Saturday, December 22, 2012


How so like Peter Jackson, a wizard of scanning CGI wars and panning Kiwi tors, to offer something completely unexpected in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. The unexpected nature of the film will be readily apparent to anyone who has read J.R.R. Tolkien’s fantasy classic The Hobbit, a story of one Bilbo Baggins, esq., a stolid upper-middle class hobbit with not enough fight in him to tussle with a tough bit of beef. The book details his mock-epic quest for Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, wherein he not only finds adventure but the innate reserve of Tookish toughness that underlies the staid and respectable Baggins’ flab. What was unexpected in the film adaptation, you may ask? It is, sadly, that Bilbo has become a sideshow, just another bit part in a Hollywood epic, not demonstrably different from the cast of garish dwarves with limited speaking roles that surround him.

In fact, Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins, retains the same confused look of irritation for most of the film, perhaps because his costume caused undue chaffing, or, more likely, because he has relatively little to do in a film ostensibly written by and detailing the exploits of his character. Freeman seems genuinely hobbitish, but not necessarily one of the Bagginses, and is certainly not of the acting caliber of the great Ian Holm (who reprises the older Bilbo Baggins role he played in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy). Looking at turns put upon and sulky does not equate to acting the part, but again, this is not necessarily Freeman’s fault; after all, the movie has more subplots than a sprawling development of tract homes plopped indecorously in the suburbs.

What is this incessant need of Peter Jackson to undermine a classic with a superfluity usually reserved for dementia patients in a hospital ward? No, I am giving Jackson too much credit, and I apologize to the dementia patients. Somewhere in the labyrinthine, cobwebbed corridors that twist and turn in his troubled brain, I believe that Mr. Jackson somehow believes that inventing plots wholesale is part of the scriptwriting process. Never mind that one has one of the endearing and supreme fantasy stories of the 20th century to work with, a tale cherished by children and adults alike, passed on reverently from generation to generation, it is just not up to snuff as far as a cinematic thrill ride for the 21st century.

Ergo, Jackson, a fan-fiction writer at heart and prone to sanguine bouts of dizzying violence, has decided to completely rewrite The Hobbit in his own image and likeness, relying on scripting culled from back when he was a struggling director spitting out B-grade horror flicks with plenty of camp, buckets of blood and enough gore to fill an abbatoir. Never accused of subtlety, Jackson hammers the audience with an onslaught of combat scenes and then hits them upside the head with slapstick comedy: belching dwarves, snotty trolls, and psychedelicized wizards addled by mushroom ingestion. The clever nature of the humor imbued in the story with philological care by Tolkien can only be seen in brief snatches in Jackson’s film, before it is buried in tumbling dwarves, collapsing bridges and skewered orcs.

Speaking of orcs, the entire subplot of the albino orc Azog, the requisite Hollywood CGI villain used to stretch the plot to interminable lengths so that it can be teased and tortured into a three-movie marathon of orkish overkill, is completely and utterly unnecessary. To paraphrase Bilbo Baggins himself, the first movie of the trilogy seems to be thin and stretched, like not enough toilet paper over too much bum. Likewise, the White Council scene, featuring the lifelike mannequins of Cate Blanchett (as Galadriel), Hugo Weaving (as Elrond), Sir Ian McKellan (as Gandalf), and the corpse of Christopher Lee (as Saruman), is so stiff and flat one can reuse the sequence as underlayment for a bowling alley, and it pained me to listen to the fan-fictional excess of Nazgul buried in suspended animation, a plot point I am not sure a teenage writer would have the hubris to exploit.

