Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Ten from Camden

Tonight's share is a little unusual in that the record is a 7" 45, but is packed with 10 Christmas Carols on the two sides.  When I first perused this and saw only one record in the sleeve, I thought that it was missing a record, that it should have been a 2-record set.  But then I looked closer and saw that nope - all ten songs were on the single disc.  Nine of the songs are together in sets of three in three tracks, and the final one, "Star of Bethlehem" stands alone.

I've taken some liberties in tagging the tracks.  Since they contain three songs, I couldn't string the complete song names out, so they are shortened into what I hope makes sense.  They are all classic carols, so I'm sure you'll recognize them.

Interesting things, these extended play 45s.  The back cover has a long list of similar records.

So, here you go - 10 Christmas Carols by the Carollers and the Yuletide Choristers, brought to you by Camden, a division of RCA.

Monday, December 9, 2019

20 Questions with Rehya Stevens

Rehya Stevens is a favorite here at Merry & Bright.  Last year's "Celebrate" album was one of the year's best, and her follow-up single this year "'Tis the Season" is wonderful.  Rehya's latest big news is that she won an HMMA (Hollywood Music in Media Award) in the Holiday category.  Things are going great for Rehya!  Her song "Jingle Jangle" even made an appearance on local radio here in Kansas City (90.1FM KKFI).  Well, the set was curated by yours truly, so she had an 'in'.  :-) 

Rehya stepped up to the Merry & Bright 20 Questions challenge, a little Q&A so we can learn more about Rehya and her music, and have some fun while we're at it.  So, here are 20 Questions with Rehya Stevens.


1. Favorite Christmas Song

Rehya Stevens: That is so tough. I love Mariah Carey's version of "Oh, Holy Night." It's mind blowing.

2. Best Thing About Christmas in L.A.

RS: When it gets cold, that's really exciting! Last week, it got down to 30 degrees here. I made a pot of coffee, put a fire on, and sat and stared at the flames for awhile. It was fabulous!

3. Musical Instruments You Play

RS: Piano. I try to play guitar, but I'm terrible.

4. Musician Who Inspires You

RS: One of my favorite musicians to collaborate with is a pianist/keyboard player named Carnell Harrell. He plays with such soulful elegance, and has a unique signature. His arrangements are like a mosaic of sound color that I want to reach out and touch. He's masterful. Nuanced and deep.

Image result for rehya stevens
Photography by Katie Kennedy

5. Fave Christmas Candy

RS: See's! Dark chocolate walnut squares, dark chocolate covered almonds, and dark chocolate buttercreams.

6. Story of Your Song “Fly Past My Roof”

RS: I'm so glad you asked! I love this song.  The writing process was start-stop for months. I'm glad I didn't give up on it, because it turned into a knockout!  I’d had the verses and pre-chorus written for several months, but couldn't seem to carve a chorus that stuck. In my mind, I heard it as something that Ray Charles would have recorded. So honestly, I never imagined it would have a huge, diva-esque sweeping chorus.

One afternoon, Carnell and I were working on something. I played him the song, and he took to it right away. He launched into the verse with this cute "Wink and a Smile" approach, and built it out from there. I wrote the chorus lyric and melody right there on the spot, and an hour later the song was finished. It felt like a slam dunk!

Jon Kubis (arranger/keyboardist @ Dancing with the Stars) took it to a whole new level with his big band arrangement. Jon is absolutely brilliant! The track could not be any better than it is - and Jon deserves the crown for that. Carnell and I hit a home run, but Jon knocked it out of the park.

7. Musician You Would Love to Record a Duet With

RS: Man!!! There are so many! Pharrell. John Mayer. Michael Buble. Can I have all three?

8. Why You Made “Celebrate”

RS: I love Christmas music. But year after year, hearing the same 20-30 holiday classics can be a little frustrating for me. So, I was inspired by the desire to hear new Christmas songs with integrity akin to the holiday classics.

Also, making Christmas music provides an opportunity to talk about spiritual things. I'm at a point in life where I want to be engaged on a deeper level, and I think there are a lot of people who feel the same way. If I can't sink my teeth into an experience, and be moved or enriched by it - I'll find something better to do with my time.

To me, a great Christmas album should have reflective poignancy woven throughout. I've been steeped in the deep end of life for a long time, so it felt natural to make an album about the human experience, with reverence for the terrain. I wanted Celebrate to be a cathartic experience, because I believe in the value of being fully engaged in the journey - for better or worse. I yearn for music that provides perspective, so I wanted to provide that for people.

9. Christmas Memory from Childhood

RS:  I vividly recall the year that we celebrated our last Christmas in a turn of the century house (built in 1911) in Pasadena, Ca. My sister Katie and I were so sad to leave our friends, and the house we grew up in. I was 8 years old, and pouting while running some errands with my dad. We were at a hardware store, buying tools to fix some things around the house. It seemed like we were always fixing that old house! Anyway, I stopped to admire a flocked Christmas tree in the store. I must’ve been pretty mesmerized, because the next thing I knew, we were buying flock for our tree. I remember watching my dad out on the patio, spraying flock all over our beautiful, live evergreen. When the last can was emptied, he stood back, looked at the tree and said, “Alright... you like this? Ok. Well? This is your tree then.”   I love that memory.  Flock is just gross. My dad was such a good sport.

10. Coolest Thing About Winning an HMMA Award (Yay!)

RS:  It feels wonderful to be recognized! As an independent artist, I’ve become a studio rat over the years. I’ve always got my head deep into a song or project, without much time allotted for swanky celebrations and parties. It was a blast to run into old colleagues and friends at the HMMAs and catch up on our lives and careers. It’s funny- because you never think anyone is aware of what you’re up to. But so many colleagues and industry folks seemed to know my work, and appreciate it. That was such a comforting thing to know. I was really touched by that, and happy to be there. Winning the award was a wonderful feeling!

11. Memorable Celebrity Encounter

RS: Meeting John Mayer at Chateau Marmont while celebrating a friend’s birthday. He was having dinner at the table on our right, while Penelope Cruz was seated at the table on our left. And there we were, sandwiched in-between!

