Thursday, December 31, 2015

Der Bingle's Best of 2015

What can be a better post on New Year's Eve than a 'best of 2015' Christmas records list?  Nothing, am I right?  Without further ado, as we bid adieu to 2015, here is my Top Christmas records of 2015:

1.  Greg Page "Here Comes Christmas!" 

You read my review - I absolutely loved this record, as enjoyable for us grown-ups as for the kids.  Full of heart and Christmas wonder.

2.  The Snow Globes "Milk and Cookies" EP.  

The Snow Globes are a local (to me) Kansas City band that forms each November, plays the heck out of Christmas music for two months, then slips away until the next year.  Somehow, I didn't find out about them until this year.  They are soooooo good.  This year, their EP, which is their 4th CD release in 5 years, gets my #2 spot.  Look for a big story about The Snow Globes here next season.  Until then, visit their website and listen to their marvelous Christmas tunes.

3.  Elizabeth Chan "Red and Green"

Honestly, as long as Elizabeth Chan keeps putting out new music year after year, her albums will keep hitting my 'best of' list.  No one embodies the true musical spirit of the holiday as much as Elizabeth.  "Christmas in the City", her 2014 single, is a Christmas classic, and the rest of the world is starting to figure that out.  I'm going to write about why this really is a Christmas classic in a post next season - I have my reasons :-)

4.  Astrocolor "Lit Up"

One of the best original interpretation albums of Christmas music ever.  It's mesmerizing.

5.  Kylie Minogue "Kylie Christmas"

2015 was a definite down year for new "big" commercial Christmas releases, with Real Gone's re-masters taking the spotlight.  But Kylie Minogue's record was a standout.  Full of energy and fun, with a smattering of unexpected guest stars (Iggy Pop, need I say more), it was a very enjoyable record.  I really don't need to ever hear "Santa Baby" or "Baby It's Cold Outside" again, but Kylie's takes on "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year" and "Christmas Wrapping" were excellent.  Get the bonus edition with the DVD, so you can look at Kylie as she sings :-)

6.  Jillaine and Jacob "Jazzy Duets for Christmas"

Sublime, reserved jazzy Christmas songs from our favorite chanteuse.

7.  India Arie "Christmas with Friends"

And what a group of friends!  Joe Sample.  Trombone Shorty.  Kirk Whalum.  A laid-back album, perfect for a relaxing evening by the fire.

8. Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings "It's a Holiday Soul Party"

Lots of press for this, and well deserved.  Joyful, stompin', shakin', party-on-dude Christmas record.

Honorable Mention: Thisbe Vos "A Jazzy Christmas"

Thisbe Vos gets an honorable mention because she topped my list last year after I got her album pre-release as a crowd-funding contributor.  The official commercial release was this year, so I decided to add Thisbe's album to the list again because it is so wonderful.  Folks, it is in my top 10 in my whole collection.  Thisbe's vocals will make your heart melt.  Sigh...

So that's the list for this year.  If I have a panic attack when I realize an omission, I'll make it up with a later post.  Follow the links embedded in the text above to visit these artists' websites.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Final Share of 2015: Medleys Galore!

Good day all, here on the 23rd of December.  Today I have my final share of the season.  This year and last, the vinyl sharing has diminished in numbers, for several reasons.  First is the omnipresent battle against time to do sharing right.  I should start preparing in about July, but that never happens.  Second is the availability of vinyl.  The thrift stores in these parts don't seem to produce the gems that other sharers find, so supply is limited.  Last, and related to the second factor, is that more and more Christmas records from the past are now available as commercially re-released CDs or downloads.  Which is really a good thing - we all love it when a classic record is re-mastered and re-released.  Good for us, good for the artists (or copyright holders), and good for Christmas music.

But, I'll still keep looking and sharing as I can.  Which brings us to today's share, "Christmas Hymns and Carols" by Bob Ralston.  This is an organ/chimes/chorus record, of which there are many, but this is a very good one.  The record consists of 10 medleys of Christmas songs, mostly very familiar tunes, but there are a couple lesser known gems added into the medley mix, such as "Little Stranger in the Manger" and "Ding-a-Ling, Ding-a-Ling".  The arrangements are lively and pleasing.  I've labeled the tracks simply "Track 1", "Track 2", etc, instead of listing out the medley components on each one.

I love the album cover too - nothing like a Christmas morning to get up, put on a shirt, tie and sweater if you're Dad, and a smart dress with Christmas tree brooch if you're Mom, and then running down to the Christmas tree!

Please enjoy the last share of 2015 - Bob Ralston's "Christmas Hymns and Carols".

download link

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Christmas Carillon Classics

Tonight's share (with only one more to go this season) is an album of Christmas carols played on the carillon by master carilloneur John Klein.  A carillon is an instrument composed of many bells that is played with a keyboard, producing a very unique sound, especially when used to play Christmas songs.

There are several Christmas albums around the internet featuring John Klein, the carillon, and Christmas music.  I'm pretty sure that this one has been shared out before - I thought at Ernie's place - but I found this record in good shape for a buck, so thought I'd share it out myself for your listening pleasure this season.

Twenty songs grace this record, many under two minutes, none over three.  All come from the spiritual side of the season.  No Santa Claus or Rudolph, lots of angels, kings, and Bethlehem.

The album was in pretty good shape, although I know there is a skip on one track that I couldn't repair, so my apologies for that.  Still, it's a very enjoyable addition to your Christmas music selections for this season.


updated link

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thursday Share: Favorite Songs of Christmas

As we are quickly winding down the week before Christmas, it's time for another vinyl share.  Tonight's album is "Favorite Songs of Christmas" by The Music City Singers on the Halo Records label.  

According to the back of the album, this is a happy album full of happy songs and recorded by musicians that were happy when the record was cut.  So much happiness.  Whew.

