Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Review: Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures / Songs from the New Testament - Why Not Sea Monsters?

For many artists, children's music is a side project. If you're Justin Roberts, however, you're already a children's music artist, so what's your side project? It's recording as Why Not Sea Monsters? with frequent collaborator Liam Davis.

In late 2005, Roberts and Davis released two Why Not Sea Monsters CDs -- Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures and Songs from the New Testament. Most of you will recognize that these albums have a distinctly... Biblical aspect to them. (My readers, they're sharp.) Roberts was commissioned to write many of these songs by Augsburg Fortress Publishers, he wrote a few more when deciding to record the album, and added a couple covers.

To put in context my review of the album's music, I should explain to you my history with Christian music.

Which is to say, virtually none. Aside from my U2 albums (upon which some churches are basing entire services), the only Christian music album I've ever owned was Amy Grant's Unguarded, and I didn't buy it for the praise music. I bought it because the music was good. The message was secondary. (That's still the case today, even though I'm now an active member of a mainline Protestant church.)

For the most part, the music here is good. Those of you expecting Meltdown! Bible Stories, as Roberts and Davis dial back some of the tempo and layering of instruments found on that album. Instead, they're content to play mostly midtempo acoustical songs in the manner of "Roller in the Coaster" off Way Out or "Koala Bear Diner" off Meltdown!. Given that many of these songs may end up in Sunday School curricula, the fact that many of these songs are little more than guitar and drums and/or bass, the simplicity is appropriate. (Each of the 35-or-so-minute discs include chords and lyrics.)

The best songs are those where Roberts lets his humor shine and he puts his own spin on stories so familiar that most people, Christian or not, would recognize them. On the sweet and poppy "Why Not a Spark?," Roberts' narrator tells of God choosing what to bring forth at the Creation, but he keeps getting ahead of himself ("On the fifth day / God said, why not sea monsters / Why not starfish and lobsters / why not airplanes over water / Wait that's later!"). Or Daniel in the lion's den who beckons the lion with "Here kitty kitty / Won't you come kitty kitty" ("Here Kitty Kitty"). As a whole, Roberts has written Christian music without much trace of sappiness.

I found the songs on Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures more enjoyable, and maybe that's because my raised-not-in-Sunday-School theological foundations are pretty weak and I was drawn to the more familiar stories in the Old Testament. Hebrew Scriptures also has the advantage of having Roberts cover Craig Wright's "Where Were You?," a beautiful hymn ("Where were you when I crafted you a language... / So you could live and die with dignity / And shake your fist with poetry, imagining creation from the first") for which Roberts and Davis pull out all the instrumental tricks (strings, for example) they've otherwise left in the bag. It's an absolutely gorgeous song. On the other hand, New Testament's stories are less familiar and the songs aren't as compelling ("Lydia" has the lyric "Her name was Lydia / Our hearts will never be rid of ya," which, I'm sorry, bugs the heck out of me).

Biblical songs can probably be sung at any age, but I think the morals and religious precepts contained within the songs are most appropriate for kids aged 3 through 10. You can hear samples by going through the Sea Monsters website.

In the end, this is a Christian music album, and there's no two ways around it. Having said that, I think you just need a basic Christian belief system (regardless of whether you attend church regularly) to enjoy the CDs. [And, as a reader subsequently pointed out to me, the Hebrew Scriptures CD is appropriate for persons of the Jewish faith as well.] Regardless of your faith, if you're not sure these are for you, start off with Hebrew Scriptures. Recommended.

Interview: Justin Roberts

The one thing I discovered from teaching preschool is you shouldn't have a preconceived notion of what kids will respond to. So I don't try to guess. -- Justin Roberts

With three CD releases in the past six months (the highly acclaimed Meltdown! and two "Why Not Sea Monsters?" scripture-related CDs with collaborator Liam Davis) and a very active 2006 touring schedule, Justin Roberts has been a very busy man as of late. Still, Justin must have exemplary time-management skills as he provided thoughtful responses to the questions below. Read on to find out which characters in Roberts' songs have echoes of Justin himself, who he's trying to please when writing songs, and what rocking out with kids is more fun than.

And thanks again to Justin for the interview.


When did you realize that you were going to make making kids' music your career?
I put out Great Big Sun in 1997 right as I was entering graduate school at the University of Chicago. I had no intention at that time of becoming a kids music performer. However, after finishing my masters in religious studies, I decided rocking out with kids was a lot more fun than studying Sanskrit. I stand by that statement today.

How much of your music is based on memories from your own childhood compared to watching kids as an adult?
I take a lot of inspiration from my own childhood, little memories and events that I use as building blocks. But sometimes I just make it all up. I think when I'm writing a song I try to get into the characters head and tell his or her story. In the same way that I would when writing a song for adults. So, while I might be inspired by the kids in my neighborhood cranking out chalk art, the character in the song develops as the story comes out.

On Meltdown! was "Cartwheels & Somersaults" based on personal experience, or was that a generalized experience?
I wrote that song for my sister (who is nine years younger than me). However, in the song it sounds like it is told from the prospective of an only child who is much closer in age. I still remember how amazing it was the day I came home from school and met my sister. Of course, several days later I was teasing her just like a big brother should.

Were you anything like the impish kid that seems to populate so many of your songs ("My Brother Did It," "Meltdown," "One Little Cookie")?
I was a pretty well behaved kid. If I did anything wrong, it was on the sly. My brother was a little more confrontational. But most of the stuff from the songs is made up. If anything, "My Brother Did It" is a role reversal since I was the younger one getting blamed for everything. I love how kids are sort of amoral but they have a sense of right and wrong at the same time. They are always testing boundaries. Which is funny to me.

Which is harder for you to write -- music or lyrics? Why?
I write my music and lyrics at the same time. Sometimes I have to fill in words and verses here and there but it is always created to the melody. I think that is often how the stories find their way out. In general, songwriting is a complete mystery to me and can be quite stressful (it's not a coincidence my CD is called Meltdown!) as I spend months feeling like I can't write a good song. Then some of my favorite stuff (like "Cartwheels") just pops out.

