Justin Bieber – Under The Mistletoe

Well, the first 5 words that you read on today’s entry should indicate to you that today we are going to talk about the BAD of Christmas. Yesterday we talked about the good, so you should understand that, no matter how bad things get in THIS entry, there is always the good.

Today though, things are going to get really bad:

A look that screams 'Hello teenage girls, I AM HERE FOR YOUR SOUL *HISS*'

Justin Bieber (or Justice Beaver, a crime-fighting beaver, if you prefer) is very popularly, VERY understandably, both a target of lust for women of all ages (no matter how creepily young or old) and absolute, deserved ridicule from just about everyone else.

Still, this isn’t about hating Justin Bieber himself, because come on, everyone does that and they will continue to do that and it’s a lot better than any insults a mere blogger like myself can throw. This will be about hating his music, as soon as I actually listen to it.

The thing is, I have only heard maybe the one song that he did on his last album, which some wealthy rappers produced for him for his 13th birthday (all I got was a Ninja Turtles action figure and Mega Man 3 on the Nintendo… in many ways I still win). Basically, I am the world’s expert at avoiding music I know I’m not going to like,  but in this seedy world of practically anonymous journalism, sometimes one have to make sacrifices, and I am no exception.

So, in the spirit of something I did before that was fun, I am going to listen to Justin Bieber’s dubious holiday classic, Under The Mistletoe, for the very first time while blogging about the experience. I have never read a review on the album, and I have only Wikipedia’s dubiously factual page about it for fact-checking.

And away we go!

(Author’s Note: it should be noted that, the very second I picked up my mp3 player to press “play”, I suddenly started choking on my own spit and have just finished a monster coughing fit, so yeah, looks like we’re getting into something heavy here)

Track 1: “Only Thing I Ever Get For Christmas”

Well, busting out of the gate is pretty much exactly what I was to expect from a modern teenage demographic pop song, it’s an auto-tuned disaster of this kid singing while simultaneously trying to sound “breathy”, complete with actual heavy breathing hiding in the percussion which is really creeping out this 29 year old blogger, let me assure you. I think about 5 choruses have passed by while I was busy writing that last sentence and attempting to extract that last bit of phlegm from my gullet, and now the song’s over! Praise the lord, at least that was short, only the rest of my short life to go!

Track 2: “Mistletoe”

The very instant that the acoustic guitar starts this plastic reggae piece of sterilized pop nonsense, I began vehemently cursing Jack Johnson, Jason Mraz, and just about any other douchey college bro who figured out that upstrokes are the easiest thing to play on an acoustic guitar while you’re drunkenly trying to hit on women, and thus made it the standard for modern romantic music, probably until the day I die, which may be today if this chorus doesn’t go away soon. Seriously, is he saying “shawty with you”? Is he even legally allowed to use the word “Shawty?” where are his parents through all this?

Wow that was bad, I may have made a terrible mistake…

Track 3: “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) feat. Usher”

Oh man, that sprinkly bell thing that all pop songs have had since the 90’s. I don’t even care that that last sentence is a fragment, it says more about this song than I needed to know. The only thing more predictable than this song appearing on this album, besides the almost obscene amount of singing “around” the notes, Mariah-Carey-style, is that it features Usher. Yeah, well, so do my nightmares, and you don’t seem me making millions off of them, just an ill-advised blog entry. Wow, Justin Bieber cranks out a pretty mean guitar solo half-way through this using his speak-and-spell, not too bad at all.

Track 4: “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”

JUST when I was about to remark on how this track appears to be spitting on the grave of the Jackson 5 (if all 5 Jacksons were replaced with robots), Bieber comes in with this “SANTA CLAUS IS COMING GURL, WOO” and I had to stop the recording to sit here and HATE THAT with all my concentration. Otherwise, yeah this song is pretty much spitting on SOMEONE’S grave, because I can’t imagine who would do this to anyone in the name of love, though I guess that guy that shot John Lennon thinks he was doing a good thing? Anyway, this song also features one of those horrible R&B talk-downs half-way through, and I am pretty sure I’m losing the vision in my left eye.

My fingers are now poised over the phone, having dialed 9 and 1, and if this next track doesn’t pick things up I am going to have to put this review on hold and hit that other 1.