I love John’s work, and he’s so handsome!! All through dinner, I don’t think I heard a single conversation at the table... I was preoccupied trying to come up with some clever way to say hi. But the check came, and I lost the nerve to approach him. But my friend Lex, who's is much bolder than me, took the ball and ran with it! She walked right over to him, and did this whole girly goo thing, and the two of them flirted masterfully for about 5 minutes. I was SO jealous. And so mad at myself for standing there mute. Frozen. I had nothin.’

12. Fruitcake – Yes or No

RS:  NO!! No, please!! :) 

(editor's note:  Rehya has not sampled my fruitcake.  Yet.  :-)    )

13. Christmas Tradition You Could Do Without

RS: The striving for perfection! I have a tendency to get lost in details.  I'll fuss over the tree for hours. The house needs to sparkle. The gifts need to be gorgeously wrapped. It's too stressful, honestly. I love being engaged in projects, and appreciate beauty so much - but sometimes I exhaust myself, and get cranky. No one wants to be around a cranky woman. Especially at Christmas time.

14. Your Favorite Way To Give Back

RS: By providing funds, food and blankets to shelter animals. I also love "Adopt a Family." My sister Katie started that tradition years ago, and I've followed suit. It's a wonderful thing!

15. One Goal for 2020

RS: I'd like to write and produce songs for other artists I believe in. I like to write in different genres, and I'm not always the best artist to sing and represent those songs. So, I'd like to see those songs thrive with other artists. 

Photography By Katie Kennedy
Photography by Katie Kennedy

16. Favorite Movie

RS: I'm obsessed with "While You Were Sleeping."

17. First Solo Musical Performance

RS: When I was 8 years old, my Dad was playing a gig at a local club and called me up onstage to sing. I was scared to death! In my child-mind, all the magic was supposed to just "happen" up there - like in the movies. But NO!!! You have to bring it. That night, I realized that I'd better become a great songwriter in case I never licked the performing thing. I didn't like being the center of attention.

18. Musician/Band That Everyone Should Listen To

RS: Stevie Wonder. “Songs in the key of life.”

19. Why Is Music Important?

RS: Music is healing. It's the fastest way to re-engage the heart, mind, body, soul. The daily grind can just rip you from the core of things that really matter. We need a way back home. Music is magical that way. It's the presence of God, in song.

20. Message To Your Fans

RS: When you listen to my music, I hope that you feel comforted. I hope you feel less alone, and understand that you're part of something beautiful and purposeful in this world. I hope these songs provide enriching companionship that nurtures your soul, and lifts you up and OUT of your world-weary struggles. Life can be so hard, but the spirit is resilient. You just need to tend to it.

Rehya Stevens website
Rehya Stevens Facebook

Saturday, December 7, 2019

18 Christmas Favorites!

18!  Count 'em - 18 Solid Gold Hits!  Ok, well "solid gold hits" may be a bit of a stretch.  I'd say that it's more like 17 Christmas Favorites and one you've never heard before.

My friend Franny gave me not one but two complete sets of this collection from Tops featuring the Tops Orchestra and Choristers.  The 18 songs are spread over three 7" 45rpm records, with three songs on each side.

If you and a buddy, over a beer at your local establishment, listed out the 18 songs most likely to be in this collection, you'd probably hit at least 15 or 16.  All the usual suspects are here - Deck the Halls, Jingle Bells, Rudolph, Frosty, Hark, First Noel, Silent Night - you get the picture.  You might not get "Twas the Night Before Christmas", but chances are you'd hit 16 of 18, which is batting .889.  Pretty good, chaps.

But, what about that 18th?  Included in this collection, on record 3, side 1, is a song I'd never heard called "Santa Claus is Flying Through the Sky".  Our friend Lee over at Music You (Possibly) Won't Hear Anywhere Else shared out a version of this back in 2015.  I don't know much about the song, but its rarity makes it a must for all the yuletide musica obscura collectors out there.

It's a nice collection of songs, done well.  I'll add the disclaimer that the records are old and weren't in the best shape, so there may be a skip here or there, but I think generally the rips were pretty clean.

So, please enjoy Tops 18 Christmas Favorites!  download link

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Babes Are Not What They Seem

As often happens with vintage records, the contents in the sleeve may not match the info on the sleeve.  This one was at least pretty close.

The sleeve promised a Disney record, "Walt Disney's Babes in Toyland" (which would have precluded a share, had it been an actual Disney record).  However, the record itself was a 78rpm of the Peter Pan Orchestra and Chorus.  The two sides were sorta related to Babes in Toyland, with "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" and "Little Tin Soldier and Little Toy Drum".  Pretty good songs, cool sleeve, and a reason to use the Audacity function to change tempo, since my turntable does not have a 78rpm option.

For what it's worth, "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers" is my hands-down favorite part of the Radio City Rockettes Christmas Spectacular.

This is an old record, and there may be some minor skips and pops.

Faux "Babes in Toyland" download link

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

How Lovely is Christmas

Remember those books from grade school, where the record would tell you to turn the page? (Or better yet, the filmstrips where the record would beep to advance the strip, but your teacher didn't start it on the right one so the strip was one off from the audio the whole time and little OCD you was the only one in the whole classroom who noticed?  I digress...)  Well, tonight's share is a blast from the past, a record and book complete with the narrator telling you to "Please turn the page".

My good friend Frannie owns the coolest store in Kansas City, It's a Beautiful Day, where, back beyond the classic rock and roll t-shirts, Grateful Dead tumblers, and all the hip wind chimes, is a room full of used records.  Well, last year Frannie brought me a stack of vintage Christmas singles from the vinyl stacks, and so this year you all will be treated to the best of the bunch.

The first one is "How Lovely is Christmas", a narrated children's book, with some audio clips of the song "How Lovely is Christmas" as performed by Bing Crosby.

