Sunday, December 16, 2007

19 Ways of Looking at the Holidays: A Very Mark McCormick musical selection


Every year at the holidays I create a CD of music that I've found during the year. I make about 50 copies of this and give to friends and family. Yes, I know it's illegal to make that many copies, and actually I do feel kind of bad about it. If the music industry would figure out a way to sell licenses of music for things like this I would pony up. I know, they would say, "yeah, we do, it's called a single use license. If you want more uses, buy more copies." But that's not realistic; when the technology is there to make as many perfect digital copies as you want, people are going to do it. But if the price for a song were say 99 cents for 1-5 copies, 75 cents for 10-25 copies, and 50 cents for 25-100, I would do it, because it's the right thing to do. Just like people are paying for the new Radiohead when they can download it for free if they want.

But I digress, and in a most un-holiday like manner. The early versions of the holiday CD I created really attempted to find pop songs that had some evidence of the Divine. Bear with me. My quest was to find love songs that sounded like prayers, or songs that were so true and tender in their lyrics or music that they could be considered transcendent, somehow liturgical. For example, you could listen to Chakha Khan doing To Sir With Love and think "Sir" was either a handsome teacher or God, depending on your perspective, which might twist and turn three times during the course of the song itself.

I include with the CD some very wordy liner notes. I work on these a long time. The amount of space I have to write the liner notes is limited--the size of the back of the CD or the inside cover. It's about a 4x4 square. I use a condensed font, and I don't have any paragraph breaks or numbering, which must annoy the hell out of some people who are just looking for a list of the songs. But that's what I do, and some people report liking the liner notes.

This year, I realized I could be even more wordy by extending the liner notes here; I have to be so concise when I write them that I leave out things, but here, on verymarkmccormick.com, space is not a object, so I can be as wordy as I like!

Here then are the extended liner notes for this year's CD, which is titled 19 Ways of Looking at the Holidays.

Greetings. A new design for the CD this year; the title is from Stevens’ 13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. I know many of you know that, but some don’t, so let’s not be snobby. I've always wanted to use this is as a title for something, to steal it, because it's one of my favorite titles and favorite poems. It also represents a slight break from the aesthetic foundation of the CD. As I said I've always wanted to favor slightly spriritual selections, but I realized that irreverence and exuberance are other ways of looking at the holidays. Of course none of the songs are actual holiday songs. That would be stupid and not verymarkmccormick.

The cover photos are from left to right: a picture of a Christmas cactus blooming on my table last year on Christmas day. It also inspired my first handmade Christmas card, which featured that photo and the words, "The Christmas cactus bloomed on Christmas day. . ." (and on the inside) ". . . and that was enough." The second shot is some chairs in the dunes near Provincetown. The third shot is a beautiful fresh pine cone, also taken near Provincetown.

Okay, on to the music. Starting with Amy Winehouse of Rehab fame (the song and her journey--meaning that she has been in rehab a few times this year. It's sad, because she is over-the-top-talented). This song is my favorite on her stellar album Back to Black.

Umbrella by Rihanna was the funnest pop song I encountered this year, and the truth is I want these CDs to include some things that are just fun.

Young Folks by Peter Bjorn and John is a super-catchy duet about new love; you will end up whistling and reminiscing. Turns out that the whistling was a placeholder for another instrument, but it worked so well they kept it.

I was obsessed with John Legend for a while this year. Save Room is about the vulnerability of new romance. The video is wicked sexy. I have to say that the John Legend that this came from was both a wonder and disappointment to me this year. At first I liked it, and I appreciated the musicality and experimentalism of it; parts of it endured, but in the end I found him slightly whiny and undisciplined as a lyricist.

The Dresden Dolls are a passionate band: alt pop meets German cabaret. This song is, for me, all about the lyrics: "Sing for the President; sing for the terrorists, sing!"

The Bitch of Living is from Spring Awakening, a musical about adolescent angst, and one of the best theater experiences I had this year. I saw this play in New York and thought it could possibly save the genre. Listen, we have to make musicals a legitimate experience for the MTV / Internet generation. Rent came close to doing that, and so does this.

