, Paul Weller, Nick Lowe, The Fleshtones, Marah, and The Reverend Horton Heat.

To quote from their website:

"Every family has one, that Grinch who hates Christmas music, the humbugger that snarls at the mere mention of Rudolph or silent nights. During the holidays we here at Yep Roc have more than a few of these curmudgeons roaming the halls, so we decided to do something about it.

"Oh Santa! New & Used Holiday Classics from Yep Roc features our favorite Christmas tracks from twelve of Yep Roc's best and brightest including The Apples in stereo, Los Straitjackets, Reverend Horton Heat, Marah and many more. Oh Santa! is the perfect gift for the hipster on your list and it's guaranteed to be the soundtrack to your most rocking holiday soiree!"


1.) Los Straitjackets - "Holiday Twist"
A new track from one of the best bands in the land! If you haven't checked out their "Tis The Season", you're only hurting yourself.

2.) Jason Ringenberg (featuring Kristi Rose) - "Lovely Christmas"
Kristi begins with a sweet Christmas tune, Jason interjects with some raucous garage Christmas sounds. I'm amazed they both made it through with straight faces - hilarious!

3.) Jake Brennan & The Confidence Men - "Santa Gave To You What You Gave To Me"
Had to listen to this one twice because I missed some of the clever lyrics thanks to the great sound of this band!

4.) Marah - "New York Is A Christmas Kind Of Town"
The quasi-title track from their excellent 2005 Christmas release (which I picked up last year - watch for a full review soon).

5.) Chatham County Line - "O! Santa"
I didn't expect bluegrass at all! Chatham gives us a wonderful new song that's the right mix of bluegrass, country, and Christmas! Brilliant!

6.) The Apples In Stereo - "Holiday Mood"
GREAT JUMPIN' ICEBERGS!!! Part power-pop, part psychedelic, this is a fantastic song that might make my annual Christmas CD! Great stuff!

7.) Th' Legendary Shack Shakers - "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"
What if Tom Waits recorded an uptempo blues-rock Christmas song? It might sound like this... lotta fun from the Shack Shakers!

8.) The Moaners - "Something Funny In Santa's Lap"
Melissa Swingle and Laura King's Christmas song is hard, edgy, and full of garage band goodness. Clever title and lyrics await you on this one...

9.) American Princes - "This Business Of Christmas"
WOW! Rock is alive and well and in the hands of these Little Rock rockers! An amazing song that doesn't get old after repeated listenings!

10.) Reverend Horton Heat - "Santa On The Roof"
Selected from their rockin' 2005 Christmas release, these guys can run rings around Brian Setzer's head any day of the week! I chose this song for my 2006 annual Christmas CD...

11.) Cities - "So Cold This Christmas"
Breathtaking sound from this Chapel Hill band! I can't wait to hear a FULL Christmas album from these guys!

12.) Minus 5 - "Your Christmas Whiskey"
Does whiskey really make "the mistletoe greener"? This song makes a strong argument around some fun lyrics and power-pop sounds!

This is what compilations are meant to do: introduce you to new artists you've never heard before to showcase their talents. After listening to this stellar comp, I'm very interested in hearing what other sounds several of these bands have to offer!

The music industry can take some lessons from Yep Roc - stop trying to shove formulas and soundalikes down our throats and let new bands do what they do best. I hope Yep Roc will continue to seek out the young up-and-comers and continue to put out music (especially more Christmas albums!).


Lena Horne - Merry With Lena

Last January, I reviewed "Christmas With Peggy Lee" which was a gift from my oldest daughter Maggie who fell in love with the "snow princess" on the cover. So can you guess who gave me this CD as a Christmas gift?

I had a copy of this CD in my collection - the 1995 Razor & Tie version from a fellow collector. It also had a lousy scan of the cover and pre-2000 CD-R that was falling apart. I always kept my eye out for a used copy whenever I went Christmas CD hunting but no one was willing to part with them (can't say that I blame anyone for that).

Thankfully, some bright record executive at DRG Records decided a reissue was in order. After a twelve year hiatus, Lena Horne was officially back in the Christmas bins last year. When I discovered this had been reissued, it immediately shot to the top of my wish list.

If you don't know who Lena Horne is, you owe it to yourself to take about 10 minutes out of your time and learn. Start with her Wikipedia entry (featuring a Carl Van Vechten photo that made me melt when I saw it), seek out some Lena Horne movies (watch her in "Cabin In The Sky" and you'll dream of no one else), and end it with a gross of her albums for that amazing voice.

As for the reissue, DRG wisely kept the original cover and liner notes intact. They also added a Will Friedwald foreword that is informative and insightful but ends strangely. Friedwald states many of the classic pop stars were covering each others hits (no new songs with the classic pop sound were readily available in the late 1960s) and dubs this "the Andy Williams syndrome": "Although an excellent singer, Andy Williams gradually came to represent an utter lack of originality."

