“It’s Christmas again, December is here…” as Aimee Mann sings in this somewhat delicate, prettily melancholy song that marks the beginning of a musical Advent Calendar on this here blog. Yes, between now and Christmas Day, it’s all holiday music all the time because, my friends, I love this time of year. And so, instead of the usual 366 Songs ramblings, expect Christmas Songs with little-to-no commentary. Just enjoy the most wonderful time of the year, dammit.
(Worth noting: This song gets first go not simply because of the “December is here” line, but because of the line that follows: “Hasn’t it been a wonderful year?” There’s something about Mann’s performance of that line that makes me unconvinced that she means it, and that always appeals to me. This year especially; it’s really not been a wonderful year, has it…? 2012, you’ve been trying to kill me and those I love all too often, it seems.)
I was a big Aimee Mann fan, back around the time of her first solo album. I can remember seeing her live, in Aberdeen during my first year of art school, and just being… smitten, perhaps? Being very wowed by the whole experience, the quieter folky-songs like this, and the more power poppy numbers that ripped off the Byrds so gleefully and openly. Listening to this again, years later, I find myself focusing on the oddness of her voice and how melancholy the song is, how little it has to do with the Fourth of July aside from the wonderful “What a waste of gunpowder and sky” line.
As soon as you find out that “One,” apparently, came from Harry Nilsson getting a busy signal on a phone one day, that can dominate the way that you hear the song, with the repeated keyboard note dominating everything else around it, including the harpsichord and strings (and flute, I think? From 1:32, that is) that carry the weight of the song outside of Nilsson’s voice. Deetdeet deetdeet, deetdeet deetdeet, and so on.
By the time that Three Dog Night have their collective hands on the song, it’s already lost the fragility of the original version; the vocals have gone from Nilsson’s softness to the overblown rock wail of Danny Hutton, and the carefully built structure of the original is replaced by something that aims to rock you but feels scattered and as if the band has forgotten how the song actually goes, and are trying to hide it with harmony vocals (“Num-Burr!” indeed); this arrangement feels curiously at odds with the lyrical content of the song, but this was also the version that was the bigger hit, so I guess that the late ’60s kids were more willing to accept aggression from a moustachioed rockhero than melancholy from a soon-to-be carwreck.
I’m tempted to say that Aimee Mann’s version of the song – from the soundtrack of Magnola – is the one that I prefer, in a lot of ways; there’s the sadness of the Nilsson original, but also a stronger dynamic than that one, with a structure that makes more sense than the Three Dog Night version – adding in the organ and bass, as well as Jon Brion’s backing vocals (The section at 2:10 with, apparently new lyrics and melody, is just lovely), brings something to the song that feels more in tune with what the song is actually about, instead of the overblown theatrics of the Three Dog Night version.
Ultimately, I prefer the Nilsson vocals from the original, but I find myself wishing that he’d had the thought to add what Mann/Brion did in their version for some weird Voltron final version. But then, what song doesn’t have some missed opportunities down the line?