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

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Tom Dyer "Xmas - 30 Years in the Making"

Talk about being late with a review...  Last year (2014) I received Tom Dyer's CD "Xmas - 30 Years in the Making".  It did make my 2014 Top 5 list, but I did not get to fully review it.  So, now, here in early 2015, here we go...

Why did this make my Top 5 in 2014?  Creativity bursting from every song on the record.  The thirty years in the album title refers to Tom Dyer's 30 years of recording Christmas songs.  The album presents Tom's Christmas catalog in reverse-chronological order, starting with 2013's "It's Christmas (And I'm Jolly)", "No Lou This Christmas", and "Christmas (It's Around the Corner)" and works back to 1983, where Tom recorded "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Angels We Have Heard On High".  The 1983 entries are the only two traditional Christmas songs, with the other 13 songs being Tom Dyer originals.

There is an energy and passion running through these songs, as well as a slightly slanted take on the holidays.  "No Lou This Christmas" refers to Lou Reed's death in October 2013, hence no Lou around for the holidays that year.  On the album website, Tom says that he uses the exact chord progression from the Velvet Underground's "Rock and Roll" for "No Lou..." as a tribute to the great rocker.  Then he admits that the chord progression is used in thousands of songs.  We at Merry and Bright appreciate musical honesty :-)   "Propane Santa" is pretty danged hilarious, based on, actually pretty much verbatim, an e-mail from friend Howie about a Santa-looking dude buying propane at a convenience store.  "Hot Dog! It's Christmas" is a smile generator, especially the responding "Hot Dog!"s in the back of the mix.  In a song of life inspiring art, 2001's "The Christmas Rosie Came To Town" is about Tom's niece Rosie coming to stay with them while finishing high school. Rosie even sings backup!  And you'll have to read the liner notes for "It's a White Mule Christmas" yourself to get the story on this one...

Through and through, Tom Dyer has written eminently listenable and very creative Christmas songs.  As you can tell, many of the songs are inspired by happenings in Tom's life,  unremarkable as they might be until set to music.  I am reminded a bit of Substance W's brilliant "A Boiling Vat of Adhesive Xmas", not in sound per se, but in the quality of the unexpected.  You never really know what to expect from track to track, except you are pretty sure that it's going to be good.

Best time to listen to "30 Years..."?  In the car, cranked up good, so you can enjoy the zaniness and genre-busting personal Christmas history of Tom Dyer.  Check this one out.  If anti-mainstream Christmas music is your bag, you'll want Tom Dyer's album in your stocking this year.

Album website: link
Green Monkey Records website
Amazon link

Hey!  How about some bonus stuff?  Snooping around on the Green Monkey Records site will uncover more Christmas music, such as "Frothing the Nog: Ye Fourth Green Monkey Christmas" (link)  "Frothing the Nog" includes songs by Tom Dyer, Kat Dyer (who also sings on several songs on '30 Years..'), and many more.  You'll also fine collections like "Merry Krampus" and "It Crawled Down the Chimney".  I think I'll get them all :-)  Enjoy!