The Serpico Mixes: The Xmas Disc

In a joint collaboration with my weekday roommate and Bronx ally Skip Serpico, I’ll be discussing a mix CD a week. He makes them, I listen to them and provide my in the moment commentary. You, hopefully, read said commentary and maybe open up your musical horizons. You can come here every week for the Serpico Mixes. And you should also visit Skip’s site, Fission Spaghetti, for his musings on food and Saturday Night Live (and more!)

 Festive!

Festive!

Mix #14

Theme: Christmas!

 Aww, what a tired puppy! (photo from xaxor.com)

Aww, what a tired puppy! (photo from xaxor.com)

Christmas Time is Here by Vince Guaraldi- Well, it’s a classic. This is one of those songs so tied to Christmas for me that I feel like maybe, just maybe, if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t think that all much of. But since that’s not the case, it is mostly just a thought experiment. So, yes, I like this one.

O Come, O Come Emmanuel by Sufjan Stevens- I like the sacred songs of Christmas being rendered in a more pop format (I also like many of them in classic choir form, truth be told). Here, Stevens (no relation) kind of balances both poles. He’s by himself and the instrumentation has been changed, so it is not a traditional arrangement as done by a choir, but it also maintains the kind of hushed quality of a sacred hymn. It is a nice balance of the modern and traditional.

The Christmas Waltz by She & Him- I’m not really familiar with this tune and the sharp note that Zooey Deschanel hits to get things started did not a good first impression make. From there on, it’s…fine.  Bland but inoffensive.

Coventry Carol by Sufjan Stevens- The use of the Theremin is an odd choice here. It gives it kind of a “creepy, ghost or sci-fi” sound effect to things that I do not believe helped the song much.

What Child is This? by Vince Guaraldi- I don’t love “What Child is This?” musically, so it is one saved by the lyrics. Without them…well, it is still from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special so it slides by on that, but just ever so slightly.

Joy to the World by Sufjan Stevens- A nicely stripped down approach to “Joy to the World.” I have to ding it for the way they kept “stepping up” in the vocal mid through the last word of the first line of each verse. It’s just not an affectation I am a fan of. Not enough to make me not recommend it though. Enjoy it with my blessing.

The Christmas Song by She & Him- Perhaps a little more subdue than I’d like for my “Christmas Song” tastes, the song is still good at this slowed down more melancholy pace and construction.

The Little Drummer Boy by Sufjan Stevens- Anyone ever hear the Little Drummer Boy/Peace of Earth song with Big Crosby and David Bowie. I love that version. So weirdly perfect. That is neither here nor there though, I suppose. Just a little something from my house to yours.

Stevens does something here that’s interesting. The song starts out fairly nondescript but the instrument track gets progressively louder, faster, and more complex as the song goes on, making this a far more interesting “Drummer” than it began as.

O Tannebaum by Vince Guaraldi- Another song that changes itself as it goes, moving from a traditional piano version to a bit of more jazz-like version including some percussion and far more adventurous key tickling. It’s fun to see how much they can do with it and it still be easily recognizable as “O Tannebaum” (“O Christmas Tree” for my German speaking readers.) Having said that though, for a fairly simple song, this instrumental only version runs pretty long.

Holy, Holy, Holy by Sufjan Stevens- “Holy, Holy, Holy” is a Carole you can really shake the rafters and although Stevens does not go that way, he does go bigger than on a lot of his Christmas offerings and I appreciate that.

Hearing “Holy” in this form reminded me how much of the song’s lyrics I completely forget every year at the end of the holiday season. For instance, I never remember the line “God in three persons” that shows up multiple times.

Baby, It’s Cold Outside by She & Him- I like the gender swap here. I wonder if, given some of the lines in the song that have struck people as a bit…problematic in nature (“What’s in this drink?” for instance), the change in parts defuses those concerns.

But that’s more of a passing “hmm” that anything. What really grabs me is how damn fast they are here. Especially since so many of the songs so far have slowed down or kept the slow speed of the carole they’re singing, a sped version is a nice change of pace.

Silent Night by Sufjan Stevens- It’s hard (near impossible?) to do “Silent Night” wrong if you have good voices delivering it in an appropriately hushed tone. I think I might have actually gone a little more hushed than what Stevens did here, but I really like the musical composition behind the voices which more than balances out my feelings about the bigger than necessary voices.

Skating by Vince Guaraldi- Again, divorced from the source material, this does not feel particularly Christmas-y. It is a rather fun instrumental piece though that boasts a surprising number of musical motifs for being under three minutes.