I can understand Friedwald's point but liner notes for a Lena Horne Christmas CD is not the best place to make this argument.

As for this album, it was recorded in 1966 for United Artists Records (UAS 6546), catching Lena at her prime and doing what she does best. From the first pulsing beats of "Jingle All The Way" to her swinging, brassy bonus track of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town", this is pure gold.

If you're looking for softer, Horne gets oh-so-sultry on "The Christmas Song" and the epitome of elegant on "White Christmas". And you probably won't find a better version of "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?" anywhere.

Sadly, neither the DRG or Razor & Tie's liner notes mentions who arranged the album. Special mention must go to Jack Parnell, the conductor of the amazing orchestra. Parnell's skill can be heard throughout backing up Lena but never getting in the way.

Upon first playing of this album in my house, my daughter Maggie listened and executed perfect dance moves on several tracks. Watching my 6-year old dance to Lena Horne - a great new addition to the Christmas memory scrapbook!


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Darlene Love - It's Christmas, Of Course

During the first days of this new year, I've been trying to get my reorganization skills reorganized in an effort to catch up with the 200+ Christmas albums I need to catalog and/or burn & catalog.

This CD was on top of the stack labeled "Christmas Gifts" and was given to me by my charming wife on Christmas morning. It's been getting plenty of airplay on my computer since then.

Why? It's Darlene Love, of course!

Love was born in Los Angeles and sang in her church and school choirs. While in high school, she joined a budding girl group called The Blossoms.

The group caught the eye of record producer Phil Spector who was reinventing the music scene with his "wall of sound". He immediately noticed Love's talents and began working with the group in 1963.

During that fateful year, Spector brought together his stable of stars (The Crystals, The Ronettes, Bob E. Soxx & The Blue Jeans) and began recording a different Christmas album. Darlene got the two plum prizes of the package ("Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" and "A Marshmallow World") and her vocal talents rose to the occasion.

The end result was "A Christmas Gift To You From Phil Spector", an album that hasn't lost one ounce of freshness or vitality since its release on November 22, 1963. Events in Dallas that same day put a damper on Christmas, 1963 and it wasn't as popular right off the bat.

Love continued working with Spector and as a much-sought-after backup singer. Throughout the 1960s, she backed up such luminaries as Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, The Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher, and Dionne Warwick.

As the 1970s began, Love started a family and stayed away from the music scene, popping up on the occasional single now and then. Such was the case in 1973 when Lou Adler called in some real heavyweights to help on a song. Darlene joined Billy Preston, Michelle Phillips, Ronnie Spector, piano session master Nicky Hopkins, and a bloke from Liverpool named George Harrison on guitar.

The song? Cheech & Chong's "Basketball Jones"!

Love resumed her career in the 1980s and began finding audiences she thought she had lost. She appeared in a hugely successful Broadway revue called "Leader Of The Pack" in which she played herself. Hollywood came calling and she made her first of four appearances as Danny Glover's wife in the "Lethal Weapons" movies.

Darlene tried her hand on Broadway one final time in 1988 when she appeared in "Carrie: The Musical", an adaptation of the Stephen King' book. Was it bad?

Love refocused her career on music with another off-Broadway revue based on her life called "Portrait Of A Singer" and starting a Christmas tradition. Since 1986, Love has performed "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" on David Letterman's show and every performance is an event (YouTube has dozens of clips).

Darlene's Christmas CD is chock full of 1970s & 1980s Christmas tunes (i.e. Tom Petty's "Christmas All Over Again", John & Yoko's "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)", The Pretenders' "2000 Miles") which in the wrong hands could have been dreadful.

Love's voice is older but still cuts like a knife. Whether singing The Staples Singers song "Who Took The Merry Out Of Christmas?", NRBQ's "Christmas Wish", Love's vocals still have plenty of power (and then some) to tackle James Brown's "Santa Go Straight To The Ghetto" and Billy Squier's "Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You"!

My favorite tracks on the CD are "Please Come Home For Christmas" (Charles Brown's song never goes out of style) and "2000 Miles", a Pretenders song I never really liked much. Thanks to Darlene's simple yet emotion packed voice and the slow-tempo arrangement, this made you stop and really take notice.

This album didn't sell as many as Josh Groban's Christmas album but it deserves to be on the same level. This is one of the best Christmas releases of 2007 and if you don't own a copy, do what you can to find one. In five years time, endless copies of Groban's album will flood used CD stores. You won't find many of Darlene Love's CD in those same bins.

Back in 2005, Robert Smigel, creator of "SNL Funhouse", came up a concept that parodied the classic "girl group" sound. It so happens that Darlene Love was the musical guest on "Saturday Night Live" that week and Smigel asked her if she was game to sing it.

