I am not the only person in my family who listens to music, although I probably have the distinction of playing it the longest and loudest. So here’s a sampling of what’s been playing in my house of late, some of my choosing, some not.
Mike Oldfield – Tubular Bells, Hergest Ridge – It’s not Mike Oldfield’s fault that his music will forever be associated with the movie The Exorcist and Linda Blair’s spinning head and projectile vomit. Tubular Bells, the 1973 soundtrack to the movie, has held up remarkably well over the years, and stands on its own as perhaps the first New Age album ever released. But unlike the soporific qualities that the New Age label often suggests, Tubular Bells is consistently complex, involving, and evolving, an exceptional extended composition that mixes elements of folk, rock, and classical minimalism. The tubular bells of the title still ring eerily and majestically. Hergest Ridge, from a year later, is more of the same, slightly more pastoral and contemplative, but no less of an accomplishment for that. Oldfield moved into much more mainstream pop territory in the ‘80s and ‘90s, but these two albums will forever stand as his masterpieces. They remain supernaturally evocative and strangely beautiful.
Julie Miller – Blue Pony, Broken Things – Kate loves these albums, and pulls them out to listen to them fairly regularly. Fortunately, I love them too. There is something oddly endearing about Julie’s little-girl breathiness and her worldly wise, grace-filled lyrics, as if Flannery O’Connor had been squeezed into Shirley Temple’s prepubescent body. On these albums Julie sings about brokenness and sorrow and mental illness, orphans and misfits and children of God. She consistently finds the right balance between sentiment and schmaltz, deep truths and cliché, and she never crosses the line. The heartland rootsiness of husband Buddy’s backing guitar work and superb harmonies are an added bonus. These songs sound real, raw, and poetically beautiful. “Orphan Train,” in particular, still moves me after six years and hundreds of hearings. Put your ear to the track and you can hear your name.
Steeleye Span – Live at Last – When everybody else in my high school was listening to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, I was listening to Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span, fostering my love of traditional English ballads, and dreaming of rescuing damsels in distress. Groovy hippie damsels, but still. Steeleye Span were the foremost proponents of English ballad boogie, singing centuries-old folk songs about fairies and elves and obscure monarchs and tarting them up with electric guitars and a backbeat. If the marriage of AC/DC and Tolkien sounds contrived, just listen to their extensive catalogue from the ‘70s. It still sounds wondrous, at least if you used to play Dungeons and Dragons.
Live at Last, recorded in 1978 and long out of print, just happened to be the hole in my Steeleye Span collection. And a beat-up, used vinyl copy just happened to be at Lost Weekend Records a few days back. In truth, it’s only fair, and the band had seen better days and recorded better songs. But Maddy Prior, the raven-haired hippie chick who sang most of the songs, still sounds sweet and worth rescuing from any castle turret, and the band still boogies along in its Foghat-meets-Frodo way. Where’s my cape?
Johnny Mathis – The Christmas Music of Johnny Mathis – A few years ago the Whitman family staged the Great Christmas Music Rebellion. “Listen to Bruce Cockburn do this Huron Indian Christmas song from the 17th century,” I’d tell my family as we decorated the tree. I’d wax rhapsodic about Beausoleil putting a Cajun spin on “Christmas on the Bayou” or Elvis Presley’s lascivious sneer on “Santa Claus is Back in Town,” a sexually charged anthem to stuffing stockings and other things. Finally they had had enough. “We need some decent Christmas music,” they told me, “or you’re on your own when it comes to decorating the tree. We need something we can all relate to.” Okay. So, much to my chagrin, I went out and picked up Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. Conform to the masses, and all that.
Everybody’s heard Johnny Mathis Christmas music. It blares from department store speakers starting about Halloween and doesn’t let up until after the New Year. This album collects all the department store favorites. It’s light on the traditional carols and heavy on the consumer schmaltz, featuring “Winter Wonderland,” “A Marshmallow World in December,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” and Johnny’s signature Christmas tune, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” I loathe the marshmallow tune, but some of these songs are comforting in the same way that meatloaf is comforting. I tolerate it, even when my daughter Rachel plays it at decidedly non-Christmas times of the year, such as mid-October. But there are compensations. Come December I’ll get to sleep in the same bed with my wife, who will have no occasion to mock “Iesus Ahatonnia,” that wondrous Huron carol.