A Shaded Christmas Dog

by the other theo

Music is an important part of the Christmas season for me.   Be it the music of Christmas Mass, the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas, or some 20th Century Christmas classic crooned by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, or someone more contemporary, it’s music I only play for myself from the day after Thanksgiving until January 2nd.   That makes it special, and it’s a refuge during a month that seems to be nothing but busy with holiday hustle and bustle.

Lots of pop, rock, and country music artists like to do Christmas albums.   Too many of them end up sounding either sanitized or completely of their moment.  Nearly all of them cater to the secular Christmas motifs of the Northeast United States from the middle of the last century — snow, trees, fiery hearths, sledding, skating, roasted chestnuts, and the rest.   Very few (like A Christmas Cornucopia by Annie Lennox and A Winter’s Night by Sting) bother to even mine much of the large stockpile of older Christmas material beyond the most popular favorites.

So, I’ve leaned on some jazz-inflected compilation albums (primarily produced annually by Starbucks), a few individual albums by the likes of Mel Tormé, Harry Connick Jr., and Diana Krall, and some instrumental favorites like the aforementioned Peanuts soundtrack.

This year, I felt compelled to look for something different.   I wanted something more musical and less commercial (at least in the modern sense) and that dove deeper into the full range of Christmas material.  Somehow, I kept thinking back to an album in my Mother’s collection of vinyl:

rca_lsc-2139I’m not sure why.   I remembered what it is: four part a capella choral harmony.   Though it was not something I especially appreciated at Christmas as a child, it seemed something perfect for me now — quiet, accomplished, meditative, and truly classic (and rooted in the classical.)

But where to find this?   Doing a little research, I discovered that RCA vinyl aficionados call Living Stereo albums “shaded dogs” because of the darker backgrounds in their labels behind the RCA “His Master’s Voice” logo compared to regular RCA Red Seal labels.   This shaded dog had not been issued on its own since the mid-1960’s, despite selling quite well for years after its release.   At first, it seemed a dead end.

Further searching online yielded this possibility: 179672The similar format of the cover art suggested similarity (though the faces of the singing children suggest more parody than enjoyment), but what was it and what, exactly, was on it?   Availability at a number of online retailers also suggested that this was out print because it only could be found used, and generally for more than what one might pay for a new CD.

The solution ultimately came when I found a page for the CD at Arkiv Music.  It turns out that this is a 1994 BMG Classical Music Club compilation release of three classic Robert Shaw Chorale albums of Christmas music from the 1950’s and 1960’s:

  1. Christmas Hymns & Carols, Volume I (LSC-2139)
  2. Christmas Hymns & Carols, Volume II (LM-1711)
  3. Benjamin Britten: Ceremony of Carols/Rejoice in the Lamb/Festival Te Deum (LSC-2759)

Arkiv is re-issuing the recording with permission from RCA.  It is produced through an On Demand process by Arkiv that creates the CD and packaging as orders are placed.  Best of all, it’s a reasonable $20 for a double CD from Arkiv.    The producer of the re-issue even went so far as to include a lengthy review on the Arkiv and Amazon web sites discussing how the compilation was engineered and assembled in 1994.   Win!

I’ve had it for a couple days now, and I must say that it’s lighting up my Christmas season.  For fans of choral music and traditional carols (as well as Britten fans,) it’s definitely worth checking out.