Posts Tagged ‘First Aid Kit’

The much-acclaimed 1944 MGM musical Meet Me in St. Louis spins the tale of a St. Louis family from summer 1903 to spring 1904. A posh production helmed by Vincente Minnelli, it’s at once nostalgic and not, dreamy and dour, with most of the songs dating to the early 1900s or before. However, the film is spiced by a handful of new tunes by songwriters Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine: “The Boy Next Door,” the Oscar-nominated “The Trolley Song” and a song that’s since become a seasonal classic, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

This NPR/Fresh Air page delves into the song’s history; this Wikipedia page does, too. But if you choose not to click through, what you really should know is this: Martin’s and Blaine’s first version was rejected by Judy Garland, co-star Tom Drake and Minnelli. As Martin explained to Fresh Air host Terri Gross in 2006, “The original version was so lugubrious that Judy Garland refused to sing it. She said, ‘If I sing that, little Margaret will cry and they’ll think I’m a monster.’ So I was young then and kind of arrogant, and I said, ‘Well, I’m sorry you don’t like it, Judy, but that’s the way it is, and I don’t really want to write a new lyric.’ But Tom Drake, who played the boy next door, took me aside and said, ‘Hugh, you’ve got to finish it. It’s really a great song potentially, and I think you’ll be sorry if you don’t do it.’ So I went home and I wrote the version that’s in the movie.”

Garland’s rendition was released as a single and, though it only rose to No. 27 on the pop charts, became a hit with U.S. service members fighting in World War II. It’s easy to hear why; she captures the nuances of the lyrics, which are simultaneously hopeful and yearning, cherishing the days that used to be while wishing to forge similar memories again: “Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow/So have yourself a merry little Christmas now….”

Here she is performing it on the radio in 1944:

In 1957, Frank Sinatra – who first covered it in 1948 – asked Martin to change the line “until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow” to something a tad more upbeat, as he wanted to re-record it for his A Jolly Christmas LP and found that line depressing. As a result, it became “hang a shining star upon the highest bough.” It zaps some of the song’s strength, I think.

In the years since, it has joined the Great American Songbook and been performed by hundreds upon hundreds of artists; SecondHandSongs lists 1575 recorded renditions, for example, and that’s likely an undercount. Simply put, it tugs at the heartstrings like few others; and, in some respects, could well be the theme song for Christmas 2020. In any event, here’s a Song Roundup of renditions that have captured my ear through the years and also this morning…

Ella Fitzgerald sings it from her 1960 Ella Wishes You a Swinging Christmas LP. Note that she sticks with the “muddle through” line…

…while Lena Horne, on her 1966 album titled Merry From Lena, does not.  

The a cappella jazz vocal ensemble Singers Unlimited perform the “highest bough” version song on their 1972 Christmas LP.

In 1987, Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders deliver a stirring rendition of the Sinatra version for the A Very Special Christmas CD compilation. (Interesting to note, but it was after this record that the song’s popularity jumped into hyperdrive.)

In 1992, the Stylistics put their soulful spin on it and make it sound brand new, though they, too, sing the “highest bough” line.

Linda Ronstadt also “hangs a shining star” on her 2000 A Merry Little Christmas album. 

In 2004, Dionne Warwick and Gladys Knight joined together for this moving rendition, which appeared on Warwick’s My Favorite Time of Year album; they actually make me not mind when they sing “highest bough” line. 

Also in 2004, Chris Isaak channels his inner Sinatra for this version from his Christmas album, but sings the original “muddle through” line.

In 2011, She & Him (aka Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward) covered the Sinatra version for their A Very She & Him Christmas set.

First Aid Kit shared their beautiful version, which they performed on BBC Radio 2, in 2017. They, too, “muddle through.” 

Finally, the rendition that ignited this journey: Malin Pettersen and Darling West, who shared their cover a few weeks back. As I said at the time, it’s a hauntingly beautiful rendition of a haunting beautiful song. (And, note, that they also sing the original “muddle through” line.)

Of late, I fear my blog has become superlative central. Week after week after week, I laud and applaud select artists and albums, lavishing them with praise that, though neither feint nor faked, sometimes trades in the hyperbolic. There’s no getting around it, I’m afraid. Like many others, music has provided me much-needed solace during these tryin’ times, akin to God rays brightening the dreariest of days. I cherish the brief bursts of catharsis cracking through the dark clouds.