Sister Winter by Sufjan Stevens- A little racy (“When I kissed your ankle I kissed you all night”? Oh, really? And where exactly were you heading when you started at the ankle, hmm, sir?) which I recognize I am probably in the minority in liking when it comes to Christmas songs. I see no reason Christmas can’t be a touch sexy! I mean, have you seen some of those elf costumes? Daaaaaaaaaaamn!

 Daaaaaaaaaaaamn... the male gaze all women must contend with. Down with the patriarchy! (photo from loveitsomuch,com)

Daaaaaaaaaaaamn... the male gaze all women must contend with. Down with the patriarchy! (photo from loveitsomuch,com)

But perhaps I’ve said too much.

However, despite my support of that little element and my overall enjoyment of it, I have to grade it low on the Yuletide Scale (patent pending). There’s references to winter and a brief verse that is literally three “Merry Christmases” strung together, but it never really seems to be a Christmas song as much as it is a song about a good relationship gone bad.

I will grant you that the difference between a Christmas song and a non-Christmas song that includes a Christmas reference is thin and very subjective, but what are reviews if not subjective.

In conclusion then, like the song, cannot sign off on it as a Christmas fav though.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas by She & Him- Probably my favorite Christmas song of all time—I like a hopeful melancholy in my Christmas music because I think it is an accurate reflection of the mood of Christmas for many, if not most. Zoey D.’s rendition isn’t revelatory but she does the lyrics justice so I’m on-board.

Only at Christmas Time by Sufjan Stevens- What’s…what’s all this about destroying all? Otherwise a good non-traditional Christmas tune, but man, that’s odd.

Silver Bells by She & Him- For my entire life, I don’t think any song evoked New York City for me as much as this one. Maybe it’s because of the Rockefeller Tree lighting or the Rockettes or MIRACLE ON 34th STREET but whatever the reason, the song and the city are indelibly linked in my mind in a way that no other song, even those actually about NYC, seems to achieve.

I’m a fan of “Silver Bells” so this one has an easy road to hoe to get me to like it. It didn’t demand to be my go-to version of “Bells” but I’m not going to avoid it either.

Christmas in the Room by Sufjan Stevens- The idea of “Christmas in the room” is interesting to me, as it speaks to both how the holiday can come early and settle in for some for others never really show up.

In my predictably liberal Christian way I was worried about the way the song initially aligned Christmas with specific totems (although, I, as a hypocrite and citizen of the US certainly have my own Christmas totems too) as opposed to some bigger thing about the holiday. However, the last version nicely turns away from that and, actually, the setup of going over all those physical items makes that bank even more effective  than it would’ve been if the song started with that perspective.

Hark! The Herald Angels Sing by Vince Guaraldi- This is an obviously sacred song being sung in a public school. For shame! Rise, Secularists, rise and redress this grievance!

I actually—and I swear I mean this even if it will sound backhanded as all get out—appreciate that it really does sound like it is being sung by a grade school choir. The voices aren’t quite in harmony, there are clearly some weaker singers in the group, and so on. It makes the song better for me even though, objectively, it is not a great version of “Hark!” because of those technical flaws. It’s nice they put that accuracy over just making it sound good.

Star of Wonder by Sufjan Stevens- To return to my review of “Sister Winter” for a moment, this song is kind of the flip side of that one. “Winter” specifically references Christmas in lyrics and yet comes out feeling less Christmas-y somehow than this one that does not specifically mention the day but rather invokes the North Star to make the implicit connection. It’s a subtle difference but there it is.

On the other hand, it is overlong and the “I see the stars…” rejoinder is repeated endlessly to no particular effect save annoyance.

Sleigh Ride by She & Him- Oof, I do not like this version. Not at all.

Greensleeves by Vince Guaraldi- So, I know it is listed as “Greensleeves” but “-sleeves”—as we fans know it—is actually not a Christmas carole and might, in fact, be about a woman of loose morals. So, this is probably “What Child is This?” right? Except, look earlier on this disc. There’s “What Child is This?” so…I guess this is “Greensleeves.” Although the question then is, why did the show use both of them? They’re the same song except this version is longer. I can’t remember if one is a callback to the other and thus the redundancy is actually textually purposeful, or not.

Anyway, like the rest of the Peanuts soundtrack, it is a jazzy repurposing of a Christmas mainstay without lyrics. If you grew up with the Christmas Special it will probabl make you feel warm and at home. If you didn’t…perhaps not?

The Christmas Song by Jane Krakowski, Elaine Stritch, and Alec Baldwin- Given this came from 30 Rock, I kept waiting for it to get silly and was mildly disappointed when it didn’t. Judged without those expectations though, this is a solid rendition of this tune.