Track 5: “Fa La La feat. Boyz 2 Men”

Speaking of things that killed Motown, Boyz 2 Men make an appearance on this complete mess of random syllables (which makes sense since “Fa La La” aren’t technically words) making Bieber sound like a eunuch version of the Decepticon Soundwave. Understand, however, as someone who was watching Transformers at the age in which Bieber made his first billion dollars, that the actual Soundwave is all man.

Track 6: “All I Want For Christmas Is You (SuperFestive!)” feat. Mariah Carey

Well! Speak of the devil and the washed up singer he stole his vocal vamping and upper octave range from, Bieber does a duet with Mariah Carey here about how much they want to bone each other (no surprise there, that’s what every single other song in this album has been so far), and I shouldn’t have to point out that he is 17 and she’s 41 and that’s really creepy, so instead I will point out something even better: Mariah Carey’s own best-selling Christmas album called Merry Christmas was released November 1st, 1994, the year Justin Bieber was born. In fact, THIS VERY ALBUM was released on 11/1, the 17th year anniversary of her album, which might be considered creepy and sinister, but in fact most Christmas albums come out around that time so yeah. I just really needed something to distract me from the rest of this song because this is truly awful.

Track 7: “Drummer Boy feat. Busta Rhymes”

Now, being a bit of a Christmas music hater, so I don’t have any special attachment to “The Little Drummer Boy”, especially since it’s not really a hymn, despite what people may think. Thus, I am not mad that Bieber does his stupid auto-tune vocal scale warmup on the traditionally staccato “Parumpa pum pum” (which is supposed to emulate a drum, you idiot, drums don’t do scales!), nor am I even upset at the inclusion of a rapper doing some truly awful things to the institution of rhyming and shouting in between lines pretending the other vocal track can hear him, as I have always theorized that Justin Bieber is a tool that the R&B/Rap community are using in order to get revenge on white people. No, what upsets me about this song is that it’s supposed to be about a kid who drums because he’s too poor to do anything else for Jesus, and so Bieber doing this song implies that, having a similar background, the original drummer boy must have struck it big on Youtube and become an evil prepubescent millionaire for the his act of percussive generosity, when really he probably just remained poor for the rest of his life and had to tell that Jesus-smiling-at-him story to his disinterested grandchildren as the only thing interesting that ever happened to him. It just makes me mad that it couldn’t have been the reverse, is all.

Track 7: “Christmas Eve”

Now that we’re done hearing Bieber rap about how great he is at the drums and how he should be canonized into the damn Bible, we’re back to a confusing mess of notes about how much he wants to get laid on Christmas. I’m sure you can work that into your schedule of featuring formerly popular musicians and appearing in court for Paternity suits, kid, so buck up! I love the line “I don’t need no presents, gurl, you’re everything I need”, as if Justin Bieber would otherwise require presents. What would you even get a 17 year old kid who’s been given a free ride to the top? An abortion of the illegitimate fetus of his choice?

Wow I’m getting mean; that means the album must almost be over!

Track 8: “All I Want Is You”

We’re now at the 3rd song (or is it 4th? or All Of The Above?) about how all Bieber wants for Christmas is YOU, person who purchased his album. Seriously, remember that line I quoted above? Here’s the first line from this chorus: “Any I don’t care if I don’t get anything; all I need is you here right now”, exactly how much do you need to pound that point in Bieber? I had to check Wikipedia to make sure that this album wasn’t written by Rick Derringer and they just replaced all the references to America with Christmas and Gurl.

Track 9: “Home This Christmas feat. The Band Perry”

I don’t know who The Band Perry is, but they really should win a Grammy for “band that somehow managed to completely un-change a Bieber song”. About the only thing I can tell that separates this song from the previous 8 is that there’s a live drum set being played flaccidly by a drummer who will probably do nothing else in life except tell his disinterested grandchildren about how he drummed once for Justin Bieber… for a smile.

Track 10: “Silent Night”

I am starting this track up and hearing a sedated Bieber singing what seems like a straight version of this song (except he does an intentional pause after the word “virgin” and I don’t know what to make of that). I am expecting there to be some kind of rap segment or auto-tuned background singers singing about how he’s totally going to get some on this silent night yo gurl.

COME ON SONG, how could you fail in your task this fantastically? Well, at least each line ends abruptly so Bieber can try and pronounce the next word on the page and let the echoey bits trail off and remind all of us that this is still part of a terrible pop album and not some random, displaced bit of sincerity in this monster of an album.

AND IT’S FINISHED! PRAISE THE LORD (no I didn’t get the special edition, I’m no fool!)

