Thursday, November 24, 2011

Forgotten Music: Chicago 25

(Note: Chicago has released its third Chiristmas CD, O Chirstmas Three, this year. Look for that review in the coming weeks.)

Back in 1998, Christmas arrived in August. Well, it did if you were a Chicago fan, that is. You see, it was in that month, the hottest down in here in Texas, when the then-thirty-year-old band released their first ever Christmas CD. And wouldn’t you know it was numbered twenty-five?

When you stop to think about it, you had to wonder why one of America’s most successful rock acts never recorded even one Christmas song. Peter Cetera did a one-off, semi-countrified version of “Silent Night” and Robert Lamm recorded “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” but that was it. The closest the band ever got to a winter song was “Song of the Evergreens” off of Chicago VII.

Chicago 25, coming three years after Night and Day, Chicago’s CD of newly-arranged big band standards, the expectations among the Chicago fan base was quite high for the Christmas CD. What songs would they select? How would the band stamp their indelible sound on time-honored classics? And, honestly, how could they add anything new to the endless steam of Christmas music we hear year after year. And would any of these versions become definitive?

I could certainly give a track-by-track run down of Chicago 25 (and I have, to many friends and fellow Chicago fans) but I’ll point out a few high points of this CD. As I have mentioned before in previous reviews of Chicago records, the sheer number of instruments and vocalists in the band brings a multitude of possibilities to any one song. These seven musicians are professionals who can evoke any number of nuances from their instruments. Walt Parazaider brings all of his saxophones and his flute is featured on many songs. Robert Lamm’s piano playing, including electric piano, is a joy to hear throughout the fourteen songs of Chicago 25 but especially “The Christmas Song”. Bill Champlin’s vocal arrangements (“What Child is This?”) can give boy bands like N*Sync a run for their money to say nothing of his tickling the keys of his B3 organ. Keith Howland’s guitar embellishments interspersed in the songs evoke a jazz feel more than a rock sensibility. Back in 1998, trumpeter Lee Loughnane was undergoing a renaissance in the band as his trumpet playing markedly improved in the concerts and showed up on Chicago 25.

All the songs selected and arranged got the typical Chicago treatment. Some of the tunes are better for it. A few surprises do pop up. “Feliz Navidad,” originially sung by Jose Feliciano, is one of the happiest Christmas songs out there. I dare you not to tap your toe when this song starts its inexorable march in your brain. Under Lamm’s reading, the song is a slow, moderately-paced song of beauty. In a nice touch, Lamm adds some xylophone and marimbas. It’s one of the unexpected yet understated songs on this record.

You can’t say Champlin’s bluesy “Santa Clause is Comin' to Town” is unexpected, however. To say that Champlin is soulful is to understate the obvious. But the rest of the band—especially Jason Scheff’s bass playing—really gets into the act. This is one of the funkiest cuts in Chicago’s catalogue and it gives the horns a chance to stand and just wail. What makes this rendition so much fun is Champlin’s lyrical riffs. “You better be cool\y’all gotta chill\you gotta behave\you all know the drill.” And the B3 just weaves in and out of this track. A highlight if you like your carols just a little bit dirty.

“Christmas Time is Here” is the Vince Guaraldi song from “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Lamm acknowledges his appreciation to Guaraldi with a delicate version of this newer classic. The horn arrangement is quite good as is Howland’s guitar licks. You'll love Lamm’s electric piano. He noodles in and out of the melody and his own vocals. Loughnane’s muted trumpet ends the piece, setting a lovely mood that can sweep you away back to your childhood.

The next track, however, will wake you up. Chicago’s secret weapon in 1998 was Lee Loughnane’s vocals. Yes, the trumpeter sang a few songs back in the 1970s (on Chicago VII, X, and XI) but had not stepped behind the mic since. So “Let it Snow” was a wonderful treat. In a version that would be at home down in New Orleans, Loughnane’s pulls a Louis Armstrong, singing and playing. This song proved so popular in 1998 that the band recorded a version in Spanish. “Let it Snow” even found its way into the summer tour set list. It was a little weird hearing this song in the heat but the feel of the song will melt snow or your margarita.

