Dec. 23rd, 2014

rockinlibrarian: (christmas)
I meant to do this last year and didn't get around to it. I TALK about this album every year, and traditionally I always leave you, a day or two before Christmas, with "The Christmas Wish," a song FROM this album. But I want everyone to know the joy of the entire thing, so here's a full-on play-by-play review.

I know, my friends in college thought I was joking at first when I started gushing about A Christmas Together. The Muppets and John Denver? Sounds gimmicky at best. The weird thing is, I'm not sure it's possible to make a less-gimmicky album, at least if you're going to have puppet characters involved. Right, there's (gasp) no such actual PERSON as Kermit the Frog, these are just a bunch of puppeteers singing in the voices of their characters. And yet they're so AUTHENTIC. They're not putting on a show. These characters, and most likely the people doing the singing through them, really believe the sentiments they're singing about, and you can feel it. The same can't be said for most of the pop artists who seem to be contractually obliged to record at least one holiday tune for incessant airplay and SALES. When I listen to the Muppets (and John Denver, who I haven't exactly been a fan of, but whose singing and playing is so lovely here that I often wonder why I DON'T seek out more of his non-Christmas music. I can get over the "country" taint by focusing on the "folk" instead, right?) on this album, I feel like I'm listening to people who really love what they're singing about and are just doing it because it makes them happy, not because some corporate bigwig decided to make money off of it. I don't know if the Muppets can ever capture quite that same spirit with Disney hovering over them, and especially not without Jim. It's magical.

It's also different, in a way I don't think any licensed characters could ever get away with again. Sure there are some standards on this track list, and if you EVER hear a song from this album played on the radio, likely it's one of the standards, because the station program managers are like "Hey I know that song!" But this is how they miss out on playing the actual BEST songs on this album. It's the unknown and little-known songs that I truly adore. The album also has a spirituality to it that I can't see most studio heads approving of. Either you're overtly religious, or you stay the bleep away from ANY God-talk. But the Muppets here aren't afraid of referring to, not only the Babe in Bethlehem, but all sorts of metaphysical ideas of faith and hope and love and peace and rebirth-- BUT AT THE SAME TIME, they're welcoming about it. They don't want to beat you over the head with IT'S-JESUS'-BIRTHDAY-AND-EVERYTHING-ELSE-IS-WRONG. Instead the message is, I quote, "But if you believe in love, that will be more than enough for you to come and celebrate with me." My sentiments exactly.

So here it is for you, completely with links to YouTube where YOU TOO can listen to the songs in question. ALL the songs in question if you wish. You really ought to wish.

1.Twelve Days of Christmas
This is a song that gets occasional airplay on the Christmas stations, and I always think really? "Twelve Days of Christmas" is a BORING carol for listening. It's only a good carol when you're actively participating in the singing of it. The Muppets, at least, are aware of the cardinal rule of singing this song, which is that each day MUST be taken by a different person or group of persons, so everyone has to remember to come in on their day and there's usually a great deal of showing-up and general silliness. THAT is how you make "Twelve Days of Christmas" moderately interesting to listen to for all twelve verses. If anyone can make this work, the Muppets can, particularly Piggy, who eventually starts adding "Ba-dum dum dum" to the end of her verse (the 5 gold rings, natch), which of course I am also unable to keep from adding when I sing it (or happen to hear a more-boring recording of it).

2.Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
I love that I was about to type, "A duet between Rowlf and John Denver, Rowlf on piano." Okay I KNOW MENTALLY Rowlf is not on piano, this isn't on video, it's just some actual human piano player, BUT THE MAGIC IS STRONG, and I KNOW in my HEART that that's Rowlf playing the piano. He concludes his piano arrangement with the first line of "Jingle Bells," which I have noticed is a COMMON way for pop renditions of Christmas carols to end. Have you noticed this too? Count them sometime, when you're being subjected to listening to an all-Christmas-music radio station. Take note every time a Christmas pop song ends with "Jingle Bells." Who started it, and did everyone just copy them? Or did everyone come up with it independently and think they were being clever?

3.The Peace Carol
Something in my head insists that this is a moderately traditional carol that's been around forever but just isn't as well-known as most, something like "Coventry Carol" or "Brightest and Best" or one of those others you're like, "oh yeah I've heard this" when you hear it but you'd never think of it on your own? But when I did a search for it, all I found were references to this album, or at the very least John Denver on his own. It's sung by a variety of characters and is quite nice, definitely one of the ones I WISH would get airplay.

4.Christmas is Coming
This one is pure silly fun. Miss Piggy has rounded up a few of the others to sing this as a round. I found the song-- at least the lyrics-- in a piano book once and was disappointed because that version wasn't NEARLY so fun as what's happening here.

5.A Baby Just Like You
This is an original John Denver composition, directed toward a baby named Zachary. Perhaps there's a John Denver fan among you who could tell me if Zachary is in fact his son? Because I don't feel like looking it up. Anyway, when I was a kid I imagined Baby Zachary was a character in the actual storyline of the Muppets and John Denver's TV special, and they were up and singing this to him around his crib. I finally SAW the actual TV special on YouTube last year, and actually found it disappointing as a whole-- they do a lot of songs that AREN'T on the album that are much weaker, and leave out some of the BEST songs, and I just don't think the songs that ARE on both were as good on the special but then I am biased. Anyway, and there was also no Baby Zachary, and no storyline, either, for that matter, so DARN IT JOHN!

But in all seriousness, it's a lovely song, and it's become extra meaningful for me in the past seven years, having babies of my own.

6.Deck the Halls
There's nothing notable about this track. It's very nice though. It of course is also one of the ones that gets occasional radio play, because it's a song people know already, but there's just nothing special about it.