And Radagast the Brown (wisely absent from the White Council scene, given that an annoyed Saruman would undoubtedly and justifiably throttle him - and I would gladly assist), is a caricature of a zany wizard. No, not a caricature, his appearance is a direct theft of Merlyn from T.H. White’s classic The Once and Future King, wherein Merlyn is described thusly:

“It was not that he had dirty finger-nails or anything like that, but some large bird had been nesting in his hair…with white mutes, old bones, muddy feathers and castings. This is the impression which he [Wart] gathered from Merlyn. The old gentleman was streaked with droppings over his shoulders…”

Oh, I could go on about the similarities of Merlyn’s disheveled cottage in comparison to Radagast’s messy treehouse, or the daft inclusion of a hedgehog named “Sebastian” (Sebastian! Seriously?); whereas, an urchin (hedgehog) plays a role in both The Once and Future King and the sequel The Book of Merlyn as well. In this case, the hedgehog has a wonderful Yorkshire accent (“Ah doan’t ‘ee nip our tender vitals, lovely Measter Brock, for ee wor a proper gennelman, ee wor, and brought us up full comely on cow’s milk an’ that, all supped out from a lorly dish.”). It works well for T.H. White, but it all seems so out of place for J.R.R. Tolkien. And a rabbit sled? Only if C.S. Lewis co-wrote the script. And this was Narnia.

Of course, Peter Jackson’s self-aggrandizing over-amplification of monumental effects goes absolutely off the deep end here. Erebor is now so grandiose a dwarvish kingdom, so ornately gilt and overlaid, that Moria looks like a shabby tin shack in comparison. And Goblin Town? There is a half-hour long movie version of “Chutes and Ladders” underground, with more bridgework than that completed by every dentist in recorded history. The GoblinKing is larger than a troll (why have Uruk-hai when Sauron could breed an army of pachydermic GoblinKings?), and the elephantine goiter swinging about its neck is probably due to Jackson’s inherent need for over-the-top accoutrements (like the WitchKing’s ridiculously oversized mace). The stone giants (primeval Transformers) make an appearance with so much destructive mayhem that one wonders how the Misty Mountains were not renamed the Misty Rubble Quarry.

There were aspects of the film I enjoyed – not surprisingly, when Jackson adhered somewhat to the original story: the dwarves dining at Bag-end, the cockney trolls, and the absolutely precious dialogue between Gollum and Bilbo during the Riddle Game (the only part of the movie where Bilbo actually seemed like Bilbo). Like The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy, the best actor unfortunately is a CGI character, and Gollum once again shows more thespian ability and more range than the entire ensemble combined.

The soundtrack gave the impression that Peter Jackson was desperately trying to recapture the auld Oscar-winning magic of his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Anywhere Jackson could drop in a bit of the old score to make moviegoers teary-eyed reminiscing over his one great success was dolloped liberally thoughout the movie. The highlight musically-speaking was the dwarves singing in Bag-end. The rendition of “Far Over the Misty Mountains Cold” sung by Thorin and Company was genuinely moving, but the song by Neil Finn for the closing credits “Song of the Lonely Mountain” was reedy and abysmal, and sounded more like a corporate decision from the marketing department than a tune worthy of Tolkien.

And what of the dwarves, you might ask? There were thirteen of them, after all, surely they made some sort of impact? Well, no, not really. Thorin is a one-dimensional dark cut-out of a rueful and vengeful man (not a dwarf, he bears no resemblance to a dwarf whatsoever). He could have been Boromir’s bitter cousin, Angrimir. Any sort of pompous humor or high-falutin’ speechifying that Tolkien gave Thorin has been removed. He is as dull as he is stereotypically vengeful. And Thorin does not age. Balin ages, but not Thorin. Thorin, the oldest of the dwarves, looks absolutely the same from the Battle of Azanulbizar up to the Quest for Erebor. Don’t let the few wisps of grey in his beard fool you, Thorin has a picture up in his attic just like Dorian Gray. Of the other dwarves, I would say Balin was the best, and poor Bombur had no lines at all that I recall - which is probably just as well, as the sophomoric scripting would require him to be the butt of some fat joke.

