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.