How easy is it for you to write music that kids will relate to, but that parents might enjoy, too? Do you think you've improved your ability to do so over the years?
I try not to think too much about my audience when I write. I try to write a melody I would want to hear as an adult and sometimes I will laugh when a lyric comes out or get a emotional if the song is sad. I never know what kids are going to think of the songs. I don't really test market them too much. I'm more sure adults will enjoy the songs when I complete them than kids.

I don't know that I've necessarily gotten better at reaching both audiences. I'm just always trying to push myself to make a better record than the last one. But there are still those out there who love the simplicity of Great Big Sun. When Liam and I are in the studio together, we just try to make a record that we would want to listen to. The one thing I discovered from teaching preschool is you shouldn't have a preconceived notion of what kids will respond to. So I don't try to guess.

How did you get involved in writing the "Why Not Sea Monsters" albums? Were you trying to do something different from your "regular" kids' albums?
Augsburg Fortress Publishers approached me several years ago to write two songs based on bible verses for their Sunday School curriculum. Having a background in philosophy and religious studies made it a fun little side project. I would write the songs and Liam would record and arrange them with me. One song led to another and soon we had about 16 tracks that were all originally commissioned by AFP. So, I wrote six more songs and covered a couple songs by Craig Wright (friend and playwright/television writer) to fill out the two records. My goal on these records was to try to write Bible songs that would not be preachy but would still bring out the strange beauty of these stories.

What's next for you and Meltdown!?
I've been travelling since March promoting the new CD and we have tons of summer dates set up too. We also have some new videos that we are very excited about which should be airing on Noggin soon.

Monday, May 29, 2006

This Week: Second City Children's Music

Doesn't quite have the ring of Second City Television, but it's pretty good stuff, anyway. Justin Roberts, Ralph's World, and more, all this week.

If you haven't seen it, read the review of The Terrible Twos' If You Ever See An Owl below. Great stuff. And if you missed my interview with Brady Rymer, it's worth your time.

Thanks as always for reading.

Review: If You Ever See An Owl - The Terrible Twos

The Terrible Twos are a side project once removed. Singer-songwriter Matt Pryor, of the emo band the Get Up Kids, formed the New Amsterdams as a side project with a more alt-country sound. With The Terrible Twos (the New Amsterdams to a man), Pryor has shifted his subject matter back maybe 15 years, targeting the young nieces and nephews of the New Amsterdams fans.

And with If You Ever See An Owl, Pryor and his band have crafted an album that will entertain those nieces and nephews along with their parents and aunts and uncles. Melodically, it's reminiscent of alt-country/Americana-pop artists like the Old 97s, Rhett Miller, and early Ryan Adams, with some Death Cab for Cutie and hints of Wilco thrown in for good measure. (Obviously, it's most like the New Amsterdams themselves.) Acoustic rock of tempos both fast and slow, melodies wrapping their way around your brain. The uptempo "When I Get To Eleven," about a boy's acceptance of growing older, makes counting to 11 a lot more fun than it has any right to be. The love song to a little girl named "Vivian" is worthy of lovesick Miller or Adams. And "A Rake, A Broom, A Mop, A Shovel," just like They Might Be Giants' "Violin" turns a very angular song into something enjoyable.

Lyrically, the 32-minute album covers ground familiar to many kindergarteners -- math, burping and being polite, the problems of a birthday too close to Christmas ("Caroline, don't worry about birthday time / Don't think that on 22 / There's none for you / It's just not true" on the shiny "Caroline"). It's unclear if Barney was the inspiration for "We Can All Get Along With Dinosaurs," but a purple dinosaur stars in a treacle-free song about tolerance. Elsewhere the lyrics target the parents as much as the kids (the disappearing baby of "The Little Houdini," the kid in the driving "Pizza and Chocolate Milk" who says "Don't try to force me to eat vegetables I hate / You may think I'm kidding / That I won't win / If I keep screaming you'll cave in.") But throughout the album there runs a feeling of love and affection for the subject matter (and kids who serve as the inspiration) that distinguishes the album from many others.

Kids aged 4 through 10 are most likely to enjoy the subject matter and the occasionally slow-paced song. The Terrible Twos' website has two downloads ("When I Get To Eleven" and "Caroline"), while their Myspace page has four more songs.

Normally I'd mention where the album is available for purchase, but here's the sad part -- due to unspecified release issues, the album is currently only available at New Amsterdams shows. I can only think of Wilco's troubles in getting their terrific album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot released after getting dropped by their own label. It took a great deal of effort before the album saw the light of day and attracted great praise, perhaps more than it otherwise would have. If You Ever See An Owl deserves not only a release but lots of fanfare to accompany that release, because this is an album that's going to make lots of kids and parents very happy. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Crosseyed and Painless

David Byrne recently posted a few thoughts on the past, present, and future of album art. Byrne's main point? We shouldn't necessarily mourn the loss of album art (which was often designed without the artist's input) with the rise of the iPod et al. Bryne posits a future in which recorded music is free while graphic designers develop ways to entice those listeners to pay for other stuff (merchandise, etc.) associated with the artist. (Thanks to Stereogum for the original reference.)

What does this have to do with children's music? I don't know whether many children's music artists spend much time considering album art. Even if they do (and they probably do), the results often doesn't show that. Raffi's early albums, while pretty darn good, could hardly be considered to have great album art. Those covers are pretty good compared to some I've seen. Aside from the Wiggles, who have very consistent art direction (THE WIGGLES! SMILING! FUN, BRIGHT COLORS!), there aren't a lot of kids' artists whose art direction I love. Dan Zanes is a conspicuous exception (it helps if your brother-in-law is an artist), and there are some other exceptions, too. (The packaging of Lunch Money's Silly Reflection is fabulous, for example. By the way, do you have that album yet? Why not? Go!)

I think much of children's music is trapped behind packaging that screams "you, the adult, will tolerate this and that's all." And I think that may explain partially why certain albums do or don't do well. Flipping through the small kids' music section at your local Borders... what are you going to choose? If you're trying to decide what to give as a gift for your niece's 4th birthday, what are you going to choose? How about looking at covers online? (Yes, I realize that, considering the current plainness of this website, this is a bit "pot-calling-the-kettle-black.")