7.When the River Meets the Sea
LISTEN UP: If you're still around for my funeral, and have any say over the playlist: you WILL play this track at my funeral or I WILL torment you from beyond the grave. Don't hold me to that, though. Just play it for me so I DON'T have to come back and torment anybody, because I really don't want to.

When I was old enough to stop and really listen to the lyrics I did wonder what a song that is, essentially, a funeral song was doing on a Christmas album. It's actually really deep and meta I realized: Christmas celebrates the coming of Christ into the world in ALL ways, not just as a human child, so this just happens to be a SECOND-coming Christmas song ("In that sweet and final hour truth and justice will be done").

I didn't see Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas until I was in college, so THEN I finally realized Henson and crew were most likely merely throwing back to their earlier Christmas project by including this song. But no matter. This song is gorgeous and I can listen to it over and over, and MAYBE it's just I haven't got any personal nostalgia for Emmett Otter, but I much prefer Robin and John Denver's peaceful duet to the twangy granny singing in the movie. SORRY, EMMETT OTTER LOVERS.

But anyway, if you only click one of these links to listen to today, make it this one. Or "The Christmas Wish" as usual. Or better yet, both.

8.Little Saint Nick
The Electric Mayhem OWNS this song. The original feels so CANNED in comparison, like (and this probably is what happened) the record company just went up to Brian Wilson and said, "Okay, write a song for you guys to release for our Christmas sales, so, you know, do something Christmas-related but BEACH-BOYS-Y, like make it about surfing or cars or something," and so he did and they dutifully recorded it and it was a sufficiently Beach-Boys-y Christmas song for the record company to release. But the Electric Mayhem plays it* like they WANT to play it! And they definitely make it rock harder. And I just feel like the original is missing something by not having a half-feral drummer screaming "RUN! RUN! REINDEER!" most of the way through.

*Again, *ahem*, YES THEY ARE playing it.

9.Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913
This is a gentle, beautiful John Denver solo. It's a poem by Robert Bridges, but it's been set to music at least two separate times. A few years back my dad's community choir performed a completely different setting of the poem, but I recognized it immediately, and went up to him afterwards all excited like "YOU DID THAT SONG FROM A CHRISTMAS TOGETHER BUT WITH DIFFERENT MUSIC!" and he couldn't figure out what I was talking about. Come on, he's listened to this album NEARLY as often as me, hasn't he?

10.The Christmas Wish
Here's where my traditional Christmas Blog Greeting falls on the track list! If you haven't listened to it for me before, please do so now! It's everything I want to say.

11.Medley: Alfie, the Christmas tree/It's In Every One of Us
The first half of this "medley" is John Denver reciting a poem over a kind of annoyingly repetitive organ part. It always kind of grates on me, and makes me wish this was two separate tracks so I could skip to the second part. But it grows on me a little as it goes on. I'm not really sure what the point of it is. First it's about a Christmas tree who doesn't want to be a Christmas tree because he wants to keep living in the woods, then the tree says it isn't that he doesn't LIKE Christmas because in fact he LOVES it and lives it every day, but what about everyone who doesn't believe in Christmas, does that mean they can't live the Christmas spirit every day NO OF COURSE NOT because life belongs to every living thing, so remember to keep nature in your prayers? It's all lovely stuff, but it seems to jump from idea to idea without really exploring it thoroughly, and it's not beautiful music like all the rest of it, so it's not my favorite part of the album. But then "It's In Every One of Us" starts and all is forgiven, because it's just a simple hippie anthem and I feel it in my soul as I sing along with all the Muppets.

12.Silent Night, Holy Night
This was very educational for me as a child. Everyone sings the first verse in the original German, which is cool for baby Amy, ooo look, the world doesn't revolve around you, this song was originally in A DIFFERENT LANGUAGE, YOU KNOW. Then John Denver starts talking again, which is initially jarring, after having so recently sat through "Alfie," but this time he's telling the story of how "Silent Night" came to be written, which is interesting. Then everyone joins back in singing, this time in English.

There's a bit I sort of love here, demonstrating what I said about the authenticity of it all. Fozzie I think-- somebody played by Frank Oz, most likely Fozzie-- hits a note slightly off. But it feels right. It doesn't feel like it's done for laughs, or that it's a glaring mistake that pulls you out of the moment-- it just feels like Fozzie is genuinely singing his heart out, and he isn't a perfect singer, but THAT'S OKAY. I LOVE that note.

13.We Wish You a Merry Christmas
When I was a kid I was genuinely confused by why everyone else in the world sang the "good tidings to you" verse, which they skip on this album, and obviously this album should be definitive right? And even when people DO remember to sing the verse about figgy pudding, well, that loses something if not interrupted by an irate pig who thinks you're proposing to cook her and/or her kin. Honestly, the Muppets should be the last word, and I'm still confused how they're not.

SO, lovely followers, I wish you a merry christmas and a happy new year once again. If you're not feeling peace in your heart yet, I do recommend you listen to this album pronto. At least "The Christmas Wish." Okay, here are the lyrics again if you can't get sound right now:

I don’t know if you believe in Christmas,
or if you have presents underneath the Christmas tree.
But if you believe in love, that will be more than enough
for you to come and celebrate with me.

For I have held the precious gift that love brings
even though I never saw a Christmas star.
I know there is a light, I have felt it burn inside,
and I can see it shining from afar.

Christmas is a time to come together, a time to put all differences aside.
And I reach out my hand to the family of man
to share the joy I feel at Christmas time.

For the truth that binds us all together, I would like to say a simple prayer.
That at this special time, you will have true peace of mind
and love to last throughout the coming year.

And if you believe in love, that will be more than enough
for peace to last throughout the coming year.
And peace on earth will last throughout the year.

by Danny Wheetman, as sung by Kermit the Frog

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