Sunday, October 12, 2014

Jingle Bell Rocks!

Last Friday, the 10th of October (we'll just call that the official kickoff to my Christmas season this year), I had the pleasure of attending a screening of "Jingle Bell Rocks!", Mitchell Kezin's documentary film about the world that we all know and love - Christmas Music collecting.  The film was screened at the Kansas International Film Festival in Overland Park, KS to a small but very appreciative audience.  I attended with Christmas music collector buddy Greg (of Greg's Swank Pad Lounge) and two other dear friends.  It was a great, great evening.

I and the readers of this blog are not only the target audience for this movie, we are the bull's eye.  There was no way outside of utter, abject failure in the art of filmmaking that I was not going to like this movie, especially having followed the movie's progression over the past several years on Christmas Music I-net.  And like it, I did.  Love it, I did.  Astounded, I am.

Mitchell Kezin has created a multi-dimensional journey across the spectrum of Christmas music.  It's about obsessively collecting Christmas music, the thrill of the find, both the yin of completing your quest for a certain song and the yang of discovering the unknown and finding the unknown to be great.  It's about Christmas Music as a super-genre, spanning and crossing pop, jazz, blues, calypso, uplifting, soul-scorching, and just plain weird.  It's about the songs - Miles Davis and Bob Dorough's "Blue Xmas",  Run DMC's "Christmas in Hollis", Akim and Teddy Vann's "Santa Claus is a Black Man", and The Flaming Lips' "A Change at Christmas (Say It Isn't So)".

Most of all, the film is about the power that Christmas music has on us.  Nostalgia merely scratches the surface of the range of emotions on display.  Spousal love of an artist and the tidal wave of emotion that comes when there is realization of not only appreciation but the acknowledgement of that the artist is truly heard, years later.  The impact of a Christmas song on a child, returning full circle in adulthood.  There is amazing depth to "Jingle Bell Rocks!"  Mitchell has given us much more than just a movie about Christmas music collecting.

Beyond the subject matter, the film is a wonderful example of documentary film making.  It skillfully moves from song to song, topic to topic, and person to person.  It's funny, and it's sad, and it's uplifting, and it flows with an expert pace.  It's a beautiful piece of cinema for us Christmas music lovers, and it will be a wonderful surprise to those not quite as into the Xmas music scene as the rest of us.

Those of you lucky enough to be able to catch a film fest screening with Mitchell in attendance, please go.  Following the screening, Mitchell took questions from the audience and shared stories about the making of the film.  Some of his stories about what did *not* make it into the film were as fascinating as what did make the final cut.  Now I'm equally excited about the Director's Cut version, which will be released next year.  Until then, the DVD coming out later this year, with lots of extras, will have to do.

To make the evening complete, Greg and I had the pleasure of spending some time with Mitchell at a local saloon to talk more about the movie, music, Mitchell's travels, all while watching the Kansas City Royals win game one of the ALCS!  Spending extra time an having a beer with Mitchell capped the evening perfectly.  Mitchell shared many stories with us, dropping a few familiar names from the Christmas music sharity community.  As the saying goes, fun was had by all!

So, go see this movie, either at a theatre near you, or buy the DVD, or get it through iTunes, or whatever your preferred media is.  "Jingle Bell Rocks!" will be widely available in early December.  You'll love it!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Movie time, new music, what's happening this season, and more!

It's October 9th, cool and rainy (yeah - we've had seven inches or more or rain at my house this October), and the holiday season is gearing up.  It's time for a post full of random thoughts.

-  Tomorrow night at the Kansas International Film Festival I'm going to see "Jingle Bell Rocks!".  I've been looking forward to this ever since it was announced as a selected film.  Greg of Greg's Swank Pad Lounge and I are going to the screening and hope to meet up with director Mitchell while we're there.

- Lots of new Christmas music coming out this season, as diligently cataloged at Stubby's place, but this year there are just a few that I'm excited about. Elizabeth Chan's new release, "Christmas in the City" tops my list.  Idina Menzel's "Holiday Wishes" is also way up there.  After that, it's a lot of re-releases (The Williams Brothers, Frank DeVol), and indie artists (Kat Tingey, Road 23).  I'm sure I'll add several new albums to the collection, but overall this year's new releases seem a little underwhelming.

- This season at Merry and Bright! - another CD giveaway contest!  I have a couple promotional CDs from an artist, so I'll be doing another fun little contest.  Stay tuned...

- Gotta get busy to provide at least a few album shares this season.  I have a few ready to rip down in the Merry and Bright studio (aka the room downstairs aka The Elvis Room).