While bad album art won't always win (Raffi's CDs are still very popular), it takes an awesome album to overcome that art. While Byrne may be right that album art in general may fall by the wayside, I think that day is further away for kids' music than for most music.

And just because I dig the Talking Heads, here's a page with some Talking Heads audio samples. The obvious choice for this site is "Stay Up Late," a funky tune from Little Creatures, but how can you not listen to something from Remain In Light? Go have fun.

What's your favorite children's music album cover/packaging?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Review: Paws Claws Scales and Tales - Monty Harper

We at Zooglobble love librarians. We especially love children's librarians. Turning on kids to the excitement of reading (and listening) -- way cool.

If you're a children's librarian and you're not aware of Monty Harper, you should be. Harper has carved himself out a niche writing albums filled with library-friendly children's music. His latest album, 2006's Paws Claws Scales and Tales, is another album specifically targeted to the Collaborative Summer Learning Program, a "grassroots consortium of states working together to provide high-quality summer reading program materials for children at the lowest cost possible for their public libraries."

All of which is very nice in an "isn't reading wonderful" sort of way, but you're asking, is it any good? And the answer is, yes, it is good. Even if you're not a children's librarian.

Now, Harper's subject matter from which to draw lyrics is narrowly constructed -- talk about pets and reading/libraries. It's a very square peg he's trying to pound into the round hole of good music. It's a testament to Harper's skill as a lyricist and storytelling that the references to reading typically don't come off as sounding overly forced. The title track refers to four popular animal characters in children's literature and each verse should be fun for kids as they guess which character Harper's singing about (a conceit Harper's used on previous albums). "Villa Villekulla Hula" sings about Pippi Longstocking while the peppy "Dog Books" refers to a few classic canine-related tales.

Harper really shines, however, in those songs which he's not trying to sing about both pets and libraries. My favorite track is the country-ish, inspired-by-a-true-story "It's Hard To Love a Reptile," which would be a fabulous song on any album and includes the classic lyrics "It's hard to love a reptile / When you know that she don't love you back / When your gazes connect and you start to suspect / She's been thinking of you - as a snack!" "Eleanor Gerbil" is as close Harper can get to the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" without paying Michael Jackson royalties. "Hummingbird Hum" is a sweet Beatlesque tune sung with his daughter. (As for "Fred's Frog Flippy," about a frog who just won't hop, I would've much preferred it if Harper had taken the opportunity to write a Talking Heads homage called "Making Flippy Hoppy.") In general, the music is kids' pop-rock.

The enhanced CD includes some bonus tracks, but the real reason to use the enhanced CD is to read Harper's detailed songwriting notes for each song. The care with which Harper constructs his songs and especially his lyrics is evident. He's also open about where he would've liked to have done more. (For example, on "Eleanor Gerbil" he mentions how a real string quartet would've sounded much better than the synthesizers employed on the track, and it's true that one of the CD's few weaknesses is the mostly synthesizer-driven nature of the sound.)

Given the reading-focused nature of the lyrics (which are extensive), I'd recommend the 36-minute CD for kids ages 4 through 9. You can hear samples at the Reading Songs website.

If you're a children's librarian, I highly recommend Paws Claws Scales and Tales, even if you're not participating in the CSLP. If you're not a children's librarian, I still think you and your kids will like the album, which is fun musically and sophisticated lyrically. Recommended.

Googling Children's Music

Google has introduced a beta version of Google Trends, which tracks the popularity of certain search terms. What can this tell us about the popularity of children's music? A lot (though it means nothing to me in terms of what our family actually listens to).

Here's Dan Zanes. A spike in mid-2005 -- I'm guessing there must've been some Noggin-related activity around then. The graph only appears to go through early-April, so there's little evidence of a Catch That Train! bump in the available data. Looks pretty good until you compare him to...

Laurie Berkner. Note the spike in early 2006 -- that would be the release of We Are... The Laurie Berkner Band DVD. Again, looks pretty good until you compare her to...

They Might Be Giants. I'm guessing the spike in mid-2004 has to do with the release of The Spine, their last non-children's release of new material. So they have the advantage of non-kids-related stuff, too. But you don't need that if you're...

The Wiggles. Hoo-boy, those other lines are getting mighty flat. But even that's not all that impressive once you type in...

High School Musical. Breaking Free, indeed.

Interview: Brady Rymer

"Lately, I’m becoming more focused on this idea that the songs and the music within them can be for the whole family."

Brady Rymer's fifth album Every Day Is A Birthday is a fun mix of songs dealing not only with the experience of childhood but also with the experience of parenthood. Rymer recently was kind enough to answer a few questions about his latest album, what it's like to be a kids' musician, and the strange effect of the Grateful Dead on his son.

Many thanks to Brady for taking the time to answer these questions. It's a long interview, but well worth the read.

Besides the concert hours, what are the biggest differences between being an "adult" musician (in From Good Homes) and a "kids" musician?
At a live show, the kids are roaring and ready from the first note, and I’ve got about 45 good minutes with them. The dynamic reminds me of those old rock ‘n’ roll road shows that had a handful of acts on the bill; each band would do a quick 30 minute set, and each of ‘em got the place rockin’, with their hits, from the get-go. When I was with From Good Homes we’d be onstage for hours; if I did that now, the parents might just be with me at the end of the show, but you know those little ones would be snoozin’ after a dozen songs. Other than that, there aren’t too many things that I approach differently. I want the music (and musicians) to be interactive and engaging, and I want the set to gain momentum and get lots of good energy flowing back and forth between audience and band, no matter who I’m playin’ for-- grandmas, toddlers, dads, whoever!

On "Every Day Is A Birthday," "Dilly Dally Daisy" clearly was inspired by your daughter. Are most of your songs based on your kids?
Certainly my kids bring home and inspire a lot of songs. Their worlds are so packed with crazy situations, colors, and events that you could probably write a record a day if you just followed ‘em around with a pen and guitar! It’s incredibly fun and refreshing as a songwriter to get down a little lower to the ground and look at the world through their eyes (this also helps me as a parent-- one great perk of my job). It’s exciting to me to bring this unique language to songwriting – it’s not every day you get to write about your baby’s last night in utero or how proud a kid is to see his big ol’ belly reflected in the mirror.
Other families and friends also inspire songs. “Full Moon Walk” developed out of a beautiful experience we shared with family friends; “Mama Hug” and “Keep Up With You” were inspired by conversations with friends and neighbors. The other day at Little League practice, one of the moms was telling me how she’s been in the backyard throwin’ the baseball with her son. And he said to her after a pitch, “who knew, Mom-- you have a great curve ball!” Now if that doesn’t sound like a cool song, I don’t know what does.