I've included scans of the whole book in the zip file, so, when downloaded, you can re-live your grade school years, listening to the story, and turning the page when told to do so.  It's a great little story, and quite nostalgic for people of a certain age.   Maybe you'll want to print the pages, staple them together, and play the audio with your children (or grandchildren) so they can read along as they listen.  Enjoy!

How Lovely is Christmas download link

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Giving Tuesday: The Christmas Project

It's Giving Tuesday, and following the insanity of Black Friday and Cyber Monday an opportunity to donate to the charitable organization of your choice is indeed a breath of fresh air and a cleanse for your soul.  I'd like to take a moment this Giving Tuesday to direct you to an extraordinary giving opportunity, one that pairs Christmas Music with the the generosity of many selfless individuals.

"The Christmas Project" was a collaboration between four business owners in and around the Waterloo and Cedar Falls, Iowa area, and the local community of musicians, all of whom came together to produce a 16-song album of acoustic Christmas songs.  Titled "The Christmas Project", the resulting album is a collection of beautiful performances of Christmas standards.  Given the guidance of 'one instrument, your voice, and your talent' the musicians interpreted some of the finest traditional Christmas carols into their own unique seasonal creations.

The proceeds from the project support Youth Art Team and House of Hope, both organizations focused on supporting the Cedar Valley region in Northeast Iowa.

This is a project that touches my heart.  It was born out of a love of their community, a strong desire to give back,  and admiration of the talented musicians who contributed to the project.  The music is fantastic, the purpose is grand.  I encourage you to visit The Christmas Project website, read about their story, and buy a download of the album to support a wonderful cause.  Or, if you're in the Waterloo/Cedar Falls area, visit a Sidecar Coffee location and pick up a hard copy CD!


The great people behind The Christmas Project are:

Chuck Rowe (Aces)
Tony Kraayenbrink (IFC Studios)
Andy Fuchtman (Sidecar Coffee)
Matt Johnson (Twin Rock Recording Co.)

Thank you gentlemen, for giving to your community, and also for sharing the gift of music from these talented musicians to your neighbors across the country.

Monday, December 2, 2019

New from Found Wandering: "Silent Night"

Found Wandering - the Pennsylvania trio of Colin Comstock, Sarah Comstock, and Jake L'Amand - is a favorite of Merry & Bright.  We've written about them a few times, and we selected their entire Christmas catalog as an essential in every serious Christmas music connoisseur's collection.  To me, they are the best band I've discovered since starting this blog ten years ago.

In addition to being a great band, they seem to be great people.  Every year, Colin, Sarah, and Jake expand their band and bring in an amazing group of their musical friends for a benefit concert.  This year's concert will be held on December 22, 2019 in Narberth, PA and will benefit the Philadelphia Project.

For all of us outside of Pennsylvania and have to enjoy Found Wandering through their recorded work, they have released a new EP this year, with three live songs from their 2018 benefit show.  "Silent Night" includes the title song, plus "Everything", written by Taylor Leonhardt,  and "Sweet Little Baby Boy" by James Brown and Nat Jones. 

"Silent Night", the song, is (in my humble opinion) a tough one for a band to tackle and really make special.  Many artists do very good, reverent versions of the song, but few are memorable.  I love the song, I love its history, and firmly believe it deserves its place in the upper echelon of Christmas standards.  Still, most versions fail to capture and hold my attention.

Not so from our Pennsylvania friends.  In their hands, "Silent Night" is transformed into a 7 minute 9 second bluesy masterpiece, with haunting vocals from Sarah Comstock and a guitar solo from Jake L'Amand (or possibly guest guitarist Erik Sayles).  While I'm very fond of Bing Crosby's recording as the seminal modern recorded version and Les Paul & Mary Ford's simple reverence, Found Wandering has given this staid Christmas classic new life.

"Everything" and "Sweet Little Baby Boy" are standouts in their own right.   "Everything", originally recorded by Taylor Leonhardt on her "River House" album, is an unconventional Christmas song, without the usual tropes and sleigh bells, but listening intently uncovers the meaning of the song, or, at least, one possible meaning that spiritually belongs in our celebration of Christmas. 

"Sweet Little Baby Boy" closes out the album, and is performed beautifully, the coda to gorgeous, moving offering to the world of Christmas music 2019.  "Silent Night" is available as a download purchase at the band's Bandcamp site.  Please visit and listen (I think you'll buy a copy, too).

Found Wandering "Silent Night" Bandcamp site
Found Wandering website

Please enjoy Found Wandering performing "Christ Was Born On Christmas Morn"

Sunday, December 1, 2019

An Announcement and a Re-Share

Happy December 1!

Whew - the season already seems to be in a full-steam-ahead, lets go go go pace.  Wow.

First for today, a quick announcement.  I have a whole bunch of things I'm planning/hoping to do this year here at Merry & Bright, and I think that if I'm to succeed, you will see two posts a day from time to time.  So, please check back often for new goodies.  As always, I hope you like what's here, and please leave me a comment!

Second, here's another re-share/re-master from last year.   This was a very pleasant surprise in 2018, so I'm happy to be able to share out a better version.  (The cover didn't magically repair itself, so it's still the same damaged one - you may be able to google a better one).


Luis Bordon download link

Friday, November 29, 2019

Exclusive Premiere: Ren Geisick "Feels Like Christmas"

Merry and Bright! is privileged to present to you the premiere of "Feels Like Christmas", a new original song written and performed by Ren Geisick.

Ren Geisick, hailing from San Jose, CA, is a musician in the style that Der Bingle loves best - the style that defies a strict description.  Inspired in her youth by greats such as Patsy Cline and Frank Sinatra, Ren's music brings many styles and influences together into a genre all her own.  You'll hear jazz, bluesy emotion, folk-americana, a touch of the country from Ms. Cline, and the best aspects of pop rhythm and melody in her songs.  And, Ren's singing sounds so natural and effortless.  In "Feels Like Christmas" she has a smooth, tranquil style, yet there is character, just a touch of edginess that defines her vocal identity.  It's a quality that is very subtle, but immensely ear-catching.

