Sunday, December 18, 2005

Review: More Singable Songs - Raffi

It is waaaay too easy to dismiss Raffi as the purveyor of bad children's music based purely on reputation.

That is, if you've never actually heard his early work. His first album, Singable Songs For The Very Young, is a landmark of the children's genre, a genre that arguably didn't exist in any meaningful way until Raffi came along. And his second album, More Singable Songs, while not earning any awards for album-title creativity, is no less vital.

The album title doesn't promise much variation from the first album, and the music bears that out, but in a good way. Raffi blends traditional kids' favorites ("Comin' Down the Chimney," "Six Little Ducks") with folk standards ("Workin' On the Railroad," "New River Train") and originals ("Shake My Sillies Out," "If I Had a Dinosaur"). There are very few "messages" in the songs, and even those are slid in ("Oh Me Oh My," which at the very end becomes as articulate an argument for self-sufficient singing as anything Dan Zanes has recorded). The instrumentation is generally simple, but bringing in, when the need arises, a tuba, say, or pedal steel guitar played by Daniel Lanois (or "Dan," as he was known in his pre-U2 and Emmylou Harris days).

The comments from my review of the first album apply here, too -- best for kids aged 2-6 and too short at less than 30 minutes. (I keep thinking that Rounder could make a lot of money by combining these two CDs into one CD and adding some bonus tracks for the completists. If there are Raffi completists, the notion of which strikes me as very odd.) This is another children's music classic. Available at the usual suspects online and off-.

Monday, December 12, 2005

News: Justin Roberts Preparing Early 2006 Release

There was a nice little article in Friday's Chicago Tribune on Justin Roberts' approach to preparing for a concert. Since he often sings in the morning, he "relies heavily on caffeine, starting his morning with a bowl of cereal with soy milk and several shots of espresso," a pre-concert routine that is, I suspect, not that of a typical rocker's.

The article notes that he's currently recording songs for his next album, Meltdown!, for an early 2006 release.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Review: The Kid in the Mirror - Eric Herman and the Invisible Band

Unlike pop music, children's music is most definitely not a singles-driven genre. So while the advent of iTunes has been a blessing for those of us who might otherwise buy an entire Chumbawumba album just to get a copy of "Tubthumping," children's music CDs are much more even.

So it's hard to discuss Eric Herman's first album for kids, The Kid in the Mirror, without spending most of the review talking about the single best song on the album, which outshadows the rest of the CD. "The Elephant Song" is a simple song, singing about many different animals in a way which amuses adults and is likely to generate squeals of laughter from kids singing along. I'm trying not to say much about the song because I don't want to ruin the surprise of the song's central conceit, but it's one of the few non-traditional kids songs I've heard that I've wanted to sing with children without the CD around.

The rest of the CD has some high points. Herman (along with his occasional co-lyricist Kenn Nesbitt) has a slightly skewed sense of humor that sometimes helps leaven the morals in his songs (for example, the detached-sounding "wow... cool" on "The World's Fastest Bicycle"). Sometimes the humor isn't there, and for my tastes, it doesn't do much for me, but your tastes my vary. Musically the album is mostly uptempo, with just the concluding song a sweet ballad. And although you wouldn't think an "Invisible Band" could generate a musically diverse and full sound, the album proves me wrong.

I think the album is best for kids age 5 to 8, although "The Elephant Song" is appropriate for kids as young as 3 or even 2... but there I go again, talking about that song. You can get the CD through Herman's website as well as CD Baby. Recommended, if only for, well, you know...

Friday, November 04, 2005

Review: Night Time! - Dan Zanes

The idea of a concept children's album is probably a bit too difficult to pull off. There aren't many I'm familiar with (John McCutcheon's quartet of seasons-related CDs is an exception). Concept albums for 4-year olds are a little broader generally, and don't always work. (Do you want to listen to 12 songs about addition? Didn't think so.)

On his third family and children's music album, Night Time!, Dan Zanes wisely eschews an explicit "nighttime" conceit for a set of songs that sounds very similar to his other kids' music albums, just a little more... nighttimey. (Yes, I'm a critic and I'm allowed to make up words.) By "nighttimey," I basically mean "mellow and relaxed."

This isn't sleepy-time music -- the leadoff track "Night Owl" with Aimee Mann is all about staying up late. The second track (my favorite on the album) is the jagged sea shanty "Pay Me My Money Down." When I first heard the album, I thought a song mentioning bars and jails was an... atypical choice for a children's music album, but in his liner notes he mentions that it was kids' favorite song when he would play schoolrooms. Go figure. It's a blast.