Seriously, there are some notable things about this record.  First of all, none other than Boots Randolph is credited with the 'Sax-Xylophone' (??)   And, members of the Jordanaires (Elvis' backup group) and the Anita Kerr singers appear on the record.  It sounds like a call went out in Nashville one Saturday afternoon to all the available singers hangin' around town.  "Hey!  Whatcha doing today?"  "Nothin' much".  "Let's go cut a Christmas record".  "Okey-doke".  And so here we have "Favorite Songs of Christmas".

The music is pretty good, even though I poke a little fun at the album cover.  Ten songs, nine standards plus the not-so-standard "Christmas Time is the Best Time of the Year".   Good stuff.

If anyone knows what a 'sax-xylophone' is, please comment.  My guess is it's the creation of a rookie copy writer at Halo Records.  My second guess is that Boots did whack on a xylophone when he was taking a break from the sax.  He did play the vibraphone early on, so says the internet.

Please enjoy "Favorite Songs of Christmas"

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Was Radar O'Reilly a Tenor?

I guess we'll never know for sure, as the Corporal extraordinaire is not in the Ottumwa, IA High School Concert Choir from 1970.  But what I do know is that this high school choir makes some very pretty Christmas music.

These high school choir records fascinate me.  I posted a few songs from one a few years back, the Bentley High School Choir, and really didn't know that making these records was a thing.  I guess it is.  Makes sense, if you think about it.  Since the advent of digital music production, it's been easy to record concerts and make CDs.  Before digital, it wasn't as easy to record a school concert and save it on audio media for posterity, but I'm sure the desire was always there to save a historical record.  For schools with the means, or the fundraising efforts, it was certainly possible.  This is evidenced by Bentley and now, Ottumwa.

This is a record of the 1970 Ottumwa High School Concert Choir's Christmas concert.  Their concert was a mix of traditional spiritual songs ("O Come All Ye Faithful"), classical ('Hallelujah Chorus'), and seasonal classics ("Jingle Bells", "Sleigh Ride").  The youngsters in the choir sound great, making this a nice little record in the Christmas music sub-genre of "high school choir".

I was able scan the front and back covers (very understated, by the way, making it really interesting), but couldn't scan the inner gatefold, so it is a digital photo.  My apologies for the lower quality of the inner.

Good stuff here, says Der Bingle.  If you know someone who may have been in the Ottumwa Choir in 1970, point them here to bring back some memories.  If you were in the choir, post a comment!

Please enjoy a Christmas concert from young vocalists hailing from Radar O'Reilly's hometown!

download link

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Heartwarming Story from the Past

In addition to Christmas music, I collect, or in most cases "accumulate" would be more accurate, Christmas items of all types.  Books, ornaments, and vintage Christmas decorations have all found their way into my house, emerging for two months every year, and waiting for my children to joyously squabble over their future holiday inheritance.  Well, maybe not so much on that last item, but the point is that I collect more than just music.  I have an entire set of Cuneo Christmas books, many other collections of Christmas fiction, poems, and non-fiction.  I love reading about Christmas as much as listening to the season's music.

Earlier this year I, like the fool I am, did a random eBay search for something like "Christmas magazine annual", just to see what I would find.  Up popped listings for "Christmas: An American Annual of American Literature and Art".  A little research told me that this was an annual publication from the Augsburg Publishing House, beginning in 1931 and produced annually for over 50 years.  My collector tendencies kicked in and I bought a few editions online.  The publication is an absolutely amazing labor of Christmas love.  Each edition contains beautiful artwork, stories, songs, poems, essays, and, each and every year, a retelling of the Christmas story through the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, enhanced by a new selection of artwork.  I was thrilled to be able to enjoy these journals, many from the 1940s and 1950s.  (Alas, I don't think I'll ever be able to collect the entire run - the earliest editions from the 1930s are either not listed online or very expensive).

Sometimes these old periodicals tell their own unique stories of the holidays.  They are given as gifts, or are used as a scrapbook to hold precious memories.  One such edition arrived to me in it's original paper wrap, telling me its story as a gift from Edna Anderson to Esther Knutsen back in 1968.

Several came to me that had been owned by a Mrs. Selma Hanson.  Mrs. Hanson had written her name in the upper right corner of the masthead page, claiming the edition as her own, but careful not to mar the page,  Several of Mrs. Hanson's now grace my own collection of "Christmas" editions.  One of Mrs. Hanson's included a page from a December 1956 Chicago Daily Drover's Journal newspaper, folded and pressed between the pages.  There were Christmas-related news items and columns, and certainly something that Ms. Hanson held precious.  Maybe the fruitcake recipe submitted by a reader.  Maybe she knew someone who had their Christmas item printed.  Maybe for the "Bible Thought for Today", or maybe for the news that Jackie Robinson had been traded from the Brooklyn Dodgers to the New York Giants.  Though we'll never know the reason, we can take a little trip to the past and imagine why she held this page dear enough to preserve.

One edition, though, tells a very special Christmas story that warms your heart.  It's Christmas through and through.  The 1966 edition of "Christmas" is in excellent condition, graced with a painting of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus, with cherubs looking on, a beautiful piece of artwork.

Inside, on the blank page facing the cover, I found an inscription to Mrs. Hanson, a note from a Thomas Roth, wishing Mrs. Hanson a Merry Christmas, dated for remembrance.  From the looks of the inscription, I took it to be from a young Mr. Roth, maybe 9, 10, 12 years old.

Paging through the book, I discovered an envelope tucked away inside, addressed to Mrs. Hanson.

Inside the envelope was a lovely card.

The card, from Mr. and Mrs. Roth, thanking Mrs. Hanson for her work with Thomas.

The story began to unfold in my imagination.  Mrs. Hanson must have been a teacher, and young Thomas her student, one with whom she had spent extra time, maybe for some extra help when needed, maybe time just to spur on his love of math, or science, or art.  Maybe Mrs. Hanson was Thomas' favorite teacher, and Thomas wanted to do something special for her at Christmas.  He picked out the edition of "Christmas" at a local store, and wrote his personal message to her inside.  Thomas' parents were equally grateful for her work with him, and made sure to enclose their note of gratitude.