"Feels Like Christmas", releasing on December 1 (and graciously allowed to be premiered here at M&B) is a sublime new Christmas song.  In "Feels Like Christmas", Ren sings of, perhaps, a Christmas that isn't as they used to be.  No snow - just hoping for some rain, not as many presents this year.  But then the song warmly reflects on the things that truly matter and what can make it feel like those Christmases from childhood, evoking sentimental memories of family gathered together on Christmas morning.  Singing a Christmas song, the spirituality of angels, sharing peace, love, and togetherness - these are what brings Christmas into each of us.  The song reminds us that maybe we don't need all the traditional, expected things to make it feel like like the Christmas season.  Christmas is what each of us makes it to be.  It's reminiscent of the closing line from "The Secret of Christmas":

It's not the things you do at Christmas time
It's the Christmas things you do 
All year through

"Feels Like Christmas" perfectly captures this spirit of the season.

And so, I invite you to enjoy "Feels Like Christmas", written and performed by Ren Geisick.

"Feels Like Christmas" is available beginning December 1.  Please visit Ren Geisick's Bandcamp page to listen and purchase.

Ren Geisick website

Come back to Merry & Bright soon for more from Ren!

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Happy Thanksgiving! Plus, a "Buon Natale" Reshare

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Though I've been posting a few things here and there - album reviews, fruitcake recipes - I haven't started sharing music yet.  So, here on Thanksgiving Day, it's time to rev up the sharing engine.  Gotta start slowly, though.  Don't want to get it too revved up too quick :-)

So, I want to start with a re-share from last year.  2018 saw some ripping issues where sound quality was suspect.  I found and fixed the problem, so I have re-ripped some of my favorites from last year to re-share with you.  The audio is much better this time around.

First up is "Buon Natale - Christmas in Italy" by Sergio Franchi and other Italian recording stars.  You can find my comments about the album in last year's post.  As I was re-ripping this one, I was reminded about just how good an album this is.  The cast of recording artists and the song selections really stand out.  So, click the link below to enjoy an Italian Christmas celebration!

Sergio Franchi Buon Natale re-share

Monday, November 25, 2019

Fruitcake #4: Sour Cream Fruit Cake

I promise you, dear readers, that I have more for you this year than an endless stream of fruitcake recipes.  Just a few more days of pre-Thanksgiving posts, then we'll get to the real good stuff.

So, here's another hand-written recipe, in my Mom's* own longhand for Sour Cream Fruit Cake.  Looks fairly standard ingredient-wise, except for the sour cream.  I guess that keeps the cake moist for a longer period, maybe?  Makes it less dense?

Coarsely grated citron implies fresh citron.  I know one can purchase candied citron, so I suppose that would work.  I've never seen fresh citron anywhere.

And soda.  Baking soda.  Hmmm... this gets more intriguing the more I look at it.  Sour cream for moistness, soda for bubbly lightness.  Maybe this is a spongy fruitcake.

Oh, and I'd use dates and figs :-)

Here ya go - Sour Cream Fruit Cake.

* As I write this, my Mom is 6 days short of her 100th birthday :-)

Saturday, November 23, 2019

Fruitcake #3: Good Fruitcake

Continuing my early-season sharing of vintage fruitcake recipes, here is one clipped from a publication and confirmed to be "Good".  Says so written right there across the top, in Mom's own handwriting.

The bad news here is that it calls for a Betty Crocker Date Bar Mix, which is believed to no longer exist, much to the internet's chagrin.  There are many recipes for copycat Betty Crocker Date Bars, but I don't know how well they would transpose into this fruitcake recipe.

Hey!  A little sleuthing found an image of a magazine page from which a similar version of the recipe was clipped.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

'Tis the Season - New Single from Rehya Stevens

Last year, Rehya Stevens released her all-original Christmas album "Celebrate" and made her way into our Christmas-loving hearts.  The Los Angeles native is favorite here at Merry and Bright, and has released a new single for the 2019 Christmas season.  " 'Tis the Season" is a bright, wonderful, jangly, sleigh bell-y little bit o' music that really gets our Christmas spirit moving!

" 'Tis the Season", co-written by Rehya and Jon Kubis, captures the joy of the holiday while giving a knowing wink of the eye at some of things that make us take a deep breath, exhale, and rejoin the family festivities.  The lyrics "Mom and Dad wish the kids were back in school again" and "Buddy spiked the eggnog 'til neither one can drive" are sung with a sparkle and a smile, as Rehya reminds us to "Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly, 'Tis the Season, Oh by Golly".

Hey!  How about this - " 'Tis the Season" and "Jingle Jangle" from Rehya's "Celebrate" album are featured in "Noelle", the new Disney+ movie starring Anna Kendrick, Bill Hader, and Shirley MacLaine.  Wow!  Rehya has songs featured in many Hallmark movies, and "Noelle" is another shiny ornament on her Christmas tree. 

Rehya Stevens is a marvelous gift of Christmas music for all of us.  She has a talent for writing great Christmas songs and a perfect voice to bring the songs to us.  She's a sweetheart and a fave :-)

Check out 'Tis the Season here at Rehya Stevens' music page on her website

Rehya Stevens website homepage

Monday, November 18, 2019

Fruitcake #2: Unbaked Fruitcake

The words "Unbaked Fruitcake", joined together as an adjective/noun pair and used to describe a food item, should strike fear into the hearts and stomachs of even the most festive fruitcake foodie.  Yet, here we are, with a recipe for that very thing, a gateau aux fruits never to see the inside of an oven.

This recipe is clipped from something.  Maybe a Christmas church bulletin or back of a Christmas pageant program?  I have no context other than speculation, and the fact that I grew up in a very small town where a fruitcake recipe on the back of a Christmas program would be quite plausible.

I think the "Store in refrigerator for 1 month" is a guideline for storage and not a prior-to-consumption instruction.  And "Chill at least 2 days before slicing" applies to the fruitcake, not to the chef.  Also, I might append "take a swig of said sherry or brandy as well, mates." to the optional sprinkling directive.