While all the elements of a Dan Zanes album are there -- the beautiful Spanish duet with Barbara Brousal, the Sandy Girls folk song, Rankin' Don doin' his dancehall thang or whatever his thang is -- there is an element of looseness and relaxation that is emphasized more so on this album than on the other ones. Maybe it's just the subtle hints in the liner notes and pictures, but it's easier to picture this album being made (and listened to) as the sun sets long into the evening. The album's one false note, "What A Wonderful World" with Lou Reed and the Rubi Theater Company, fails precisely because it's the one song that doesn't sound like it just "happened." Aside from that, the concept, loose as it is, works.

As with all of Zanes' albums, the album is probably best for kids ages 3 through 8, but is perfectly OK for infants and grandparents and everyone in between. The CD is available through Zanes' website, online, and in what seems to be an increasing number of offline locations. Highly recommended.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Review: Way Out - Justin Roberts

Children's music doesn't have a lot of great anthems. Sure, the Wiggles may be able to get a bunch of kids screaming like Shea Stadium with the Beatles in 1963 with the strains of "Hot Potato," but there are few songs that I can envision getting a crowd of kids singing along. (Think U2 and "Pride (In the Name of Love)" or "Beautiful Day," or, in a less enobling way, KISS songs.)

But on his most recent album Way Out, Justin Roberts writes a couple songs that I think reach kids' anthemic status. "Way Out" is about various characters and their dreams and encourages kids to "sing this song as loud as you dare," while "Humpty's At It Again" adds an interesting twist to the traditional nursery rhyme with a fun "oo oo oo" chorus. In concert, these must be fun to listen to (or sing with).

The other songs are another strong collection of mostly upbeat rockers. The use of brass on four songs may induce Herb Alpert flashbacks in adults, but is a nice expansion of the sonic palette. Roberts still has fun with his lyrics, likely to generate amused smiles from kids and their parents (though the phrase "Why-oh-why-oh-why-oh-J-C-C!" in "Day Camp" is likely to go over the heads of the kids).

Way Out is Roberts' strongest album yet. With songs about school and the tooth fairy, it's targeted mostly at kids 5 to 8 years of age. It can be found at the usual online and offline suspects as well as through Roberts' website. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

News: DZ and Disney, Laurie-Palooza

An article in Sunday's New York Times notes that Dan Zanes now has a deal with the Playhouse Disney network to produce his own music show. No word on when the music show will actually make it to the air.

The article also notes that Laurie Berkner has signed up to be in Jamarama, a Lollapalooza-esque traveling kids' music festival starting this fall. What's intriguing to me about the festival is the locations -- classic rock and alternative rock venues. ("Daddy, tell me again about the time you saw the Pixies here...")

Saturday, October 29 Morristown, NJ Community Theater
Sunday, October 30 New York, NY Roseland
Sunday, November 6 Chicago, IL Rosemont Theater
Saturday, November 19 Philadelphia, PA Electric Factory
Sunday, November 20 Washington, DC 9:30 Club

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Review: Jivin' in the Jungle - Barking Gorillas

Jivin' in the Jungle is the first CD from Barking Gorillas, a two-person band from New York. It's filled with upbeat and musically diverse songs targeted at toddlers and preschoolers -- songs about riding on the train ("Riding on the Train"), fire trucks ("The Fire Truck Song") and playing all day ("Play All Day," natch).

There are parts of the CD I was less than fully enamored of -- "Spinning" uses some sort of toy piano that sets me on edge, as does "Poopie Pants." And maybe this is a personal thing, but on some songs, the lead singer's voice annoyed me.

But there are also some very worthwhile songs on the album. For example, my personal favorite, "The Park," sounds like the result of the Dead Milkmen recording a kids' song, and I mean that as a compliment -- it has a very punky energy and is lots of fun. "The Fire Truck Song" doesn't do much more than sing about fire trucks, but does that very well. And the two slow songs placed in the middle and end of the CD, are sweet, speaking more to the parents than the kids. (And, for whatever, on those slow songs, I really liked the singer's voice.)

A lot of the songs -- even the ones I didn't particularly enjoy on CD -- I can envision being lots of fun in concert with lots of kids around. In the car with just you and your wee one(s), your mileage may vary. Still, this is a promising debut album, and I look forward to hearing their next go-round. (Just lose the toy piano, please.) The album is available from CD Baby.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

News: They Might Be Giants Like Kids, But Not Too Much So

One of the things I've always enjoyed about TMBG shows is seeing parents bringing their kids. In the back of the crowd, enjoying the noise and lights and energy, it seemed like a nice way to bring parents and children together.

Well, have I been wrong all these years? Because They Might Be Giants' (main) tour page now includes the following disclaimer:

Also, we enjoy having the opportunity to perform for children at our kid's shows, but there is simply no place for children at the regular TMBG shows. Things get very adult specific in terms of language. The volume is extreme even in the back of the hall, and there is usually large amounts of smoke of every variety; but most important of all-there are routinely a small number of very large, drunk, excitable adults who, at regular intervals 1.) jump off the stage directly into the crowd 2.) slam dance through the crowd 3.) throw bottles into the crowd and 4.) knock people down in their revelry. Over the years we regret to report we have seen many different kinds of serious injury due to crowd rowdiness-injury that would be far more serious to a small child than to a flexible 18 year old. There is essentially no controlling the random nature of crowds. This is why we cannot allow children at our shows. Please-get a baby-sitter. Make no mistake-TMBG shows are adult-only affairs. Do not bring children to shows that are not specifically for children. You will be turned away.

