Saturday, December 31, 2011

My Five Favorite Reads of 2011

The top five stand-outs in a year of pleasurable reading:

#5 -- The Financial Lives Of The Poets by Jess Walter. My review.

#4 -- What Happened Later: A Novel by Ray Robertson. My review.

#3 -- Bangkok 8 by John Burdett. My review.

#2 -- The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. Here's my review. I loved this book, which is in fact the direct progeny of my favorite read this year:

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. Happy 50th, Binx (and girls).

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Approaching Christmas Eve As The Perpetual Newcomer

I have issues with Christmas Eve, particularly the church service. That's the service when I discover that I, my wife and my kids, who have lived in this village for 14 years, are newcomers. I know because I'm told so. The sanctuary fills with people who make this their yearly service, and to whom I, the regular attender, need introducing. Pleasantries get exchanged, and inevitably I hear, “It's nice to see new faces.”

Indeed, Christmas Eve is the one night I wouldn't mind hanging out with my peeps, the Mennonites, if only because we know how to sing. If we must sing hoary old Christmas carols, let's at least dress 'em up with competent four-part harmonies. Alas, my closest tribe of robust singers is a three-hour drive away, and taking pleasure in a once-a-year appearance there would be too bitter an irony for my taste. Instead, it's the local United (formerly Methodist) Church for me, where the musical mode is what you'd encounter at any mainstream Protestant congregation: songs with which I'm unfamiliar, being wheezily sung in lockstep unison.

Yet here I was last Saturday, surprised to find myself actively enjoying the Christmas Eve service. Preempted from my usual pew, I sat in an unusual spot in the sanctuary, and discovered a bizarre convergence of acoustics and sound-system manipulation uniquely attuned to the choir, so I was able to hear the harmonies of the songs being sung. And I was charmed by the unfamiliar carols, including this one:

All Poor Ones and Humble

All poor ones and humble
and all those who stumble
come hastening, and feel not afraid;
for Jesus our treasure,
with love past all measure,
in lowly poor manger was laid.
Though wise men who found him
laid rich gifts around him,
yet oxen they gave him their hay,
and Jesus in beauty
accepted their duty, contented in manger he lay.
Then haste we to show him
the praises we owe him;
our service he ne'er can despise;
whose love still is able
to show us that stable,
where softly in manger he lies.
The Christ Child will lead us,
the Good Shepherd feed us
and with us abide till his day.
Then hatred he'll banish,
then sorrow will vanish,
and death and despair flee away.
And he shall reign ever,
and nothing shall sever
from us the great love of our King;
his peace and his pity
shall bless his fair city;
his praises we ever shall sing.
Then haste we to show him
the praises we owe him;
our service he ne'er can despise;
whose love still is able
to show us that stable,
where softly in manger he lies.
Words: v.1 Katharine Emily Roberts 1927, alt, v.2 William Thomas Penmar Davies 1951
Music: Welsh carol, harm. Erik Routley 1951

The final four stanzas are the chorus, and both times as I approached, “Our service he ne'er can despise,” I choked up.

Since then I've mused over the words and tune, trying to understand exactly what hit the emotional sweet-spot for me. Usually it's my own cynicism I'm choking on whenever I encounter a Disneyfied Nativity Scene; oxen offering up their hay to the Christ child gets me wondering if we won't soon encounter Sleepy, Dopey, Doc and Grumpy among the fabled wise men (who never made it to the manger in any of the gospel accounts).

The second verse is a howler, alright. So it has to be the first and the chorus that caught and kept me off-guard. Married to an ancient Welsh tune, in which the harmonies are easy to hit, the word that, “Jesus, our treasure, with love past all measure . . . our service he ne'er can despise,” was a welcome Christmas message to my ears.

God knows my idea of service is a cautious and miserly bit of business. My bristling hesitance to greet the village's seventh generation — “new faces” to me — is just one example. But these are the small acts on which we slowly build what community we can, hoping against hope that even this frugal service might ne'er be despised.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Of Christmas Music, And Enduring Favourites

I'm keen on novelty Christmas collections. Ever since the Ultra-Lounge series came out, their Jingle-Bell-heavy selections are an inescapable element in my December playlist. Esquivel's Merry Xmas From The Space Age Bachelor Pad is also a frequent partner in aural crime. I'm even perverse enough to include the odd selection from Eban Schletter's Cosmic Christmas. This year to round out my collection I finally picked up Surfin' Christmas: 12 Yule Tide Classics by The Wave Benders, whose Dutch nationality only compounds the novelty of Dick Dale-style carolling. It's adroit, wipe-out free fun, and it works.