Now that I’ve made it through to the other side of that train-wreck, I am now able to confirm a suspicion I’ve had ever since this Bieber kid and Lady Gaga and all them became the biggest economic forces in music:

Basically, the world as we know it is ending.

Oh, we’ve heard about it for a while, but with the world economy treading thin ice, the music industry collapsing, the world of retail cannibalizing its own limbs in an effort to stay alive for just one more holiday season, we’re staring straight into the face of an entire world of entertainment that was meant to  provide us with a good, general distraction from our daily lives, panicking and flailing under the pressure of today’s internet-based culture, where we can be entertained by anything we want, whether it was recorded in the past or in the present at the great expense of some rappers who are on their way out anyway.

In the face of that, the entertainment industry is trying its hardest to manufacture anything that will sell, and can no longer take any risks or do anything interesting that might be less popular than the last thing. Thus, we have “safe” Justin Bieber crooning his thinly veiled songs about getting laid, we have “safe” Lady Gaga who rakes in millions by cultivating a shock image without actually doing anything shocking, we’ve got retail stores and Starbucks hanging up their Christmas decorations/shopping reminders on Oct. 1st, and we’ve got all the soul and sincerity and warmth of what’s supposed to be a single day of loving your family, thinking of Jesus (if that’s what you do), and eating a lot of food and giving/getting gifts, completely stripped away and set aside until the world feels comfortable with celebrating love instead of money. When that day comes, maybe someone who sings about Christmas and really means it will go to the top, but until then, we get to either laugh, cry, or hate on artists like Bieber until they too get swept under the rug.

Or alternatively, we can just forget about all that and have a kickass party, so stay tuned for TOMORROW’s entry when we leave this depressing ghost of Christmas Presents and bring the hope back to Christmas. Stay tuned, and happy holidays!

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Smalltown Poets – Christmas

In lieu of updating this thing 12 times with 12 different Christmas albums in a theme I like to call “Chris is starting to show OCD tendencies”, I decided to update 3 times this week with 3 different Christmas albums. They will represent the Good, the Bad, and the Twisted*, and believe me, there is nothing I’ve needed more this year than something Good in Christmas music, which is why today’s entry is about an album that I still can’t believe exists, Smalltown Poets Christmas:

I get it now! Smalltown Poets was his SLED

Why would a Smalltown Poets album about Christmas be such a surprise? Well, as I might have mentioned before, the band has been on hiatus for 7 years. That’s longer than I’ve even been in bands (well, good ones anyway), so it’s like being visited by the ghost of Christian Rock past.

Still, the thing that finally brought them all back together after so long was making a Christmas album, so it stands to reason that it wound up being a pretty good Christmas album, right?

Yeah, try the best Christmas album ever.

Now, you may have heard from somewhere that I am decidedly NOT a fan of Christmas music. Without going back into all the nasty opinions I have about the institution (I’m saving that for tomorrow), I will re-iterate that  Christmas music has a habit of being very cheeseball and almost incoherent in the face of the rather broad cultural changes that occurred between the 50’s and today. I am almost sure that at least 3 generations grew up wondering why Jingle Bell Rock doesn’t actually rock (because that’s what they HAD for “rock” back in the 50’s).

In the glut of overdone Bing Crosby hits, hideous novelty songs, and the rank odor of popular artists “cashing in” on the holiday with their own take on Christmas, one may begin to crave, even ache for, some piece of genuine Christmas love that touches the soul and reminds us, as a TV special once did, what the true meaning of Christmas is. Luckily for you, Dear Reader, I am about to tell you about an album that does just that!

Christmas opens up with guitar feedback, which may seem unsettling, but don’t worry, they’ve got this under control. You then hear church bells (how I love church bells in music), and just as this seemingly epic song starts to swell, it all simply goes away, and in its place, a piano starts playing “The Carol of the Bells”, but immediately after that, a voice starts singing “O Come O Come Emmanuelover the tune to Carol of the Bells. It almost seems unfair that a Christmas song can be that awesome, but that floored me about this recording, and we’re not even a minute into the song.

As if that wasn’t enough, all the OTHER instruments burst into the song and give it a full rock band sound for like a second, and then mostly disappear for another verse, comes back in again, and then disappears entirely so that Michael Johnston’s amazing voice (which sounds just as good if not better than it did in 1997) takes a chorus entirely unaccompanied, then suddenly the song becomes a verse of “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, which gave this old Calvinist chills.