Actually, this look interesting, easy, and could be quite tasty.  Four cups of nuts seems a bit alarming, but c'est la vie.  I think I'll give this one a try this year, probably halving the recipe.  Might be good!  Especially with brandy!  As Santa says, Ho Ho!

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Fruitcake #1

A couple of years ago my Mom moved from her apartment in Kansas City to live with my sister in Tennessee.  We moved a lot of the things from her apartment to my place, including her many collections of recipes.  She clipped a lot of recipes in her day, and wrote down many more, storing them away in various recipe books. 

As I was going through the collections, I found many holiday treat 'n' sweet recipes.  Including - fasten your seat belt - 10 different recipes for fruitcake.  Now, I've been making a couple varieties of fruitcake myself for 10+ years.  I love a good fruitcake, and yes there are GOOD fruitcakes.  There are bad ones too - if you buy a big bakery store-bought fruitcake, it'll probably be terrible.  Homemade ones, though, can be quite good.

So, this year as a little side project on Merry & Bright, I'll share out with you some of these fruitcake recipes.  I haven't made any of them, but will probably give a couple a try this year.  So, here we go a-ridin' the fruitcake train...


This one is labeled "Dee's Fruitcake", so it is the recipe from my Aunt Dee, who was a darned fine cook and baker, and she lived next door when I was growing up.  My trust in this one is a 10 on a 1 to 10 scale, and is one that I'll probably try out this year.

If you decide to make any of these this year, please post comments and/or pictures!

A Great Christmas Story and a "Fantastic" Collection

Earlier this week I pulled out my copy of "A Fantastic Holiday Season" from the stacks to read as I hopped around from place to place running errands.  It's an 18 story collection from sci-fi/fantasy writers, edited by Kevin J. Anderson, one of the best in the business.  It was published in 2013 and features stories from as far back as 1991.

One of these stories popped out as one of the finest Christmas stories I've ever read.  Definitely in-genre, it combines two of my favorite literary motifs - Christmas and time travel, with Christmas music having a significant role in the story.  The story is "Jukebox Gifts" by Dean Wesley Smith.  The publisher's summary is " A bar, five friends, and a very special jukebox that lets you time travel back to a memory for the length of the song.". I don't give away spoilers, but to me the story hits the heart of the Christmas spirit.  It's eminently readable and very original.  

So, if you're into Christmas fiction, especially in the sci-fi, fantasy, and even a bit of horror genre, I recommend picking up "A Fantastic Holiday Season".  Some of the stories are a little dark, but I've enjoyed each one so far.  It's full of surprises cover to cover.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Happy Holidays 2019!

We're off to a great 2019 holiday season, Christmas season, Hannukah season, Kwanzaa season, or your own personal season of joy, reflection, merriment, happiness, remembrance, celebration, and/or solitude.  We respect everyone's holidays here at Merry & Bright, and celebrate in spirit with you all.

This season at Merry & Bright is shaping up to be a good one.  At least, I hope that what I find to share with you, whether it's music, reviews, musings about books and stories, or maybe even shared recipes from the Bingle family history, helps make your holiday season a smidge more jolly.

I've already posted a couple reviews of terrific new Christmas albums, from the MonaLisa Twins and the Dallas String Quartet.  There are a few more album reviews forthcoming, and I'm very excited about them.

It's been a great week regarding new music announcements.  Some of Merry & Bright's absolute favorites have new music this year:
  • Rehya Stevens has a new single 'Tis the Season', which is featured in the new Disney+ movie "Noelle", starring Bill Hader and Anna Kendrick.
  • Sofia Talvik is releasing her annual free(!) Christmas song "Christmas Train", which is a modern take on the legend of Krampus.
  • And, if that ain't enough, Found Wandering has a 3-song EP coming soon of Christmas songs recorded live last year.  Der Bingle was treated to a preview, and man is it good!  I mean, really good.  You may recall that Found Wandering's catalog is one of my picks as essential Christmas music.  I'm glad they are back with new songs this year!
I'll be writing more about each of these in days to come.

Oh, and hey - did I hear that there is a new Christmas album from Mrs. Helen Marf?  I think I did.  Stay tuned.  Rumors emerging from the tympani enthusiasts underground indicate that it's a good one.

So, we're underway like Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve.  Come back often!

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Album Review: "A Very Merry Christmas with Dallas String Quartet"

Let's get this right out there: "A Very Merry Christmas with Dallas String Quartet" is undoubtedly one of the finest Christmas albums of 2019.  It is vibrant, full of energy, exquisitely arranged, and performed with an abundance of holiday gusto by truly exceptional musicians.  It earns an exuberant "Wow!!"  from Der Bingle, and is prompting me to consider starting a "Merry & Bright Album of the Year" award just so I can give DSQ some additional props this Christmas season.

The principle performers in Dallas String Quartet are Eleanor Dunbar (violin), Melissa Priller (violin), Ion Zanca (viola), and Young Heo (bass) in the traditional string quartet roles, joined by Anthony Plant on guitar and Efren Guzman on drums.  The additions of guitar and drums to the orchestral strings, plus an impressive cast of guest artists, make the DSQ sound exceptionally unique and very special.  They retain the heart of their classical training, then kick it up several notches with ambitious original performances of classic Christmas songs.  DSQ bills their music as "Where Bach Meets Bon Jovi", and that musical swagger carries through the ten songs on "A Very Merry Christmas".

Let's talk some Christmas song swagger...  The album opens with "O Holy Night".  Now, for one this is usually an album closer, and for two it's one of those "don't mess with this" songs.  Don't get funny, or cute, just play the heck out of it as it is.  Well, DSQ sure plays the heck out of it, and they rock it along the way.  I'm an 'O Holy Night' purist, but man I dig this version.  After opening with about a minute-forty-five that evokes a traditional string quartet, the drums and guitar join in, driving the beat forward and bringing amazing new life to one of our traditional favorites.