I've read a bit of parental frustration into "Instead of Watching My TV." Was that a case of over interpretation, or have there been times you've had to encourage your kids to go outside (or another room) and do stuff?
The TV song, along with “Look in your Pocket,” were definitely written with the challenges of parenting in mind. It’s an ongoing adventure to keep your kids creative and inspired. It takes a lot of energy as a parent-- so I guess those songs are just me tryin’ to help some kids that might be stuck. Sometimes they just need a little encouragement, a suggestion, and then they’re off & runnin.’

For instance, my son loves weeding the garden – he goes out there with his mom and they make it fun – he gets a penny a weed, and they have this rewarding thing that they share together. But it’s still a project to un-stick him from the cartoon-filled TV on Saturday mornings, no matter what! I don’t even know if “Blowin’ in the Wind” could accomplish that!

"Rock N Roll Mother Goose" is a fun song to listen to, with lots of energy. Was it fun for you to record the song?
It was a blast! I’m glad that spirit comes through on the recording. I remember getting into such a fun place singing it; I could have kept singing all night. It’s modeled after Ray Charles’ great song “Shake a Tail Feather”; if you listen to that recording, Ray and the band are having such a good, boisterous time, and I really wanted to capture their playfulness and exuberance. So yeah, I was boppin’ around the studio when we were working on that one, waggin’ my elbows, shakin’ my tail feather, doin’ the goose! As we added elements to the song – the keyboards, horns, backup vocals – it grew more and more exciting; we all had a lot of fun creating the song.

Which is harder for you to write -- music or lyrics? Why?
Lyrics, I guess. I grew up listening and learning songs from the radio, picking out the tune and playing it on my guitar, so I identified first with the chord changes and music, and then focused on the lyrics (usually getting a lot of them wrong!). That kind of changed when I heard Bob Dylan-- I was hit over the head with how beautiful, colorful and poignant lyrics could be. They seem to take a little more time; you want to make sure that they’re just right. Songs for me generally come pretty fast, at least the initial idea. Music and lyrics together, but then it just takes time for it to all settle down, for the right words, musical ideas and textures to fall into place. I think of it as a puzzle – at the end of the process, with some luck, all of the pieces of the song fit together.

The song “Diggin’ Up A Dinosaur” was inspired by a songwriter, David Wilcox, talking about his songwriting approach. He said that writing is like dusting off dinosaur bones that are in the ground, carefully, a little at a time; until eventually it all becomes clear. He described that so well; anyway, that idea eventually turned in to “Diggin’ Up A Dinosaur,” a song about discovering who we are.

How easy is it for you to write music that kids will relate to, but that parents might enjoy, too? Do you think you've improved your ability to do so over the years?
I have always written songs about the experience of being a parent, as well as the experience of being a kid. My earlier songs are more closely focused on a kid’s world; I think they work for parents because they’re written with love, and they’re honest and real, reflecting experiences we’ve all gone through in some way.

Lately, I’m becoming more focused on this idea that the songs and the music within them can be for the whole family. I think kids can handle a challenging lyric, or a metaphor, and certainly can enjoy listening to music that is layered with great instruments and played by great musicians. The lyrics are getting to a broader place: “Keep Up With You” speaks to everyone, and the band’s new favorite song “Road Trip,” which we’ve been playing a lot live, is the best so far in terms of communicating with the whole family. I really look forward to recording this next batch of tunes I have ready; I think they are going to be the most inclusive of families yet. I love this direction; it really feels right.

Aside from your music, what do your kids like to listen to?
Green Day, the current American Idols, Elvis, Sheryl Crow, Bruce Springsteen, Annie Lenox, Simple Plan, KISS, Chuck Berry…the list goes on and on! My kids’ tastes are pretty eclectic. We love introducing them to different kinds of music, and we play all sorts of stuff around here – gospel, old blues, rock n roll, you name it. I remember the first time my son heard the Grateful Dead; he was in his bed getting ready to go to sleep. The song came on and he just got up on his bed and started doing the trippy, spaced out, freeform dancing that goes on at Dead shows! I was amazed. He never saw his mother dance like that!, but there it was – reacting completely honestly and in spiritual synch with that music!

We like putting together iTunes Playlists together. You get a real variety that way and you can work on a theme, which is fun. For my daughter’s birthday party we made one playlist with a Rainbow theme: it has everything on it -- Lesley Gore and Louis Armstrong, Paul Anka, Willie Nelson, the Ramones and the Rolling Stones, and they enjoy it all.

What's next for you and the album?
Well, we are working real hard on making some videos. So many of the songs paint pictures and tell stories, and it’s really exciting to explore their visual possibilities.

I love doing live shows (I’ve loved it since I first played with a band in Junior High), and I have the best time onstage with The Little Band That Could. We are so excited with the response that Every Day Is A Birthday has received, and we’re working on getting some farther-flung tour dates, to get the live show out there to families across the country.

And like I said before, I can’t wait to start recording my new CD.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Attention Children's Music Artists (and their PR people, if any)

I've updated the album submission policy to reflect a few weeks of receiving requests to review assorted kids' music CDs. I tried to make the policy a little less flippant and a little more understanding of the children's music recording industry. I don't think I've said anything substantially new, but if for some reason you read the policy before and didn't think you "qualified" (a very loose term for this site), feel free to read again.

And, as many artists who've received e-mails from me can attest, "I'm always interested in hearing new music." If you've got some, let me know!

Review: Quiet Time - Raffi

Raffi generates such strong feelings in people, that it's almost impossible to review the April 2006 release of Quiet Time without addressing some knotty issues. I'm not going to tackle those knotty issues here, but here are 3 "nots."