Can you imagine Thomas' smile when Mrs. Hanson received this Christmas gift?  Can you imagine Mrs. Hansen's delight when Thomas gave her the book?  A thoughtful present from a bright young boy, making her day just as much as his.

This is the story I find in this book and the mementos that traveled along with it - one of the Christmas spirit and the blessings of the season.  A story of gratitude, a selfless story of wishing to make another happy.  A story of Christmas itself.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

CD Review: Maestro Classics "The Nutcracker"

"The Nutcracker" is as much a part of the Christmas tradition as Santa Claus, Rudolph, and Bing Crosby.  The music from the classic ballet is everywhere, and in all forms - the classical arrangements, jazzy, swingy versions, even acapella vocal takes from groups such as Straight No Chaser.  The imagery of the Nutcracker, the Mouse King, and the Sugar Plum Fairy have their rightful place in the upper echelon of our Christmastime celebrations.

Maestro Classics has released a CD version of "The Nutcracker", as performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Stephen Simon.  What do we as Christmas music lovers stand to gain from another recording of "The Nutcracker"?  As it turns out, quite a lot.

Maestro Classics specializes in producing classical music targeted at children.  Their "Stories in Music" series includes "Peter and the Wolf", "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", "The Story of Swan Lake", and nine others, now including "The Nutcracker".   Their mission statement is telling:
"To cultivate a love of music through education and  joyful performances, to expand and develop  listening skills and encourage adults and children to listen together."
What a wonderful mission, so full of heart.

"The Nutcracker" CD features narration by Jim Weiss.  As the Philharmonic performs the music of Tchaikovsky, Mr. Weiss tells the story of Clara and the Nutcracker, from the introductory scene as the party at Clara's parents unfolds, through the arrival of Herr Drosselmeyer and the presentation of his gifts, onward to the battle of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, to the Land of the Sweets and the entertainment of the dancers, concluding with Clara's awakening back in her parents' home.  

Mr. Weiss' narration is clear, bright, and animated, and is always in a partnership with the music.  A challenge is to not have either the narration overpower the music, or vice versa, to bury the narration too deep and to make it difficult to hear behind the orchestra.  This balance is well managed by the producers, making the story come to life through Mr. Weiss' storytelling.

This edition of "The Nutcracker" is an excellent resource for teachers and parents to introduce the story and music to younger children, and is also great for all to listen and become re-familiarized with the classic story.  The packaging includes a 24-page information and activity booklet, featuring a scene summary, a brief history of ballet, a biographical sketch of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, a lesson about the harp, and some fun and games for the kids!

I'm impressed at what Maestro Classics has to offer, and love their approach to bringing these works to the young generation.  If you have kids, if you're a teacher or know a teacher, I encourage you to check out their website and see what they have to offer.

Maestro Classics website
"The Nutcracker" available on Amazon

Friday, December 11, 2015

Festive Friday!

Well, partially festive, anyway.

Tonight's share is !Something Festive!, a collection of Christmas songs presented by BF Goodrich.  You know, all those tire companies sponsored pretty good Christmas albums back in the day.  If my Dad had been a Christmas music lovin' guy, I can imagine him driving the Buick around to the tire dealers, shootin' the, er, breeze for a while, and then getting the new album.  Didn't happen, but would have been pretty cool.

Anyway, this is a nice collection of music from the good folks at BF Goodrich.  Why do I say partially festive?  Well, I removed the two Herb Alpert cuts from the share file.  I know that those are readily available digitally, so I left them out.  Some of the other cuts may be too, but they are certainly 'rarer' then Alpert's.

Good stuff too.  Liza.  Burt.  Claudine.  Can't go wrong with that bunch.

So, please enjoy somewhat limited holiday festiveness!

download link

Sunday, December 6, 2015

A Change of Pace: Holiday Cards

Although music is the main deal here at Merry and Bright, longtime readers know that occasionally I'll branch out into other avenues about the holiday season.  Tonight's post is one of those, heading down a new path, though still a seasonal little venture.  Maybe you could call it a stop at a holiday shoppe while traveling the Christmas Music Highway.  Maybe Der Bingle should stop metaphoring and get to it :-)

I was at an art show today with many local artists showing and selling their work (and, by the way, the show will lead to a major post in the near future, so stay tuned), and I met a talented young graphic artist named Stephanie Summers.  What caught my eye at her table was a set of beautiful holiday cards.  Although we as a family have moved to sending a family photo card out each year (this year featuring Kansas City Royal Wade Davis, in addition to us - Go Royals!), I still send out a few traditional Christmas cards to friends.  I've bought cards from MoMA, Retro Christmas Card Company, and others, and Stephanie's cards really tickled my Christmas-card fancy.

Stephanie works in digital graphic arts, as well as found material for her unique, high-energy designs.  The holiday card set incorporates petal shapes, loopy whorls, and a light, botanical/leafy background with a fabulous glittery gold "Happy Holidays" to greet the recipient.  I could show you an image of the card, but it's Stephanie's original artwork, so I won't, as I don't want her work to be copied.  I will, though, provide links so you can see for yourself.

Stephanie Summers' website
About Stephanie: link
Her fab art page:  link
And, (ta dah!) her Etsy site for the holiday cards:  link

I love supporting local musicians and artists, and I thought Stephanie's work was creative and lovely, and captured the spirit of a modern greeting while still retain a traditional theme.  Check out Stephanie's work at the links above, and if you like what you see, place an order and support a new artist!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Time to Share Some Drambuie Love!

Well readers, it's that time of the season where I share out a few vintage vinyl records for your holiday listening pleasure.  First up this year is a great little record, "Drambuie Christmas Classics".  This record has been shared out previously on other sites, but I found a copy in good shape, and I love Drambuie, so I got it and decided to rip and share.

