Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Six Christmas Songs You Won't Hear in the Mall This Month

Thanksgiving is just a day away, and with it comes the "official" start of the Christmas season ("Christmas Creep" aside). Unfortunately that means you can expect to be bombarded with nonstop "Holiday" music blaring from every audio device you encounter that falls into two rather unfortunate categories, 1) sappy, saccharine songs with all the depth of a cheap greeting card and no outstanding musical value, that were probably composed specifically for use on a commercial or to sell some pop star's holiday album, and 2) actual classic Christmas songs that have been rendered nearly unbearable by overuse.
The second category is perhaps the saddest, since there are so many great songs out there that are neglected in favor of beating the same dozen or so compositions to death with repeated covers, particularly when somebody has the bright idea of doing a "fresh" version of a classic by adding some cheesy new background instrumentation (drum machines, jazz horns, R&B backups singers, heavy metal guitars, it's still the same damn song, get over it).
But in spite of the rampant commercialism, family blowouts and extra-long lines everywhere, I still love Christmas. I love the idea of Christmas, and the timing of it, especially how the Christian holiday came to take its place in the dead of winter, using the old, old symbolism of rebirth and redemption in the darkest, coldest part of the year, and the wish for peace and sanity in troubled times. Underneath all the plastic and tinsel you can still find that bit of warmth and light.
And in that spirit I give you a half-dozen songs that you're NOT likely to hear in the shopping mall any time soon (in the US at least, I've heard one of these in Ireland at Christmas). Most of these selections are a bit of the dark side, thematically, which I think counteracts the artificial sweetness of the more mall-worthy hits. Besides which, with one in ten Americans either out of work or not able to find enough work to get by, it's all about seeing the light in the dark times.

6. John Prine - "Christmas in Prison"
Prine has always had a knack for mixing sentiment and humor, and portraying hard times without coming across as whining at all. Number six on the list is his "Christmas in Prison."

The best line is probably the first: "It was Christmas in Prison and the food was really good/ we had turkeys and pistols carved out of wood."
John Prine "Christmas in Prison" video

 5. Tom Waits - "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minnneapolis"
Like Prine, waits has always been one to portray the dark side of life with wit and dark humor. This bit of talking blues is no different from his others, and what it lacks in holiday cheer, it makes up for int twisted genius.

Best line: "And Charlie, hey/ I'll be eligible for parole come Valentine's Day."
Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis

4. The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl - "Fairytale of New York"
If you're a fan of Anglo-Irish Folk Rock (and who isn't) you know this song. It's extraordinarily popular in the rest of the English-speaking world, yet gets no airplay in the U.S., possibly because of it's politically incorrect lyrics. It's the story of a couple who's youthful romance was destroyed by drugs and poverty (yes, there's a lot of Christmas songs about that, and yes, there's more than one on this list) and features the late, great Kirsty MacColl singing a duet with Shane MacGowan. The video was filmed in NYC and features a bunch of actual police officers and one fake one, who is really Matt Dillon.

What probably makes this song so great is that there is still some tenderness found underneath the bitterness, as seen in the last verse:
"I could'a been someone." "Well so could anyone/ you took my dreams from me when I first found you." "I kept them with me babe, I put them with my own/ can't make it out alone, I built me dreams around you."
Fairytale of New York

3. Gordon Lightfoot - "Circle of Steel"
Another tale of crime, poverty and desperation, this time from Canada. Unlike some of the others on this list, there isn't much hope for the characters here. Lightfoot contrasts the "sights and sounds of the people going 'round" with a dingy room where "the rats run around like they own the place." At the same time, his vivid imagery and knack for melody make it a compelling song, and an argument for compassion towards those born in to hard circumstances.

For example:
"Christmas dawns and the snow lets up, and the sun hits the handle of her heirloom cup
she hides her face in her hands for a while, says 'look here child
your father's pride was his means to provide, and he's serving three years for that reason."
Circle of Steel

2. John McCutcheon - "Christmas in the Trenches"
In December of 1914 Britain and Germany were fighting in what would become known World War I. Soldiers were dug into trenches all long the Western Front, in France and Belgium, and in many cases, had fought to a standstill. Then, on the night of December 24, something strange happened. The artillery stopped, the rifles stopped, and men from both sides started singing Christmas carols. Eventually, soldiers wandered out into No Man's Land to trade small gifts of brandy, tobacco and chocolate and even in some cases put together impromptu soccer games. For one night, maybe a little longer, they laid down their guns and greeted each other as brother men.
Does thinking about this make fighting over parking spaces and rushing out to "one day sales" at four A.M. seem a bit hollow and stupid? Yeah, it does.

Best Line: Every single one. But try this on for size
"Soon daylight stole upon us and France was France once more
With sad farewells we each began to settle back to war
But the question haunted every heart that lived that wondrous night
'Whose family have I fixed within my sights?'"
Christmas in the Trenches (including a great slideshow of photos from the actual Christmas Truce)

1. Stephen Colbert and Elvis Costello Christmas Duet
Every now and then under the Stephen Colbert persona a bit of sentiment and sincerity slips through. This song is a pretty good example. Just as Stephen and Elvis tell us, "there are much worse things to believe in." Enjoy the season, everybody.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
A Colbert Christmas: Colbert/Costello Duet
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionMarch to Keep Fear Alive

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Movie Review: Harry Potter

Well, it's almost over. The first half of the final Harry Potter film is out, and that's a good thing, because each film gets a bit darker and scarier, and this one is plenty dark enough
This is life during wartime for Harry and Co., with stretches of tense boredom interspersed with brief periods of terror. At this point the wizarding world stops being fun.
 It's easy to make a comparison between Voldemort's return to power and the rise of the Nazis, and indeed the uniforms of the new security guards at the Ministry of Magic make this comparison pretty blatant. However, the interesting thing is that the parallel is probably closer to what went on in Continental Europe than in Britain during World War II. Wizarding England is not under siege, like it was during the Blitz, but is fully occupied more like Vichy France. Harry's friends and supporters hide in the woods and listen to underground radio.
Dan Radcliffe continues to do a solid job of playing the title character, but Harry has always been the least interesting character in the story. He has his set course to follow in fulfilling his "chosen one" archetype (and yes, his friends blatantly refer to him as "The Chosen One," in case you've never read your Joseph Campbell). What happens around him is possibly the most interesting.
One of Rowling's great storytelling talents is in her characterization of the ordinary people during those tough times, especially as embodied by the Weasley family. Arthur and Molly Weasley in particular, show us exactly what it means to be fighting to protect home and family.
Other secondary characters are equally interesting. Evanna Lynch's portrayal of Luna Lovegood may actually represent an improvement on the book's characterization. She makes the character a lot more sympathetic, and implies that, in spite of her goofy, head-in-the-clouds demeanor, there's a lot more to her than in the first impression.
On the Dark Side of things, we also see a lot more depth than expected. The Malfoy family gains some of our sympathy, especially in the case of Draco, as we see his boyhood fantasies of power replaced by the nightmare of what he actually has to do just to survive Voldemort's attention. It's pretty well implied that for all the dark stuff going on in the movie, the poor guy's probably seen a lot worse happen offscreen.
While some of the secondary characters get to shine during "Part One," the coming battle in part two is where we really see this particular genius at work. Harry has his part to play as Chosen One, but Molly Weasley gets the best line (not just because of what she says, but because of why, I'll get into that when the next movie arrives) and some of the other characters, who we first met as awkward, goofy 'tweens, have grown into genuinely heroic people.