1. This is not a new Raffi album.
2. This is not a Raffi greatest hits album.
3. This is not a bad album.

This is not a new Raffi album -- You know how you get excited about an episode of a TV show without an "R" behind it, thinking, "hey, this is a new episode!," then get disappointed to find out it's nothing but a "clip" show? That was what I felt on a small level when I realized that this wasn't an album of new Raffi songs; in fact, every single track on here is previously released.

This is not a Raffi greatest hits album -- As the title suggests, Quiet Time is laid-back and calming. So even though the 31-minute CD draws from just about every single album of new material Raffi has released over the past 30 years, it's hardly a "greatest hits" collection. (Which, Raffi's multi-CD collections and concert albums aside, he could sorely use.)

This is not a bad album -- Having outlined what this is not, let's talk briefly, then, about what it is. The album cover calls these "songs for a pause, a cuddle, or a nap," and I think that's a pretty accurate description. Although these are slow, relaxing songs, they are not, for the most part, lullabies. They're gentle songs, a good soundtrack for quiet times and activities. Raffi has a clear and wonderful voice, which serves these songs well. He is a great interpreter of traditional child's music. Your appreciation of the Raffi originals may vary. I found "Spring Flowers" to be a soothing song in which the vocals are almost as much of an instrument as the instruments themselves (it certainly doesn't sound like the music he recorded 20 years before). On the other hand, his "Blessed Be" is overly precious to me, and I find Raffi most appealing precisely when he's not being overly precious. Again, your mileage may vary.

I think the album will be most enjoyed by kids ages 1 through 5. Released by Rounder, the album's available at most online and the usual retail suspects.

This is not the first album I'd recommend for someone looking to start off with Raffi. But for someone looking for pleasant background music to a half-hour of downtime for their child, Quiet Time is a good choice.

Monday, May 22, 2006

News: Belle & Sebastian Compile the Cutest Children's Music Album EVER!

Hey, I kid because I love.

The snarky friends at Pitchfork report that Belle & Sebastian indeed have "curated" a children's music album to be released on Sept. 11, 2006 and to benefit Save The Children. Now, it's not (as of this writing) confirmed on the band's website, their label's website, Rough Trade's website, or Save the Children's website, but it's on the web, so it must be true, right?

With contributions from "Franz Ferdinand, Four Tet, Snow Patrol, the Flaming Lips, the Fiery Furnaces, Kathryn Williams, the Divine Comedy, Travis, Jonathan Richman (aren't all of his songs children's songs?), and Rasputina," it's not a lineup that screams "kids music!" to me (well, OK, save Jonathan Richman), but that doesn't mean I won't be very interested in hearing it.

(Previous "reportage" here. Really, I do kinda like Belle & Sebastian, just not sure how this is going to turn out.)

This Week: Nothing But Fescue

OK, not really. But so many people have found their way here looking for the revised lyrics to Ben Folds' "Rockin the Suburbs" from the Over The Hedge soundtrack that I thought I'd find out what fescue is. (It's mentioned in the song, and I had no idea what it was.)

Fescue is a "deep rooted, cool season perennial grass." And who says you can't learn anything from children's music!

Besides this mini-educational lesson, I'll have another interview this week, along with more reviews. I just haven't figured out which ones yet.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Review: The Hipwaders - The Hipwaders

The Bay Area three-man band The Hipwaders released their second (self-titled) album in 2005. On the 42-minute CD they cover a wide range of musical styles, from the jangle-pop of the album opener "Come Along With Us" to the new wave stylings on "Silly Robot Dance" to the vaguely Nirvana-esque stylings of "Stand Up To The Bully," with many more styles as well ('60s psychedlic pop in particular). Generally, it's a guitar-based pop-rock confection.

With the exception of two songs, all songs were written or co-written by the band. Lyrically, they cover the gamut of elementary-school-aged themes -- cleaning up one's room, bugs, and the sheer wonderfulness of jelly beans, just to name a few. The Hipwaders also have a slight science bent, with songs about earthquakes ("It's An Earthquake!") and volcanoes ("Volcano," natch).

With 18 tracks on the CD there are bound to be some favorites and less-than-favorites. I particularly like the "Rock Lobster" echoes on the driving ode-to-antsiness "Twitchy," the funky new-wave "Silly Robot Dance," and the brief, strutting '80s pop "Kelly the Clown." There are a pair of eerie story songs about a Civil War-era ghost/skeleton/thing ("Mr. Wiggly Jiggly Bones") and werewolves ("Howling at the Moon") which I find to be too long, breaking up the overall poppy flow of the album. But I think that's just personal taste (they're not bad songs) and older kids may find them appealing. (At the very least you can enjoy the Cab Calloway reference on "Bones.")

Given the lyrical themes, I think the album is most appropriate for kids age 5 through 9. You can hear 4 of their songs in their entirety at The Hipwaders' MySpace site. You can buy the album at Amazon, CDBaby, and a few other sites linked through The Hipwaders' main website.

In sum, The Hipwaders is a solid album of kids' pop-rock. In its broad appropriation of pop music stylings, it is very reminiscent of Ralph's World albums. They're not at a Ralph's World level of polish and songcraft yet, but give The Hipwaders time. They may just get there. Recommended.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Nothing's So Good You Can't Post It Twice

Sometimes you can't help but revisit prior posts...

I've had the full copy of Dan Zanes and Friends' Catch That Train! for a few days now and I've expanded my review from last week just a bit to talk about the physical copy (scroll down to the end). As an aside, Zanes has covered (and written) enough material at this point to publish a family songbook of his own if he wanted to. Nicely illustrated with quality liner notes, I'd get a copy.

I continue to update my Album Recommendations by Age for each additional review I post, so if you've got a birthday coming up... I also continue to update my Baseball Songs and Train Songs lists as people comment or I stumble across an appropriate song on my own.

And, finally, I updated my review of Putumayo's Folk Playground CD from this morning, not to update the tone (fine but not outstanding) but to correct numerous grammatical errors. Hoo boy, it was early, but I can't blame those mistakes on the time.

Review: Folk Playground (Putumayo) - Various Artists

"Folk Playground is neither 'folk' nor 'playground' -- discuss."

