Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Six Song Six-Pack - Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is the greatest American holiday. Think about it. You get a long weekend, there's very little commercialization, you aren't bombarded with decorations and jingles for months beforehand. In fact, all this day is about is seeing people you care about eating a lot of food, watching football and being happy about it. Could there be a better way to spend a Thursday?

Although Thanksgiving doesn't have the wealth of holiday songs that either Christmas or even Halloween can boast, it does have a few gems floating around which don't get much love, so I thought I'd share a few.

1. The Thanksgiving Filter - Drive-By Truckers  Buy Go-Go Boots.
It killed me that Go-Go Boots was released in January because it meant that I had to wait almost a full year before playing this song around the holiday. "The Thanksgiving Filter" is yet another pitch-perfect set of character sketches from the DBTs. It's a loving, unsentimental look at family dynamics and dealing with the people in your life who you didn't choose but you have to love. The filter of the title refers to the various crutches ("psychological ointment") we use to deal with our family, be they your father's crazy hobby or a stiff drink. My only complaint is the Obama/Palin reference which could date what should be an all-time classic holiday song. Where else would you find a line like "Jesus Christ, I wish I'd smoked me a joint" in a song about a family holiday?

2. Roll Plymouth Rock - The Beach Boys  Buy The SMiLE Sessions.
OK, this one is a little bit of a stretch with little actual Thanksgiving content besides the Plymouth Rock shoutout, but I include it advisedly. SMiLE, as we all know, was Brian Wilson's lost masterpiece, meant to be the American Sgt. Pepper's (which had, in turn been inspired by Pet Sounds). Various songs from the sessions, bootlegs and even a 2004 re-recording of the album have been floating around for decades and, though it can sometimes be difficult to piece everything together, one theme is clear - this was supposed to be a psychedelic American travelogue going from Plymouth Rock through Mrs. O'Leary's Chicago and on the to west coast. I always loved Wilson's take on Americana and have made a tradition of listening to it around this very American holiday. To turn it on, enjoy the trippy barbershop vocals, the sharp, newly remastered sound and let the music carry you back to that earlier (if not simpler or better) first Thanksgiving.

3. Styrofoam Plates - Death Cab For Cutie  Buy The Photo Album.
Ah, family, the theme that inevitably haunts Thanksgiving music. In this case, we have Ben Gibbard telling the story of a child haunted by his absent, alcoholic father as he's forced have a free Thanksgiving dinner in the cafeteria of the local catholic church. Gibbard nails the little details that put the experience of living in a broken family on a holiday based familial bliss so painful. "Charity reeks of cheap wine and pity" he notes before addressing his father: "I'm thinking of you / like I do every year / as we count all our blessings and wonder what we're doing here." The rest of the song is an excruciatingly slow melodic build over a shambling drum pattern as the tensions builds and builds before finally erupting behind a wall of guitars and bile. Unable to take it anymore, the narrator curses his dead father at the man's funeral, refusing to let such a hurtful person be eulogized in honor. Thanksgiving is a day about being happy for what you have but for those missing something, it can also serve as a painful reminder of what they're missing.

4. Thanksgiving Day - Ray Davies  Buy Other People's Lives.
Ray Davies has a less jaded view of the holiday, perhaps due to his outsider's appreciation of a US holiday. "Thanksgiving Day" is a fond look at an American tradition from someone usually seen penning odes to Anglophilic rituals. Behind a swelling organ, Davies peeks into the lives of different Americans looking for the same thing - companionship on Thanksgiving. A widowed husband recalls his wife's old home cooking, a spinster endures hours on a bus to be with friends and a trucker drinks sadly to himself and thinks about where he went wrong. Davies manages to hit on the most appealing part of our holiday, how Thanksgiving allows us to remember the past and reaffirm our place in the world by losing ourselves in the company of others.

5. Thanksgiving - Loudon Wainwright III  Buy Therapy.
Loudon Wainwright III doesn't have to deal with parental abandonment or stifling loneliness. Instead he uses Thanksgiving as a lens through which to take stock of his own mortality and the slow distancing that occurs within families as people age. "Lord every year we gather here / to eat around this table" he starts, "give us the strength to stomach as much / as fast as we are able". He proceeds to paint a picture of quiet estrangement from his family, put in the harsh spotlight of a big Thanksgiving meal. He eats and watches his parents and siblings and feels the odd emptiness of missing something that he never realized he had - the innocence of being young in a happy family. After having more than a few drinks he takes a nap in the back bedroom where he finds what he longed for, in a dream. More whispered than sung over soft acoustic and aching steel guitar, it's a bittersweet, mature look at the complicated feelings evoked by the holiday.

6. Alice's Restaurant Massacre - Arlo Guthrie  Buy Alice's Restaurant.
OK, so this one is silly. And hokey. Certainly long-winded. Oh, and incredibly dated. But so are most holiday traditions and that's what "Alice's Restaurant" is - tradition. It's a winding story/song told by a good-naturedly stoned Arlo Guthrie that was recorded at a live show. Its lackadaisical attitude, numerous asides and simply, catchy guitar pattern mean it may try your patience but it's always entertaining. The story itself, about Guthrie's arrest for illegally dumping garbage seems fairly boring, but Guthrie's keen observation of the foibles of sixties politics and small-town behavior lend the tale color. The twist ending, with Guthrie's petty arrest eventually being used to keep him out of the draft is hippie perfection and funny enough, but for "Alice's Restaurant" the journey is just as much, if not more, fun than the destination.

So Happy Thanksgiving and please enjoy this little present I left for you on the way out (you're welcome).

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