In the end, I would classify The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey as a blockbuster Hollywood action movie epic. If you go in for that sort of thing, you'll enjoy yourself and be satisfied wiling away an afternoon (an entire afternoon, mind you!); however, I was not being complimentary. Given the fan-fictionalization of the annoyingly superfluous subplots and extraneous material grafted on the original story like attaching a chrome grill and hubcaps to a racing stallion, I would say that it was not necessary to make this a movie derived from Tolkien’s book at all: any generic swords-and-sorcery fantasy world would do the job quite adequately.

As I mentioned previously, the parts that worked the best were taken nearly verbatim from the book; unfortunately, these seemed like forlorn set pieces, all too brief sequences of splendid and literate display hiding an empty façade, and behind that blank wall the detritus of explodey things, decapitations, manic chases, violent combat and farcical pratfalls – the very definition of a Hollywood action movie, not a Tolkien book. Thorin could have just as well spat out “This is Sparta!” and I wouldn’t have noticed the difference. The movie was nearly three hours long, and I could feel it (and it wasn’t just the $10 soft drink welling in my kidneys either!). Had it been trimmed of all the excess fat and inane, ham-handed extrapolation, and then reduced to a two-movie set, it would have been extraordinary. I am being quite honest. Had this been two movies rather than three, it would be sublime. How sad that it isn’t.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Holiday Music Special: Great Versions of Traditional Christmas Carols

So this is Christmas, or at least that's what retail establishments have been telling us since September. Or perhaps well before that. It would seem that the Christmas season now lasts for an indefinite span, eclipsing other holidays - like Thanksgiving, Halloween, and even the 4th of July - in the crass calendar of cynical secular marketing. Is it any wonder that "Santa" is an anagram for "Satan"?

I jest. No sense in bringing up Christian hagiography or demonology when referring to a holiday grafted onto the pagan celebration of Yule and other ancient Winter Solstice feasts (by Pope Julius I, who decided on 12/25 just to mess up a good pagan party). So whether you enjoy the sacred or profane, a pagan wassail (wæs hæl, in Anglo-Saxon literally "good health") or a Christian carol (from Old French carole, a circle dance or rondel, originally derived from the Latin choraula), we can all appreciate some good music. Hey, even an old heathen like myself appreciates a bit of the Christmas spirit!

But I shall eschew the season's bleatings and historical context for a more traditional take on Christmas music. This is the third annual Holiday Special article I have offered, the first being 'Tis The Season: Great Christmas & Winter Rock Songs, and the second The Worst Christmas Songs of All Time. For this year's extravaganza, I've chosen 33 carols and compositions (plus bonus tracks) that evoke the spirit of earlier times, whether that be the medieval and renaissance, the Elizabethan and Victorian, or early 20th century sacred and secular seasonal music. No, it's not all lutes and dulcimers, silly, but a goodly sprinkling of various and sundry interpretations from modern musicians and singers.

So whether you're in the mood for a sing-along with some Benedictine monks on a Gregorian chant (practice your Latin!), or you've always wanted to sing castrato in an all-male choir, there's a wide range of stylings to choose from here: everything from a jazz-infused, swinging orchestral arrangement by Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, to some great a capella singing from Steeleye Span and Great Big Sea, to a bluegrass-tinged carol from Alison Krauss, to extraordinary instrumental pieces by Bela Fleck and Chris Thile. But for the moment, let us talk less and listen more....

Albion Dance Band
On Christmas Night All Christians Sing (The Sussex Carol)
This band, alternatively known as The Albion Country Band, The Albion Dance Band and The Albion Band, was led by bassist Ashley Hutchings and was made up of a hodgepodge of British folk-rockers, with many members of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span filtering through at one time or another. They also played an electric version of The Wassail Song.

Ian Anderson and Orchestra
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson swings into Christmas with an orchestra that actually seems to be having a good time.

Silly Sisters
Agincourt Carol/La Route au Beziers
British folk legends Maddy Prior and June Tabor are the Silly Sisters. Written in the 15th century, the "Agincourt Carol" is a triumphal hymn of thanks for Henry V's stunning victory over the numerically superior French at Agincourt. "Deo gratias Anglia redde pro victoria!" translates to "England, give thanks to God for victory!"