"It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" features piano accompaniment and a swinging beat that makes you smile and feel all good inside.  "My Favorite Things", DSQ's single from the album, is beautifully performed and has perhaps the most traditional string quartet sound on the album, but is subtly complemented by piano, guitar, and additional percussion.  Let's set aside discussions about whether "My Favorite Things" is indeed a Christmas song, and just agree that DSQ's performance is wonderful.

"Sleigh Ride" brings in a trumpet, a trombone, a sax, and a stocking full of additional musicians to produce one of the biggest sounds on the record.  There's a jazzy feel to it, as each performer gets her or his time in the spotlight.  Stunning!

"Mary, Did You Know?" is exceptionally fitting for a string quartet, performed with reverence and strength.  "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas", the album closer, features a wonderful guest performance on cello by Allen Steele.  It has a touch of an old-timey nostalgic rhythm that is a perfect way to bring this record to an end.

Ah, but we need to talk about "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy".  This is, by far, the best new Christmas song I've heard this year.  After a teaser opening with the familiar melody of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen", DSQ transitions into the classic composition from The Nutcracker.  But, there is a surprise lying in wait for the astute listener.  Der Bingle will not play spoiler here, but I will whisper a hint:

Plum.  Sugar Plum.

That's all you get, dear readers.  That, and my opinion that this song alone makes this album an essential addition to your Christmas music collection.

To conclude this review, I have to point out the exceptional arrangements and engineering on this record.  The arrangements by four different collaborators are brilliant, and the mixing and mastering by Tre Nagella and Drew Lavyne are exceptional.  It's not often that the gals and guys behind the board are so notable, but in this case they all deserve a hearty "Happy Holidays!".  And, extra kudos to violist Ion Zanca, doubling his duty as album producer.

So, to wrap this up - Wow!

Dallas String Quartet Website

"A Very Merry Christmas..." direct from DSQ

"A Very Merry Christmas..." on Amazon

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Album Review: MonaLisa Twins "Christmas"

The MonaLisa Twins have graced our ears with one of the early new Christmas releases of 2019, their album "Christmas".  Twin sisters Mona and Lisa Wagner, Austrian born but now residents of Liverpool, UK - a fine place to make music - are a mere 25 years of age but bring a distinctive, rich sound to their 11-song Christmas collection.

The sisters' vocal duets have a sound reminiscent of other 'sister' groups, like the Andrews Sisters (real sisters) and the Puppini Sisters (not real).  As a duet, their vocal harmonies are more striking than the larger groups, resulting in beautifully engaging holiday songs.

The album opener, "All I Want Christmas To Be" is the sole original composition on the album.  It blends fond remembrances of Christmases past with a European spin - glimpses of fairies and many wonderful things.  The song is lyrically fresh with just a tad bit of snark - what might be expected in our modern world when young adults recall the holidays of their childhood.

"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" is a highlight of the album.  It's arranged with an upbeat tempo, and instead of the traditional sadness of Judy Garland and many others, MLT sings it with exuberant joy.  The sadness in the lyrics is approached as being in the past, and the singer(s) are really, happily, wishing you to have a merry little Christmas.  There's a lot of energy in the performance, and it's very refreshing.

The song arrangements are a highlight throughout the album.  "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year" is slowed down just a bit and performed with a traditional waltz tempo.  "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" is a party of a song (after a traditional first verse), with a calypso beat, joyful noises of celebration in the background, and a true feeling of war ending, complete with dancing in the streets.

"Walking in the Air", a wonderful song being covered on more and more Christmas albums, is rendered as a pop song highlighting the sisters' vocal harmonies.  "Santa Baby" is re-imagined by Mona and Lisa into a musical wishlist, of guitars, a trombone, and even a tympani!  They have whimsically turned it into a fun, enjoyable song with their much-needed lyrical enhancements.  I like it :-)

"Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" is a performance of the Bing Crosby/David Bowie classic.  To me, the version by Bing & Bowie is untouchable, and I doubt that I ever hear another version I love.  Mona and Lisa do, however, treat it with respect and perform it very reverently and capably.  For those who are wishing for a new take on the old classic, this may be the version for you.

"Christmas" by the MonaLisa Twins is a great start to the 2019 Christmas music season!  It is available in digital format on Amazon, but the twins' website has a multitude of digital and physical options and bundles, including packages with their previous releases, signed copies, guitar straps and picks, jackets, and so on.   Very cool stuff for a very cool Christmas album.

MonaLisa Twins website

MonaLisa Twins "Christmas" on Amazon

A digital copy of the album was provided to Merry & Bright! for review.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

2018 Christmas Comp Artwork

Last year I (again) commissioned local artist Megan Fitts to create my annual Christmas Comp CD cover.  I had a visual theme in mind, and presented the vision for Megan, upping the ante from previous years.  And boy did Megan deliver!  

I had envisioned a swingin' Christmas party, featuring some of the artists I included on the comp.  Just imagine Bing Crosby hangin' out with Shonen Knife :-)  Megan created a hip Christmas soiree, one that would be legendary.  So, I thought I'd share the artwork with you.  

Top row, l to r:  Rufus Wainwright, Shonen Knife (2), Bing Crosby, one more Shonen Knife,Jim Nabors, Dia Frampton.

Bottom row, l to r: Jools Holland (actually cut from the final CD mix), Ingrid Michaelson, Eric Clapton, Perry Como, Maggie Roche, Devo.

Awesome work by Megan!

Megan's website: https://www.megan-fitts.com/
Art of Megan Fitts on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/theartofmf/

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Meeting Sofia Talvik

To the Christmas Music collectors community, Sofia Talvik needs no introduction.  For years, the Swedish folk singer with strong ties to our fair country has released Christmas songs, originals that she gives away to her fans as an annual Christmas gift of music.  Sofia collected these into an album titled "When Winter Comes", released in 2017 (and reviewed here by yours truly and here by our festive friend Stubby).  Sofia's Christmas songs are musically beautiful and emotionally stirring.

