Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Aimee Mann, “Calling On Mary”

Aimee Mann has long been one of my go-to artists. I was on the ‘Til Tuesday bandwagon enough back in the 80s–I ripped their first two albums onto cassette pretty early in grad school and would listen to that tape on trips back and forth to KY (that’s how I came to fall utterly in love with “Coming Up Close”). But it was her first few solo albums that really put her front and center in my listening; Whatever and I’m With Stupid are both way good, and Bachelor No. 2 remains close to the top of my “favorite albums of the last quarter century” list.

So it was a pretty easy call to buy One More Drifter in the Snow, her Christmas album, soon after its release in 2006. It’s not particularly long: 10 songs, 33 minutes. Several cuts are standard choices for such an affair, including “The Christmas Song,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” I’d call the overall feel of the album both retro (think 50s and 60s) and fairly subdued (things kick off with Jimmy Webb’s “Whatever Happened to Christmas”–she doesn’t seem to be doing this to pep us up!). The duet with Grant Lee Phillips on “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” is perhaps the closest thing to a fun piece on the disk.

There are a couple of originals, too.  One, “Christmastime,” was written by Mann’s husband, Michael Penn (I could definitely envision him doing a version of it). The other is one she co-wrote, the closing track “Calling On Mary.” It’s just what you’d expect from Mann–a meditation on lost love and loneliness at the holidays–and it’s a perfect bookend to the Webb piece–“‘Cause comfort’s not possible when/You look past the joy to the end.”

In spite of the lack of cheeriness, I make sure to listen to One More Drifter each year; it’s a good antidote to crass commercialization and hyper-peppy Christmas music.

11/7/81 and 11/27/76 Charts

Here are charts from November shows played this year:

Seems I was regularly listening to only the first halves of shows at this point–here I don’t have the third 60s Archive song (it was “Honky Tonk Women”) or the second LDD (“Every Time I Think of You”).

The first year-end countdown I heard in real time was that of 76, and Casey saying on that show that his staff used a “November-to-November” year for compiling their list stuck with me over the years.  Throughout my chart-keeping days, I considered the first weekend of November the beginning of a new “chart year.” (I realized–too late–that by 81 this actually was no longer true, at least for putting together year-enders. More on that some other day.)

As for my own listing:

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LRB was in their fifth and final week atop the chart. Christopher Cross, Hall and Oates, the Four Tops, and the Police were awaiting their turns. For the curious, “Waiting for a Girl Like You” got to #3 (“Physical” is lurking just outside the top 25 and would reach #4 in January). Like many other 17-year-olds in 81, I cranked Billy Squier’s music plenty enough. Not seeing any good obscurities to bring to light this time, though a couple of AOR favorites would soon be on the scene (I’ll wait for an early 82 show to say more).

Finally, this past weekend’s 76 show:

This is on pink paper, the second and final time I used that color. I’m also in the middle of a three-week run of red ink (the only three times I did that).

WSAI had taken AT40 off their schedule after the 9/4/76 show; listener outrage led to a restoration by 10/17. For years (actually, decades) there was a five-week gap in my charts. When it came back, I adopted a simpler design for a number of months.

Note that I had picked up on the persistence of slow descents, predicting the Bay City Rollers and Heart to stay on the show the following week. I wasn’t wrong about either, though I was still too aggressive (BCR stayed at #33, while the Wilsons dropped only to #32). I had the right idea about BÖC, Chicago, and Abba, too, though I nailed only “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.”

American Top 40 PastBlast, 11/23/85: Scritti Politti, “Perfect Way”

This was one I liked pretty well as the fall of my senior year in college wound down, but I knew precious little otherwise about Scritti Politti. Outside of “Perfect Way,” there were maybe two things I could tell you: I’d heard about leader Green Gartside’s Marxist leanings earlier in his life, likely from MTV, and Roger from across the hall talked up “Wood Beez (Pray Like Aretha Franklin).” That’s pretty much how it’s stayed across the decades, too.

I did take a look through their Wikipedia article after settling on my choice of track for this post. Cupid & Psyche 85, their most successful album, did spawn five charting singles in the UK, two of them Top 10: “Wood Beez” and “The Word Girl.” The former was a pretty big dance hit over here but only reached #91 on the Hot 100. The latter, with a reggae beat, probably wasn’t released as a US single. I’ve listened to both this week; they’re fine enough, but I wouldn’t expect either to have been big charters.