This one of those product tie-in records that doesn't provide much information about the musicians.  We have a producer, Paul Whitehead, and a trio of arrangers/conductors.  We have Nashville as a recording location and we know where the lacquering was done (lacquering, not liquoring) and by whom.  But no musicians.  So, I've dubbed them The Drambuie Orchestra.

This is a tangy and sweet collection of a dozen Christmas standards.  Nothing surprising in the selections, with "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" leading off and "Joy to the World" as the closer.  The arrangements and performances are very well done, making this a very enjoyable listening experience.  Good while you're trimming the tree.  Better if you're supervising the tree-trimming while having a little scotch and (ahem) Drambuie.  Perfect! in fact, I'd say :-)

As a bonus for the sophisticated listener, there are Drambuie recipes on the back of the album cover.  Rusty Nail.  Oh yeah.  Frosty Nail.  Sounds intriguing.  Maybe I'll have one of those while watching "Frosty the Snowman".  Eggnog.  Easy as pie.

This is a fine record to kick off sharing season.  Please enjoy "Drambuie Christmas Classics".

Update: I've re-ripped side 2 to (I hope) remove some vibration/skipping.  New zip is at the below link.

download link

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Artist Interview: Greg Page

In an earlier post I reviewed Greg Page's Christmas album release,  "Here Comes Christmas!", which is still one of my favorite new albums this year (and is vying for the top spot altogether).  Greg rose to worldwide fame and adoration by the children of the world as a founding member of The Wiggles, and has now returned to the world of entertaining children (and adults!) after a few years off for a health-related hiatus. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Greg about the album, and his new work on "Butterscotch's Playground".


Merry and Bright!:  Hello Greg.  Thank you for the opportunity for this interview.  "Here Comes Christmas!" is really a wonderful album, and I'm pleased to be able to share some of your insights with my readers.

Greg Page: Thank you for your wonderful comments about the album, it was a real pleasure to be able to produce this album!

MB:  It's great to see your new family entertainment projects after such a long and successful run as a founding member of The Wiggles.  What led you to start this new phase of your career with a Christmas album?

GP: I’ve always wanted to do a Christmas album – I love the music that is associated with Christmas, probably because of the emotional attachment to the holiday period – good will to all, time spent with family, and children being excited about Santa Claus visiting them.  To be able to re-launch my career with music for children with an album such as this seemed so natural, and something that I was passionate about.  That’s really the origins of it!

MB:  "Here Comes Christmas"! isn't your first foray into Christmas music.  You've recorded many original and classic Christmas songs with The Wiggles.  How did your approach to "Here Comes Christmas!" differ from your earlier Christmas recordings?

GP: Yes, I’ve recorded at least 3 Christmas CDs (that I can think of) with The Wiggles.  The approach with this was really just to find as many great, classic songs and carols as I could think of, and put them into a musical context that would have meaning for children.    At the same time, there were songs that I knew I had already recorded with The Wiggles, so I was mindful of not just “ripping off” those versions I had already sung on.  And of course, I had to throw in some original songs as well, just for good measure!  I’m really happy with how those ones have turned out – I think my favourite would have to be “Christmas Bells.”

MB:  You've shown a very deft touch in adapting Christmas standards to make them very focused for an audience of youngsters without losing  any of their traditional qualities.  Tell us about your process of developing these song arrangements to making them so appealing to kids as well as grownups like me?

GP:  For me, the sounds of Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Perry Como really drive home that Christmas feel.  It is in the arrangements of the songs as much as the performance that you connect with the audience.  With the arrangements that we did, I wanted to stay true to those original versions as much as possible so as to give children a real sense of musical tone colour.  The instruments of the orchestra have such differing textures, and it is so valuable for a child to hear the difference between brass and woodwind, and stringed and percussion instruments. So in terms of making them “child friendly” the other half of connection comes about from the delivery of  the vocal performance. This is something which I honed over many years with The Wiggles, and I hope that children all over the world will hear that connection still, with the songs on “Here Comes Christmas!”

MB: I love your update of "The Twelve Days of Christmas" with a menagerie of animals.  Tell me, where in the world did 'axolatl' come from?  Puppy dogs, cows-a mooing, piggies oinking, and axolatls!  I love it, but where did you come up with that as one of the animals to be part of the song?

GP: One of my children had an axolotl a few years ago.  It was such a unique pet!  The kids loved it.  So when I was thinking of what kinds of animals children might like to look at and learn about, I thought of axolotls!

MB: Do you have any plans for videos to accompany these songs?  "Twelve Days...", "Rudolph..." and several others seem perfectly suited for music videos for kids.  If so, how will they be released and made available to the public?

GP: There are no plans for any videos as yet.  I would love for this album to go really well, and follow it up with a live concert DVD – maybe that’s a project for next year!  In the meantime, I’ve got some other plans for Yellow Entertainment and some other children’s shows that will be in production under the Yellow Entertainment label.

MB:  I really enjoyed all three of your original songs - "Here Comes Christmas!", "Christmas Bells", and "It's Christmas".  Is it hard to write an original Christmas song that is refreshing and new, and not have it sound derivative of all the other Christmas songs we hear each season?

GP: Glad you liked them!  Luckily I had some help with writing these songs.  Alec Miller, my co-producer was also co-writer of these songs.  When you are working with people as talented as Alec, it makes it a lot easier to come up with fresh ideas that don’t hark too much to songs that have been written before.  The other key thing to remember when writing is that your audience is children and their parents.  Firstly, you have to engage the children, so in terms of content that limits things a little, and secondly you have make it accessible to the parents, so that’s where the fun begins in drawing upon all your musical styles so that parents can relate to the song musically too –even though the content may be for children, the music isn’t dumbed down.

MB: What are some of your personal favorite Christmas songs?

GP: I love so many Christmas songs – "The Little Drummer Boy" is one of my favourite songs – the story-telling aspect of this song has always appealed to me, together with the melody of the song.  I also love some of the more traditional, simple songs such as “Silent Night” and “Jingle Bells”!