Sigh. Maybe they're right. (But I'm still sad I didn't get a chance to take my daughter to a "regular" show.)

News: Dan Zanes Putting Together New Album

The Chicago Sun-Times (via reports that Dan Zanes will be putting together a new CD for Starbucks' Hear Music label. The disc will have a "dance party" theme and will combine some of his older songs with new songs. The album is scheduled to be released in February 2006.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Review: Happy Lemons - Ralph's World

By the time Ralph Covert recorded his third children's album, Happy Lemons, he pretty much had the Ralph's World formula down pat:

1. Start with some uptempo originals.
2. Scatter a few covers, children's and otherwise, into the mix.
3. Use a few different musical styles.
4. End with a sappy song that's kinda nice in spite of itself.

And so it is with Happy Lemons. Heck, on the peppy title track, which leads off the album, Covert shares songwriting duties with his elementary-aged daughter Fiona. (Of the two father-daughter penned tracks on the album, I prefer the midtempo rocker "Puddle of Mud," which, aside from the lyrical content, would sound OK on modern adult contemporary radio.) "Pony Boy" is a bit draggy for my tastes, but his version of "The Muffin Man" is very energetic, the best I've heard. "Clean Up" is a reggae song, complete with horn section. And "Riding With No Hands" is another standard-issue closing sappy song. Covert is by no means alone among kids' recording artists in ending his CDs with a slower, sweet song, but he may be the most shameless practitioner.

For me, a little something is missing from this album -- there's no absolute "you have to hear this one" song like there was on his previous CDs ("Eighteen Wheels on a Big Rig" still -- annoyingly -- runs through my brain). But all in all, it's another solid album, and if you like the other Ralph's World CDs, you'll like (or at least tolerate) this one. Best for ages 4 through 7. Found at most major bookstores and online purveyors of media. You know the ones. Recommended.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Review: Songs to Grow on For Mother and Child - Woody Guthrie

The folksinger Woody Guthrie was a prolific songwriter. Best known as the composer of "This Land is Your Land," Guthrie wrote and wrote and wrote. (Billy Bragg and Wilco combined to make two enjoyable Mermaid Avenue CDs in which they took songs from his large store of unreleased lyrics and added new melodies.) In addition to writing many songs with a more political bent, he also released a couple kids’ albums in the mid-1950s. Both these albums have been released on CD by Smithsonian Folkways records.

Guthrie’s Songs to Grown on For Mother and Child is one of those CDs. It can be a fun CD for singing along with your child(ren). The titles (“Rattle My Rattle,” “I Want My Milk,” “I’ll Write and I’ll Draw”) are pretty indicative of the CD's topical concerns. (No, I could find no references to the labor movement.) The CD says the target audience is kids age 4-6, but I think kids as young as 1 or 2 would enjoy some of the songs.

A warning, though, the production is pretty simple, with many tracks only having Guthrie’s vocals accompanied by a guitar or a shaker. (There's a reason why I prefer Elizabeth Mitchell's or Wilco's versions of Guthrie's songs -- better vocals and/or better melodies.) If you like your productions polished or you dislike folksinging, this isn’t the CD for you. Over time, the CD has received less attention in our household for those reasons. But if you are more interested in folksinging, you may just find this to your taste.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Review: Singable Songs for the Very Young - Raffi

The Elvis of children's music would have to be Raffi. His own "Behind the Music" episode wouldn't be nearly as interesting as, say, Motley Crue's. But the category of "children’s music" didn’t exist in record stores before Raffi -- and this CD -- came along.

Singable Songs for the Very Young was recorded nearly 30 years ago. But it still sounds fresh today. Now, if you’re allergic to folk music, you may not like these CDs. The instrumentation is often simple -- a guitar, perhaps, or Raffi singing with no accompaniment at all. But sometimes there’s a full band playing, such as on "Willoughby Wallaby Woo" or "Old MacDonald Had A Band." The CD sounds great, and that may be due to the work of Daniel Lanois, who recorded the album. Lanois went on to do much more famous work creating a great sonic palette for U2's classic '80s era albums and, in the '90s, Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan, among others. (So look at it this way -- even if you dislike Raffi, without him, maybe there's no "Where the Streets Have No Name," unless, of course, you also dislike U2, in which case I can't do anything for you.)

