Half Cloth Playlist: Christmas, Part 1
by Chad Jewett
The Vince Guaraldi Trio – “Christmas Is Coming” (A Charlie Brown Christmas)
While much of the adoration for Vince Guaraldi’s essential 1965 album A Charlie Brown Christmas (a soundtrack to the classic 1965 CBS special of the same name) is rightly reserved for the gorgeously melancholy “Christmastime Is Here” and the effervescent, jaunty “Skating”, it’s actually “Christmas Is Coming” that truly finds Guaraldi figuring out how to make holiday music in the language of Peanuts. Indeed, “Christmas Is Coming”, with its dense bass-rich piano and swinging rhythm, equal parts boogie-woogie and Latin jazz, sounds uncannily like a sequel to that most famous of Peanuts themes, the immortal “Linus and Lucy”. When the song snaps out of its walking-bass-led middle section back into its main melody, the resemblance becomes overt. On an album otherwise devoted to the somber (“Christmastime Is Here”), the devout (“What Child Is This”), and the atmospheric (“O Tannenbaum”), “Christmas Is Coming” is a welcome interlude of holiday party music, one that reminds us of the giddy joy at work in so much of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Bright Eyes – “Silver Bells” (A Christmas Album)
As with A Charlie Brown Christmas, much of Bright Eyes’ 2001 A Christmas Album is given over to ruminative, mood-heavy slow numbers. Yet the album’s best moment, and the only track likely to fit on a holiday party iPod mix, is Conor Oberst and company’s rendition of “Silver Bells”. Set atop a spare waltz and a blend of dinging church bells and bubbling electric piano, Oberst and producer Mike Mogis assemble a more chaste version of the raucous choirs that would be put to such galvanizing use on Bright Eyes’ 2002 masterpiece Lifted. Here the effect is halfway between the sidewalk carolers you imagine in the Norman Rockwell-esque holidays of the 1950s and the ad-hoc sing-alongs that soundtrack the end of so many Hollywood Christmases. It’s the idiosyncratic charm of the production and the performance – spare, friendly, charmingly imperfect – that makes this rendition so definitive: an unassuming and unpretentious bit of holiday optimism on an album largely devoted to a more ghostly, impressionistic notion of Christmas.
Otis Redding – “Merry Christmas, Baby” (Christmas In Soulsville)
When a song was meant to be happy, Otis Redding made sure that you knew it. As much as Redding was the shouting powerhouse that he is credited for being, Redding deserves at least as much credit for his subtlety, his nuance, his ability to deliver the spirit of a composition with knowing precision. Thus his take on “Merry Christmas Baby”, a rhythm-and-blues standard that has seen many a rendition, has stood these fifty years as THE version. There’s a lot of credit to go around: those dazzling horns; Booker T’s spritely, candy-colored organ riff; the way the Stax house band positively hammers the song’s dramatic pauses. But what makes the song immortal and addictive is Otis Redding’s irrepressible vocal, a joyful marvel that sells the idea of yuletide joy with the same method-actor commitment with which Redding would elsewhere embody amorous passion or quiet exhaustion or lovesick need. “Santa came down the chimney! Half past three ya’ll!” In Otis Redding’s hands, all the cynicism and cliché that might cling to the idea of Christmas melts away, leaving only the greatest soul singer of all time, sounding all the work like Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew, singing the season’s praises.
Sufjan Stevens – “Get Behind Me Santa!” (Songs For Christmas)
Throughout his career, singer-songwriter-composer Sufjan Stevens has used Christian imagery to lend his songs a certain ancient weight; the questions of human struggle and frailty raised in his songs become scriptural in their import. Naturally, many of his Christmas compositions — now spread over two dense box-sets — follow suit. Indeed, there isn’t much daylight between the religious contemplativeness of so much of Songs For Christmas and the similarly biblical Seven Swans. What is a revelation are the moments in which Stevens offers a more light-hearted, irreverent version of Christmas – less Linus’s poignant recitation of the Gospel of Luke, more Snoopy playing guitar and Pigpen wailing on a stand-up bass. For that version of Christmas song there is “Get Behind Me Santa!”, which takes the pocket symphony maximalism of Stevens’ Illinois and lends the whole thing a winking, corny arrangement full of whirling organs, call-and-response choirs, and punchy horns. At one point Stevens dismisses Santa Claus as just “A bad brother breaking into people’s garages” while the song’s cheery backup singers come to old Saint Nick’s defense as just “a regular guy with super powers and a penchant for the Yuletide”. While most of Songs For Christmas does indeed seem to underline one of the song’s most memorable lines – “Christmastime ain’t no clowning around” – “Get Behind Me Santa!” is a song very much devoted to clowning around, and is all the better for it.
The Crystals – “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” (A Christmas Gift For You)
Often imitated, never replicated, “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” – as performed by The Crystals and the Wrecking Crew and produced by Phil Spector – is the definitive example of a Christmas classic rearranged for maximum pop-art impact. The song sets the template, and it has yet to be bested. While Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are rightly celebrated for making an absolute hammy meal out of those show-stopping chorus pauses (ba-dum SANTA Clause is comin’ to town!), it was The Crystals and Spector who did it first, while also managing to maintain the song’s relentless soul-pop bounce after each one of those gloriously catchy punches. It’s a rendition that simply sounds like the holidays, all warm energy and sugar-rush joie de vivre. Spector jams his “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” full to the brim with chattering horns, tinkling xylophones, and booming echoes, till The Crystal’s rendition sounds like the ringing holiday noise-symphony of a packed department store, with any bit of cynicism or frayed nerves replaced with giddy, infectious enthusiasm.