MB:  Does Australia have its own unique Christmas song canon, or are the classics you've included on "Here Comes Christmas!" what you would hear in your home country during the Christmas season?

GP: Australia has some of its own Christmas songs, but really we sing most of the same songs as other parts of the world.  The “Australian” Christmas songs have not become big here – they may be known by some, but by and large, all the songs that are on “Here Comes Christmas” are indicative of what people would listen to in Australia.

MB:  Before we wrap up, would you like to share a few words about "Butterscotch's Playground"?

GP: Butterscotch’s Playground is a new brand featuring puppets (a la Henson’s Muppets) that was originally created by Alec Miller and Vera Nakovic.  They approached me to work with them to develop the concept into something that would include me in the show in some way.  Together, we have written and shot 3 episodes that are available on DVD or for download via iTunes.  The crux of the show is that the whole wide world is your playground to explore and learn about – no matter where you go in the world, it always presents an opportunity to learn something new!  Butterscotch (a rabbit), Honey Bear (a bear), Frankie (a monkey) and Charles (a bluebird) live in a literal playground with swings, a slide and a teeter-totter.  I am the caretaker of the playground, and together with the children we set-up wonderful adventures where the children and their cuddly friends can go and see things they may not have ever seen before.  That’s where the whole wide world becomes your playground!  Music is a key driver for this show too – lots of songs that give children the opportunity to interact and engage with movement.

MB:  Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions Greg.  I have to tell you, my 14 year old daughter Audrey (the youngest of 5 children) was really excited about your record - she even called you her idol!  I wish you great success, and hope you continue to be such a positive influence and teacher to children everywhere for many years to come.  Merry Christmas to you and your family Greg!

GP: Thank you so much!  I’m glad that even though Audrey may have grown up a bit, she still remembers her years of watching The Wiggles!  Being part of children’s lives all over the world has certainly been an honor and a privilege!  Merry Christmas to everyone – Audrey too! J


Yellow Entertainment - Buy "Here Comes Christmas!" purchase link
Greg Page on the Web

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Elizabeth Chan: "Red & Green"

Elizabeth Chan is the hardest working Christmas Music Artist in the land.  Is she the only "Christmas Music Artist", exclusively dedicated to the holiday genre, around?  She might be.  There are a lot of indie artists out in Noisetrade/Bandcamp land that may have only released Christmas records, but it's safe to say that Elizabeth Chan has attained heights as a Christmas recording artist that are unparalleled.

Christmas blog readers know Elizabeth's story by now - gave up a Conde Nast career to focus exclusively on Christmas music - writing and recording.  She released the EP "Naughty and Nice" followed by albums "Everyday Holidays" in 2013 and "Christmas in the City" in 2014.  Well, Elizabeth is back this year with "Red & Green", an album of 12 songs, some new, some remixes of earlier releases, and some revisited from earlier albums, making "Red & Green" sort of a 'greatest hits plus new material' CD for your holiday collection.

The song "Red & Green" is the first single release from the album.  It continues the trend of blending catchy pop melodies and snappy beats, with lyrics that leave no doubt that this is a Christmas song.  "Red & Green" has solid pop sensibilities that make for great, ear-catching airplay when it comes across your radio.  It has musical depth in its arrangement, featuring Elizabeth's energetic vocals, super backup singers, and a fine helping of sleigh bells.

Also new is"What Sweeter Music", an adaption of the 17th century poem by Robert Herrick.  Slower in tempo and driven by piano and cello, this lyrically modernized version is perhaps Elizabeth's best recording to date.  It's a beautiful song, effusively blooming with the spirit of Christmas.  The heart of the poem is retained:

                                      Awake the Voice, Awake the String
                                      Heart and ear and eye and everything

and Elizabeth's expanded lyrics and moving, subtle arrangement make this a personal favorite, as it respects the original work while making it accessible to a 21st century audience.

Another favorite of mine from the album is the orchestral remix of "A Christmas Song".  Already a fave, the orchestral cut breathes new life into "A Christmas Song", a superbly successful composition that blends together snippets of verse from our favorite Christmas classics.  In my opinion, there are two very challenging avenues of Christmas song writing.  First, writing an homage to the Christmas canon and including lyrics and phrases from the best-known holiday songs without sounding repetitive and thrown together.  Elizabeth has done that with "A Christmas Song" by channeling her songwriting skills but also by making the song personal.  Her songs come from her heart first, before traveling through her brain and out of her songwriter's hands.

The second challenge is writing a song about Christmas in a city (insert your city here: ______) without sounding trite and cliche.  As I noted in last year's review "Christmas in the City" succeeds here where so many other songs fail.  It's a beautiful Christmas song about New York City, once again coming from Elizabeth's heart.  It's inclusion on "Red & Green" will serve as a great way for new listeners to fully appreciate her talent.

Each year, Elizabeth takes new steps toward her goal of creating a classic Christmas song.  Her presence on Christmas music radio (traditional and satellite) grows each season, and soon I think you'll hear her more and more as you tune in to your holiday music station of choice, especially the ones whose programmers will add new artists into the mix with the standards.  "Red & Green" is a joyous album of Christmas music, excellent for new Chan fans, and a great addition for those of us who have followed her career from the beginning.

Elizabeth Chan website
Merry Bright Music website

"Red & Green" available at all the usual music retailers.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Kickstarter Fun: Fifty Ways to Off an Elf

Here's a quick little post about a fun project over at Kickstarter, but you'd better hurry.  As of now (Nov 25) there are only five days to go to be a backer.

James Lincke together with Matt Lake (of "Night of the Krampus" fame) have teamed up once again to produce "Fifty Ways to Off an Elf".  From the project description:

"THE PROBLEM: Elves have only two natural habitats--the North Pole and Tolkien's Middle Earth. Everywhere else they show up on the planet, they are an invasive species. And at this time of year, they are cropping up at an alarming rate. They appear in malls, at parties, at workplaces and in homes. They are literally everywhere. And they must be stamped out."