The Putumayo label got its start a number of years ago putting together mix tapes for use in its clothing store. They have since abandoned the clothing store, focusing solely on music, and have developed a kids' music label, Putumayo Kids. The latest entry in the Putumayo Kids series of CDs is the 2006 release of Folk Playground, to be released on Tuesday.

The 33-minute CD may confuse folk purists while also confusing some parents new to the children's music scene. The key component in the definition of "folk" seems to have been whether or not acoustic guitar was included on the track. The "playground" songs -- "This Old Man," "Froggie Went A Courtin'," -- aren't necessarily "folk music" in execution (or, if they are, it sort of stretches the definition.) The term "Folk Playground" is marketing and stretches the definition of what's actually on here.

Now, if you are a devoted children's music listener, you may already have half the songs (or at least half the artists) already in your collection. The problem with the selections from the more familiar artists is twofold. In some cases, the selections are not very representative of the artist's work (Justin Roberts' "Roller in the Coaster," while a nice little song, is a less common type of song for him, compared to the rave-ups; Laurie Berkner has made a name for herself for her originals, not covers. Neither would be considered folk artists.) In other cases, the songs are more representative of the artists' overall work, but not necessarily a highlight from their catalog (Dan Zanes' "Hop Up Ladies," Trout Fishing in America's "Fill It Up," Elizabeth Mitchell's "Crawdad"). These songs are perfectly fine, but I could probably have come up with a half-dozen songs each that I'd've preferred to see on here. (I do think Brady Rymer's "It's All How You Look At It" is pretty good, though.)

Of the less familiar artists (kids' related -- Leon Redbone is hardly an unfamiliar artist), the clear standout song on the CD is Zoe Lewis' "Sheep," about her musings while seeing sheep from far above in an airplane ("I wonder what are you thinking as your little pink lips go round and round and chew / Does night time bring you dreams of spring, mutton, mint sauce, leg of lamb or stew? / (Sorry, sheep)"). It's a sprightly melody, sung with whimsy, and mixed with tin whistle, among other instruments. Forget about the less familiar artists -- it's the best song on the CD, period.

The album is probably most appropriate for kids age 2 through 8. You can download lyrics and listen to sound samples at Putumayo's page for the release.

In the end, after listing all my criticisms, you might be surprised to read that I like the CD. It's a case where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Putumayo's history as a mix-tape creator serves it very well here as Folk Playground is a CD which will serve as a very pleasant soundtrack to a session of coloring or game-playing. While there are few standout tracks here, the overall listening experience is nice.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Austin City Limits Festival: Hey, We're Humid, Too!

The Austin City Limits Festival announced their 2006 lineup today and it includes kids music artists you might know such as Sara Hickman, Terri Hendrix, Joe McDermott, Imagination Movers, and Asheba.

Take that, Lollapalooza!

And just as with Lollapalooza, there are a good 30-40 other artists worth your time.

The 2006 edition will be held Sept. 15 - 17. And, as an ex-longtime resident of Austin, I can assure you that it could (OK, will) be just as humid as Chicago in early August. But the pace is much more relaxed. And you're right around the corner from Chuy's Barton Springs location...

(Of course, I post this knowing that the idea of families flying to Austin for the weekend for a concert festival is a bit, erm, far-fetched for all but the most devoted and affluent. But still.)

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Review: Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang - Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang

Released in 2003, the debut self-titled CD from Los Angeles' Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang had its genesis in the 2000 movie Chuck and Buck.

Movies about stalking childhood friends 15 years later don't typically serve as the inspiration for forming a children's music band, but Beck drummer and music producer Joey Waronker asked unimonkered LA folk-rock singer Gwendolyn to contribute a song to the movie soundtrack -- out of that grew this entire album.

The entire album has the feel of a Saturday morning cartoon or kids' variety show. Gwendolyn sings with a somewhat high-pitched and nasally-pinched voice. In addition, there appear to be "characters" singing along on many of the songs (there are characters pictured on the CD case but the liner notes aren't clear). The entire thing just screams, "CUTE!"

As someone who tends to react allergically to cartoony voices and cuteness in general, I mentally prepared myself to actively dislike the album. It's a testament to the strength of the melodies and musical production that I can look past the characters' voices and focus on the melodic hooks.

Some of those hooks have lodged in my brain, and may never come out. "Anatomy" isn't much more than a spoken-word recitation of a whole bunch of body parts and their purpose, but the poppy chorus, "It's your anatomy," repeated nearly ad nauseum, is running through my head right now over and over. "Farm Animal Friends" has a nice loping country song feel to it. The song from Chuck and Buck, "Freedom of the Heart (Ooodily, Oodily)," isn't necessarily a kids' song, but it's got a kid-like feel and a very '70s pop sound and a chorus that goes "Oodily oodily oodily oodily oodily oodily fun fun fun." (I assure you, it's head-bopping.) The song "Little Monkey," for a character which appears to be an Elvis impersonator, has a suitably '50s Elvis-like sound. In addition to being catchy musically, the band (seven members in total) sounds good, too.

Lyrically, the 26-minute album deals squarely with typical preschooler concerns -- manners, sharing, washing, and bugs, among other things. The lyrics are direct ("Please" -- "When you say things with a smile / A little tiny inch becomes a mile / You can go far when you're cheerful / Because nobody likes someone who's tearful"). The earnest lyrics don't leave a lot of room for adult humor, but some sneaks in. (In the aforementioned "Anatomy," Gwendolyn mentions, "Hair / Everybody has hair / Well, except for my dad.")

Given the show-like approach of the music and lyrics, the album is most appropriate for kids aged 2 through 6. You can hear samples of music from their two albums and a full download of "Farm Animal Friends" here. You may want to double check that the characteristics of the CD I could see past you can see past, too. The album is available through their website or the usual online suspects.

Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang had all the hallmarks of being a CD I wasn't going to like at all, but very quickly it wore down my defenses. It's a fun little CD with great melodies that's likely to engage your kids. Recommended.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Train Songs

In honor of the release of Dan Zanes and Friends' Catch That Train! (review here), I thought I'd list a few songs about trains for kids.

(Note: references to the Island of Sodor will be summarily deleted.)