Mat Kearney is another white rapper; he’s no Eminem, but is still compelling on Undeniable. I hear about a lot of new music by reading The New York Times music reviews, which is where I found Kearney, I think. Doesn't matter; white rappers are sexy, and I don't know why.

The next three songs are all interesting covers (remakes) of iconic songs: Maybe I’m Amazed by Jem sweetens the McCartney original. Just Like Heaven by Katie Melua highlights the words of the Cure classic, and Girls Just Want to Have Fun is completely recontextualized when sung by a man slowly (Greg Laswell). In retrospect, as I've listened to the collection a few more times, I think these three songs really drag things down. I regret the Laswell. But I love the Melua more every time I hear it. I always loved the Cure version, and the opening lines are spine tingling in their pop perfection: "'Show me, show me, show me /How you do that trick/The one that makes me scream,' she said."

If you’re finding Rufus Wainwright whiny and insufferable lately, try Jens Lekman: sweet, soulful, intelligent, lyrical and slightly off key. You just want to gobble him up. He sings: “I want the people in the country to be open and kind,” as he explores the dark side of Friday Night at the Drive-In Bingo. And after listening to his debut album a few more times I realize I didn't pick the catchiest tune at all, but all the other lyrics are just so weird / quirky, I couldn't figure out which one to feature on a holiday CD. I will say this, though: if you wanted to explore any of the artists on the CD deeper, I would recommend Lekman and Winehouse first. They're going to be around a while, I predict.


I made a video this year about the AIDS LifeCycle Roadies, and this was the soundtrack: Pretenders, I’ll Stand By You. You can see that video if you visit my YouTube channel called, you guessed it, "verymarkmccormick."

Next we have The Roches’ Hammond Song. Whatever happened to The Roches? If you are in your late 30's, 40's, or even 50's, and if you were ever interested in pop or alternative music, I can pretty much guarantee you went through a Roches stage.

Their heritage lives on in Page France; they are pop-spiritual gurus. Chariot will carry you away. You know this band might have snuck past my filter which tries to distinguish spiritual pop from Christian pop. Whatever. I don't want to over think these choices.

Last year’s Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins selection was so popular, I included her again this year and chose The Big Guns. I think more people commented on the Jenny Lewis from last year's CD than any other song: "you are what you love and not what loves you back." But these Big Guns lyrics are pretty potent though; you see I can't tell if they're about God, a lover, or society's troubles, which makes them the perfect verymarkmccormick selection.

Heartbeats by José González touched me, and it’s the background song to a fantastic commercial.

Another Page France, since it’s Christmastime: Jesus (as earth mother). I just love the image of how "Jesus will come through the ground so dirty, with with worms in his hair, and a hand so sturdy." More lyrics here.


Across the Universe was a fantastic movie and featured this gospel version of Let it Be. This is another one I really debated. It wasn't my favorite part of the movie. I loved the version of I Wanna Hold Your Hand the most. The interpretation we saw in the movie was of a heartstruck lesbian cheerleader. It was one of the many moments in the movie where I cried. But the Let it Be gospel version seemed right for the is CD and the times we're living in. Plus, there are few leitmotifs running through

Finally, I was watching television and some show ended with this Janis Joplin song Maybe, and I just thought “yes, we must all remember Janis this year.” And if you could make these songs a circle, Janis would be hugging Amy and telling her everything will be all right. Namaste.

4 comments:

wexfordgirl said...

Man, I'm uncool. I haven't heard of HALF of these artists. I still want a copy though!

Jeff said...

Hmmm...liner notes? What liner notes? Never really noticed, but others sure do tire of me keeping "Holiday Spirit" on endless repeat. Thanks again for this years version and have a wonderful holiday.

lisa said...

This posting was great! This is the first year in ages that I haven't seen your around the holidays--and I miss not only you, but the CD of your music! Now I can read your thoughts, and download. xo Lisa

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