Sunday, December 18, 2011

The American Song-Poem Christmas: Daddy, Is Santa Really Six Foot Four?

(Note: I wrote this review eight years ago at Pulp, a Pittsburgh alt-weekly for which I served as arts and entertainment editor. Back then, I wanted to give this CD five stars, but our star criteria didn't go up that high. It stopped at four. I stand behind this review all these years later and I'm reprinting here as a salute to what I think is a mandatory holiday release. Much like my original review, I'm publishing this too close to the holidays to generate any sales, but oh well. Maybe the cyberworld can offer a quicker fix than it did back then.)

Various Artists
The American Song-Poem Christmas: Daddy, Is Santa Really Six Foot Four?
(Bar None)

One thing that made vinyl records so enthraling in their heyday was the sheer number of so many weird and unusual recordings - the kind that made listeners wonder who in the Sam Hill believed that such ridiculous ideas deserved to be pressed and unleashed on unsuspecting ears. The dawn of recordable CDs makes it even easier for anyone to clog the market, but burning your own disc is now the equivalent of dubbing cassettes: They often have the basic look of a blank tape, regardless of the sound quality.

A record, on the other hand, brought with it at least some credibility, from the look of the label to the artwork on the cover - even if it came in a plain, white single sleeve. So when budding songwriters around the country received a single with their lyrics put to music, sung and played by some, er, "professional" musicians, it's no wonder they might think they could be the next Neil Diamond or Carole King.

The American Song-Poem Music Archives documents this institution - scam, some some might say - where folks submitted a check along with their preference for the tempo, style and gender of the singer who would immortalize their prose. After the music was whipped up, a not-quite-crack team of musicians would bang it out, usually in one take that ended with a fade-out so the players wouldn't have to worry about a clean ending.

The holiday season is perfect fodder for such lyical inspiration, with many yokels figuring they could write the next "White Christmas" or "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." This compilation, the second culled from the the Song-Poem archives, documents 21 such exercises. There's no reason this slice of Americana deserves any less than four stars, despite the fact that most of the lyrics are horrible. They're still catchy.

Besides, if we have to get bombarded each year with Steve and Eydie's insipid version of "Sleigh Ride" or Lou Monte's "Dominick the Donkey (The Italian Christmas Donkey)," there's no reason why catchy hokum like "Christmas Treat, Peppermint" can't fit right in. Sung by the studio gals under the name the Sisterhood, it sounds like something straight off the Lawrence Welk show. On the comp's title cut, Saint Nick becomes Mom's back door man, and singer Kay Brown sings it with all the subtlety of a high school choir soprano ripping through "Whatever Lola Wants." In other words, all the right pitches and none of the appropriate conviction - which is what makes this disc so entertaining.

Forget "so-bad-it's-good" ideology, just revel in the fact that this exists. The quaintness of tracks like "The New Year Song" or "Snowbows" (first line: "I know you've all seen rainbows...") evokes visions of lyricists resembling the woman in Far Side cartoons or Tex and Edna Boyle from SCTV. Even "The Rocking Disco Santa Claus," another Sisterhood monstrosity, sounds less like the handiwork of Giorgio Moroder wannabe than a dad - in this case, one William Dibble - in a desperate attempt at hipness. If you think about it hard enough, the Sisterhood starts to sound like Silver Convention rather than the Lennon Sisters.

These tracks all deserve to be holiday perennials, because no matter how bad they are, they're still a better listen that, say, the Manheim Steamroller and Celine Dion holiday bombast.

(Afterthought - I don't think I've heard Steve & Eydie's aforementioned "Sleigh Ride" anywhere since I wrote this review. And I've come to a point where I'd like to. Irony.)

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