Music: Over the Rhine, The Darkest Night of the Year
I can not find a single Over the Rhine tune that I do not love. I've tried. Last year I bought my first album of this Ohio-based husband and wife team, Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler, Snow Angels. Other than a few of the most Christmasy tracks I listened to the album all year long. This year I added an earlier Christmas album, The Darkest Night of the Year. From the band's website I've learned this album is their fifth and was released in 1996. 1996? Where have I been all these years? Oh, yeah, I remember now. I've been wandering up and down the claustrophobic aisles of CCM-land.
Slightly sarcastic editorial comments aside, I am in love with this album....absolutely over the moon. So far, my very favorite track is 10, a duet version of Silent Night. It's just plain gorgeous.
I'd recommend this album to anyone, but if you happen to own a fireplace that you keep well-lit in these December evenings while the sun heads sleepily toward the winter solstice, you need this beautiful music to keep you company fireside.
Sufjan Stevens, Songs for ChristmasDo you have any idea how good it feels to actually listen to music that your teenage offspring want to borrow? I live for moments like those. Although, Andrew is the orginal Sufjan fan in our house, he did not own anything from this album -- making me queen for the day. (Don't worry, I will not let it go to my head. Anyway, they wouldn't let me. I mentioned they're teenagers, right?)
With 42 tracks, it's ridiculously long, but that is one of the things I love most about it. It's a fun and melodic mix of many of the familiar Christmas carols without leaving out some of the elegant songs that never make it onto a traditional-length album. For example, Lo! How a Rose E'er Blooming is one of my absolute favorite songs in this recording. Maybe it's because I haven't heard it sung to death in every imaginable genre in my 37 Christmases.
Yet, there are some of those wrung-out song titles on here, too. And I love them in the thoughtful translation by this artist who manages to be whimsical, irreverent at times, AND delicate and beautiful.
I enjoyed Andrew Bartlett's review of this project at Amazon.com:
Every year it's an issue: how does one stomach the onset of holiday music? With an endless stream of overplayed pop stars stirring what Sufjan Stevens calls "That Creepy Christmas Feeling," how does one navigate the sound of the season? Back in 2001, Stevens began making annual EPs of traditional carols and songs mixed with his own holiday-themed tunes. With 2006 and Volume 5, he's compiled a perfect gift for the Christmas-inclined indie rockster: all five EPs in one box, separately slipcased, plus a booklet filled with lyric sheets, chord charts, a Rick Moody essay, and more. Yes, Stevens knows that "Jingle Bells" features him playing (as he notes) "insipid piano," but he also writes gorgeous arrangements. Check out the three versions of "O Come O Come Emmanuel"; each aches. And "O Holy Night" from Volume 3 is lo-fi genius, never mind anyone's resistance to theology; it's a time-stopper. Stevens's own tunes are unmistakably his, hushed vocals highlighting a unique mix of whimsy and yearning--much like the justly-lauded Illinois and Michigan. In the end of the liner essay, Stevens writes that the Christmas story is about love, and on that note, he proclaims that these songs and the "Creepy Christmas Feeling" prompt "a transformation of the heart" for him and bring out affection and reflection. Isn't that a great holiday vibe?
Films: Homemade Hillbilly Jam
Documentary, shmocumentary -- this is just a great excuse to enjoy authentic, unpolished bluegrass music. Brian and I had a blast watching this together while I folded laundry and reminisced about the "hillbillies" in my own family tree. (hint: we're pretty much hillbilly through and through).
And while this story is about the music, it's rooted in the people who make the music. Where did the term hillbilly come from? No one's entirely certain, but somewhere it stems with Irish-Scotsmen who moved settled in the mountainous regions such as the Ozarks.
And somehow, it's inseparable from family and old-time religion. Truly, the scene depicting several generations crowding under one small roof and sharing Thanksgiving dinner together felt like every Thanksgiving I ever celebrated in my girlhood. The food, the inside jokes, the ubiquitous TV trays and folding chairs littering every spare corner.
While we didn't grow up in Missouri or Arkansas as the families in the film, every family gathering would involve my grandmother or a cousin playing hymns on the piano for us to sing along (as long as it fell in between the showings of the football games and the yearly network screening of The Wizard of Oz or Sound of Music). Or -- and more often, next -- Grandpa would bring out his banjo. It's these events that taught me the good, ol' tunes of my grandparents' generation: "We'll Build A Bungalow" and "Those Wedding Bells Are Breaking Up This Old Gang of Mine" and others.
Now, since watching this documentary, Brian and I have decided to embrace our inner hillbilly. Especially when we sing along to the lyrics of the Big Smith song, Backwater (which involves an oh-so-fun instrumental combination of banjo and -- tuba?!):
Well, everybody's lookin'/Searchin' for an answer./And some are gettin' gravy/And some are gettin' cancer./Well, you might go to heaven,/You might go to hell./You might go to Wal-Mart/Or maybe Taco Bell./Tear out the wires,/And throw away the sauder/You won't find the hotline to God in this backwater.