For the rest of the project details, you'll have to visit the site.  It looks like a total blast.  Just pretend that an elf pushed 'play' every time you hear "The Christmas Shoes" and you'll be in the proper spirit :-)  James has some great rewards for backers, and as of this writing he is very close to funding.  So check it out!

Bwa ha ha

Friday, November 20, 2015

Astrocolor - "Lit Up - Music for Christmas"

Astrocolor's "Lit Up - Music for Christmas" has gotten a lot of coverage on the sites of the usual suspects in the Christmas Music Web (kind of like the Dark Web, but brighter and more twinkly), so I was going to give it a quick review and then keep moving on to the next record, but listening through it again to prep for writing this post, I decided I have to write a more complete review.

"Lit Up" is the debut album from Astrocolor, hailing from "the western edge of Canada" according to their website.  "Lit Up" has 10 songs, foundations of the Christmas Music Canon, but as you've never heard them before.  The treatment that "We Three Kings", "Sleigh Ride", "O Christmas Tree", and the other seven songs get is a unique and completely new listening experience.  Self-described as "ambient, dubby, and jazzy", I would add layered, synth, funky, smooth, cosmic, and dreamy to the list of descriptors.  These styles are expertly blended with perfectly executed instrumental and vocal performances.

The music is enigmatic.  It is so familiar to us all, yet more than just re-arrangements to make a totally fresh and interesting listening experience.  It's soothing and has a background-music vibe, yet always exists in the forefront.  For some reason, one impression while listening was that it's like a cat - the music demands your attention, then turns away once you come to it.  It's Schrodinger's Christmas Music - it is both background and foreground, it is both classic and original, it is and it isn't traditional.

Sometimes these experimental records fall flat, or veer off so far from the mainstream that they lose direction.  Not with "Lit Up".  It has that sound of a perfectly executed musical vision.  Even the album's sub-title reflects the surreal nature of this record, "Music for  Christmas".  Not  Christmas music, it's music for Christmas.  Der Bingle likes it a lot.  Check it out on Spotify, buy it on iTunes or Amazon, or order up a special green vinyl edition, to be released December 11th.

Astrocolor web-site

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Checking in with Elizabeth Chan

Our favorite New York City gal, the Queen of Christmas, Elizabeth Chan, is back again this Christmas season.  Back?  She never leaves!  Elizabeth lives Christmas every day, from her 365 days of wearing red to her outlook on life.  I got the chance to catch up with Elizabeth for the readers of Merry & Bright!


Merry & Bright:  Hello Elizabeth!  Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for Merry & Bright!

Elizabeth Chan: Of course! ☺ Always love hearing from you!

MB:  You have a new single this year, “Red & Green”, and a new album by the same name.  Tell us about “Red & Green”.  How did this single and album come about?

EC: I have a very different way of approaching writing Christmas music. Partially because of my distinct perspective. My entire life is dedicated to writing and producing Christmas music – so that changes the lens in which you see things and also the way people see you.

Red and Green is an autobiographical account of my Christmas last year. My fans and friends call me the Queen of Christmas, and even though I’ve got this big title – I’m still a regular person! I still want Christmas to be awesome. No matter how much you look forward to an event, whether it’s a holiday, a birthday or even celebration – sometimes things don’t end up the way you planned. That song speaks to that perspective!

MB:  You also have a new video release – a version of “Jingle Bells” inspired by Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”.  The video looks like it was a blast to make, although a lot of hard work, too.  Any stories to share about the making of the Swift-y song and video?

EC: I have a running FAQ list – two of the most common questions are: 1. Why don’t you do a Christmas cover and 2. Why don’t you write and perform non-Christmas music. Clearly these two requests are counter to my whole goal in writing an original new Christmas standard. As a joke for my colleagues and friends during my Christmas in July celebration – I performed Jingle Bells to “Shake it Off.” It was a huge hit, and I decided it would be fun to take the joke one step further for them. It’s really my artistic standpoint and answer to those questions. It’s all very much my art though – it definitely has an Elizabeth Chan style and sensibility to it.

MB: Each year seems to get better for Elizabeth Chan and her music.  Any hints about what else we can expect, either this season or next?

EC: I’m not a household name yet – I still feel the humility and am humbled when famous people put out holiday records up against mine. I can say that I do have the most heart in all my songs. I belabor over their detail and craftsmanship. In that sense I have definitely heard how I’ve improved as a songwriter and producer, year over year. I’m already working on my next album – I think next year is going to be a really exciting record for me. I’m going to try some new things with my songs. Hopefully my fans will appreciate where I’m going with the music.

MB:  Are there any plans to bring other artists into the Merry Bright Music label?

EC: That’s a great question! The answer is yes ☺ Without giving away too much more – stay tuned to this …

MB:  Beyond your music, your messages throughout the year on social media are always inspiring and at the heart of the Spirit of Christmas, and Hanukkah, and Kwanzaa, and all ways that the season is celebrated - messages of peace, inclusion, and joy.  You really do live Christmas every day, don’t you?

EC: You know, my career and life epitomizes this sense and spirit of believing in faith and miracles. Not that any job or career is a miracle – but this belief in my passion, and love for my dream and that it can come true is so core to what the holidays are about. It takes a village to bring my music out to the world – I am definitely the recipient of the gifts of my team that I’ve worked with throughout the years. How can I not show this sense of gratitude and thanks all year round?

MB:  Thanks Elizabeth!   Merry Christmas to you and your family!

EC: Merry Merry Everybody! :D I hope everyone checks out my new record and please let me know what you think!


Elizabeth Chan - "Jingle Bells" ("Shake It Off" Parody) on YouTube: link

Elizabeth Chan website

"Red & Green" on Amazon

Also available on iTunes and other fine music retailers.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sons of Old Town Collective: Xmas Extravaganza Vol. I

This time of year sites such as Bandcamp and Noisetrade are treasure troves of Christmas music by new, emerging artists, putting their art and talent out there for all to sample and (hopefully) buy.