- And, a random thought to close - this week marked the closing of The Maelstrom ride at Epcot in Walt Disney World.  On our family's last two trips to WDW, we must have ridden the Maelstrom 15 times.  We really loved it - not for a thrill ride, but really as a perfectly executed little ride full of character.  Although it will be immensely popular when it reopens as a "Frozen" theme ride, it won't have the same charm as The Maelstrom.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Album (and Artist) Review: Hannah Spiro "New Jewish Love Songs"

On one of my visits to Kickstarter, I found a project called "New Jewish Love Songs" by Hannah Spiro.  I had not heard of Hannah, I had no Jewish music in my personal music library (except for a handful of Hannukah songs), and I didn't know what Jewish Love Songs were.  Honestly folks, I grew up in South Central Kansas, I didn't meet my first Jewish person until I was 18, and the second not until sometime in my 20s.  I know very, very little about the Jewish faith.  But, I love all kinds of music, and I especially love personal discoveries of new artists and new music.  So, I checked out Hannah's project.  For a modest contribution to her project I would receive not only "New Jewish Love Songs" but also her previous four CDs.  So, I signed on as a backer.

A better musical decision I've never made.

With Hanna Spiro's ("Spiro" rhymes with "hero", by the way) entire musical output at my behest, I set out to learn about Hannah the artist and exactly what "New Jewish Love Songs" were.  And after listening through her albums several times, I want to share with you, my faithful readers, my thoughts about Hannah Spiro and her music.

Hannah's first album is "Last Lights On in Town" from 2006,  In the note Hannah enclosed with the CDs, she called her debut "a folk-poppy look into my fifteen year old mind".  With that in mind, there are a couple immediate observations.  First, all of the songs on the album were written, composed, and arranged by Hannah, and they are pretty darned good, especially in overall musicality.  It's even more impressive to know that they came from a teen.  Second, from the very first song, one is struck by the driving power of Hannah's alto vocals.  She sings with a purpose and a passion.  As I was listening through, I kept thinking "Natalie Merchant".  (After actually listening to Natalie Merchant yesterday, there's not as much similarity as I thought in timbre and phrasing, but Natalie's energy is there in Hannah's performance).  Teen Hannah had a definite sweet spot in her range, and didn't explore the upper and lower registers as much as in later albums, but her singing was fine all around.

Highlights of the album were the title track "Last Lights On in Town", a very well-written song with a killer hook "Make me feel like tonight every day"; the closer "Playing Outside", a softer piece, very melodic and more acoustic; "The Peace Song", about sex and death and guns and politics and perspective and holy cow this is quite a powerful song about heavy stuff from a teenager; and "Snow", the 4th track, because, well, I love snow.  "Last Lights On in Town" is an impressive debut.

"Exhale Your Blues" was Hannah's next album, from 2009, that she wrote when she was finishing high school.  As with her debut, Hannah wrote, composed, and arranged all the songs.  There is definite growth as a musician throughout "Exhale Your Blues".  Hannah's songwriting skills have matured, the arrangements seem crisper yet more natural, and Hannah explores more in style and musical spectrum.  One of my favorite songs on this album, "Every Molecule" starts with a rap style, then settles into more of a pop structure.  And who can resist the lyric "You're the wasabi on my sushi, more than spicy enough"?  "Strange/Beautiful" is a lighter arrangement to a very personal relationship song, with the great line "Five long years, and you are still the only one who makes me realize/the grass is strange but it is beautiful right here, so screw the other side".  "Grinning at the Trees" and "Closer to the Sun" are two other of my favorites from "Exhale Your Blues".

Hannah's next album, "Aliyah", marked a significant change in direction, as she recorded an album solely of Jewish music - Jewish stories and prayers interpreted with her ever-growing skill as a song writer.  The album begins with "Wherever You Go", a very strong opening song which highlights Hannah's songwriting.  According to the liner notes, "Wherever You Go" is written from the point of view of Ruth, from the Book of Ruth, and is about the bond that two people can share from caring and love.   Track 2, "Lecha Dodi", is the first of several songs on the album to include traditional Hebrew verse, all of which sound incredible.  "Golem", the fifth song on the album, is a favorite of mine, relating the traditional Jewish story of the Golem, "a monster that a rabbi created one day to protect his town from enemies" (from the liner notes).  "Aliyah" bursts with passion for Jewish tradition and faith.

Next in Hannah Spiro's discography is "It Is Upon Us", from 2012.  It is an album of original Jewish liturgy.  It builds upon the foundation that began with "Aliyah" - great musical performance, abounding passion for faith, and vocals perfectly suited for the songs.  Many of the songs on "It Is Upon Us" have Hebrew lyrics that completely embrace and enlighten the spirit of the album.  Hannah's personal connection with the songs is evident throughout the record, with "Mah Gadlu" (based on Psalm 92), "Mi Chamocha" (based on Exodus 15"), "I Am Not Afraid" (based on Psalm 46) being highlights.