Closer in spirit and execution to Verve Remixed Christmas is this year's Santastic 6, marshaled together by beat-obsessed DJs still hip to the scene. Santastic 6 is a mixed bag of tricks, lacking the uber-polish of Verve's studio product, and striking the odd dud note (if you get the joke just reading the title, there's little point to listening to the entirety of “You're A Loser, Newt Gingrich”). But overall it's a raucous beat-heavy mash-up extravaganza. My personal favourites are Atom's “Wonderland Walker” (Peggy Lee vs Fats Domino vs Bjork), Danny J's mash-up of Danny Elfman and The Supremes, and Martinn's delirious “Blenda Ree” which pulls together Brenda Lee, Golden Earring, Bananarama and the Greenhill Dixieland Jazz Band.

Also, be sure to give Mojochronic's provocative “Merry Christmas 2U” a listen. He cuts and pastes elements from our largest stage-hungry pietists (U2 and MercyMe, for starters), producing a version of "Silent Night" and "Little Drummer Boy" that is surprisingly rousing. I thought his clincher, using the penultimate verse of Greg Lake's “I Believe In Father Christmas” as a benediction, struck me as weirdly flat-footed — a moment when the artist resorted to a sophomoric piety of his own. We all know people whose Christmas mode is to smile as they take the centre of the floor and announce, “It's nice we're all having fun, but let's not forget . . . ” In Mojochronic's case, he doesn't want us to forget It's all make-believe. Yeah, yeah: thanks Dad. Now can we get back to the fun?

With that one exception, these songs are meant to inject the not-unpleasant element of surprise into your Christmas Party Playlist (and if the final minute of “2U” bugs you like it did me, the issue is easily remedied using Audacity). I'm grateful to say, “Mission accomplished.”

Say, maybe next year these hepcats will put their grubby pawprints all over She & Him's Christmas offering, and transform it into something I'll actually play!

“The one thing I used to mourn,” writes txkimmers, in her Amazon review of Porcupine Tree's The Incident, "was the fact that I probably would never love a band the way I did the Beatles as a kid, or the Clash in high school, or Nirvana.” Man, do I love her review! It illustrates perfectly how the Amazon Customer Review (the sincere ones, of course: the snow-jobs are an art-form unto themselves) can trump the “pro” reviewers by taking full advantage of three key non-pro tactics: 1) compulsive re-editing, and additional, later thoughts that reinform the original piece; 2) brazen subjectivity; 3) an artful autobiographical prĂ©cis that puts it all into context.

I'm also in complete agreement with her about Porcupine Tree “bringing back that kind of rush.” Their Signify originally earned a mere “honourable mention” from me in January 2011, getting nudged out by Arcade Fire and Elizabeth Cook. But let me say this about that: Signify has been this year's most-played album by a very wide margin, out-lapping and out-lasting last year's “favourites” by an astronomical distance, and choking out all would-be contenders for this year's prize of place. And as I've slowly collected the more recent PT offerings, they have quickly joined Signify and jostled for occupancy at the front of the queue. Until I'm able to give this band the Bangsian logorrheic existential shout-out it so richly deserves, txkimmer's Amazon review will have to suffice.

Friday, December 02, 2011

The Strangest Dream

'tis the season for Christmas concerts, which our family attends on a near-nightly basis, thanks to the girls' extra-curricular bliss-seeking. The other evening included a few selections from a boys choir, ages 7-9. They're still small enough in stature to be “adorable” and of course their voices reach that light soprano that sounds so “sweet.” The first song on the menu was, The Strangest Dream.

“Last night I had the strangest dream
The strangest ever before
I dreamed that the whole world agreed
To put an end to war”

Oh, but the sentiment, expressed in such pure tones, does put the lump in one's throat.

At song's end, as the audience heartily applauded, my younger daughter gave a loud snort. “The only thing those little goofs dream about,” she sneered, “is playing Call Of Duty, 24-7.”

Hm, indeed. But where would we be without some adult superimposition?