Eileen Ivers
Pachelbel's Frolics
I love Green Linnet Records! Here's one of their artists, Eileen Ivers, taking Pachelbel for a ride through the Irish countryside, footing it through the night, weaving olden dances, mingling hands and mingling glances till the moon has taken flight. Sorry, went off on a Yeats tangent.

Blackmore's Night
Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore and his latest incarnation as medieval troubadour channels Mason William's "Classical Gas" as much as he does the Tudor air "Greensleeves".

Jeff Beck
A different interpretation of "Greensleeves" with the very nontraditional Jeff Beck offering a very traditional acoustic take of the melody.

The Baltimore Consort
Wait! I know what you're thinking: another damn version of Greensleeves? WTF! Believe me, this is very different from the previous two, almost a different composition and melody, adapted from an English Renaissance model by The Baltimore Consort, an ensemble specializing in music from the Elizabethan Age. Trust me on this one.

Alison Krauss and Yo-Yo Ma
The Wexford Carol
A traditional Irish carol from Wexford County. Dating back to the 12th century, it is one of the oldest carols known in Europe.

Great Big Sea
The Seven Joys of Mary
My favorite band from Newfoundland! Alright, I don't know any other bands of Newfies, but if I did, I doubt they'd be as great as Great Big Sea.

Mannheim Steamroller
We Three Kings
It's a musical battle between Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Mannheim Steamroller to see which band can release the most Christmas albums. Here is an excellent version of "We Three Kings" by Mannheim.

Steeleye Span
The Boar's Head Carol
A 15th century English carol based on the ancient tradition of sacrificing a boar at the Yuletide feast, and the head served on a silver platter with an apple in its mouth. Previous to that they would sacrifice a boor, like dreary uncle Aethelred the Besotted, who would yearly vomit mead onto the feast, but the practice was frowned upon by the Catholic Church.

Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos
Missa de Angelis
I would say that I'm getting downright medieval on you here, but parts of this Gregorian chant date to the 15th and 16th century. So, I guess I am going for baroque here and saying it's rococo and roll.

Phil Keaggy
Christmas Medley
The guitarist extraordinaire's one-man extravaganza of Christmas snippets. Also, one of the best versions of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlmen was performed by Keaggy and Kim Hill.

Steeleye Span
Composed in the 16th century, this sacred carol in exultant Latin was actually a "hit" for Steeleye Span in 1973, reaching #14 on the UK charts. Would that more such songs would chart. Here is a poorer recording but with a Latin/English translation (in case you need a refresher: amo, amas, amat).
The Punch Brothers
Brandenburg Concerto No. 3
No, it technically is not Christmas music, but it is Bach, dammit! And The Punch Brothers, fronted by mandolin master Chris Thile, offer an amazing version of this timeless piece. For some reason, Bach puts me in a Christmas mood. So here's Chris Thile playing a solo version of Bach's E Major Prelude. What that guy can do with a pick!

The Chieftains and Nolwenn Monjarret
A Breton Carol
Yes, this is actually sung in Breton, the ancient language of Brittany, more akin to Welsh than French.

Elvis Costello and The Chieftains
St. Stephen's Day Murders
Okay, this one isn't traditional, it was written by Elvis and Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains, but the Costello's lyrics are absolutely hilarious. And it does have the compositional qualities of an earlier epoch, don't you think?

Petite Aubade
An "aubade" is a song that accompanies or evokes daybreak - a serenade to dawn, as it were. And what a composition Shadowfax has laid before us for Christmas morning! Great with coffee whilst the piles of discarded gift wrapping crinkle and rustle beneath your feet.

Loreena McKennit
Un flambeau, Jeannette, Isabelle
"Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabelle" is a carol from Provence first published in the 1550s. Ms. McKennit does a fine instrumental adaptation.