In listening to this album, expect amazing moments like this to pop up with absolutely no warning. On top of these smooth and introspective interpretations of classic hymns, Smalltown Poets took it upon themselves to refer to other songs within the songs, and you’ll find yourself wishing that these parts were actually longer, which is surely the sign of a good recording.

Speaking of good, the second track of the album is “In The Bleak Midwinter“, which, while listening to the album without looking at the CD liner notes, I was SURE was a Smalltown Poets original, as it’s a beautiful poem contained in this heart-breaking melody, but no! It’s totally a hymn (based on a 19th century poem, no less!) from 1906! How did they find an awesome Christmas hymn that I have somehow never heard before?

Still, there is no shortage of well-known hymns given the modern rock treatment. In particular, “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” and “The First Noel” (the latter featuring a really cool drum part from Byron Goggins) are given the full rock band treatment, but certainly not to their detriment; in fact, the backing parts doing an amazing job reminding one that these old familiar melodies are actually still really strong, and nothing is going to get in their way.

I will say this, however, the backing parts and re-arrangements (many of which are credited to Danny Stephens, SP’s errant keyboardist, boy am I glad he’s back) actually help some of the hymns that I feel don’t really stand on their own otherwise. I’ve never been a big fan of “Good Christian Men Rejoice” with its traditionally bouncy 2/4 brashness, but Smalltown Poets slow it down, add some tasty Kevin Breuner guitar goodness and a cool groove from bassist Miguel DeJesus and drummer Byron Goggins, and then throw in an almost secret taste of “Silent Night” to make this song a real stand-out on the album. My heart grew 3 sizes that day.

In fact, speaking of the “Silent Night” interval, one of the most interesting things about this album is how satisfied it seems with simply reminding us of certain songs without actually playing them all the way through. “We Three Kings“, “Angels We Have Heard On High“, and others are only introduced briefly before giving way to something else. I am fascinated by this, because it seems to me that, instead of being this showcase of the band saying “Look what we can do!” by making a huge production out of every song, the album is just this kind of fluid journey through these beautiful yuletide melodies, and even without singing the words, you understand what is being said here. Then the band gets back into the full-form songs and they just become  all that much better.

Possibly my favorite hymn to receive a much-needed rearrangement is “Hark The Herald Angels Sing” (especially after Dylan’s version, yeesh). I am not kidding when I say I may have been cutting onions during the first 4 or 5 listens of this song, but the lyrics to the song are incredible, and the Poets even include my favorite verse that seems to go unnoticed in other versions, so kudos to the boys for that one.

Another great thing about this album is that there actually are original songs to be heard. They’re given almost no spotlight (and, in fact, you may mistaken them for the traditional songs like I did), but are nonetheless excellent. “On Christmas Day” is kind of a reworking of Ave Maria (which I’m not too familiar with, being Protestant, but it’s a good tune) that has some great lyrics, and the penultimate track is “His Delight“, which is a great kind of folky song that I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

Speaking of wrapping one’s head around something, there is an almost uncharacteristically bouncy track close to the middle of the album called “St. Nick Is Alright” which evokes both memories of SP’s second album (which I need to get on here soon) and The Beatles during that magical mystery era (at least at the end). It’s a sweet song, and it’s always interesting to hear a Christian group essentially singing about Santa Claus, but they handle it so gracefully that it then becomes something to ponder further, which is something I’ve almost never done with a Christmas song, much less one about St. Nick. As impressive as this album is, I am not surprised in the least to find myself hearing the songs multiple times to find some more hidden ideas and meaning, until I think of it as a Christmas album again and notice that Christmas will be over next week.

Thus, Smalltown Poets have performed what I can only describe as a Christmas Miracle; they recorded a Christmas album that I am going to sorely miss when the season is over. From beginning to end, this is a superior album by any standard, and is a bright spot in anyone’s existence, especially if they find themselves brought down by what Christmas has become thanks to modern culture, which I will get to soon enough, but for now, thank you, Smalltown Poets, for bringing Christmas its soul back.

I seriously can’t wait for these guys to record another album of originals, and if this recording is an indication, they may be able to outdo even their earliest work, which would be awesome. Until then, please check out Christmas and give it a purchase or two, and make it part of your Christmas antidote for yet another rendition of “White Christmas” or “Rudolph The Red Nose-I can’t even finish that title”. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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*Note: I never did write this third entry. There’s always Christmas 2012 I guess!