In May of this year I had the pleasure of attending a performance by Ms. Talvik.  Sofia and husband/engineer Jonas Westin made a stop during their "Little Chief Camper Van Tour" (mostly my words, though a few of theirs) at the Olathe KS Public Library.  The performance was sponsored by the library, so admission was free for the folk music fans who came out that evening.  Sofia played for around 60 people in an open performance space in the library branch.  I was first to arrive, so was able to reserve myself a great seat in the front row :-)

Sofia played selections from her latest album "Big Sky Country" along with works from throughout her career, and some from future album projects.  She connected with the audience, shared stories from her time on the road and about her songs, and captivated all of us in the enthusiastic crowd.

Seeing and hearing Sofia perform live was completely beautiful.  As a live performer, she brings extra depth and expression to her songs.  Although I love her recorded work, being able to take it all in in an intimate venue was extraordinary.

Before the show Sofia and Jonas were relaxing in the library, so I introduced myself and we chatted just a bit, but I didn't want to be a distraction before the program, so kept the chit-chat short.  After her show I was able to spend a bit of time talking to each of them, learning more about their tour through the US in a small camper (the "Little Chief" I mentioned earlier), and about her life as an independent folk musician.  I feel quite privileged to have been able to connect with Sofia and Jonas, albeit briefly.  I encouraged her to play again in Kansas City whenever their tour takes them through this part of the country, and guaranteed them I could help find a venue (even if it's a house show on my backyard deck).

The evening of music and connection was wonderful.  Sofia and Jonas had planned on camping at a nearby campground that night, until a thunderstorm of the type only found in Kansas in the springtime rolled in, changing their plans to that of a local hotel.  The next day they were Colorado bound, and onward to many other shows, large and small, across the United States.

Sofia and Jonas are great people, and marvelous musicians.  If you ever have the chance to see Sofia perform, don't miss out.  Go see her, a folk musician extraordinaire, as she shares her gifts with the world.

Sofia and me!

Sofia Talvik website

Monday, July 8, 2019

Best Album of 2019: "Wargirl"

I have to start this review with a baseball analogy.  Kansas City baseball legend Buck O'Neil often told the story of hearing a crack of the bat like no other.  The first time he heard it, it was Babe Ruth.  The second time, it was Negro League mega-slugger Josh Gibson, who once reportedly hit a baseball 800 feet.  It took 50 years for Buck to hear that sound again.  The third and last time was off the bat of Kansas City Royal Bo Jackson.  The power generated from the bats of these athletes created an unforgettable, unmistakable sound, very rare but one that embedded into Buck's memory.

I recall this story because of the sensation I got when I clicked "play" for the first time on Wargirl's self-titled debut album.  It took all of four seconds of "Poison", the opening track, for me to be absolutely hooked.  My attention and focus immediately shifted from whatever else I was doing to this amazing sound coming from my headphones.  I have rarely been completely astounded by a song or performer - Oscar Peterson's "Get Happy" and Madeleine Peyroux's "Dance Me To the End of Love" are two such times.  Now, add the entire "Wargirl" album to the list.

Wargirl is fronted by Samantha Parks, daughter of James Lafayette Parks of the '70s funk band Bull and the Matadors.  Band founder and guitarist Matt Wignall, bassist Tamara Raye, keyboardist Enya Preston, and percussionists Erick Diego Nieto and Jeff Suri complete the band.  Long Beach, CA is the bands home turf.

"Wargirl" has been in heavy rotation for me since its release.  The first few times listening, I heard different (possible) influences.  I've heard Talking Heads.  I've heard Blondie.  I've even heard the jazz-fusion atmosphere of Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew".  I can hear Ronnie Spector.  I don't know who the band's actual influences are, but I imagine that they are many.  Funk, new wave rock, jazz, latin, R&B are all perfectly blended in this blast of musical energy.

There is not a weak song on the album.  "Poison" opens, followed by the amazing "Sass Girl" and "Mess Around".  "How You Feel", "Streets", "I Know I" are all busting the seams with energy.  This is a superb album from the opening note to the last.

There is just something about the Wargirl sound.  The dual percussion blends with the organ, which blends with the bass, which exists in a state of perfection with Wignall's guitar, all elevating Parks' vocals.  Listening to Wargirl is absolutely like hearing one of the best jazz ensembles in the world (ahem, the Anat Cohen Tentet) when the musicians peak together.  The sound is of a single six-part musical organism, rather than a collection of individuals.  There is genius in the arrangements, production, and performances of "Wargirl".

And man oh man, what this band must be like live.  Being a tad too young and 2000 miles away, I never experienced CBGB at its peak when the Ramones, Television, and the aforementioned Talking Heads and Blondie were emerging.  But I can imagine Wargirl as a CBGB band, packing the house each night. 

"Wargirl" gets my nod as best album of 2019.  There is half the year left, but no one's gonna top this one...

Wargirl website
Wargirl Facebook page
"Wargirl" on Amazon

You can also find Wargirl on Spotify and all your favorite streaming services.

Summertime at Merry & Bright!

Hello and Happy Summer to all of you dear readers!  I wanted to share a quick update from Der Bingle's place.

No Christmas in July this year.  Since I only boarded that train once, and didn't really get any momentum going, I'm not contributing this year.  There are plenty of others, though, as I'm sure most of you know.  Ernie at Ernie (Not Bert) is doing his amazing Christmas in July sharing again this year, giving us scads of Christmas/holiday songs from non-holiday albums.  Over 500 to be shared this year, per Mr. Not Bert.  And you'd better hurry over to Stubby's place for a mammoth (Not Necessarily) The Best of Stubby's collection - 4 CDs worth, plus a bonus CD of songs that almost made the cut.  Go get 'em!

Over here, I'm going to go down a non-Christmas path for a few summer posts.  If all goes as planned, you'll be able to read about Wargirl and their self-titled album, released in May and is (in my opinion) the best album of 2019 (and top 5 of the 20-Teens).  You'll learn about my friend and Kansas City musician Jason Beers, who set out to release 10 (ten!) CDs this year, and is on track to do so.  You'll get to hear about getting to meet the wonderful Sofia Talvik at a springtime show in nearby Olathe, KS.  And hopefully a few other things.  I want to get the writing motor going again, and really want to share my thoughts about these great musicians.  So, (again, if all goes well) there will be a few new posts here in the next few weeks.