And that brings us finally to Hannah's new album "New Jewish Love Songs".  In her Kickstarter video, Hannah implied that the songs may not be 'love songs' as we typically think about them.  And this is true.  "New Jewish Love Songs" is an album of songs filled with love of God, faith, tradition, family, liturgy, and spirituality.   Hannah has blended traditional liturgy with English lyrics to give us an amazing record.  The album begins with "Return to Eden", an interpretation of Adam and Chava from Genesis 2, which Hannah calls "the ultimate Jewish love story".  The album continues with "Oseh Shalom", a traditional prayer of peace, and "Zot Ot Habrit (Covenant of Genesis)", and six other songs.  I was particularly moved by "Elohai N'tzor", about the temptations of gossip and the use of language to do harm, and the quest for strength to overcome.   And, "Gather You Together" has kind of a foot-stompin' beat accompanying the story of the Covenent of Second Isiah.  "New Jewish Love Songs" is an incredible record.

I want to point out the liner notes in Hannah's last three records, her albums of Jewish music.  Her notes for each song explain the inspiration, the relationship to Jewish liturgy, and Hannah's own thoughts about the song and her interpretation of meaning.  They are quite honestly the best liner notes I have ever read, and serve as a means to complete the musical message.  Especially for me, one with little knowledge about Judaism, the notes are an essential addition to the music.

So, to finally wrap up this very long post, I have to say that I have never been more pleased to have backed a Kickstarter project.  Hannah Spiro's music, especially her last three albums of Jewish music, was a completely new musical experience for me.  Her liner notes also gave me a wonderful glimpse into the Jewish faith.  Hannah's records are marvelous.

You can find out more about Hannah Spiro at her website,, and her CDs are available through CD Baby.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Christmas Album by Road 23

I occasionally go to Kickstarter and search for "Christmas" and see what projects come up.  There are usually a few Christmas records, a handful of books, some crafts, decorations, and ornaments, and once in a while the very unusual (like right now, September 3, 2014, there is a project for Krampus soap and/or ornament - I was tempted).  I always check out the music projects, and help fund the ones that stand out to me.

Today I found a project by a central Kansas (El Dorado, KS, to be precise) family band called Road 23. Fronted by Stevie Warren and joined by her husband Andrew, brother Levi, and dad Tony, Road 23 has been making music for a few years, having released two CDs along the way.

Road 23 has recorded a Christmas album and is using Kickstarter to help fund the final production of the CD.  They have a modest fundraising goal, but can use a little help to get it across the line.  I listened to Road 23's music on their website, and also hit Spotify to listen to one of their previous albums, and I liked what I heard.  Stevie has a very pleasant voice, clean and pure, and I think it will be quite well suited to a wonderful little Christmas record.  Her family bandmates are talented musicians in their own right, so I decided to help out their project.

So, loyal readers, go and visit Road 23's Kickstarter site, listen to their Christmas album story, and check out their music on their website and Spotify.  If you like what you hear, consider backing them with a few festive dollars.  Or a lot of festive dollars, if you're so inclined.  All in the name of more terrific Christmas Music!

Friday, August 29, 2014

Jingle Bell Rocks! Coming Soon to a Theatre Near Me

I haven't given much space in the past here at Merry and Bright! for "Jingle Bell Rocks!", Mitchell Kezin's labor of love movie about, well, the kind of good people that read this here blog.  The reason is that Mitchell's film was well covered in the rest of the Christmas Music blogosphere, and I'm pretty sure that my readers also stop by the other blogs, so I didn't see the need to repeat the info.

Well, time for a change. 

Great things have been happening for Mitchell and his film as he's made the film festival circuit.  Awards, accolades.  Plans for the DVD and Blu-Ray release.  (Hey!  I know what my team at work is getting for Christmas!)  A new distributor - Oscilloscope Laboratories.  How cool is all this?!?!!

The best part of this (for ol' Der Bingle anyway), is that "Jingle Bell Rocks!"  has been selected for the Kansas International Film Festival in Overland Park, Kansas in October.  October 10 at 7:50PM to be exact.  Overland Park is in the Kansas City metro area, and the theatre is about half an hour from my house.  I'm excited!  Greg (proprietor of Greg's Swank Pad Lounge) and I will kick off the Christmas season and meet up for the screening, and hopefully meet Mitchell as well.  Maybe share a Christmas mix or two...

I only know Mitchell through Facebook and the Christmas Music blogosphere, but I'm very proud of his accomplishment with "Jingle Bell Rocks!".  It's very inspiring to me to see the results of his work in a narrow niche field of artistry, and to see the success that is coming his way.  I felt the same way about Elizabeth Chan last year, with her "Everyday Holidays" CD release, and her realization of becoming a Christmas Music Artist (a very rare bird indeed).  These amazing, dedicated artists are true inspirations.