But as I said, they both were exactly that across the pond. And what about “Perfect Way?” It’s #21 on this show and would fall one spot shy of the U.S. Top Ten. However, it stalled out at #48 in Britain. To me, it’s obviously a better jam/more commercial than either “Wood Beez” or “The Word Girl.”  But would I have felt the same if I lived in London in the mid 80s instead of Kentucky? Makes me think about the connection between the culture and the pop culture of a place and time–what exactly are the dependencies and contingencies? Thoughts worth exploring, but since it’s a holiday weekend, I’m going to leave it at that for now.

Yesterday was very close to a carbon copy of what I did 52 weeks ago (in a good way). We’ve spent the holiday in suburban Atlanta visiting my sister-in-law, and on Saturday I drove over to Greenville, SC, to meet with up with my college friend Warren. Just like last year, we had lunch at a fine Mediterranean place, browsed a used media store (for the second year in a row, I picked up a Margaret Atwood book), and did frappuccinos at Starbucks. And we talked a lot. Much of it was of the catching-up variety, but we touched on national and world events as well. Warren often has a take on things quite different from mine, and I welcome the alternate perspective to help me try to better understand my own thoughts. It was a great afternoon. Thanks, Warren!

Then, on the way back to GA, I caught the front end of this 85 AT40 show. Last year, they played the countdown following this one, so I heard a number of the same songs (“Burning Heart,” “Conga,” “You’re a Friend of Mine,” and “Running Up That Hill,” among others), on the same station (KCPI in Albert Lea, MN). Don’t know what next year will bring, obviously, but I’m guessing there won’t be a show from the same year again…

 

American Top 40 PastBlast, 11/27/76: Peter Frampton, “Do You Feel Like We Do”

AT40 expanded from three to four hours in October 78. For at least a couple of years before that, they’d resorted to editing down one or more songs each show to make everything fit; singles had simply gotten longer on average as the decade passed. I had definitely noticed the shortened songs at the time—how could you not? My name for the practice back then was cutting, and it made me pretty unhappy when one of my favorites was “cut.” Apparently the hourly commercial load has increased a little from the 70s, as the folks at Premiere have introduced their own edits on many shows for the weekly rebroadcasts (though to be fair, I get the impression they may also sometimes restore songs to their full length).

I wonder how Casey’s staff felt when really long songs charted before the expansion.  “Bohemian Rhapsody” went 5:55, and I’ve read that it was never edited during its sixteen week AT40 run over February-May 76. A few months later, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (single length 5:57) landed on the show, on the last weekend of September. Then two weeks later, things got much more challenging when Peter Frampton’s third single from Frampton Comes Alive, “Do You Feel Like We Do” (7:19), popped in at #39. Those songs were together for ten countdowns. Based on a quick examination of the cue sheets (courtesy Charis Music Group), my best guess is that they played Lightfoot in full a little more than half the time, but Frampton got edited every time except for his debut week. Some of it’s that extra minute-twenty, but there’s the whole story-song-vs.-live-track-with-four-minutes-of-guitar-noodling thing going on, too.

There were four occasions (10/23 and the first three weeks of November) when the two songs were played in the same hour of the show, and I’ve checked to see how that was handled. I was curious about one thing in particular: ordinarily in the latter years of the three-hour era, they’d split the songs up 14-13-13 (in some order), but did they do a 14-14-12 on any of those four shows? The answer turns out to be yes—once, on 11/6, when Frampton was #11 and Lightfoot #3. It wouldn’t have surprised me had it happened more than that. (As a kicker, another Queen song, “Somebody To Love” (4:57), joined the show at the beginning of December—these three epics were all on for two weeks.)

“Do You Feel Like We Do” had dropped back from its #10 peak to the second hour, at #15, on this week’s countdown. I’m in the mood to hear the entire 14:15 from the album— to borrow a line from another lengthy live 70s track, how ‘bout you?

P.S.: This is one of the “slow faller” showss I had on my mind a few weeks ago when I looked at rolling averages of numbers of debuts. There are just two new songs here, after only three the previous week. In the first hour of the show, we find “She’s Gone,” “You Are My Starship,” and “A Fifth of Beethoven” all dropping two spots, to #39, #37, and #36, respectively, “Nice ‘n’ Naasty” falling five to #35, and “Play That Funky Music” down seven to #34. It continued the next week; that show’s opening hour would feature fallers dropping two, zero, one, five, seven, and four spots from what we hear this time.

