Holiday Listen Up 

How to avoid the holiday music rerun blues


Does it drive you nuts the way Christmas songs start seeping into the background earlier and earlier every year? Are you maddened by hearing it at the post office, at the mall, in the airports and during each and every commercial everywhere? Have you tried to make a call to some major corporation, say the airlines, only to hear the magic words, "If you have a touch-tone phone please press one now and wait for your options before we put you on hold and play Muzak versions of bad Christmas songs until you scream for Prozac."

If you, like me, feel sick every time you hear the first notes of all-too-familiar classic songs, then you may well have the rerun Christmas music blues. This year, though, I vow to fight back. I won't buy into any of the usual Christmas music crap. I have the cure for the rerun Christmas music blues. I am making my own tradition with my own choices of music for the holidays.

After all, is there any hope for a society which produces classics like "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," and then turns them into Muzak and rams them into the unsuspecting ears of its citizens? Compounding the profanity, this diet of lite music begins far in advance of the true season. Days before Halloween, I was hearing "Holly Jolly Christmas" on Delta's customer disservice wait line.

Given my history of interactions with Delta, this may have been an isolated event aimed at me personally, possibly in retaliation for the Ritz cracker incident in Salt Lake City last March. But I can't rule out the possibility that Delta may have been trying to embitter others as well.

When I hear Christmas music, I want to be free to surrender to the glad memories of growing up and gathering around the ol' tree (okay, the Chanukah shrub, but we went through the motions) at Gramma's, not held captive in some slow-moving line or being softened by retailers trying to put me in the Christmas spirit.

The albums we are going to be playing a lot these last few days before the big day -- and, remember, these make great gifts too -- are John Coltrane's My Favorite Things, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Al Green's Let's Stay Together, Tom Waits' Night Hawks at the Diner, and (here I break down and go with the season) Louis Armstrong and friends' What a Wonderful Christmas.

My first step toward selecting any of this music was to imagine the players dressed up in Santa suits: Miles Davis and John Coltrane, okay; Al Green, easy enough; Tom Waits... hmmm... a little scary, but balanced by the vision of Louis Armstrong in a red suit with a white beard. As for the ritual that follows, feel free to improvise.

Set up your tree and, while decorating, let Tom Waits' whiskey and gravel voice spin a few tales about people who are not lucky, whose lives are not any where near as good as our own. Waits tells as good a story as anyone and does it with humor and groove. This is a good time of year to remember your fortunes and keep a tender space for those who have none.

When people come over, spin the Armstrong and friends disc -- new this year, with old classics by stellar performers. It is music familiar enough to illuminate the season, but good enough to listen to over and over. The high point for me is somewhere between Duke Ellington's "Jingle Bells" and Satchmo's version of "Winter Wonderland." "Zat you Santa clause?" is another favorite, but I love them all.

After the crowd thins out and the glasses washed, turn out all the lights except for the ones on the tree and toss another log on the fire. Put on Al Green's Let's Stay Together, and slow dance with your sweet one. If you make it through side two, you are guaranteed to sleep warm and deep when you finally get there. (Warning: excessive indulgence in Al Green can lead to procreation which may ultimately interfere with your ability to sleep in on Christmas morning.)

As Christmas dawns, it's time to open a few presents. With coffee and fresh-baked muffins steaming by the stove, put on John Coltrane's My Favorite Things, and tear into those packages all tied up with string. This is one of the greatest albums of all time, and there are two tunes most everyone can hum at least the beginning of. By the time Coltrane starts into "Summertime," you won't care much that summer is half a year away.

Once the day drifts deep into the afternoon, it's time once again to get cozy by the fire and watch the shadows grow. As the light goes all soft Miles' Kind of Blue provides a gentle winding-down soundtrack. If you own only one jazz record it should be this one. There is almost no occasion for which it is not the perfect music and this day as the room dissolves into dusk, and fire light, is the best of all best times to hear it.

Hold somebody tight and watch the fire dance and you will have beaten the holiday music rerun blues for good. Trust me on this one. Life is too short to listen to bad music.

The Derailers close out the year with a roots return


Reverb Deluxe
The Derailers

As the year comes to a close, the new millennium comes even closer and Bill Gates moves toward installing a chip in every citizen, there remains one, constant, unassailable source of comfort and pleasure for those of us not ready to cross the Bill Clinton Memorial Bridge to the 21st century.

What is this magic balm, you ask? Roots music, of course.

Americana, grange, no depression, new traditionalism (an insulting oxymoron) -- whatever trendy label Big Media feels compelled to slap on it, there is a growing number of clear-eyed purists, who play straight ahead, old school country songs that evoke the early, innocent days of rock and roll when grown-ups feared hillbillies and embraced Pat Boone and Frank Sinatra.

Just witness the output of BR5-49, High Noon and Wylie and the Wild West, and you know where I'm coming from. Add the Derailers to that list, crisp as a newly minted sawbuck and true as a straight razor, and you'll soon find out where I'm headed.

Based out of the whammy bar Mecca of Austin, Texas, the Derailers stake out their throwback country with a Sun Records sound located somewhere between country and rockabilly. The first record bolted from the chute with a fully formed vision of Music the Way God Meant It.

Although there are no killed-me-on-the-first-listen bombshells like "She Left Me Cold," the long awaited second effort, Reverb Deluxe, delivers.

The album's cover in this case is a good metaphor for the Derailers' sound. It's a close-up of a grungy bridge assembly on a sparkling, blue metal-flake Fender Telecaster. The Derailers aren't afraid to let a few rough edges show in the glistening, rich honky tonk.

The Buck Owens influence is obvious and powerful, yet these boys are no mere Bakersfield revivalists. Producer and ex-Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin adds muscle and resonance to the twangy gee-tars, meandering fiddles and swelling pedal steel that recall early Merle Haggard. The clean production also showcases the soaring, Louvin Brothers-style harmonies of Tony Villanueva and Brian Hofeldt.

Reverb Deluxe -- taking its title from a classic Fender tube amp, by the way -- finds the band sticking mostly to its proven formula on traditional country shuffles such as "Tears in Your Eyes" and "Pawnshop Wedding Rings." Elsewhere the Derailers stretch their boundaries a bit, infusing several tunes with a '60s West Coast pop sound, most notably on "California Angel."

If you love roots music, these songs will sound familiar and brand new, because the band plays with such authority that the players can relax and let their personalities shine through. Nowhere is this more evident than on the obligatory, hidden track, a tambourine-popping, guitar-jangling rave up of Prince's "Raspberry Beret."

In one song, the Derailers do what Dwight Yoakam couldn't pull off using his entire last album ("Train in Vain" being a possible exception) and turn a well-known rock (pop? dance?) standard into butt-twitching country. The funky bass-and-drums break in the middle of "Beret" shows that these boys can color outside the lines.

But the Derailers are at their best when they're breathing new life into a well-worn genre, sounding like a fresh, energy packed time capsule from a time when music was pure, honest, just a little bit dirty and a whole lot of fun.

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