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?)