Friday, December 16, 2011

25 Reviews of Christmas #16 - John Denver and the Muppets deliver a wonderful "Christmas Together"

Welcome to the 25 Reviews of Christmas here on www.jonathanlack.comAs explained in this post, I’m devoting the first 25 days of December to celebrating great Christmas movies, TV shows, specials, songs, and albums, with a Christmas-related review posting every single day for 25 days! 

The Muppets have had a pretty good year, I’d say, and today we’re looking to the past, when they recorded an album with the one and only John Denver!  “John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together,” is pretty awesome!  Remember to visit this page at any time for a collection of all 25 Reviews of Christmas articles. 

Enjoy! Review after the jump….

It’s a basic mathematic principle, really.  When you combine one something that is very awesome with another equally awesome something, you get something that is twice as awesome as either on their own! 

Awesome + Awesome = 2Awesome

As you can see, simple mathematics tell us that John Denver & The Muppets’ album, “A Christmas Together,” is two units of awesomeness!  How could it not be?  When you put the legendary John Denver in a recording study with the wonderful Muppet performers, the results should be spectacular.  And they are. 

What many people don’t know is that the album was originally a TV special, aired in 1979 just after John Denver had guest starred on The Muppet Show.  The special is extremely rare and hard to find, as it has never been given a home video release.  The album, originally released on vinyl, is essentially the soundtrack to the special, and though I would love to see the televised version one day, these songs are certainly enough for now.

In the liner notes, John Denver writes: “I can honestly say that collaborating with Jim Henson and the entire Muppet Gang in putting this recording together was one of the most enjoyable experiences of my career.”  Listening to the album, it’s apparent that he truly meant those words.  His performances here are as inspired as on any of his solo recordings, and he utilizes his deep knowledge of music to deliver an album full of classic carols, little-known hymns, and more.  It’s an album full of surprises, and one of the biggest shocks is that unlike other Muppet recordings, this one isn’t overtly comedic.  For the most part, it’s fairly serious, if not without a sense of fun, and that gives it a unique flavor.  The Muppet Performers of old were all great singers, and paired with John Denver, the album works on its own as a great Christmas record, rather than a simple Muppet-themed gimmick.

Here’s a track-by-track breakdown:

1. The Twelve Days of Christmas – This is my favorite recording of this song.  To be fair, I often find this song incomparably dull, but when artists find creative ways to approach the material, it can really soar.  Such is the case here.  John Denver takes the first lyrics – “Partridge in a pear tree” – and each of the subsequent lyrics is given to a different Muppet.  So as the song goes along, we get more and more Muppets added into the mix, the chorus getting bigger every time.  It’s both charming and, in true Muppets fashion, hilarious.  My favorite bits are Miss Piggy slowing down the song each and every time for the “Five gold rings” line, and Benson Honeydew and Beaker’s wonderfully odd duet. 

2. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – I would love to see the video version of this song; since Rawlf the Dog sings, I assume he’s playing the piano part (the only instrumentation in this song), and I always love watching Rawlf play the piano.  In true Rawlf fashion, this is a good ol’ fashioned parlor take on the classic, a duet with John Denver, and it’s very sweet.  At a scant minute-and-a-half, it never overstays its welcome.

3. The Peace Carol – I’ll admit, I’m not familiar with this song outside of this album, but it’s a beautiful song.  The instrumentation is simple but quite effective, and though it’s no surprise that John Denver’s performance of these gorgeous lyrics is wonderful, I was taken aback at how well his duet partner, Scooter, sings.  Richard Hunt really had a fantastic voice.  As the song goes along, more and more Muppets join in the Chorus, but what’s amazing about this track is that if you were unfamiliar with the Muppets, it would sound like a normal, moving little Christmas song.

4. Christmas is Coming – Miss Piggy leads this catchy, rhythmic carol, and as always, her personality makes this track irresistible.  Frank Oz really could do a great job singing as Piggy.  Another track that is just long enough to leave its mark without overstaying its welcome.

5. A Baby Just Like You – Another song I’m not familiar with, but a very good one, and John Denver’s performance, both vocally and on the guitar, is beautifully moving.  The flute part really sells this song.  The Muppets come in at the end, but this would be right at home on a Denver solo album.

6. Deck The Halls – Starting with Kermit, the Muppets pass this song around the group, and if the results don’t put a smile on your face, you don’t have a heart.  One of the best surprises here is that all the members of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem get to sing, as do Statlor and Waldorf. 

7. When the River Meets the Sea – Another testament to how beautiful the voices of the Muppet performers could be (specifically Jerry Nelson here as Robin); that they could go toe-to-toe with John Denver on a gorgeous song like this is simply amazing.  If I’m not mistaken, this is an original track by “Rainbow Connection” composer Paul Williams. 

8. Little Saint Nick – A real rockin’ version of this classic courtesy of Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem.  One of my favorite recordings of the classic, and it makes me with the Electric Mayhem had recorded a couple of rock albums.  Between this and “Can You Picture That?” it’s clear they’ve always had what it takes for rock stardom. 

9. Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913 – A beautiful song brought to life wonderfully by Denver.  The instrumentation, simple with lots of winds, is very impressive.

10. The Christmas Wish – A gorgeous solo from Kermit the Frog.  I know I shouldn’t be surprised when I listen to old Jim Henson recordings, but every time I hear Kermit sing, I’m blown away.  If there’s one thing Steve Whitmire can’t do as well as Henson could as Kermit, it’s the singing. 

11. Medley: Alfie, the Christmas Tree/Carol for a Christmas Tree/It’s in Every One of Us – The medley begins with John Denver telling a Christmas story…which is admittedly quite cheesy and a bit preachy for my tastes, but perfectly innocuous, and leads into a very nice, moving carol lead by Denver.  The Muppets make quite a spectacular chorus, don’t they?

12. Silent Night – The Muppets start this one singing in what I believe is the original German.  Hmm.  That’s…interesting…but it sounds nice, I suppose.  Then John Denver comes in and tells the history of the “Silent Night” song.  That’s also….interesting.  Actually, it’s one of the only moments on the album I would say is wholly unnecessary, but for kids, I guess it’s a nice little history lesson.  The actual performance is very strong, and at the end, all the Muppets say Merry Christmas to each other, and it’s a beautiful little tear-jerker moment, especially when Piggy says “Merry Christmas Jonathan.”  I like that part…

13. We Wish You a Merry Christmas – The only overtly comedic recording, with lots of funny bits.  The one that has always cracked me up is when Gonzo starts singing the “Figgy pudding” line and Miss Piggy, hearing it wrong, gets offended, but Animal ‘harmonizing’ the “won’t go” lyric is sidesplitting. 

So that’s A Christmas Together, a chronicle of the Holiday John Denver and the Muppets spent in a recording studio!  If you’ve never heard it before, you can currently get it at a really great sale price from iTunes and Amazon MP3.  I highly recommend it, both as a fun Muppets album and a very strong Christmas record. 

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