 

 

Christmas/Holiday Cheer: Straight No Chaser, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”

One of the upper-level undergraduate math courses I’ve taught regularly over the years is abstract algebra (my school offers it in even falls, so it’s part of my load this semester). In the class, we look closely at the some of the basic properties encountered pretty early on in mathematics (associativity, inverses, and the like) and investigate other sets/structures called groups that have those properties. One tool we use to examine groups with only a few elements is called a Cayley table, which summarizes how elements are combined. (An aside: I’ve used cayleytable as a moniker to comment in various online fora over the years).

We always discuss in my class that there are only two different group structures with set size four–that is, there are only two distinct ways to fill out a Cayley table for sets with four elements. One of these is called the Klein four-group. You can imagine my ears perked up a decade or more ago when I learned at a math conference about a men’s a cappella group called The Klein Four. Turned out they were five (?) math grad students at Northwestern University, and they wrote and performed math-themed songs. Their best-known work, such as it is, is the love song “Finite Simple Group (of Order Two);” the lyrics bring smiles to faces of mathematicians everywhere, trust me. I plan to show the video to my class next week.

All of this is lengthy introduction to where I really want to go today. When I first watched “Finite Simple Group (of Order Two)” on YouTube back in 2006 or whenever, one of the recommended videos in the sidebar was Klein Four’s take on “Twelve Days of Christmas.” When I clicked on it, I discovered a version like no other I’d ever heard, with snippets of other holiday tunes thrown in, including “Deck the Halls,” “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” and “I Have a Little Dreidel.” In the lower right corner at the beginning and end of the vid, there’s arrangement credit to Straight No Chaser; at the time that meant nothing to me. Within in a few years, though, SNC’s even more amazing version, the song that launched their recording career, came across my screen. It gets plenty of play on radio stations at this time of year now.

“The Twelve Days of Christmas” was their first encore at the show last Thursday, and they mixed things up a little bit with it–they were having Hanukkah in Africa this time.

(insert alcohol-related play on words here)

This past Thursday evening, the fam and I saw the a cappella men’s group Straight No Chaser in concert in Lexington. We have a few of their CDs, mostly Christmas stuff, but this was the first time we’ve had a chance to see them live.

I had gotten four tickets back in May (one was for the girl Ben was dating at the time—things do change in six months); our friend Becky joined us as we braved an uncharacteristic mid-November snow on the way to the show. The venue was the Opera House, a somewhat small but sweet venue for seeing shows and concerts (we’ve been there around a half-a-dozen times over the last three years, including “Weird Al” back in March). This time we were third row, mezzanine, a little right of center as you face the stage. I’d take those seats again anytime.

SNC got their start at Indiana University in Bloomington in the 90s. As folks graduated, new members took their place. An upload of one of their collegiate performances to YouTube in 2008 (more on that Friday) led to the original cast getting an audition (and subsequently a contract) with Atlantic Records. There has been some turnover in membership in the decade since, but replacements have come from later generations of the on-campus group. The current incarnation has nine performers; they used to have ten. Album titles have built on the group’s name, including With a Twist, Under the Influence, Holiday Spirits, and most recently, One Shot (hence the title of this post). The guys are fairly spread out when they’re not touring, stretching from PA to TX. One of them lives in Cincinnati, and his parents were in the audience, up in the mezzanine with us.

The show lasted close very nearly two hours, including a 15-20 minute intermission. Even though not every song was exactly my style, these thirty- and forty-somethings were consistently entertaining. Various members took turns at the mic between numbers; their attempts at humor mostly hit the mark. Being good Hoosiers, they gleefully took a couple of shots at UK. A reference to their bus driving by a scenic campus on the way to the venue turned into a shoutout to my alma mater (Becky is also a Transy grad), and they also made sure to mention the men’s hoops team’s recent debacle against Duke.

