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.