As good as these renditions are—Feliz Navidad” is a nice change and other songs, like “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" are my preferred versions—most of these songs don’t quite reach the level of definitive. One exception exists. Chicago’s reading of “Little Drummer Boy” puts all the other versions—and, yeah, that includes the Bowie/Crosby version—to the back of the line for me. The song itself, while nice, never had the heft of other Christmas songs, secular or sacred. Chicago changes the equation. In a fade-in, the drums kick up a shuffle beat, not fast, not slow, but just enough to get your toe tapping and to make you realize this is something different. As Bill Champlin’s soulful voice begins to sing the first verse, producer Roy Bittan’s (E Street Band) accordion colors the feel of the song, giving the song an acoustic quality underneath the main beat. Champlin makes it through the entire first verse with only the horns offering the answering counter melody. As you first listen to this version of the song, you’ll probably think “Okay, this is a great song and the horns are wonderful and discreet.” Then the chorus kicks in. And, in a first for Chicago, there is a choir: twelve additional singers to go with the three main Chicago vocalists. The result is somewhere between magical and sublime. Verse two brings in Jason Scheff’s high tenor, floating above Champlin and the choir. During this vocal onslaught, the horns continue to wail away and the accordion drones on and on. The horn charts are so stamped in my head that I hear them even when listening to another rendition. I consider this song one of the best songs in Chicago’s entire catalogue and a definitive version of "Little Drummer Boy."

Five years after Chicago 25, Rhino updated the disc with six additional songs and renamed the collection Chicago Christmas: What’s it Gonne Be Santa? It’s a testament to a band with vocalists growing out of the woodwork that five of the six new songs showcase a different lead singer. Again, the newer songs give that distinctive Chicago stamp on old classics. Lamm’s “Winter Wonderland” is pure Chicago circa 1973. In retrospect, “Winter Wonderland” provides a nice clue to the types of songs Lamm would release a year later on his excellent “Subtlety + Passion” disc. “This Christmas” has Scheff in full R&B mode while the acoustic “Bethlehem,” an original tune, provides a nice, acoustic glimpse of the three kings.

Just as “Little Drummer Boy” stood head and shoulders above the other tracks on Chicago 25, “Jolly Old St. Nicholas” is the best song from the extra tracks. Simply put, this is one of the flat-out most fun songs Chicago has ever recorded. The newest—and youngest—member of the band, guitarist Keith Howland, arranged this song and sings lead. It’s a fast, up-tempo song that brings to mind “When is This World Comin’ To?” off Chicago VI. The horn charts are fantastic and, as is my wont, the bari sax all but blats its way out of your speakers. In the original lyric, the final verse lists the various toys that kids want. Howland tailors the final verse to instruments for his band mates. At the end, after he’s questioned Santa on what treat will be left for him, Howland shouts out “How ‘bout a shiny electric guitar?” and lets rip a guitar riff and solo that would have made Chuck Berry proud. It’s an exuberant ending to an exuberant song. It’ll leave you smiling and tapping your foot long after the song fades away.

Christmas is all about memories, usually from childhood. At times, it’s even about memories you never had but a nostalgia induced by music. Nat King Cole’s reading of “The Christmas Song” is definitive and no Christmas would be complete without hearing it at least one (fifty?) time. Ditto for Crosby’s “White Christmas.” But if you want something fun, occasionally different, but altogether satisfying, you can’t go wrong with inviting Chicago into your house for Christmas.

Forgotten Music: November 2011

It's Thanksgiving Day here in America. I'm on the hook for homemade cranberry sauce. I'll pick up any newcomers later today with the summary. But, for now, here are the regulars.

Sean Coleman

Bill Crider

Eric (Iren)

Jerry House

Randy Johnson

George Kelley

Todd Mason

Charlie Ricci

Monday, November 7, 2011

Houston Texans Haiku: Week 8 vs. Cleveland Browns

It's good not to fret.
It's good to beat lesser teams.
It's good to dream now.

T'was only last year
When the defense was a sieve
Now, it is a wall.*

Winning without 'Dre.
When he returns, look out, man!
We could be scary.

