The Second Disc

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Holiday Gift Guide Review: A Folk and Country Christmas with The Kingston Trio, The Brothers Four and the Statler Brothers

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Kingston Trio - Last MonthThe cover of The Kingston Trio’s 1960 Capitol release The Last Month of the Year depicts the three young folksingers in suits and ties, each loaded with a bundle of Christmas gifts. With a cover like that, one could be forgiven for having expected the group to deliver a jovial set of holiday favorites. Instead, The Trio created an album of rare beauty but considerable darkness. As such, it’s hardly your typical holiday fare but Real Gone Music’s reissue (RGM-0312) is a worthwhile inclusion on any Christmas music shelf.

Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds graced The Last Month of the Year with some of their most intricate harmonies and complex musicianship on this delicate collection of twelve acoustic songs. Most were original compositions, though even some of the originals were based on traditional folk melodies. The opening track, Guard’s “Bye Bye Thou Little Tiny Child,” melodically takes its cue from the Coventry Carol but lyrically dramatizes King Herod’s decree to slay all infants under the age of two. Happily, the album could only go to lighter places from such a striking beginning. “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” the album’s most familiar standard, is interpreted in the style of The Weavers and features some rarely-heard lyrics. The spiritual “Go Where I Send Thee,” long a part of the Trio’s repertoire, gets an even more lively performance anchored by David “Buck” Wheat’s bass. “All Through the Night” and “Goodnight, My Baby” are both sweet lullabies inspired by Nick Reynolds having just become a new father at the time of the album’s recording. “Mary Mild” is a darker spin on childhood. Based on the English ballad “The Bitter Withy,” this tale of Jesus ends with a number of drowned children. Nobody could accuse The Kingston Trio of pulling any punches to craft a commercial record!

The album was built around a diverse set of influences. “Follow Now O Shepherds” had its roots in an ages-old Spanish carol; “Sing We Noel” harkened back to 15th century France. The ravishingly pretty “White Snows of Winter” adapted its melody from Brahms. “Sommerset Gloucestershire Wassail” was an adaptation of numerous English folk songs enhanced by the presence of the bouzouki. (The instrument, specially made for the Trio per the original liner notes, also adds colors to the upbeat “Sing We Noel.”) The album’s title track, passed on to the Trio from famed song collector Alan Lomax, asks children to remember, “What month was Jesus born in?” The answer, of course, was “The last month of the year!” You’ll remember The Last Month of the Year, too, via this fine reissue of a haunting and singular Christmas album. Tom Pickles provides copious new liner notes, and the original album artwork has also been retained.

Brothers Four - Merry ChristmasMerry Christmas from The Brothers Four (RGM-0308) is a folk album of a different stripe. With more of a pop slant than The Kingston Trio’s holiday effort, this 1966 LP featured a team of heavy hitters. Group members Bob Flick (baritone/upright bass/bass), John Paine (baritone/rhythm guitar), Dick Foley (lead tenor/guitar) and Mike Kirkland (tenor/guitar/banjo) were joined on this smooth holiday affair by orchestrator/conductor Peter Matz (known for his work with Barbra Streisand and countless others) and Miles Davis’ most frequent producer Teo Macero plus renowned Columbia engineer Frank Laico and vocal arranger (and John Denver collaborator) Milt Okun. Real Gone’s expanded and remastered reissue not only restores the album to print on CD (past CD issues have been commanding high prices) but adds four bonuses, two of which are previously unreleased.

After the jump: more on The Brothers Four, plus a two-for-one reissue from The Statler Brothers!

The Seattle quartet recorded its first Christmas singles in 1961, “Christmas Bells” b/w the traditional “What Child is This,” and both sides of the 45 are happily appended here among the bonus tracks. Merry Christmas arrived a few years later, when the group had smoothly navigated its transition to more pop-flavored material without sacrificing authenticity or integrity. “Pop,” however, doesn’t mean that Merry Christmas is a groovy affair. Most of the songs are traditional staples, all rendered with the Brothers’ trademark vocal blend and Matz’s lovely, string-heavy but hardly overpowering orchestrations. The Brothers’ striking, tight harmonies are out front on reverent readings of sacred songs such as “Mary’s Little Boy Child,” “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night” and “Away in a Manger” (with a strong solo from lead tenor Foley) as well as a straightforward “The Little Drummer Boy.” Though most of the material here is familiar, Fred Hellerman and Francis Minkoff’s “The Borning Day” is a hidden gem in the baroque style that recurs throughout the album. Both the yearning “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” with its romantic string chart and the nostalgic “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” are graceful and attractively-sung, with the latter in relatively stripped-down fashion. More lively is the boisterous Spanish carol “The Night is Christmas Eve,” and the lighthearted lark “Christmas Is A-Comin’.”