For the most part, Raffi sticks to classics and traditional songs. Raffi's own songs are split between "non-message" songs (e.g., "Going to the Zoo") and "message" songs ("I Wonder If I'm Growing"). With the exception of the "message" songs, kids 2 years old (or younger) through 5 years will enjoy the CD; some of the "message" songs are probably more appropriate for 3 year olds. If there's any drawback to the CD, it's that it's less than 30 minutes long. Then again, a little Raffi can go a long way.

One thing that is striking to me about Raffi's earliest albums is the utter lack of reference to the adult world. If you listen to children's artists recording today such as Ralph's World or Justin Roberts or Laurie Berkner (all very good), they will incorporate references to adult television shows or humorous lines targeted at the adults. No such thing in Raffi's work. It is all aimed at the kids' level. Not that it is ever condescending (the great error in bad kids' recordings). But Raffi is clearly not singing for the kids' parents.

I think there's a tendency to dismiss Raffi as an "annoying" children's artist. It's possible that his later work is the source of this frustration. But his earliest work, especially Singable Songs for the Very Young, are CDs your children will love and you will like a lot more than you expected.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Review: Listen Learn and Grow Lullabies - Various Artists

With these Zooglobble reviews, I've focused on, for lack of a better word, "daytime" CDs. They're generally peppy, or a little bit folky, and definitely candidates for, well, the car. You know, you listen to the CD at home. You listen to it on the airplane. You listen to it in the car. If a CD can stand up to that repeated (ab)use, then there is definite merit to the album.

I've not talked about "lullaby" CDs because, by definition, neither parents nor kids should be actively listening to a lot of these CDs. The parents should be out of the room and the kids, well, they should be sleeping. They're probably not, of course, but it's nice to pretend, no? Whatever the case, kids are definitely not begging to "play that song again!" when referring to Brahms' "Lullaby."

But good music is good music, no matter when it's played. And my wife and I heard quite a few of these CDs when (she) nursed or (I) gave a bottle to our daughter.

The first thing you should know about lullabies on CD is that there are many CDs that have "lullaby" or "sleepytime" in the title that have no business being used during nap time or nighttime. Next to the "Mozart effect," it's probably the most-overused phrase in kids' music. (Next thing you know, they'll be advertising how these CDs have Bluetooth technology.) Just because the CD has music by Mozart doesn’t necessarily mean that it'll be calming and soothing during naps or feedings.

Naxos is a "budget classical" label and has a CD entitled Listen Learn and Grow Lullabies. The CD advertises that "each selection [on the CD] has been specifically chosen for its soothing and tranquil qualities," and while that sounds like a bit of marketing hoo-hah, this is a pretty "soothing and tranquil" CD. Because these are pulled from Naxos' other recordings, they avoid the saccharine nature of a lot of kids' CDs. You'll recognize the first couple selections ("Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and the aforementioned "Lullaby") by name and some others by melody, but others will likely be completely new to you. They are, however, almost uniformly pleasing to the ear.

While marketed as a "lullaby" CD, nothing except the cultural knowledge of the first couple songs requires pigeonholing this CD as just for kids. Naxos' huge catalog means that it'll be hit or miss as to whether you can find it in your local music store; they're certainly available online.

If I had to pick just one lullaby CD that I would actually use for a child, Listen Learn and Grow Lullabies would be the one.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Review: Whaddaya Think Of That? - Laurie Berkner

Of all the well-known children's music artists currently recording, Laurie Berkner has made the most effort to rescue toddler/pre-school songs from the detritus of many years of neglect. She does this in two ways:
1) She has fun singing kids' classics.
2) She records new songs actually aimed at toddlers.

Berkner's first CD, Whaddaya Think Of That? shows her strengths in both types of recordings. This CD doesn't have many "cover versions," though her renditions of the "Alphabet Song" and (especially) "She'll Be Comin' Round the Mountain" are lively and joyful, with just enough "something new" to make the tired songs fresh. Her rendition of the classic "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" is also lots of fun. She makes these songs fresh and fun even though she's rarely accompanied by more than a guitar and (sometimes) piano.

But more than most kids' artists, Berkner writes songs for toddlers and pre-schoolers without many concessions to kids. Even the song most likely to draw a smile from parents ("Doodlebugs," for reasons that I'll not reveal here for fear of ruining the surprise) works perfectly for the kids. Unlike many songs that encourage participation but which are bland on record, Berkner's songs such as "What Falls In the Fall?" and "These Are My Glasses" work fine even if you're just listening. And "We Are the Dinosaurs" is an instant kids' classic, if there can be such a thing. Indeed, one of the strengths of Berkner's work for younger kids is that the songs are simple enough that parents (and kids) can sing them later on, when the CD isn't playing.

There isn't much difference between this CD and Berkner's follow-up Buzz Buzz. Whaddaya is perhaps a little more limited in instrumentation, but not by much. Basically, if you like one of the CDs, you'll like the other. (And I recommend them both.) The CD is targeted mostly at kids between the ages of 2 and 6. You can buy Berkner's CDs at her own label, Two Tomatoes, or online or in finer book- or children's stores.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Review: Family Dance - Dan Zanes

Family Dance is billed as being by "Dan Zanes and Friends." By inserting the "and Friends" part in there, the listener gets the impression that he or she, too, could gather their own friends round the piano in the living room, drag in a small amp and guitar, and record a really hip version of, say, "Skip To My Lou."

