Ukuleles = festive

I’m just going to come right out and say it. This week is kicking my butt. Between evergreen trees, shopping, wrapping gifts, waiting in long lines with armfuls of packages, cleaning, and preparing for a very much-anticipated house guest, I am pooped. This list doesn’t even include the cookies I meant to make for my staff meeting today or the prep for two upcoming brunches that I am hosting–one just for kicks with some friends to do a test run of my aebleskiver technique and the second for family. For those not in the know, aebleskivers are little round Danish pancakes that are spherical in shape and spiced with cardamom. I’d just like to note that my family has made them for decades and they are hollow! I have no idea  why every other reference to them I can find says they are solid. The stubborn part of me thinks everyone else is just plain wrong, including the entire country of Denmark(!), but it was probably some change an ancestor of mine made to the cooking instructions. (There, now the Danish government won’t declare war on Charm City over my inflammatory aebleskiver remarks.) Needless to say, I’m feeling a little worn. But for all the stress, I truly love this time of year. If I could just sit in my dark living room with my lit Christmas tree for the next week, I’d be a happy camper.

All this hustle and bustle has got me in mind of one of my very favorite Christmas songs called (There’s No Place Like) Home for the Holidays. I grew up listening to the Perry Como version, complete with back-up choir and orchestral arrangement, but apparently The Carpenters recorded it in the late 1970s. There’s this wonderful lyric that goes, “From Atlantic to Pacific – Gee, the traffic is terrific!” This has become a family saying and is usually whipped out during every single traffic jam or parking lot incursion that is observed, endured, or survived from Thanksgiving clear to New Years.

So tonight I have dug up two versions of this classic. The first one is with Perry Como’s melodious voice and theatrical accompaniment (it positively screams Broadway musical). The second is this cute guy singing in a very nice bass voice and playing the ukulele. It is adorable. Enjoy!

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Christmas in Mannheim

One of the very earliest Christmas memories I have that does not involve opening presents under the tree is watching my father loading a tape cassette into the living room stereo. He closed the tape deck, pressed a few buttons, and waited just long enough to make sure the music was coming through the speakers before walking away. I stared at the slowly turning reels with bated breath and as the first strains of Deck the Halls wafted their way into the room, my excitement grew. Then as the synthesizers and drums kicked in, tiny little kid me just went bananas!

Now I’m sure this is the moment where you are thinking to yourself, “Did she just say synthesizers and Deck the Halls in the same sentence?” Why yes, I did. It is an undeniable fact that the #1 Christmas music staple in my house for the past 27 years has been hands-down Mannheim Steamroller, the lovely new age front for producer and composer Chip Davis. Best known for their unique renditions of holiday music, their sound runs a truly astounding gamut from classical to ambient to electronic-synthesizer-joy. The vast majority of their catalog is instrumental and they’ve been around since the mid-1970s. A genuine pleasure to see live, they tour with a mind-boggling array of instruments, including (but not limited to): electric guitars, an electric violin, bells, harps, a xylophone, a whole host of drums, a grand piano, and a full on string section of approximately 8 players.  Not to mention all the electronic keyboards and synthesizer equipment that they cart from concert hall to amphitheater.  As a child, I had absolutely no use for music that required an outright symphony to perform. But I loved Mannheim Steamroller from the very first time I heard their name.

And now, because it isn’t Christmas without a little Mannheim and because I want to show you the true length and breadth of their sound, I have for you two videos of the same song, arranged in two very different ways. The first is a short baroque styled piece, featuring (presumably) a fife, castanets, and a string section. The second is a more modern rock and synthesizer-infused version that takes the original theme and turns it into a truly original composition. Once again, bear with me on the less than impressive visuals. Oh YouTube, you are often a cruel and heartless mistress! Oh well, you can pretend you’re at a laser light show for the second one. And anyway, the music more than makes up for the lack of a decent video. Enjoy!

‘Cause I’m on fire

From the start, I’ve been planning on doing album reviews on this blog. Now that we’re 9 months in, I think I’ve found the perfect album to kick off this post category. And it is a doozy, let me tell you. So let’s get started.

The band is AWOLNATION (yes, the capitals are intentional). The album is their first full-length record entitled Megalithic Symphony, which was released in March of 2011. The brain-child of Aaron Bruno–who some may know for his previous work with the bands Under the Influence of GiantsHometown Hero, and Insurgence–it is the frenzied attention-deficit product that resulted when Red Bull Studios give him the run of their full-fledged recording studio and literally let him go wild. Yes, I do mean that Red Bull and listening to this album, it is very easy to imagine lots of late night sessions surrounded by and fueled with large doses of the taurine-powered energy drink.

