The cold and snowy landscapes of suburban southern Michigan were my winter environment for the first sixteen years of my life, and I have shoveled my share of driveways, slopped through my share of slush --
- An old joke leaps to mind:
"'Pure as the driven snow'?
"Have you ever seen snow that's been driven on?"
Oooh ho ho, I do crack myself up!
-- and thawed my share of crinkly frozen toes. Having lived in southern California now for more than twice as long, I can't say that I actually miss living through Real Winters. At this time of year, though, I do miss it -- in a purely theoretical sort of a way -- and I like to expose myself to sights and sounds that hark back to older, colder times. That is perhaps why I was so taken with the wonderful little Christmas passage in John Crowley's Little, Big that I quoted here last year.
Christmas music, which here also includes much popular music focused more generally on the season of winter, is difficult to pull off. It has already been more than two weeks since local radio stations started pumping out holiday tunes. Clear Channel's Los Angeles soft-rock outlet KOST 103.5 FM is all-Christmas, all the time from Thanksgiving (or before) through the new year, and last year managed to win the year-end ratings period with that strategy. But if you listen for even an hour to that broadcast -- which you can do right now if you want, since the station offers a live stream on its website -- it drives home most painfully how much very weak to authentically bad Christmas music there is in this world.
The established 20th Century secular Christmas classics remain so -- Bing Crosby's "White Christmas," Nat King Cole's rendition of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song" (featuring that important rule of workplace life, "Everybody Knows Some Turkey"), Vince Guaraldi's Starbuck-ubiquitous score for "A Charlie Brown Christmas," which to its credit manages to throw in a real carol or two -- and I don't object at all to the quiet holiday takeover pulled off by the late Karen Carpenter, but let us be frank with one another: no one has yet found a credible way to sing "Little Drummer Boy" or the dreaded "Do You Hear What I Hear" -- which by federal law (I believe) can only be performed at a lugubrious pace, without ever cracking a smile, and in the company of an uncomfortably large massed choir -- and few if any contemporary artists since the era of Crosby and Cole and company sound the least bit comfortable singing most of the more traditional Christmas carols.
My own seasonal music recommendation will never find its way on to KOST's playlist, but I hope it will perhaps find its way on to yours. It is, of all things, a winter/Christmas album of newly recorded material by the at-least-once-great band, Jethro Tull, and it is called, of all things, The Jethro Tull Christmas Album.
While the band has officially kept going through the years, the only members remaining from its era of greatness (the very late 1960s -- when Jimi Hendrix opened for them -- to the mid-1970's) are singer-writer-flutist and jovial host Ian Anderson and long-time electric guitarist Martin Barre. Always a very English band, notwithstanding the strong tide of blues and jazz running through much of its best music, Jethro Tull in its day produced a number of songs in keeping with the British post-Dickens yule enthusiasm, notably its own "Christmas Song" -- built around the traditional "Once in Royal David's City" and incorporating the advice that "the Christmas Spirit is not what you drink" while ending with the whispered question "Psst, Santa: pass us that bottle, will yer?" -- and the songs on the 1976 EP "Ring Out Solstice Bells".
In 2003, Ian Anderson was approached with the idea of revisiting those older wintry selections and putting together some new material. The JTCA is the result of that suggestion.
The older songs still sound good, in arrangements close to their originals. The ancient and popular Tull chestnut "Bouree" reappears in its umpteenth reimagining as a sort of jazz waltz under the name of "Bour." A handful of worthy new songs are tossed in, and the whole is fleshed out with a series of instrumentals, including a very Brubeck-y arrangement of "We Three Kings" in 5/4 time as "We Five Kings." (It goes well with the tricksy 7-beat time signature of "Ring Out Solstice Bells.") Anderson's warm baritone is still in fighting trim, and he remains the preeminent rock flute player, whether standing on one leg or two.
The JTCA will frequently be heard playing in my car when I am driving about over the next several weeks, and is a fine way to bring winter into the house without all the pesky cold and wet parts. Readily available, of course, through the outsourced in-house trading post at "These Foolish Things ."
Of Related Interest?:
On the official Jethro Tull website, Ian Anderson goes on in all seriousness and at substantial length with practical advice on the proper care and upbringing of Christmas kittens. [Link via stereogum, which can't quite believe its eyes.]