That listener, of course, would be completely and utterly wrong.

The reason they would be wrong is that Dan Zanes has a whole bunch of really talented friends who can actually sing and play their instruments. On Family Dance, for example, Rosanne Cash turns in a nice duet with Zanes on the obscure (for me) kids' song "Fooba Wooba John," Loudon Wainright III helps in a raucous version of "All Around the Kitchen," and Sandra Bernhard "sings" (sort of) on a Dan Zanes original, "Thrift Shop." The less famous of Zanes' friends are no less talented -- Barbara Brousal sings one of her songs, "Malti," while Rankin' Don puts some life into those most tired of kids' songs "The Hokey Pokey" and, yes, "Skip To My Lou."

There's not much difference between this album and, say, Zanes' later House Party. The later album is perhaps ever so slightly more diverse (there's not much bluegrass in Family Dance), but however you felt about House Party, you'll likely feel the same way about Family Dance. It draws from the same well of kids' classics, American songbook classics, some foreign nuggets, and a few solid Zanes originals.

The CD is appropriate for, well, just about anybody. Kids age 3 and older might appreciate it more, but more than any other kids' artist out there right now, Zanes is a practitioner of "family music," meant for the whole family. Available from Zanes' own label, Festival Five, or finer online and bookstore vendors. Definitely recommended.

(And Zanes would definitely recommend that you get your family and friends together to sing and play music -- it's one of his attitudes that I find most refreshing. But hold off pressing that CD, OK?)

Friday, July 29, 2005

Review: You Are My Sunshine - Elizabeth Mitchell

[Read the review of Mitchell's latest -- You Are My Little Bird -- here and more Elizabeth Mitchell news here]

I've talked before about Elizabeth Mitchell's first CD for kids, You Are My Flower. It's a great little CD. If there were any drawbacks to the CD, it was that it was too short (less than 25 minutes) and perhaps too "folk-y" for some tastes.

One her second CD, You Are My Sunshine, Mitchell says, "Hey, you, Mr. Daddy-Guy, I hear ya. I'm gonna make it longer and mix it up for you."

Uh, OK, she doesn't really say that. Or, at least, not that I'm aware of.

But her new CD is both longer and more diverse. And why wouldn't you want a longer CD when it includes great renditions of kids' songs traditional and un-? The alphabet song done in dub-reggae style. A Bo Diddley blues (sort of). Mitchell ups the young parent hipness quotient by covering both Sesame Street ("Ladybug Picnic") and Schoolhouse Rock ("3 Is The Magic Number"). And the covers of some traditional songs with religious backgrounds -- "So Glad I'm Here" and "Jubilee" -- make me happy every time I hear them. The first half of the CD is fairly varied in tempo; the second half is much more "folk" -- very mellow.

The CD is probably best for kids under age 6, but it's truly one of those albums you may find yourself putting on even when your kids aren't around. If you at all liked her first CD, you will like this one. If you've never heard Mitchell, I'd recommend this CD somewhat over the first one. If you hated her first CD, then I just don't know what to do with you. You probably shouldn't continue reading my reviews. The CD is available at the usual online suspects and at her website, You Are My Flower. Highly recommended.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Review: At the Bottom of the Sea - Ralph's World

With his first, self-titled Ralph's World album, Ralph Covert immediately set the standard for 21st century kids' music -- musically diverse and lyrically targeted at kids while winking at their parents.

It is not a criticism of his second kids' album, At the Bottom of the Sea, to say that it's just like the first CD, only more so. At the Bottom of the Sea is even more musically diverse than Ralph’s World, from the country stylings of “Honey for the Bears” to the faux-Beach Boys sound of “Surfin’ in My Imagination” to the pirate chanty “What Can You Do with Your Baby Brother?” The parents will probably bob their heads happily during the “Banana Splits” theme song; my wife especially appreciates “The Coffee Song,” which obviously bears the imprint of having been created waaay too early one morning (a wild guess on my part which Covert has confirmed in subsequent interviews). Even his rendition of "Itsy Bitsy Spider" has enough subtle humor to keep the parents amused while maintaining a simplistic approach to the song that will hold the attention of the very youngest.

Given that Covert’s daughter is probably a couple years older than when he wrote the songs on Ralph’s World, the songs on this album are targeted mostly at kids between 3 and 8. Covert's popularity means that if any non-Disney CD is to be found at a Best Buy, it's his; otherwise, the usual online suspects are the place to go.