(Last updated May 23, 2006)

"Catch That Train!" - off of Dan Zanes and Friends' (DZ&F) Catch That Train!, of course
"Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" - also try DZ&F's Catch That Train!
"Wabash Cannonball" - many, try DZ&F's House Party
"Guysborough Railway" - try DZ&F's Night Time
"Rock Island Line" - try DZ&F's Family Dance
A whole bunch of songs on DZ&F's Parades and Panoramas
"Freight Train" - try Elizabeth Mitchell's You Are My Flower, also (reader-recommended) on Enzo Garcia's Breakfast with Enzo
"Little Red Caboose" - many, try Elizabeth Mitchell and Lisa Loeb's Catch The Moon
"I've Been Working on the Railroad - many, try Laurie Berkner's version on Buzz Buzz
"New River Train" - try Raffi's New River Train
"Choo Choo Train" - try Ralph's World's debut Ralph's World
"The Little Engine That Could" - try the Hollow Trees' self-titled debut (sorry, Greg!)
-- Yosi also has a "Train Medley" on Under A Big Bright Yellow Umbrella that includes some (if not all) of the songs listed above.
-- Reader BethBC also notes that James Coffey has an entire CD of train-related songs called My Mama Was a Train.

I'm sure there are more, but this is a decent start -- if you post 'em in the comments, I'll add them above.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Song of the Day: Rockin' the Suburbs (from "Over the Hedge") - Ben Folds

Ben Folds has five songs on the soundtrack to the upcoming animated kids'movie Over the Hedge. The soundtrack, to be released tomorrow, includes "Rockin' the Suburbs."

I know what you're saying, you're saying "Rockin' the Suburbs?" Could there be a more inappropriate song for a kids' movie soundtrack? Was "Brick" somehow unavailable?

To be fair, Folds has written new lyrics for the song. In its original version, Folds takes aim at Limp Bizkit and their fans with lyrics such as

Let me tell ya'll what it's like
Being male, middle class and white
It's a b----, if you don't believe
Listen up to my new CD
Sham on

And it only gets more profane and more angry from there, until it ends in a fury of cheesy rap-metal. It all seemed a bit too much; making fun of Bizkit and the attitude of their fans (even at the time) was akin to shooting fish in a barrel. Sleepy fish in a barrel. It was overkill, perhaps, but amusing, and fully thought out in execution.

So now for this new movie, which tells the story of some timid wood animals facing an encroaching suburbia, Folds has turned his aim from 20-year-old white males to, er, soccer moms?

Let me tell y'all what it's like
Watching idol on a friday night
In a house built safe and sound
On indian burial ground
Sham on
(Rest of the lyrics are here)

From there, Folds turns his aim to cookie-cutter suburban development and how houses all look the same. It's as if he thought that five-year-old kids have a working knowledge of Jane Jacobs, enough to nod sagely at the critique. It's a song lobbed completely over the kids' heads at their parents, and, sadly, it's not telling us anything we don't know. (You either agree completely, or don't care at all.)

Now, the song also includes a bizarre voice-over by frequent Folds collaborator William Shatner, which must be in character (Shatner does have a part), as Shatner rails on and on in the persona of a slightly too nosy neighbor. Again, vaguely amusing for the adults, kinda odd for the kids. And, most strangely, the song ends in the same cheesy rap-metal that's part of the original, only now it's devoid of any context.

I really like Ben Folds, and I'm sure he was excited to help out with a kids' movie soundtrack (as he has at least one child of his own), but this is one song mostly likely over the

You can check out the Over The Hedge soundtrack website (with radio) here. If you think I'm gonna link to a Limp Bizkit song, you're nuts, but if you go to the Ben Folds Five website and click on "Music," you can hear my favorite Folds song, "The Battle of Who Could Care Less."

This Week: Not Mellow

I was going to call this "Have You Never Been Mellow?," but any week which leads off with Ben Folds probably renders that description moot. Drop by this week for him and other artists, well-known and not.

Oh, and in case you missed it, here's my review of Dan Zanes and Friends' Catch That Train!, which is released tomorrow. Regular readers probably don't need to be convinced, but it's definitely worth your time and money.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Review: The Hollow Trees - The Hollow Trees

The Hollow Trees are a Los Angeles-based band who released their debut self-titled album in December 2005. Led by Greg McIlvaine and Laura Steenberge, the Hollow Trees drew inspiration from Dan Zanes in looking for ways to make family-inclusive music, making Zanes Pete Seeger to their Bruce Springsteen.

The Hollow Trees owes a debt to Zanes in a couple ways. Most noticeably is the inclusion of two songs covered by Zanes on his CDs -- "Polly Wolly Doodle" and the album closer "Buckeye Jim." Less noticeably perhaps, but more importantly, is the feeling of "let's get together and make a CD, and why don't you invite your friends" that permeates the disk. Now, Zanes clearly has more musically famous friends than the Hollow Trees (there's no Sheryl Crow on the Trees' version of "Polly Wolly Doodle.") But that doesn't make the Trees' version less fun. Indeed, my favorite cut on the album, their rollicking version of "Jack Was Every Inch a Sailor," sounds like there are about 15 people crammed into a living room with a microphone and would sound just great on a Zanes album. Songs like that, uproarious and boisterous, are where the Hollow Trees shine.

The rest of the album are faithful covers of other folk and bluegrass standards (some more familiar to me, others less so) done with care and competence. The originals (only 4 of the album's 17 tracks) are a mixed bag -- I liked "Forest Melody," which has a very 50's folk-rock sound to it and "Nelson," but found "Bunny Hop" to be a bit repetitive.

Like many folk/bluegrass albums, the notion of age-appropriateness is much less relevant than for other CDs, but I think that kids aged 2 through 7 would like this album the most. You can hear complete tracks from the CD at the Hollow Trees website, as well as order it there or from CDBaby.

The Hollow Trees is a fun album of folk and bluegrass for the entire family. If you don't care at all for folk and bluegrass, this album won't appeal to you. But for the rest of us, we'll enjoy the album just fine. Recommended.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Songs From Moms

Apropos of the "Songs for Moms" post from earlier this week, comes this NPR story.

I remember my mom singing snippets of German songs from her childhood. What do you remember?