So, if my plaudits occasionally seem over the top, that’s why; I’m lost in the revelry of the moment. There’s also this, however: I rarely write about things I dislike. If I hear something that doesn’t suit my ears, I tend to set it aside and move on. (Thus, some albums folks may expect me to write about, as I championed the artists in the past, never appear in these pages.) Plus, as my ongoing Essentials and Of Concerts Past series show, much of the music I celebrate is mixed with memories of long ago; it’s easy to get lost in those. Earlier this week, for example, I found myself hummin’ a song from 1962…

…and indulged in some wistful nostalgia. (And, just as an aside, is there a better practitioner of that specific art than Bob Seger?) However, as often as not the music is new – Old Flowers by Courtney Marie Andrews and Free by Natalie Duncan are two examples, while Emma Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks brings the past into the present with panache.

First Aid Kit’s recent rendition of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” does, too, while also making me yearn for a COVID-free future. Concerts are much missed.

The tunes need not be upbeat to steal one away from the immediate; sad songs work as well as happy. Either/or, they just need an oomph, which is near impossible to put into words beyond – to appropriate a phrase from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (1915-85) – I know it when I hear it.

In some respects, I subscribe to Carl Jung’s theory of a collective unconscious, though I’m fairly certain that the collective shattered decades ago into hundreds upon hundreds of shards, some small, some large, akin to ice shelves breaking apart in the Arctic and Antarctica. While some shards have drifted far away, others are close enough together that one can hop between them; thus, whether the intangible oomph connects depends on a combination of chance, when one leaps and where one lands.

Anyway, in the days and weeks ahead, I plan to shift focus away from music and to some of the other stuff I occasionally write about, if only to cleanse the palate of the superlatives I’ve been tossing around. One guaranteed topic: James at 15 (later 16), an interesting – but not great – TV series that aired from 1977 to ’78 on NBC. Another: the documentary Seventeen, which explores the lives of teens in Muncie, Ind., during the early ’80s. I’ve also been thinking about baby boomers, Generation X and the micro-generation that lies between them, Generation Jones, and plan to apply my amateur anthropologist-psychologist training to each. (That’s a joke only James at 15 fans will get.)

Stay tuned…

Making music is not akin to building a model, though sometimes it may seem that way. Prefabricated pieces aren’t stamped out at a factory in some far-off foreign land. Picture-laden directions aren’t included. There’s no inserting of staccato guitar solo A into steady rhythm B, and no slathering on glue and waiting for it to dry. Otherwise, the world would be awash in indistinguishable songs.

Oh wait. We are.

But such has been the case since the dawn of the entertainment industry. Hits beget blurry copies that smell of mimeograph ink – and if you don’t appreciate that reference, don’t worry. It only serves to point out my age and say, slyly, that much of modern pop music isn’t being made for me. (Nor should it be.) As Paul Simon summarized in “The Boy in the Bubble,” “every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.”

Anyway, although my much-ballyhooed “Album of the Year” is an honorific I’ve doled out every year since 1978, when I was 13, putting forth an “Album of the Decade” never occurred to me until a month ago, when the notion was mentioned in someone’s tweet; and then, this month, magazines, newspapers and online outlets began posting their lengthy and semi-lengthy lists. The ones I’ve seen basically weigh artistry and commercial impact, and inevitably mix in a handful of niche records while ignoring select popular hits.

Most are little more than clickbait exercises designed to boost ad impressions.

You’ll find no advertisements on this page. To borrow/adapt the lyrics from Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You,” I don’t write for Pepsi/I don’t write for Coke/I don’t write for nobody/Makes me look like a joke. Also, very few of those lists achieve what I love most about reading about music: a sense of the author. From where I sit, the best music reflects the listener(s) as much as it does the artist. It intertwines with our DNA. (And “best” in that sentence construct is a subjective thing.) 

With all that said, the reality of the past decade – which saw good times, bad times, and plenty of in-betweens for me and mine – is that a handful of albums turned my ear every year, and quite a few became constants. And of those, a select some have pretty much become one with my soul; they mean as much to me as the music of my youth.

One caveat: Your mileage may vary. One more caveat: It’s too early for my favorite albums of this year to be included here, as one never knows just how long they’ll stick with you (though I can’t imagine Allison Moorer’s Blood fading away). And one last caveat: I’m a middle-aged white guy with catholic tastes. (To quote Paul Simon again, “I know what I know.”) While I enjoy many different musical avenues, I generally find myself circling the same blocks of rock, pop and Americana/country.