Thankfully she agreed. I'll watch "Christmas Time For The Jews" any time over Andy Samberg's "D--- In A Box":

Thanks Darlene for your sense of humor and amazing Christmas CD!


The Godfather: Blackhand Edition

Pop quiz: What scenes in "The Godfather" contain Christmas elements (see answers below)?

Technically, this is NOT a Christmas CD... but I did receive it for Christmas... and this isn't the first time I've reviewed something that wasn't a Christmas album. It has been part of an amazing change here with my "family"...

Back in August, 2006, my wife went into our Toys R' Us for a last minute birthday present. When she arrived, an employee was taping a handwritten sign that simply read "We have Wiis". She bit the bullet and purchased one for our kids for Christmas. The only problem was my wife's anticipation began playing games with her.

She wanted to play the games, see how the system worked, and couldn't wait to sample the updates in technology. The last video game system we both owned was the venerable Atari 2600 from the early 1980s (we both received them as Christmas gifts separately in the same year of 1979). We never got hooked on Nintendo, PlayStation, Gameboy, or XBox or any game system since then!

The wait was too much for my darling wife; it was her NEW birthday gift in late October. Since then, we've all enjoyed playing the Wii and mastering the remotes and movements needed. My three kids haven't fought much over the game and we've only had two injuries (my youngest daughter got whacked twice when she strayed into the playing area).

This game (released in 2006 for Xbox, PS2 & PS3) was revamped for the Wii and released last year, thanks in large part to the Wii's amazing motion control. Not only can you shoot guns and set off bombs but you can swing baseball bats, garrote people, and go several rounds with a prizefighter. My Atari never did any of that...

The plot: a former associate of the Corleone's is killed and Don Vito Corleone takes an interest in his young son who witnessed the murder. Flash forward to Connie's wedding (also where the movie begins) where Luca Brasi is asked by the Don to take the now young man under his wing.

You learn how to extort businesses, sniff out rackets, bribe cops and FBI agents, fight, shoot, and kill as the game progresses while following the movie plot as well. Along for the ride are Sonny Corleone (voiced by a gravelly James Caan), Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall's voice sounds the same, just older and wiser), and for several scenes Don Vito Corleone.

Marlon Brando agreed to lend his voice to this game as the Don. Brando was in such poor health that they recorded his parts in his living room. Only fractions of what he recorded made it to the game. It's chilling to see a "recovering Don" in the game and hearing Brando recite old "Godfather" lines in what may have been his last paying acting gig!

FYI, Al Pacino is nowhere to be found on this edition despite lending his voice to earlier versions of the game!

As the game plays out, you earn money, respect, and power as you help the Corleones. On one mission, you travel with Tom Hagen to Hollywood and help put the horse's head in the bed of the movie producer. Another mission finds you and Clemenza taking Paulie for a ride ("Leave the gun, take the cannolis...").

I must admit, it's been a helluva lot of fun being a Corleone and driving the streets of New York! However, as the game moves along and the movie plot runs its course (you help eliminate the five families while Michael attends the baptism), the game becomes more about completing missions like "take down a Barzini warehouse" or "blackmail the police chief of Little Italy".

It was a bit of a letdown after Michael is made Don and your mission is to take down the remaining families' operations. After all this is done, your crowned "the next Don" and the game is over.

What fun is that? I don't want it to end there! There are two other movies that they can use... I want to travel with Michael to see Hyman Roth in Miami, I want to go to Nevada and blackmail Senator Geary, I want to fly to Havana and rub out Johnny Ola!

Electronic Arts, the makers of the game, have announced that a "Godfather II" game is in the making and haven't set a release date. I can't wait to row out to the middle of Lake Mead with Fredo.

The scenes from "Godfather" involving Christmas:

1.) Kay and Michael are seen Christmas shopping / Luca Brasi puts on his bulletproof vest (both scenes tied in with Bing Crosby singing "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas")

2.) Tom Hagen is Christmas shopping and picked up by Sollozzo

3.) Tom Hagen is released by Sollozzo (in front of a Christmas tree lot) and learns the Don is still alive

If I've forgotten any other Christmas scenes or references, let me know...


Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Happy New Year!

For our first post of 2008, we need to clear up some old business:

1.) All of the album & MP3 shares were taken down today. Several album links were shut down at RapidShare early - this was totally out of my control and since I wasn't near a computer for over a week, I apologize to all who missed out. For more info, click here.

2.) We received several comments concerning one of our shares with a defective track. For more info, click here.

3.) New additional info on several posts is now available - click here and here.

4.) If you left a comment here between December 11, 2007 and January 2, 2008, I've tried to answer them all. See your respective comment for my response.

5.) Nothing further to report on my schedule status - I'll post when I can.

Thanks for reading this far and I hope you have a great 2008!