If you liked Covert's other Ralph's World CDs, you'll like this one. Recommended.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Review: Songs For Wiggleworms - Old Town School of Folk Music

It doesn't take much to turn a tired old chestnut of a kids' song into one worth hearing. Usually a little bit of enthusiasm does the trick.

Songs For Wiggleworms, from Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, has 38 mostly classic kids' songs crammed into one 50-minute disc and has enthusiasm in spades. You've probably heard most of these songs ("Row, Row, Row Your Boat," "If You're Happy And You Know It...", etc.) but a few our family didn't know before hearing this CD. Regardless of whether the songs are new or old to you, your child (and you) will enjoy these lively renditions, sung by assorted musicians at the school (even Ralph Covert makes an appearance). The enjoyment of the musicians is evident in the renditions, whose occasionally ragged nature make it sound like you're sitting in an Old Town class. Thankfully, accompanied by little more than a guitar, if that, the musicians also stay away from "Star Search" vocal acrobatics.

There are some French-language and Spanish-language folk songs, too, along with a few non-kids songs ("Twist & Shout") to go along with the English-language classics. My favorite song on the album is "You Are My Sunshine," whose lyrics are modified slightly to eliminate the darker overtones of the original. And the songs I don't like? Well, as I said, there are 38 songs on a 50-minute CD -- just wait a minute, there'll be a new song coming up shortly. This CD is targeted at kids from birth to age 4 or 5.

The CD was out of print for a while, but is available once more here at Trust me, I've heard a number of nursery school song CD collections -- this is one you'll actually enjoy and the only one worth getting.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Review: Buzz Buzz - Laurie Berkner

The simplest kids' songs are sometimes the most effective -- Old McDonald's farm is not all that complex of an environment, yet it's a rare toddler or even pre-schooler who isn't somewhat amused by the song, particularly if it's delivered with gusto.

The best songs on Laurie Berkner's Buzz Buzz exemplify that truth. My all-time Berkner favorite, "Pig on Her Head," is about Berkner's family, who has a whole menagerie of animals on their noggins. (Heck, it's the sequel to "Old McDonald Had a Farm!") "I Really Love to Dance" is about a young kid who tries lots of different things but keeps coming back to dancing. Those originals are lots of fun. The covers are also performed with fun arrangements, such as the guitar, bass, piano, and kazoo used to provide a jaunty "I've Been Working on the Railroad." And her version of "There's A Little Wheel A-Turning In My Heart" uses the whole "change-one-thing-in-each-verse" to great effect.

Slightly less successful for me were longer songs that I think are more clearly designed for an interactive performance (e.g., "The Pretzel Store," "Lots of Little Pigs"). They're longer, so they're not quite as good if you (and your kids) are listening to the CD in the car. But if you're at home, and can convince your kids to act along, they'd be cute.

This is a fun, (mostly) upbeat CD and is recommended for children aged 2 to 6 years.

Berkner's CDs are available at her website, Two Tomatoes or all the finer book- and music stores.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Review: All Wound Up! - Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer with Brave Combo

Parents are familiar with serendipitous combinations -- peanut butter and jelly, Bert and Ernie, diapers and the Diaper Genie.

But some combinations aren't nearly as obvious.

Brave Combo is Texas band that plays polka (among other things) and Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer have been making kids music for 20 years. You wouldn't necessarily think that they would be making music together, but in All Wound Up!they have made one energetic album that should get your child dancing. (Warning: The Surgeon General has recommended that you do not play this album right before bedtime.)

The songs are lots of fun and cover a broad range of styles, helpfully listed in the liner notes. Some songs are Fink & Marxer originals -- "I Will Never Clean Up My Room" is an amusing tale of one child whose recalcitrance pays off in interesting ways. Some songs are hearty renditions of public domain and traditional songs (including, yes, "De Colores," which makes this literally the 5th or 6th version on our CD shelf). Ironically, the favorite song of mine and my daughter is the one Brave Combo-penned song, "Spaghetti," and enthusiastic tribute to restaurant pasta that ends with three or four overlapping musical lines. As with any good music, you can play either of these albums for kids of all ages, but kids from 4 to 8 years of age would probably appreciate them best. The record is on the Rounder label, available in the usual online suspects and in the "real world."

Friday, May 06, 2005

Review: Yellow Bus - Justin Roberts

What is it with Chicago and the abundance of good music for children out of that city? OK, it's probably the incredibly dense and relatively affluent population in the Loop that makes it possible to create a niche (and living) for yourself by performing kids' music.

See, for example, Justin Roberts. Roberts, like Ralph's World's Ralph Covert, tried for a few years to make music for adults, except Roberts did so in Minneapolis. Somewhere along the line, however, Roberts moved to Chicago and eventually turned his attention to making children's music. Kids and their parents are the luckier for it.

