“Sleeping Snowy Gnome” courtesy of Angie Naron’s Flickr Photostream.
You never know what you’ll find in your own backyard.
Karen Carpenter was the Great American Songbook singer who wasn’t. On most Carpenters albums, her material, with some exceptions – I Can Dream, Can’t I?; When I Fall in Love; Little Girl Blue – while superior, was of the 1970s and not the Golden Age. There is, however, an album containing many examples of Karen Carpenter assaying the Great American Songbook; it is the Christmas LP the Carpenters released on A&M in 1978, Christmas Portrait.
That record, along with the follow-up An Old Fashioned Christmas issued a year after Karen Carpenter’s 1983 death, are contained on the 2-CD set Christmas Collection. They prove her death was more than privately tragic. She had the talent, the affinity for the material, and the wide contemporary appeal to have kept the Great American Songbook flame burning into our present time and beyond. But we do have this.
Richard Carpenter here surrounds his sister with orchestral and choral-group arrangements comparable to those one might hear in the glory days of MGM musicals, when Conrad Salinger, Hugh Martin and Kay Thompson worked in that studio’s music department. The material demonstrates how Christmas brought out the best in our songwriters. Fourteen songs on this set are Great American Songbook entries, several of them uncommon (e.g. The First Snowfall, by Sonny Burke and Paul Francis Webster, Sleep Well Little Children, by Leon Klatzkin and Alan Bergman, and It’s Christmas Time by Victor Young and Al Stillman). Various instrumental medleys feature Richard at the piano. As for the vocals, the spotlight is Karen’s. With her dark, melancholy alto, the way she subtly scoops up to her notes, the texture in her voice as it ever-so-softly cracks, and her empathic understanding of lyrics, she fashions a style that feels less like a style than the sound of a human heart breaking.
Take I’ll Be Home for Christmas. The song is a story with a killer twist of a last line, one that reveals the singer’s promises of returning home for Christmas are lies, mere fantasy – that the only way the singer is going anywhere, alas, is in her dreams. The pain in that line is nowhere to be found in most renditions. When Karen sings “if only in my dreams,” the pain is more than palpable, it’s exquisite.
If it’s a truism that only one who knows despair can know joy, Karen proves it on the happier material. You can feel the winter air on her Sleigh Ride, you can breathe in the roasting chestnuts in her Christmas Song. She takes songs you thought you never needed to hear again and makes you hear the greatness in them.
An example of the care lavished on this work is that Carpenter sings the little known verses to the songs. Let me spit it out: This is the best Christmas album ever made. For those who have it, it wouldn’t be Christmas without it.
By the way, the album owes a debt to an earlier one, by Spike Jones. It was called Xmas Spectacular, and came out on Verve in 1956. It’s an album in which Jones strayed from his comedic style to play the material (mostly) straight, and it had a large influence on Richard and Karen Carpenter. In the CD reissue of the Jones album (titled Let’s Sing a Song of Christmas), Richard Carpenter had this to say in the liner notes:
In December 1956, my father I visited The Music Corner, one of several record shops in my hometown of New Haven, Connecticut. To my delight he purchased Spike Jones’s newly released Verve LP Xmas Spectacular. Upon my first hearing, the realization came to us that the album was ‘straight,’ with only a modicum of glugs and whistles employed.
…The album was played innumerable times every Christmas in our home and had quite an impact on Karen and me. When we recorded our Christmas Portrait album (1978) I patterned it after the Jones LP, not only in the use of certain medleys, but also including some of the melodic but lesser known titles Spike had used, such as ‘It’s Christmas Time’ and ‘The First Snowfall.’ Xmas Spectacular is a timeless album; our children faithfully play it every Christmas season. I am delighted to see it released yet again and honored to have been asked to write these notes.
It may be a little late for you to pick up these albums in time for Christmas, but if you can, do. And if you can’t, pick them up for next Christmas.
In the last year, I’ve heard this more and more from young adults: Her and me went to the movie. Her and David are dating. Susan and him bought a house.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the young adults talking this way were high-school dropouts. They’re not. They’re college graduates, and they have to know better. I know they’ve been taught better.
That’s why it’s clear to me that this is not a matter of ignorance, but of style. This horrible grammar—this use of the objective case pronoun when the subjective case is correct—is being chosen, deliberately, by young educated people, because it sounds better to them.
The subjective case pronoun is correct in each of the above instances. She and I went to the movie. She and David are dating. Susan and he bought a house. The pronouns are subjects in those sentences, the verbs are predicates. You use the subjective case. It’s a no-brainer.
But if you, an educated young adult, have trouble remembering the logic, and need a handy rule-of-thumb, just imagine using only one pronoun. Would you say, “Me went to the movie…Her went to the movie…Her is dating….Him bought a house?” No, you wouldn’t. It sounds awful.
So is what you’re saying. Stop it.