Cleveland Browns - 12
Houston Texans - 30

Record - 6-3 (1st in AFC South)

*Thanks Wade Phillips!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

How I Wrote My Novel

If you've ever wanted to know how I went about the process of writing my Harry Truman novel, head on over to my column at Do Some Damage today. All of us at DSD spent the week writing about how we write novels. We'll have a new theme for next week, starting with Joelle Charbonneau tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book Review Club: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

(This is the November 2011 edition of Barrie Summy's Book Review Club. For the complete list, click on the icon after this review.)

What would Harry Potter have been like in Magic College? What would happen if you had a bunch of magicians and no bad guy? What would happen if you wrote a book and the plot never arrived? What if the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.") were expanded into a full-length book with a little bit of magic and nothing else.

Those are some of the thoughts I had when trying to come up with a banging opening sentence for my review of Lev Grossman's The Magicians. None really had the oomph I wanted, so I threw them all in that first paragraph in a vain attempt to be witty and wow you readers into thinking I had something to say. Which is, now that I think about it, a little like Grossman did for his book.

I'm in a science fiction book club and this was the October selection. I didn't choose it, but the premise--older teenagers go to a magical college--was promising. The dust jacket was interesting. But the execution was just wrong. When the four members of my club gather, we each give the book in question a letter grade (I picked "C" because it was exactly in the middle; others included a C-, a B, and an A). This is the first time in which I preferred that Agree/Disagree spectrum because it had that one place, right in the middle, where you can say "I have no opinion one way or the other." It was just a few hundred pages of "meh."

The novel centers on Quentin Coldwater, a seventeen-year-old New Yorker who is a morose teenager. He's the third wheel with his two other friends and his parents are all but apathetic to his presence. Thus, when he learns there is a magical college, he accepts. Now, anyone who has been exposed to the Harry Potter universe will have fun comparing Hogwarts with Breakbills College for Magical Pedagogy. Honestly, that was the most tolerable part of the book because I didn't really expect anything to happen other than school stuff. It was a nice change to have magical students drink and have sex since I'm accustomed to the Hogwarts version of things where the worse thing those teenagers did was snog.

The biggest problem with the rest of the book is that stuff never happened. The most interesting scene during the school years sequence was when a creature appears. Ooh, I thought, now we're getting somewhere. Then the creature left, admittedly after doing a horrible thing, and nothing much happened. Ever.

If you read the hard copy of the book, you will see the map of Fillory--the stand-in for Narnia in Grossman's universe--so you know it occupies a huge portion of the mind's of the characters. In fact, Quentin is a Fillory fanboy, the only one who still reads the books while at Breakbills. It's not a spoiler--why else would the map be in the inside cover?--to say that Fillory makes an appearance and Quentin and his friends go there. Give you one guess what "happens."

Among the four members of my book club, two finished the book last week while I finished the book and am writing this review on the same day. The Last-Weekers say that the book has stayed with them, and that they are liking it more and more because they keep thinking about it. One member even went so far as to say that Quentin is the most complex character we've ever read in our nearly two years doing this book club. That may be so, but he's still a whiner to me. Yes, says my friend, but he's true to himself no matter what happens.

After I finished the book, I read some reviews and learned many readers appreciate that Grossman tried to turn the conventional quest/fantasy novel on its head, to write a mainstream fiction novel with some fantasy elements. Notably, other readers took note of Grossman's nuanced, post-modern take on the aspects of fantasy literature. I'll grant him that, and agree with them.

But I still want a story, a plot, or some sort of device that moves the action. I still want something that propels me forward other than a desire to finish the book because I was in a book club.

A member of my club said that The Magicians might be a book he'd give to a person unfamiliar with science fiction/fantasy as an introduction to the genre. I don't think that's a good idea. But if you're steeped in the genre and want to see how a non-genre-ian, but admitted geek, takes on all the tropes of fantasy literature, The Magicians might be a good choice for you. There's a new sequel (The Magician King) with a premise that sounds mildly more interesting than this book, but I'll be content to read the plot summary on Wikipedia. I want to know what happens to these characters, but not enough to read another book.

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