His third album, Yellow Bus, has a lot of rollicking tunes and some sweet slower songs (at the end of the CD -- I think this must be required by some sort of international children's music CD protocol). If you find Ralph's World just a little too saccharine for your tastes, Roberts is less so. Roberts' voice reminds me a lot of James Taylor's, but his songs are definitely more upbeat and uptempo than "Sweet Baby James." There are enough gently humorous twists in the lyrics to amuse adults. Some songs, like "One Little Cookie" (my favorite song on the CD) almost seem like they written to amuse the parents, not the kids. Roberts' songs have definite narratives and as a result violate my two-minute maximum rule. But I can definitely see how older kids (4 to 9) would enjoy listening to the songs. You can get the CD at Hear Diagonally (Roberts' label), or the usual suspects (Amazon and CDBaby).

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Review: Monkey Business - Eric Herman and the Invisible Band

As a parent of a pre-schooler, I've heard lots of CDs with pretty simple lyrics. "Row, row, row your boat" may be a model of Zen equanimity to some with a Matrix-like philosophical underpinning, but, really, it's about rowing your boat downstream. Over and over and over again.

This is not to say that simple lyrics are bad. Just that they've been the norm thus far in my infant/toddler/preschooler parental music experience.

So it takes some adjustment on my part to listen to music obviously geared toward older kids. Lyrically, the new CD from Eric Herman and the Invisible Band, Monkey Business, has some moments of inspired weirdness, which I mean as high praise. For example, the song "The Monkeys" tells the familiar story (to thirty-somethings and forty-somethings, perhaps) of four monkeys named "Mick and Dave and Mike and Pete" who sang in a band, and were accused of not even playing their instruments. The song concludes with lyrics such as "I'm in love... I'm a banana eater" and "Take the last vine to Clarkville." Another song, "Don't Bother Any Butterflies," works in a nice Beatles reference in an appropriate place. So lyrically the album works in enough sly references and humor to amuse both the children and the adults.

I think this CD works best (for adults at least) when Herman is telling a simple story or just singing -- "In the Box," the uptempo song that starts the CD is a fun song about cleaning up. The two slow songs at CD's end -- "The Hero of Your Dreams" and "Rest Easy Now" -- are sweet, slower songs appropriate for CD's end. Less successful for me were storytelling songs in which Herman assumes the voice of pirates or a robot. I can see six- and seven-year-olds really enjoying those songs, especially in concert or on a video, but I think their parents (or, at least, this one) won't enjoy them nearly as much on this CD.

Kids age 5 through 8 would probably enjoy this CD the most. You can buy the CD through online stores such as Amazon or CDBaby, or through Herman's website.

Friday, April 29, 2005

News: Kids' Music Moves Downtown

An interesting article reprinted in the Arizona Republic this week about playing kids' music in nightclubs. The article talks about how some nightclubs are booking shows for artists playing children's music. Seems like not every club could pull this off, depending on the operating interior decorating motif, but there's no reason why parents can't give their kids a wide range of cultural activities by taking them to a nightclub (in a safe environment) just as they might take them to the symphony or the ballet. The article namechecks other artists -- They Might Be Giants, Ralph Covert, and Laurie Berkner -- as well as mentions other, less well-known artists.

Another approach to kids' music is to have "regular" musicians come in and play shows. This is the approach that the Washington, DC cable show Pancake Mountain has taken, bringing in non-kiddie artists such as the Arcade Fire ("Wake Up" is a pretty cool song, I admit) and Vic Chesnutt. Without watching the video clips, I'm not sure how the approach actually works, but it's further proof that people are taking more seriously the idea of kids as music listeners.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Review: Ralph's World - Ralph's World

Ralph Covert is a classic example of a musician who along the way to a career as a musician making music for adults stumbled into becoming a kids' musician and found he had a gift for that type of music. These conversions are not so surprising; coming home at 3 AM after playing clubs (then sleeping 'til noon) is perhaps not the best way for an artist to be a part of their kids' lives. So now he records as Ralph's World.

On Ralph's World's first kids' CD Ralph's World, the band showcases a broad range of musical styles, though it’s considerably tamer that one might expect from a band that includes a former member of the Smashing Pumpkins. Up-tempo, down-tempo, western swing, disco, whatever. There are lots of songs about animals (“Freddy Bear the Teddy Bear”, “Animal Friends”, “Tickle a Tiger”). And Covert isn't afraid to write songs that put his heart on his sleeve ("All My Colors," "Bedtime Girl").

But there are just enough sly adult references to keep the parents happy; “Take a Little Nap (The Disco Song)” reworks a classic disco tune. Covert’s daughter and friends make appearances singing backup (don’t worry, it’s kept in check). The album is targeted at kids aged 2 to 6. Recommended.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Review: House Party - Dan Zanes

There are those kids' albums that sound like they're specifically geared toward, well, kids. The best of these get into the kids' worlds, their hopes and fears. The worst talk down to kids, way too stickly sweet.

