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.