And with that out of the way, here are my top seven albums for the 2010s.

1) Rumer – Seasons of My Soul (2010). In my first blog post on the Hatboro-Horsham Patch (which I’ve since moved to this site) in February 2012, I called it “an atmospheric song cycle that’s teeming with soulful, knowing lyrics and melodies that wrap themselves around the heart.” It spoke to me then and speaks to me now. It’s the definition of “essential.

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (2016). I cannot properly put into words the many ways this album affected me, other than to say this: From the moment I first heard it, it felt like it had been with me all my life. “Honest Life” is a song I want played at my funeral, whenever that may be. “Some things take a lifetime to fully understand.” (For my initial review of it, click here.)

3) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (2012). This may be a controversial pick for some, as not even all Neil fans appreciate its grandeur. Such is life. But as I wrote in this “essentials” essay, “it features sprawling songs that capture the messy essence of this thing called life.”

4) First Aid Kit – Stay Gold (2014). So, long about 2012, I had pretty much given up hope for the youth of the world. And then I heard “Emmylou” by the Swedish sister act known as First Aid Kit and realized that, indeed, I was wrong. As good as The Lion’s Den album was, however, nothing prepared me for this gem. The psychedelic folk of “Cedar Lane” remains as hypnotic to me now as it did then.

5) Juliana Hatfield – Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018). I can hear some guffaws echoing through the interconnected tubes that make up this thing we call the “internet.” Whatever. This album saw two of my favorite worlds collide, and made a rough last half of the decade much sweeter. To rework a line from my initial review, it captures the spirit of the originals while adding a touch of Juliana’s heart.

6) Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball (2012). From my original review (another first posted to the Patch but since relocated here): “[W]hat makes a song great isn’t that it conjures spirits from our youthful nights, but that it speaks to the present. Maybe the first blush of melody hurtles us into the past, but the bridge jerks us as fast into the here and now. And the lyrics ring true no matter the age – or our age, for that matter. The runaway American dream that drives Born to Run, for example, represents today as much as 1975, just as the bitter realities and resignation of Darkness reflect working-class life of every era. As Springsteen sings on the title track of Wrecking Ball, his new album, “hard times come and hard times go/yeah, just to come again.” Some things, for good and bad, never change.”

7) Diane Birch – Nous (2016). This EP is a true work of art anchored by what, to me, is one of the decade’s greatest songs: “Stand Under My Love.” To borrow from my review, Nous “documents dreams, disappointments, disillusionment, faith and acceptance, and an awareness not spoken that, indeed, the Last Things are the First Things.”

Last night saw a who’s who of singer-songwriters gathering for a swank soiree at one of the region’s finest (if over-priced) restaurants. While some arrived in tuxedoes and others in gowns, a few underdressed artists explained/complained that they would have bedecked themselves if only they’d known they should. (“Who would’ve thought,” said one of the offenders.) The occasion: the Old Grey Cat’s first-ever “Album of the Decade” fete.

The six-hour event is now being edited into a one-hour TV special to air on the world’s top TV networks next Saturday night; apparently, watching an LP rotate on a turntable isn’t as enthralling as initially imagined. (That said, watching the LPs spin turned out to be more exciting than watching the CDs being dropped into a CD tray and then disappearing inside the player.)  

One of the night’s highlights came when select performers took to the stage to sing holiday songs. Up-and-coming Rhode Island-based country singer Charlie Marie, for instance, warmed hearts when she sang her latest single, “Old-Fashioned Christmas.”

And Shelby Lynne and Daryl Hall recreated their Live From Daryl’s House duet on Shelby’s bluesy “Xmas.” 

Lucy Rose, for her part, chided the Old Grey Cat for forgetting her No Words Left album in his rundown of the top albums of 2019 before forgiving him with her sweet rendition of Shakin’ Stevens’ “Merry Christmas Everyone.”

Maja Francis and First Aid Kit brought the house down with their stirring cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” (Technically, it’s not a Christmas tune, but…)

Finally, the Greta Garbo of rock ’n’ pop ’n’ soul, Duffy, returned from reclusion to close the festive fun with her stripped-down spin on Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song.”