And then there's Dan Zanes. His albums are the best example of what I'd call "family music." Instead of gearing his music primarily toward kids, Zanes finds (or, on occasion, writes) songs the whole family can enjoy. Zanes' 2003 album, House Party, exemplifies this approach. The title track is all about making music at home with family friends. My daughter asks to listen to it all the time, along with the uptempo "Down In The Valley." "House Party" is followed up by the traditional bluegrass tune, "Wabash Cannonball." There's nothing about "Cannonball" that makes it geared towards kids, except the fact that it's just a great little song, part of the American song canon.

"Cannonball" is only one a few traditional songs Zanes uses to good effect on the CD. My favorite is a lovely duet with Debbie Harry on "Waltzing Matilda," on which Harry's voice is so lovely you can't believe you're listening to the same person who led (and still leads) the rock band Blondie. As fun as that and other songs are on the CD, my very favorite is a Zanes original that ends the CD, "A Place For Us." A simple song about friendship and belonging, with composer Philip Glass on pump organ, I find it almost heartbreakingly beautiful, which lets me indulge its 6-minute runtime. (It's way too long for kids, of course, but I think it's great.)

Like all of Zanes' CDs, this one comes packaged in an illustrated book-like cases with liner notes. But you'll probably be too busy dancing with your kids to read it. (Unless, of course, you're driving. Then you're not dancing. I hope.)

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

DVD Review: Here Come The ABCs - They Might Be Giants

In my younger days, I went to clubs to hear Rawk Bands. And in my much younger days, I watched Sesame Street.

It is no knock on this new DVD -- it's high praise, in fact -- that I could see clips from the DVD played at clubs and on Sesame Street.

My review from last week on the CD version of this album was interpreted in the comments section by a snarky friend as being a negative review. As a long-time They Might Be Giants fan, I prefer to think of my less-than-5-star CD review as a reflection of them just failing to meet the high standards I've set for them. And part of that was a result of some songs that sound like they were designed for the DVD that were less than compelling without visuals.

So, then, the questions is, "how are the visuals?" And the answer is, fantabulous. Really. The video for "Pictures of Pandas Painting," while not a favorite song of mine, has a hypnotic, psychedelic feel. The art in "C is for Conifers" is nothing less than, well, art. "Q U" is a quirky live-action bit with Q and U (I love the shot of them walking through Central Park, with the crowd completely ignoring them). The puppetry in songs like "Who Put the Alphabet (In Alphabetical Order)" is lots of fun and a little surreal (e.g., the guitar windmills of a nearly-punk-rockin' pink poodle). And with visuals, songs such as "Letter Shapes" are much more enjoyable. (One note: if you're interested in the DVD because you want to see the actual band, you'll be mostly disappointed as the "thumb puppet" Johns get almost as much screen time as the "real" Johns -- i.e., not much.)

Taken in one 50-minute sitting, it's almost too much, but these visuals would fit in perfectly as interstitials (between-segment shorts) in Sesame Street. They would also make perfect oblique sense played on TVs in a rock club between sets.

One other minor complaint -- the DVD menu doesn't have scenes by chapters. If you're trying to limit a child's viewing time, trying to get to a particular song (and then play it from there for, say, 15 minutes) takes more work than it should.

But these are minor complaints. Excellent DVD.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Review: Here Come the ABCs - They Might Be Giants

As a follow-up to their popular and critically-acclaimed children's CD No!, Here Come the ABCs is a bit of a let-down only in comparison to such a strong disc. Part of this is probably due to the deliberate narrowing of subject matter of the new disc. How many different ways can you sing songs about the alphabet, a subject whose signature song was written by Mozart? But the relatively abstract nature of the lyrics allow TMBG to run amuck across the musical spectrum: jaunty ("E Eats Everything"), prog-rockish ("Pictures of Pandas Painting"), sometimes within the same song (the ballad/British Invasion/"Leader-of-the-Pack"-ish "D & W").

Since this CD was created with a companion DVD in mind, some of the songs ("Can You Find It?," "Letter/Not A Letter," "Letter Shapes") seem deficient without any accompanying visuals (I'll address whether or not that's actually the case in an upcoming review of the DVD). And unlike No!, which used a few songs from TMBG's "adult" career, the songs on ABCs are definitely more targeted at kids (thereby increasing the likelihood of odd stares from co-workers should you take the CD to work).

But that's not to say there aren't some standout tracks. "Alphabet Lost and Found" is a electronica-lite song about well, lost and found letters. "I C U" has some great wordplay (or, rather, letter-play). "C Is For Conifers" is a fine entry in the long TMBG tradition of educational songs and covers ("Mammal," "Meet John Ensor," "The Sun Is A Mass (Of Incandescent Gas)"). And "Q U" is just cute (or "qute," I guess).

Can I envision sneaking this off to work like I did with No!? Probably not -- it's not as strong an album in total. But if you (or your children) liked No!, there's no reason to believe you (or they) won't find Here Come the ABCs enjoyable as well.