Monday, December 20, 2010

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 87 - Mannheim Steamroller

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

I don't hate Christmas carols. It's easy to pick on them this time of year, especially the truly inescapable ones that play on loop at shopping malls. I will admit that "modern" carols - like Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" or Paul McCartney's "Wonderful Christmastime" - belong to  a special circle of Christmas hell. But most of the old-fashioned carols have a good melody that's flexible enough to handle the loads of reinterpretations that they're subject to this time of year. 

In recent years, however, mere Christmas carols haven't been enough, and the American public has demanded more from these songs. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra makes a career combining carols with the excesses of stadium rock and pyrotechnics (and, despite what anyone says, I still think they're pretty cool). And I read in the newspaper today about a concert called "Messiah Rocks" that "breathes new life into Handel's oratorio with stunning visual effects...and a rock band." It's as if these carols have such a major presence in our cultural consciousness that we take them from granted - only when they're turned inside out and given the rock'n'roll treatment do we start to appreciate them anew. 

Mannheim Steamroller is another one of these novelty Christmas groups, and one of the most infamous. It could be said that the group represents the worst forms of holiday excess - they take age-old carols and give them a bland "electronic" treatment in an attempt to market themselves to middle-aged women who listen to Yanni. They're omnipresent during the Christmas season, even though no one really likes them. Instead, they infest the radio waves and concert circuits as a demented form of the spirit of Christmas, blasting their boring Christmas renditions wherever in America there's two shoppers and a loudspeaker. 

But I was somewhat surprised when doing research on the group this week. Did you know that Mannheim Steamroller did not start out as a Christmas group, but released five non-holiday albums in the seventies before recording their first Christmas carol? Did you know that Chip Davis, founder of the group, is also responsible for the 70s novelty-country song "Convoy"? That the very name "Mannheim Steamroller" is actually a pun on the "Mannheim Rocket," a compositional technique used by classical-era composers in the 18th-century? There's a lot more to Mannheim Steamroller than Christmas, as it turns out. This doesn't necessarily redeem their music, but perhaps it makes them slightly more interesting.


ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Mannheim Steamroller

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: That damned rendition of "Deck the Halls" comes on in any shopping mall I've set foot into during December. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to Christmas (1984) every day this week. I also listened to Fresh Aire III (1979) three times, Fresh Aire II (1977) twice, and Fresh Aire IV (1981) and A Fresh Aire Christmas (1987) once each. 

WHAT I LIKED: Mannheim Steamroller manages not to be too offensive to the ears on their early Christmas albums - at least when they stick to traditional renditions and don't go all electronic or new-age on the songs.  "Coventry Carol" and "I Saw Three Ships" are two songs that the group does well, choosing to go the old-fashioned route with classical instruments, and not throwing in a drum set or synthesizer. I'm fine with chamber music Christmas renditions, and the band can do it well when they put their mind to it. 

I don't even know what to think about Mannheim Steamroller's non-holiday albums, a strange cross between classical music and synthesized New Age spiritual hoodoo. "The Fourth Door" from Fresh Aire II is a playful song, and a good example of the best of this kind of music. It's hokey and sort of stupid, but in a fun way, with a catchy melody to boot. And "Mere Image" from Fresh Aire III is like a New Age power ballad, starting with a solo flute and building to massive orchestral swells. It's playing on every trite, overused emotional effect possible in music, but it's so unabashed and shameless in what it's doing that I can't help but appreciate it. 

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: I'm a big fan of classical music, and part of me takes offense at the idea that Mannheim Steamroller fans (who must exist, somewhere in this wide world) consider this to be classical music. It has classical instruments, yes, but the band plays on every cheap melodic trick. There's no subtlety or beauty to the music, simply over-the-top musical crescendoes and far too many arpeggios.

Mannheim Steamroller seems to be catering to the group of people who like classical music as background music. These are the people who take Beethoven and Mozart and treat their music as if it's soothing therapy to calm the soul, treating it less as music and more as stress relief. Mannheim Steamroller works well for this, but I abhor this kind of music - songs like "The Third Door" are uninteresting enough to be background music. It tricks people into thinking they're being cultured, when really it's just music that's safe and dull enough to function as Muzak you don't really need to pay attention to. There's no form or structure to the music, no real shape, as if Mannheim Steamroller acknowledges that it's music to listen to peripherally (or music to get stoned to, I suppose). I can't imagine sitting at a Mannheim Steamroller concert and getting actually caught up in this music - it's just so boring

Other songs, like "The Cricket" are shamelessly hokey, filled with "natural" sound effects and dated synthesizers. The first four Mannheim Steamroller albums follow a loose concept of "the four seasons," but this seems more a trick to appeal to New Age beliefs about the World Spirit than any real musical concept. It reminds me of those damn CDs you see in the Hallmark store - Beethoven and Ocean Sounds, Vivaldi and Forest Sounds, and the like. 

The Christmas carols that the band plays are sort of fun, and some of their best stuff - maybe because in this day and age most Christmas carols are played as background music anyway. But there's still some renditions that are so bad to be unforgivable - the proto-techno "Good King Wenceslas" comes to mind. And, despite the fact that "Hark the Herald Angels Sing!" is one of my favorite carols, Mannheim Steamroller's version is atrocious, and a shameless attempt to capitalize on the success of their "Deck the Halls" to boot. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: There's five more Fresh Aire albums that I have yet to listen to, as well as six more Christmas albums. I suppose it could be worth checking out Christmas Live (1997) to see what their concerts are like. But I'm pretty sure I'm done with Mannheim Steamroller. Although I'm going to end up being exposed to this music every December, whether I want to or not. 

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Deck the Halls," I guess.

BEST SONG YOU HAVEN'T HEARD: "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella"

This is no better or worse than a lot of their Christmas carols, but it's a song that's underplayed during Christmastime. And, rare for the group, they let the beautiful melody speak for itself, rather than throwing in a lame drumbeat and some synthesized arpeggios. 

NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: I'm taking a two-week break, which I'll use to listen to Led Zeppelin. Have a merry Christmas - I'll see you in 2011.