Stay tuned, and go visit Ernie and Stubby!

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Sopresa! Mrs. Helen Marf Returns!

It takes a lot to be roused from hibernation in the blogosphere, especially in May, when it seems like the Christmas season is so far away.  We're not even at the half-way point, where I wish everyone a hearty "Merry Half-Christmas!" and they give me a look that says "That is one with-it, hip dude".

But, stirred from the slumber we are, and for good reason: an unearthed treasure from tympani virtuoso Mrs. Helen Marf.  Faithful readers will recall my review of "Having a Marfy Christmas!!!", an unexpected gem of a holiday album released in the 2018 Christmas season.   Quilt Records, the lucky-as-heck label for Mrs. Helen Marf's recorded output, has done it again, resurrecting the 1974 tympani-electronica classic "Canzoni di pazzia e morte", which I'm pretty sure means "Death by pizza stuffed cannoli".

"Canzoni di pazzia e morte" is a match made in sonic heaven, as Mrs. Helen Marf is joined by Ford Hassell Clark, Jr, an electronic music experimenter, or should we say experimentor, as his techniques and methods are surely sought-after even to this day as the de facto pinnacles of studio mischief.  Much as Les Paul would drape a cloth over his guitar neck to hide his innovative playing techniques, it's rumored that Mr. Clark, Jr would literally surround himself with drapes in the studio to discourage 'dem music spies'.

The album opens with "La canzone della fatica" revving up with funky synthesizer and quickly joined by Mrs. Helen Marf's driving, relentless tympani.  Intense pauses separate the three movements of "La canzone...", each painting a unique aural picture.  The final movement, clocking in at a brief 23 seconds, hearkens a mental image of a Japanese Tea Garden (if indeed such a thing exists).

"Tarantella No. 5", which I'm pretty sure means "The Fifth Tarantula", evokes images of a hungry yet groovy spider stalking his prey, in this case an annoying chirping little bird.  At around 1:20 the tension sets in, Mrs. Helen Marf's tympani speeds ahead, and the chase is on!  Will our hero the tarantula catch the songbird?  No spoilers here my friends!

"Canto allo rovescia" is an exercise in mono-tone rhythm surrounded by an envelope of synthetic sound.  Mrs. Helen Marf plays a single kettle drum tuned to a single note.  The control and precision of the k-drum are in stark contrast to the swarming electro-sounds surrounding the core.  It's as if Neils Bohr's atomic model were set to music - Hassell Clark's electron field in sonic orbit around Mrs. Helen Marf's percussive nucleus.

Track 9, "Ciabatta infradito", which I'm pretty sure means "Little Red Hot Bread", is a showcase of Mrs. Helen Marf's mastery of the triplet.  "Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow!" the tympani seems to say, as if the little bread is just too hot to hold.

A very special track is "In memoria di Jumbo "Puny" O'Dainty", track six.  A melodic tympani rhythm frames and accents clips from a piano recording by Mr. O'Dainty, rescued from an 1959 acetate recording and presented here with help from Clark, Jr.  Mr. O'Dainty was also a Quilt Records recording star, and dear friend of Mrs. Helen Marf.  Her love for "Puny" comes through in spades.  Mrs. Helen Marf has never pounded the tympani better then on this fortissimo ode to friendship.

Now, let's talk about "Misterioso", the enigmatic track 4.  Der Bingle believes he is on to something here.  "Misterioso" is eerie and spectral.  It's four minutes and one second of a ride through an old-timey funhouse, the kind with creepy clowns, shadows, mildew, and flickering 15-watt lightbulbs.  The extensive liner notes for "Canzoni di pazzia e morte" admit that "Misterioso" was played on a loop for "Earthquake McGoon's Brain Rattler", a ride at Dogpatch U.S.A.  Now, although I can't confirm that the Brain Rattler was an old decrepit funhouse, "Misterioso" has the signature sound of an aging theme park haunted house ride.  So here's where it gets interesting...  In 1971 the absolute classic album of the haunted house circuit was released, "Black Mass" by 'Lucifer'.  Released on the UNI label, it contained tracks titled "The Rise of Aida (Voodoo)", "Incubus", "Exorcism", and the title track "Black Mass", among others.  (Reportedly) recorded by Canadian synth-innovator "Mort Garson" (as if that's a real name), "Black Mass" was a one and done explosive cornucopia of weird, spooky electronica that became an underground classic, and a rare collectible album.  Seems oddly coincidental that electronic music maestro Ford Hassell Clark, Jr re-emerged in 1974 to duet with Mrs. Helen Marf only three years after so-called 'Mort Garson' exploded the scene with "Black Mass" and then promptly disappeared.  Quite suspicious, in my book.

Suspicious is as suspicious does.  Once you've grooved to "Canzoni di pazzia e morte", give a comparative listen to "Black Mass", here at the internet archive.  Judge for yourself.

"Canzoni di pazzia e morte" is ten tracks of tympanotronic brilliance.  Mrs. Helen Marf, Ford Hassell Clark, Jr, the ghost of Jumbo "Puny" O'Dainty, and guest musician Fletcher Munson were brought together by Executive Producer Clancy Snarrup for Quilt Records, and we all can be glad that he did.  Y'know, they just don't make music like this anymore...

Is your appetite whetted?  Has the Mrs. Marf groovy bug bit ya?  Or are you saying "Der Bingle, gimme more!"?  Say no more squire - here's a video preview for "Canzoni di pazzia e morte":

"Canzoni di pazzia e morte" is being released on May 10, 2019.  You can preview it, and other selections from Mrs. Helen Marf and the Quilt Records catalog at Bandcamp.

"Canzoni di pazzia e morte" direct link

An unconfirmed rumor is that Kansas City musician Jason Beers has some connection to this album...

Jason Beers bandcamp link

A pre-release copy of the album was provided to Merry & Bright! by the artist for review.