Often classified as an alternative or electro-pop outfit, AWOLNATION pulls from what feels like a thousand genres all at once, including (but not limited to): punk, techno, ’80’s glam metal, garage rock, and old-school blues. Trying to classify this band is as complicated as trying to decode a master spy’s cipher. Not only is each song wildly different from all the others, but Bruno seems to habitually switch genres within the songs themselves. Throughout the album, his vocal and musical choices invoke a vast array of varied artists, among them LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, Mika, George Michael, and even a little bit of Ronnie James Dio. In my research on the band, some have compared Bruno to Beck in his amazing mastery of the poetic and his chameleon-like ability to jump genres. But Bruno and his band mates take it to a whole new level with their frenetic beats, unexpected pauses, and the lyrics. Oh, the lyrics! Ranging from sweet, to inspirational, to cynical, and all the way to mildly disturbing. This is one album that constantly keeps you guessing and 9 times out of 10, you’re wrong.

But in all the ADHD mayhem, there is a truly wonderful and somehow strangely cohesive sound here. And it grows on you. The first time I listened to this album, I kept asking myself (quite loudly, I might add), “What the hell is this?!?!” It was such a high energy assault to my senses that it was almost too much for my poor brain to take in. But with every song and every moment of this confused listening-madness, a wide grin never left my face. I knew I’d have to give my head time to cool and listen to it again. Little did I know that I’d be compelled to listen to it again and again… and again.

To truly appreciate the full experience, you really do need to listen to the whole album. But for the sake of trying to keep this from becoming a novel, I’m going to focus on only a few of the songs.

First up is a track called Soul Wars. This is the perfect example of a song that combines two starkly disparate genres-in this case the electro-pop version of techno that is so popular these days and ’80s hair metal-into a sometimes jarring yet ultimately satisfying composition. It also introduces the listener to the hyper-active energy that can be found throughout the album. The best that YouTube could serve up is a lyric-version of the song, there being no official video and only live versions with hideous sound quality. But the upside is that the featured visuals are the Salvador Dali-like liner art, which only serve to enhance the novelty of the song. Plus as an added bonus, you’ll find out where the name of this post came from. Come on click the play icon. You know you’re curious.

To show you the astounding range this album serves up, I present to you my second highlighted song: People. Taking things down a notch, it lacks the heavy sense of power and high-speed  urgency that Soul Wars features. But what it lacks in the manic, it more than makes up for in the positive pop punch. I especially love the philosophical tint to the opening monologue for the song in which Bruno grabs your attention with the words, “Thank you for listening again/Or for the first time/Or for the last time that we share this moment/And I am grateful for this.” Sadly, this little speech is cut in half on the lovely live performance I dug up. But kudos to Red Bull Records for posting some really high quality live performances online.

The first single off the album is Sail, which has one of the most eerily creepy videos I’ve seen a while. The song is a strange mix of low-key electronic flourishes and Bruno’s voice howling like a gruff old bluesman. I actually didn’t like this song the first few times I heard it. Maybe it is an acquired taste, because it slowly won me over. It is probably the calmest song on the whole album, which is ironic because it also features the most screaming.  The shadowy video only adds to the unsettling atmosphere of the song and introduces the idea of alien abduction, something that makes an appearance in several of the songs.

Last to be featured is the second and current single called Not Your Fault. This is the song that made me buy the album, mainly because it sounded so different from Sail. You wouldn’t even know it was the same band until a full minute in when Bruno drops his smooth vocal manner for the shriek-like sound he uses in the first single. The gap between the two songs was so great that I was suddenly intrigued enough to put my money down on the record store counter. The video is a hilarious claymation romp that was obviously influenced by the high jinks of late night on Cartoon Network and the video for Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer. The claymation violence paired with the still cheerful good-humor of the video is a great distraction from the lyrics, which bring to mind the suicide notes left behind after murder/suicides. I am completely serious here. Watch the video twice! Once for the visuals and once for the chorus. It is a real trip.

Now  if you haven’t guessed by now, I love this album. I have been completely taken in and I give it a hearty two thumbs up. And if I haven’t peaked your interest in the music of AWOLNATION by now, then I wash my hands of you!