Some—even in the Republican party—are saying that a serious presidential aspirant doesn’t pontificate about American Idol, as Palin does in her new book, or star in her own reality show, as Palin is doing on TLC. That’s wrong. More people care about American Idol in this country than care about the deficit, the war in Afghanistan, and health care put together. The more others put Palin down as trivial, the more she’ll turn that to her advantage as caring about the things ordinary people care about. And the people will say yes, she’s one of us. And then they’ll say, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if one of us were president.
Remember, she doesn’t have to get there in one leap. There are steps along the way. All she has to do first is appeal to more Republican caucus members in the Iowa primary. (That doesn’t seem so unthinkable.) Then, on the momentum of that, win a few more primaries. Suddenly, she’s the Republican candidate for president in 2012. And suddenly, you have a whole lot of people—even some who are reasonable, and even some who voted for Obama in 2008—saying to themselves, “You know, Obama is unquestionably a brilliant man, but we’ve now tried the brilliance thing, and we still don’t have enough jobs, and I still can’t sell my house. Maybe it’s time for less brilliance and more gut instinct.” Next, she’s raising her right hand on the Capitol steps.
Bob Cesca at the Huffington Post sees the danger, and has written about the prospect at greater length. I recommend the piece.
I love all these openings of The Donna Reed Show. The first, from Season One (1958-59), brings tears to my eyes, and I’m not sure why. It’s beautiful in every way:
Here, in Season Two, the tempo of the theme music is picked up relative to Season One, and the orchestration made “sprightlier.” Carl Betz (Dr. Alex Stone) now nearly forgets his kiss on his way out the door, remembering just in time. But the kiss is more passionate, no longer just a peck. America’s sexual mores are changing! Paralleling the alteration in the music, the typeface of the titles has gone from a formal serif to a jaunty sans serif:
By Season Four, the music’s tempo is faster still, and the ever-busier and more distracted Dr. Stone takes an extra beat before remembering to come back for his kiss. Perhaps both changes reflect the quickening pace of life as the fifties have turned into the sixties:
Now, in the final season (Season Eight, 1965-66), the music has changed from its peppy Broadway two-beat to a four-to-the-bar jazzy big band swing. Donna is looking “very sixties.” The most striking difference of all (besides the substitution of young Patty Petersen for Shelly Fabares) is that Donna remembers in the nick of time that she’s leaving the house, too; no longer the “stay at home Mom,” she presages the women’s liberation movement of a few years later:
Watching these in succession is like a mini-version of Social Change in Twentieth Century American Civilization 101. Plus, my God, Donna Reed was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. If she’d been my mom, I’d have even more serious Oedipal issues than I do.
Get a load of these names: conductors Monteux, Munch, Ormandy, Szell, Walter; soloists Schnabel, Stern, Rubinstein, Arrau, Francescatti, Heifetz, Hess, Kapell.
And get a load of these prices: from around $20 to $90 not for a ticket, but for the season.
I found this Chicago Symphony Orchestra leaflet for 25¢ in an antique store and had to buy it. Time to rev up the time machine.
The most likely outcome of last night’s live 30 Rock was that it would play like a good, extended SNL sketch. It was broadcast from the SNL studio, directed by an SNL director (Beth McCarthy Miller). Tina Fey was head writer on SNL, and you might have expected her to fall into old patterns when back on the SNL stage.
But the show didn’t play like that. To my astonishment and delight, it played like something from the “golden age” of live television, bringing back memories of Playhouse 90 and Studio One, shows that successfully adapted the immediacy of theater for the medium of television; in moments, it also resembled ABC’s “live-on-tape” Stage 67 musicals like Stephen Sondheim’s Evening Primrose. An SNL sketch tends to play flat in its use of physical space. You get a lot of side-to-side, but not a lot of front-to-back; the camera doesn’t move much, and instead you get cutting from one static camera angle to another. The visual compositions on this live 30 Rock had depth, peopled in every plane, with central characters moving through scenes in the front-to-back dimension naturally, the camera dollying with them in long, fluid setups.
I wonder if this is simply what happens when you take a 30 Rock script that could have been written for filming and, for a stunt or “to see if you can,” do it live instead. That’s possible. It’s also possible Tina Fey adjusted her recipe because she wanted to capture the long-thought-dead flavor of Playhouse 90, out of affection for the style and the period; not so much working on a dare within the limits of live, theatrical television as reveling in its opportunities. That’s where I lean, because the episode was too successful for that not to have been her intention. What doesn’t seem likely is that she and the cast and crew approached it as an SNL sketch only longer. It didn’t feel at all like that.
The show, because it was contemporary in its humor and energy, proved that there is nothing dated about the techniques of live dramatic television–and honestly, that surprised me. I would have guessed the style was past its retirement age by forty-five years and would never work again. Hail Tina Fey.