The stark acoustic beauty of “Christmas Bells” and “What Child is This,” both sides of a 1961 single, are welcome treats as bonus tracks. So are two previously unissued performances recorded in 1964, two years prior to Merry Christmas. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” varies considerably from the album version, sans Matz’s orchestration and with a different vocal arrangement. The similarly acoustic “Go Tell It on the Mountain” is presented in a joyous, low-key manner with a light swing.  Tom Pickles provides the excellent new liner notes, and Maria Triana has splendidly remastered at Battery Studios, for the definitive edition of this gentle Christmas classic.

Statler Brothers - ChristmasHarold Reid, Don Reid, Philip Balsley, Lew DeWitt – a.k.a. The Statler Brothers – released their first Christmas LP in 1978, more than twenty years after Harold, Philip and Lew first began performing together. Onetime protégés of Johnny Cash, The Statlers (only two of whom were actually brothers!) returned to the holiday music fold in 1985 by which time an ailing DeWitt had been replaced by Jimmy Fortune in the line-up. Real Gone’s The Complete Mercury Christmas Recordings (RGM-0311) features both 1978’s Christmas Card and 1985’s Christmas Present on one CD.

Even in 1978, Christmas Card was a slice of unabashedly old-time Christmas Americana. With six originals and five holiday standards all in distinctive Statler fashion, the album struck a merry balance between the time-honored and the new. Don Reid’s “I Never Spend a Christmas That I Don’t Think of You” is a three-hanky weeper in true country fashion, with Don and Harold’s “Christmas to Me” in a similarly timeless vein. The latter ballad, enhanced with a Nashville Sound-style string arrangement courtesy of the great Bergen White, provides a solo showcase for each Statler Brother. Don and Harold were a prolific team on Christmas Card. They also wrote “Who Do You Think (Could Believe Such a Thing)?,” retelling the story of Christ’s birth as if it were currently happening, and the bittersweet pair of “Something You Can’t Buy” and “The Carols Those Kids Used to Sing.”

Of the familiar inclusions, “Jingle Bells” is enlivened with a bluegrass banjo arrangement, while a fiddle adds country flavor to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Don takes the lead on a straightforward but resonant “White Christmas” with able support from the Brothers on harmonies; the quartet’s singular blend also shines brightly on a solemn reading of “Away in a Manger” with a striking a cappella section. A medley of five classic carols closes out the Statler Brothers’ first offering of peace and good tidings at the holiday season.

A different approach marked 1985’s Christmas Present. Classic Tin Pan Alley Christmas songs and traditional carols were both absent; instead, the album featured almost all original songs – the exceptions being a new arrangement of “Brahms’ Lullaby” with a holiday slant, and a cover of Roger Miller’s “Old Toy Trains.” Also differing from its predecessor, the album employs more contemporary instrumentation and has a brighter overall sound.

The Reids kept Christmas Present a family affair, with Don’s son Debo Reid contributing to a couple of tracks including the lush opening ballad “Christmas Eve (Kodia’s Theme)” which he co-wrote with Don and Uncle Harold. The lovely “Somewhere in the Night” by Don and Debo follows in the footsteps of “Who Do You Think” from the prior album as it offers another account of Jesus’ birth. Another whimsical Harold and Don song takes us back to the days of Joseph and Mary as they’re told there’s “No Reservation at the Inn,” but there’s room in the stable…! Don takes the lead on the loping “Mary’s Sweet Smile,” co-written by all four group members. Harold has the deep lead vocal on “Whose Birthday is Christmas,” a story song with a dad reminding his son to keep the Christ in Christmas (“because you hear so much about Santa Claus!”)

Fortune’s “Christmas Country Style” is a happy banjo-led holiday hoedown, and “country-style” is also appropriate for songwriter John Rimel’s wish for “An Old Fashioned Christmas” (“with friends and family stopping by to help us share the cheer”) with its weeping pedal steel part. Beautiful a cappella harmonies recut on “Brahms’ Bethlehem Lullaby.”

John Alexander has written new liner notes chronicling the Brothers’ career and the background of these two albums, while Mike Milchner at SonicVision has nicely remastered this two-for-one collection of classic country Christmas sounds.

To order:

The Statler Brothers: The Complete Mercury Christmas Recordings Featuring the Albums “Christmas Card” & “Christmas Present” (Amazon U.S. /Amazon U.K. )
The Brothers Four: Merry Christmas (Expanded Edition) (Amazon U.S. /Amazon U.K. )
The Kingston Trio: The Last Month of the Year (Amazon U.S. /Amazon U.K. )

Written by Joe Marchese

December 15, 2014 at 13:20

One Response

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  1. Thanks for this and for so many posts I have enjoyed reading this year. Regards and best wishes for 2015 Thom.

    Thom Hickey

    December 22, 2014 at 03:50

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