SNC almost exclusively does covers. The set list included several cuts from One Shot, including the medley “Motownphilly/This Is How We Do It,” “Go Your Own Way,” “Homeward Bound,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and “Working for the Weekend.” The Percy Sledge piece includes a key change before the final go-round with the chorus that they absolutely nailed. However, I thought the Loverboy contained perhaps the weakest moment of the show, with the lead not being quite strong enough to pull off singing the title phrase as high as he went (it sounded much better when a second voice joined him). The first half ended with a highlight: a Disney medley with altered lyrics that reflect what’s really going on in those movies.

They came out of intermission with a few Christmas tunes (I allowed myself to enjoy them even if it is still before Thanksgiving), including a tale of a football-loving husband corralled into attending a performance of The Nutcracker while the big game is on.  Then, maybe the piece of the evening, a mashup of “Thriller” and “Uptown Funk,” complete with MJ-inspired choreography. Definitely recommended.

Dancing isn’t their strength, but it’s more than smooth enough. The harmonies are uniformly great and their dedicated human “beat box” provided fun percussion effects all night long. After the show, Martha had a more-than-fair criticism, observing that they never have a bass take the lead, even for a verse (this leads me to reflect that perhaps it’d wouldn’t be bad if they had a little more volume overall in the lower register).

There were a couple of encores, and they ended the evening with an “old school” (that is, sans microphones) version of “You’ve Got a Friend.” You get the feeling that the fellows are feeling some nostalgia and maybe a little age with this latest recording (One Shot includes about a dozen brief spoken interludes reflecting on their journey across the years–they also showed clips from home movies on the backscreen during “Homeward Bound”). I figure the closing number was an attempt to share/recapture the feel of undergraduate days, even if just for a few moments. In my own way, I can relate.

One fun thing they do at each show is take a picture of the audience and post it on their FB page. If you know where to look, you can find us. I’m wearing a maroon sweater, three rows up and left of center on the middle level. I’m clapping, but it looks like I’m holding clenched hands up like a champ. Martha is a little more discernible, in a grey sweater; Ben and Becky are to my right and her left, respectively. It’s a pretty cool way to connect with the crowd.

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I’d be happy to see them again.

American Top 40 PastBlast, 11/15/86: David + David, “Welcome to the Boomtown”

The two main record stores in Campustown back in the late 80s/early 90s were Record Service and Record Swap. Both were on Green Street, the main east-west drag through the university, between 6thand Wright in Champaign. They targeted different audiences, by and large. Record Service, on the south side of Green, was the larger, more conventional store, selling exclusively new product. The focus was on mainstream rock and jazz, but there was also a classical store, Figaro’s, upstairs. They had maybe thirty feet of street frontage and a distinctive blue awning that displayed the logo you see above. Record Swap, on the other side of the street, offered more indie/alternative stuff and had a brisk resale business. To get to it, you had to ascend a narrow flight of stairs and make a hard turn at the top.  The aisles were much narrower at the Swap, and they also sold incense, beads, and the like; it reminded me a little of Cut Corner Records in Lexington. It didn’t take long after my arrival in Illinois to check both out, though at the beginning I spent more time and money in Record Service. Other shops were in operation during those years, two-to-three blocks west on Green, but the Service and the Swap got most of my business. When the retail music scene convulsed in reaction to the arrival of online stores and later streaming, the two business responded in different ways, too. Record Service was shuttered in 2004, but Record Swap lives on, though in another location not so near to campus.

My musical tastes had been evolving/expanding beyond strictly Top 40 during college, and that definitely accelerated in the C-U years. My acquisitions that first fall of grad school perhaps show where I’d been and point a little toward where I was going. Let’s take a brief look at what was added to my collection around then, how about it?

REM, Lifes Rich Pageant
I won this from WPGU in my first weeks there by being the right caller. While I was a little late to the REM scene, I already had Reconstruction of the Fables by this point and was elated to get the newest release for free. I really like the muscular opening one-two punch of “Begin the Begin”  and “These Days.” I’ve always thought the marvelous “Fall on Me” deserved a much higher chart peak than #94, and “Superman” is just plain awesome.

Talking Heads, True Stories
There was also a one-screen movie theater in the same block as the record stores, and I saw quite a few films there. One of the first was David Byrne’s True Stories, which I recall being enjoyable enough if plenty quirky (it was also my introduction to John Goodman). I was all about the Heads in those days and this was an easy purchase. I spent much of the fall (successfully) willing “Wild Wild Life” onto AT40, but tracks like “Love for Sale,” “Puzzlin’ Evidence,” “People Like Us,” and “City of Dreams” ran through my head over and over that fall, too. I’ll agree with the consensus that this isn’t quite as good as Little Creatures, but it’s far from bad stuff.

Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon
As I said back in July, I picked this up as a result of hearing it in the summer of 85 while visiting my cousin, a big Joni fan, in MA. Side one is completely aces: “Morning Morgantown,” “For Free,” and “Conversation”—mercy! I definitely prefer the studio take of “Big Yellow Taxi” that’s here to the live version that Casey played in early 75. On the other hand, I’ve long found her version of “Woodstock” far too plodding.

Utopia, Trivia
“Set Me Free” had been a big favorite in the spring of 80 and put me on the lookout for subsequent material from them. I hadn’t plunked any filthy lucre down on any of their stuff, though, until I saw this compilation at Record Service. What pushed me over the edge? Two songs: “Crybaby,” with its “96 Tears”-like intro, had caught my attention a couple of years earlier, and “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now,” for its buggy video, which I’d seen on one of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “AL-TV” specials. The other tracks are mostly only okay, so those two remain my go-to songs on it.

The Lover Speaks, The Lover Speaks
I was utterly entranced when I first heard “No More ‘I Love You’s,” from the British duo The Lover Speaks, on WPGU early that fall. It might be my single favorite song from the last half of 86. I picked up this cassette before too much time passed. The lead track, “Every Lover’s Sign,” is pretty good, but there wasn’t too much else I found all that exciting.  Annie Lennox reached #23 in 95 with a cover of “No More ‘I Love You’s.” It didn’t grab me nearly the same way the original had, though I applaud her good taste (and get this—the B-side was “Ladies of the Canyon”).

Steely Dan, Greatest Hits
Soon after graduation, a bunch of my college friends started circulating a “chain letter” amongst ourselves. Somehow we settled on an order; the first person on the list wrote to the second, who added their own letter before forwarding it on to the third, etc. When it got to me, I had the genius notion of including a mix tape of stuff that was currently catching my fancy (I’ve long been bad about inflicting “my” music on folks). I wish I had written down the set list, but I do know it included “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” from the pressed-in-Portugal copy of Steely Dan’s double album Greatest Hits I’d bought on the cheap that fall. I sent the letters and the tape on to Mark, the next on the list, who was now back in St. Louis. He got it and did his part, but the package got lost on the way to the next one in the chain. That was the end of that. I can’t help but feel largely responsible for adding something that might require more than just a large envelope.

Lone Justice, Shelter and Suzanne Vega, Suzanne Vega
This was a pair of late-in-the-semester purchases that I took back with me to KY over the Christmas break for further listening. I didn’t have the debut LP from Lone Justice yet, but I’d liked what I’d heard well enough to give the follow-up a shot. Shelter is pretty good; I’d pick the title song, “Belfry,” and “The Gift” as the best tracks. It’s missing the country-rock vibe of the first album, though, which makes it a somewhat lesser effort overall. I wrote some about Suzanne Vega a couple of months ago. It’s still one of my favorite albums of all time.

Babys, Anthology and Heart, Passionworks
I got both of these in a discount bin at Record Service. I bought the former not only for the two big singles, but also tracks I’d heard over the years like “Turn and Walk Away” and “Midnight Rendezvous.”  Good stuff. The attraction of the latter was not just “How Can I Refuse” but also “Allies,” which was still getting play on WPGU. I liked Heart plenty from “Crazy on You” to “If Looks Could Kill,” but their early 80s stuff is the least intriguing of the bunch. Passionworks was perhaps one purchase that would’ve been OK not to make.

David + David, Boomtown
I listened to this a bunch that first year in Illiniland; it’s a mighty fine album. I featured one of its tracks, “Swallowed By the Cracks,” almost exactly one year ago, and I semi-promised then to use “Welcome to the Boomtown” as a PastBlast track when I had the chance. Semi-promise fulfilled! It’s debuting at #40 on this show, and would get three positions higher.  Even though Miss Christina and Handsome Calvin are denizens of sunny LA, hearing this song always brings to mind cold, cloudy, windy late autumn days. The wailing guitar at the beginning and end of the tune only adds to that feeling.