Gabriel's Message
Sting updates a 13th century Basque carol from his excellent Christmas album If on a Winter's Night (this being the live version).

Gábor Ugrin · Miklós Szabó · Győr Girl's Choir
Missa De Beata Virgine
The choir sing Giovanni Palestrina's magnificent 16th century composition. It is 40 minutes long, so I hope you've brought a boxed lunch. One of the leaders of "The Roman School", Palestrina's works are often seen as the apotheosis of late Renaissance polyphony.

Trans-Siberian Orchestra
Carol of the Bells
From Late Renaissance to later rock and roll, we cater to all kinds here. This stirring piece of metal by TSO is my favorite rendering of this carol, which is also one of the newer pieces in this article, composed by Mykola Leontovych in 1904, but based on earlier Ukrainian folk chants.

Jethro Tull
Holly Herald
A larkish run through the traditional carols "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" by Tull.

Blind Blake
Lonesome Christmas Blues
Blind Arthur Blake's version of "Lonesome Christmas Blues" was recorded in 1929, and the blues can be just as traditional as European musical forms. Ya'll just go at it with a different groove.

Victoria Spivey
Christmas Morning Blues
This trad blues tune circa 1928 features the songstress Victoria Spivey, who worked with such blues and jazz greats as Blind Lemon Jefferson, Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Johnson and Clarence Williams.She even recorded with a young up-and-coming folk performer named Bob Dylan!

David Qualey
Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring
An exquisite acoustic rendition of J.S. Bach's enduring masterpiece.

Bruce Cockburn
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
An interesting folk version by Cockburn of the song composed in 1850 by Richard Storrs Willis around a poem written by Edmund Sears. Some brilliant guitar work.

Bruce Cockburn
Iesus Ahatonnia/The Huron Carol
A melancholy carol written early in the 1600s by the Jesuit Fr. Jean de Brebeuf, using the aboriginal Huron language. It is purportedly Canada's first indigenous Christmas hymn. Father Jean was martyred at the hands of the Iroquois Confederacy, who ceremoniously burnt him at the stake. Obviously, they didn't much care for Christmas carols.

Tori Amos
Holly, Ivy and Rose
An ingenious and beautiful mix of the carols "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" by the eccentric and ebullient Tori Amos.

Bela Fleck
The First Noel, Oh Come Let Us Adore Him, Jesus Joy of Man's Desiring, Bach 147 cantata, Joy to the World
Banjoist extraordinaire Bela Fleck jams on a series of carols. You'll never think of the banjo in the same way once you've heard Fleck play.

Bert Jansch
In the Bleak Midwinter
British folk legend Bert Jansch plays an acoustic guitar adaptation of the poem Christina Rossetti wrote circa 1872.

California Guitar Trio
Jingle Bells
Perhaps the the most intricate version of the simple "Jingle Bells" tune ever attempted.

Tom Waits
Silent Night/Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis
The song "Silent Night" is, of course, traditional and hopeful, but the Waits' tune "Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis" is more like how many desperate folks spend their Christmas. It would do us all well to have a moment of sober reflection during this season of making merry and overspending to remember how fortunate we are, and to remember those who are less fortunate. It doesn't matter whether or not you believe the babe born in Nazareth two-thousand years ago was the savior, because beyond the celestial choruses and divine gift-wrapping his words still hold universal Truths and his actions on earth remain a guide to selflessness and mercy. What an excellent time of the year to put those words into action, and not merely offer lip service.

Alison Moyet
The Coventry Carol
Perhaps the best rendition of a Christmas Carol found on the wildly popular A Very Special Christmas, Vol.1 (1987) which featured a thoroughly 80s hodgepodge of new wavers, punks, hair bands and pretenders (literally, Chrissy Hynde and band sang on it). The Alison Moyet version of this 12th Century carol breathes a bit of noir into a decidedly savage story, the slaying by King Herod of all infants in Bethlehem after the birth of Christ. But hey, what better way than infanticide to say Merry Christmas!