So - Kansas City readers - October 10, 2014, Glenwood Arts Theatre.  Come and treat yourself to "Jingle Bell Rocks!".  I hope to see you there!

Want to know more?  Follow the links!

Jingle Bell Rocks! Official Website

Jingle Bell Rocks! Facebook

Monday, August 18, 2014

Kasey Rausch Concert at my house!

I mentioned in my last post that I have turned 50.  A week before my birthday (and a few days after my wife's equally significant birthday), we hosted a celebration at our house, with friends and family invited to join us.  The highlight of our party was local musician Kasey Rausch, who played a set on our back deck by the pool. We have been blessed with a very mild Summer here in Kansas City, so at showtime it was only around 80 degrees, perhaps only in the upper 70s, so we had a beautiful evening for outdoor music.

Kasey Rausch is a country-folk-roots singer-songwriter.  I found her (like so may others) on Kickstarter as a local musician funding a new album.  I loved what I heard, and so I backed her.  A little later, looking at her online profile and website, I saw that she performed at house concerts.  The wheels started turning, and, to make a long story short, I booked her to come and perform at our birthday party.

When she arrived that evening following an afternoon gig at a nearby winery, I found that she redefined "local".  She lived only a couple miles away, and her kids go to the same high school as mine.  In fact, my son knew her son, as they had been in a class together!  Talk about supporting your local musicians :-)

Kasey performed out on our deck for about an hour, and she was fantastic.  She has an amazing voice - smooth yet with a touch of a rough edge (or maybe rough at the center and smooth all around?), perfectly suited for her roots/country music.  She performed mostly original songs, including one about her grandmother, who had passed away at the fine age of 103.  Simply beautiful.   Kasey also sang a couple songs from great country songwriter Johnny Mullins, who wrote songs for Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn, and many others.

Kasey is truly a hard working artist.  She performs all over Kansas City, many times more than one gig per day, and almost always several times a week.  She travels around Missouri and Kansas, and earlier this Summer did a mini-tour in South Dakota and Wyoming.  She plays solo or with several incarnations of bands (including a weekly happy hour show with her group The Naughty Pines).

The best news is that Kasey has been signed to a record label!  MudStomp Records will be releasing her new CD, from the Kickstarter campaign, later this year.  Having listened to any of her new songs live on my deck, I can hardly wait for the CD release!

In the meantime, I am hoping to get out to see Kasey perform a few more times as Summer turns to Fall, and then Winter rolls in.  Local friends - go see her.  It doesn't matter if you consider yourself a country music fan or not, get out to a local honky tonk and see Kasey!  You will love her!

Friends across the globe - you can find Kasey Rausch on Spotify, and her albums "Born Near the Waters" and "Live How You Love" are on Amazon.  And, follow Kasey Rausch Music on Facebook to keep track of Kasey and her performance schedule.  Oh yeah - she hosts  radio show every Sunday morning, too - River Trade Radio - listen in online to get your Sunday off to a great start!

It was a pleasure and privilege to have Kasey perform at our house for our birthday celebration.  She is a talented musician and song writer, and is also an amazingly nice person (and neighbor!) We all truly enjoyed getting to know Kasey and hear her music on a beautiful Summer evening.

Now if I can convince her to record some Christmas songs!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

It's a Milestone

Hello good readers.  Today is a milestone for Der Bingle.  Today I left my 40s behind and zoom into my 50s, feeling great and excited about things to come.  (pause for accolades and toasts).

I'm excited to be approaching the holiday season again, when the blog will come back to life with all the merriment and joy of the years gone by.  And, it's also back to school time, which nowadays is meaning fewer activities than ever before.  Oldest Bingle child is now a fully employed pharmacist.  Elder Bingle Son is beginning his second year as a teacher and coach.  Middle Bingle is starting her second year at college, leaving only the youngest two at home (a high school Junior and a 7th grader).  So, instead of the flurry of back-to-school, it will almost be a respite.

And that's good for you dedicated readers of Merry and Bright.  Until sharing season, I hope to get several posts written, about a variety of topics, including:

  • update about a concert held here at my house this Summer by an outstanding local musician
  • reviews of a terrific new (to me) artist that I discovered on Kickstarter
  • updates on some Christmas-related hobby activities
and more, including (hopefully) a major (to me) event that will be fulfill a lifelong bucket-list goal.  It'll take time and focus, but I have the dedication.  The talent may be questionable in pursuing this project, but I'm determined to complete phase I.

No, in case you're wondering, Der Bingle will not be singing. 

I'm also hoping to use my time smartly and do some genealogy work, and some painting.  I did one painting a year or so ago, using a Bob Ross video as a guide, and darned if it wasn't decent.  So I want to get back to putting out a few more Louvre-bound paintings :-)

That's it for tonight.  Keep your eyes on Merry and Bright over the next few months.  I hope you enjoy my musings.