Sons of Old Town Collective is such a band.  From their Bandcap site description "Sons of Old Town Collective is a group of friends-bands that enjoy making music and spreading cheer."  How about that?  Is there really anything better than a group of friends getting together and making music, especially Christmas music?

John Davey, Wilderness Alive, and Cory Taylor Cox, member musicians in the collective, have produced a 4-song collection titled "Xmas Extravaganza Vol 1".  I always like Volume I's, as that usually implies more is to come.

The first three songs are original compositions by the musicians, and the closer is a great, harmonious rendition of "Here We Come A'Caroling" performed by all of this talented group of friends.

"Home in a Midwest Minute" by John Davey has a nostalgic feel, a song of a young man returning home to his Midwest family in the "wider spaces" after time spent away in the city.

"Holiday Optimism" by Cory Taylor Cox takes a quirky look at making the best of the holiday season.  We all know that, while it it a season of joy and celebration, there can be a dark side to the holidays - the pressures of relationships, finances, family.  "Holiday Optimism" shows that there is always brightness, whether it's"a stocking hanging next to mine with your name on it" or wearing your Christmas sweaters, or even simply red and green construction paper.  Cory's song is a message to those who may be a little Grinchy during the Christmas season - there is reason for a bright outlook and optimism everywhere you look.

Go check out "Xmas Extravaganza", and if you like what you hear, support the musicians of the Collective with a purchase.

Video promo to learn more about their record!  link

"Xmas Extravaganza Vol. I" at Bandcamp

Learn more about Sons of Old Town Collective at their website.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Greg Page: "Here Comes Christmas!"

Axolotl:  The axolotl, also known as a Mexican salamander (Ambystoma mexicanum) or a Mexican walking fish, is aneotenic salamander, closely related to the tiger salamander.

Don't worry - you'll need this.

If you have children of a certain age, born in the years 1998 - 2008ish, you'll know The Wiggles.  You probably still have their songs running about in your head, and can't help saying "yummy yummy" whenever you hear someone say  "fruit salad".  With the two youngest Bingles being children of 1998 and 2001, we were fully entrenched in Wigglemania for several years.

For the rest of you who may not be as informed, The Wiggles were four gentlemen from Australia - Greg, Anthony, Murray, and Jeff - who produced extraordinarily successful children's television programming.  Their videos (first on VHS, then DVD) took America by storm, as did The Wiggles live performance tours.  The great thing about The Wiggles was that parents could, and we certainly did, enjoy their programs as much as our children.  The Wiggles had an absolutely perfect touch with their music and dancing, and the messages about safety, history, and just plain fun.  The Wiggles were great!

Which brings us to a new Christmas album, due for release on November 24th, "Here Comes Christmas!" by Greg Page.  Greg was the original Yellow Wiggle (each Wiggle wore a distinctive color, to make it easy for the kids to identify them) and their main vocalist.  After being away from performing for a few years due to health issues, Greg has returned to the entertainment biz with "Here Comes Christmas!", an album of 22(!) Christmas songs, plus four bonus songs from Greg's new children's program "Butterscotch's Playground".

When I listen to a new Christmas album for the first time, I may have several reactions.  Usually, I like it, I may like it a lot.  Sometimes, there is a song or two that makes me smile and just gives me a good, happy feeling.  Although I like almost every Christmas record that comes my way, at least in some aspect, the special ones have a couple tracks that bring about a smile.

Greg Page's album makes me smile, beginning to end, and makes me feel good through my heart and soul.  I love it.

"Here Comes Christmas!" bursts with all of the unmitigated happiness of childhood Christmas memories.  It's the upbeat, jingly soundtrack of all your best Christmas mornings when you were but a wee child, so excited about what lay in wait under the tree.

The songs are aimed at an audience of children in their arrangements and Greg's vocal performance.  The arrangements, generally, have quick tempos, easy, straight-ahead beats, and crisp, happy-sounding instrumental work.  With a few exceptions, the musicians don't stray from the tunes we all know and love.  Greg Page's voice has a very natural, controlled resonance, and he clearly enunciates the lyrics while never sounding clipped or stilted.  The result is a set of songs easy for children to learn, sing along with, and dance to.  If little Audrey didn't know the all the words to "Let It Snow", Greg Page is here to help.

Although the album may be primarily aimed at the little tots, it is completely enjoyable by Christmas music fans of all ages.  Some records for children, honestly, will make you want to poke pointed sticks in your ears.  There is none of that here.  Greg's vocals are so pleasing, soothing, and happy, they make this record fun for everyone.  Although Greg sticks to the tune in a refreshingly simple way, he does take a few liberties here and there with rhythm, melody, and phrasing, which keeps the songbook continually interesting.  On a few songs, including the Christmas closer "We Wish You a Merry Christmas", Greg is joined by children singing along.

I also found it notable that, in several songs where we are used to hearing a key change, Greg stays in the initial key throughout the song.  I think this is another way to engage young children with the song - it makes it easier for them to learn the melody and sing along.

The album contains three original songs plus 19 classic Christmas songs, and then the four bonus tracks.  There are three songs I want to highlight.  First, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer".  It starts as a fairly straightforward version, but then about halfway through Greg takes us into a 'Reindeer Dance" break!  This, together with some "Yipee!"s and Santa's voice, make this "Rudolph" very refreshing.

Second is "I Saw Three Ships".  Easily the most unique arrangement on the album is kind of an up-tempo surreal doo-wop take.  Yeah, you'll just have to listen.

Last is Greg's updated version of "The Twelve Days of Christmas".  In this completely pleasant arrangement, Greg replaces the old, weary gifts with a menagerie of animals - puppy dogs, cows-a-mooing, horses neighing, and, yes, "four axolatls".  Axolatls.  Hilariously brilliant.

"Here Comes Christmas!" is the happiest Christmas record I've heard this season.  I just love it.  My fourteen year old daughter (yes, a teenager) was doing a small-space version of the reindeer dance in the car.  It's great for children, grown-ups, and all who have never lost the child-like glee of the Christmas season.  Even if that glee is buried by a rough day at work or the unfortunate anxieties and conflicts that can occur during the holidays, Greg Page's new record is a sure way to bring it out and make any day better.

A few words about the extra tracks:  these four songs, especially "Get Down Low and Go Go Go", will demonstrate what Greg and The Wiggles were all about and why they were so good.  "Get Down Low..." is a simple melody with an upbeat tempo and easy lyrics that teach our children a hugely valuable lesson - safety during a fire.  It's an example of the perfect touch Greg has with children's music.   Greg Page was and is a musician, a teacher, and a fine, gentle man who is a friend to the children of the world.

Greg Page on the Web
Yellow Entertainment - Buy the album!

CD provided by Waldmania!

"Here Comes Christmas!" will be released on November 24.

A Merry Axolatl:

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Classical Christmas from Naxos

The good people at Naxos of America provided me with four of their new Christmas releases for the 2015 holiday season.  Naxos is a distributor of classical music in the United States and Canada.  Scrolling through their website you'll come across Wagner, Sibelius, Vivaldi, Phillip Glass, Saint-Saens, and many more.  Naxos has 14 new classical holiday releases this year, and it is my pleasure to provide a few thoughts about a sampling of their product.

First up is "Magnificat: Christmas Cantata 63" by J.S. Bach.  According to the 48-page (!!!) CD insert, the recording is a reconstruction of Bach's first Christmas in Leipzig, Vespers in the Nikolaikirch, December 25, 1723.  The recording is by the Dunedin Consort, directed by John Butt, and featuring sopranos Julie Doyle and Joanne Lund, mezzo-soprano Clare Wilkinson, tenor Nicholas Mulroy, and bass-baritone Matthew Brook.

I am no expert in classical music, and am not knowledgeable enough to write a detailed critical review of the recording. However, I can tell you that, as a fan of nearly all types, styles, and genres of Christmas music, this is an excellent record.  Celebrations of Christmas through music have a history centuries long, and preserving the spiritually moving compositions from the past is a crucial task.  We, as Christmas music fans, must recognize with much appreciation the music that preceded our list of 'classics'.  "Magnificat" was first performed over 200 years before what we consider classic Christmas songs.  To me, everyone who considers themselves to be a true Christmas music aficionado must return to the earliest compositions as an appreciation of the sounds of the season.  This recording of the Leipzig Vespers is a meditation.  Listen on a quiet night, low light, just you and the music.

Next up is "Christmas in Medieval England" a live performance recording by Blue Heron, featuring Scott Metcalf (harp, director) and an ensemble of ten vocalists.  This album features 17 tracks grouped into four sections: "Advent", "Annunciation", "Christmas Eve", and "Christmas".  "Magnificat" was music from 1723.  "Christmas in Medieval England" is comprised of music from England in the 1440s.  1440s!  Talk about getting back to the roots of Christmas music.

With only vocals accompanied by harp on selected songs, "Christmas in Medieval England" is a pleasure of minimal arrangement, relying on the extraordinary talents of the singers to deliver a Christmas musical message from the ages past.  Being overly effusive in my comments seems counter to the sublime, relaxed, simple melodies and the focused performance of these dedicated musicians.  If Christmas music from this era is your thing, you'll love Blue Heron's record.  If you're not familiar with medieval music but are willing to try, this is an excellent place to start.

The third selection is "Rundumadum" by Grassauer Blechblaser.  This record raises the bar for this reviewer, as the liner notes are nearly exclusively in German.  Der Bingle, contrary to the country of origin of the nom de plume, does not speak German.  Ironically, a referenced website on the insert is Trust Your Ears.  So, I must completely trust my ears for this review.

And my ears like what they hear.  "Rundumadum" is primarily a brass ensemble, with accompanying percussion on some tracks, and a few added vocals here and there.  Brass ensemble recordings can become muddy, a blur of sound.  The songs here, though, are crisp and clean, well performed and recorded.  There are a few familiar tunes - "The Christmas Song" jumps out as the 3rd track, "Adeste Fideles" the 5th, and some may recognize "Pastorale".  The remaining selections of the 26 total may not ring familiar, but are high quality, admirable performances.

The last selection is my favorite of the four.  "An English Christmas" by the Westminster Concert Bell Choir, conducted by Kathleen Ebling Shaw, is simply a joy.  There are many vintage vinyl bell choir recordings available, most of which gain an "oh, that's interesting" reaction.  "An English Christmas", though, is an expression of some of the most beautiful Christmas music in my collection.  There are 14 tracks, spanning the ages from the 12th-century "Wexford Carol" to the 20th century, Holst' "In the Bleak Midwinter".  You will recognize many of the songs performed, such as "Greensleeves", "Stille Nacht", Good King Wenceslas", and "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day".  You will also be introduced to lesser or rarely heard songs - "Slumber Song", "On This Day Earth Shall Ring", "Boar's Head Carol" and others.

A highlight of "An English Christmas" is "Wexford Carol", which features Emmanuel Acosta as a tenor soloist.  Listening to the bell choir's performance transports the listener back in time.  Sit back, press play, and imagine no iPhones, no Facebook, no Best Buy or Wal-Mart, no Black Friday Sales, no commercial aspects of the holiday, simply musicians rejoicing in the season.

The packaging and inserts for these CDs add to your musical experience, informing and educating the listener about the music, the history, and the performers, completing the musical experience, or as much so as possible short of attending a live performance.  Naxos of America is to be commended for the quality of their product.  To me, these recordings go beyond simply 'pleasurable' and 'enjoyable' and become 'important' so that we understand the influence of music on the Christmas holiday, going back nearly 1000 years.

Naxos of America - visit their website and browse their catalog

Amazon links:
Bach: Magnificat
Christmas in Medieval England
An English Christmas