Sing A Song of SteveSongs

Just wanted to point out that Bill at Spare the Rock announced today that SteveSongs would be appearing in-studio on his June 17 show. I've been told that Steve's latest album, Marvelous Day!, will be re-released by Rounder Records this summer. More details (and review) later this summer.

Anyway, kudos to Bill for getting both Steve and Milkshake to appear on the air with him.

Review: Catch That Train! - Dan Zanes and Friends

[To Dan Zanes and readers -- greetings and thanks for stopping by. And check out the main site for tons more music for kids and adults. No, that's not an oxymoron.]

The short review of Catch That Train!, Dan Zanes' 2006 release and his fifth album specifically for kids and families is that it's like his previous family music album, but more so -- more musically diverse, more lyrical, more... everything.

The long review is... well... the thing is, after listening to this album so many times, I didn't want to write the short review, which might otherwise have just said, "It's like every other Dan Zanes CD -- it's great." So I went back to his first family music album, 2000's Rocket Ship Beach, to see if I could notice progression in Zanes' music that is harder to see from just looking at his last album, House Party. And a couple things struck me as I listened to his first and his latest CDs.

The first thing that struck me was how Zanes has gradually broadened his musical horizons since 2000. Six years ago, the debut's most adventurous musical step could very well have been the appearance of Father Goose (Rankin' Don) and his dancehall stylings. On Catch That Train!, Rankin' Don's appearance on "Choo-Choo-Ch-Boogie" almost feels safe compared to the rest of the album. The Blind Boys of Alabama on the gospel "Welcome Table," the Rubi Theater Company on the strutting "Walkin' the Dog," the forward-thinking Kronos Quartet on the retelling of the psycho-pet story "Grey Goose" -- they all come from diverse musical places and yet fit in perfectly on this disk. It's as if Zanes has released his very own Putumayo collection. Which is not to say that the stuff that's been around since Rocket Ship Beach -- Rankin' Don, the duet with Barbara Brousal ("Mariposa Ole," in Spanish, of course), and the duet with a female singer-songwriter (Natalie Merchant on the lovely "Loch Lomond") -- isn't there, and isn't great. Because it is.

The other thing that struck me was that the first CD seemed to me a collection of songs that Zanes really liked. The latest CD does seem to have a thematic cohesiveness to it, and it's not about trains. It's about community. "When we ride / We ride together," Zanes has written on the title track, and there is a strong sense of doing things together that runs through the album. Inclusiveness ("All God's children gonna sit together," from "Welcome Table"), neighborliness ("High and low, people that we know / They say 'Hey there,' and 'How’ve you been?'," from "Wander in the Summer Wind"), and a welcoming neighborhood ("Wherever you’re from / Know that you’re welcome / If you want to bring your family ‘round / To this moonlit town," on the album closer "Moonlit Town.")

Quite possibly my favorite song on the album is Zanes' "While the Music Is Playing," about wanting to linger in the neighborhood into the night, listening to all the different music in the air.
People gather all around the square
People laughing in the evening air
Swirls and mingles with the songs that brought us there
That brought us all there.

If that's not Zanes' ideal world in a nutshell, I'm not sure what is. The midtempo tune mixes a wistful chorus, brass band, and a backup singer count which eventually must reach double-digits to posit a world where community is paramount. (Its placement smack-dab in the middle of the album just before the pro-working-man "I Don't Want Your Millions Mister" can't be just random.) With Zanes entering the fray over a proposed Brooklyn development, these are no longer idle concerns for him.

As with all Dan Zanes albums, Catch That Train is for people of every age. But if I had to narrow down the age range, I'd call it ages 5 through 10. You can hear samples, etc., by following the links at Zanes' Catch That Train! page.

In the end, if you're at all a fan of Dan Zanes' music, you'll enjoy this album. (And if you're in the minority who don't, this album won't change your mind.) Catch That Train! is Zanes' strongest album to date, a celebration in music of the joys of family, community, and music itself. Highly recommended.

[May 19, 2006 Update]
Now that I've had the full copy of the CD and packaging for a few days, rather than just an advance promo copy, I wanted to add a few additional comments to the review.
1) The packaging is quite nice -- Zanes has replaced the book format of his previous kids' CDs with more of a foldout design similar to which he employed on Parades and Panoramas. The entire design is thought out quite well (the title, "Catch That Train!," is actually the very end of a sentence that runs through the entire physical package).
2) Lyrics! Chords! The presence of these two things in the liner notes only makes the absence of them in previous albums that much more stark. Again, Zanes had started doing this with Parades and Panoramas and Sea Music, but their presence here is very welcome (especially for an artist so enamored of public singing). And, Zanes' comments in the liner notes are useful, too. (Not to mention finding out little things like Warren Zanes plays guitar on "Mariposa Ole.")
3) The video for "Catch That Train!" is OK, but nothing special. Dan Zanes plays around in his apartment while a tiny little animated train drives around. The scene where Zanes looks at a comb by his sink, then shakes his head as if to say, "naaaah," did make me laugh, though.

So, there you have it. And if you don't (have it), why not?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

"Because Dan Zanes would sure make one funny-looking Wiggle"

I was browsing the Parents Choice website just yesterday, and this article concerning the selections of their Spring 2006 music award-winners hadn't been posted yet. Devon points it out today. (Look for more reviews of some of the albums on the list in the weeks ahead right here.)

Also of note is an interview with XM Kids' Director of Children's Programming Kenny Curtis, who comments on the current state of children's music. My favorite part of the whole piece:
PC: Any Other Reason To Keep Promoting High Quality Kids
KC: Because Dan Zanes would sure make one funny-looking Wiggle.

Finally, I had meant to post this anyway -- Richard Perlmutter of Beethoven's Wig fame has 10 tips on "How To Get (and Keep) Your Child Excited About Classical Music." It's a good article, worth a read, but I would argue that his tips apply to all music, not just classical:

Start With Music
Mix It Up
See Music
Identify Instruments
Make Connections
Dig In
Take Music Lessons
Listen With Them
Make Up Songs
Do It Again (Repetition, Repetition, Repetition)

There is absolutely nothing in that list that should be restricted to classical music alone.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

I Hear The Kids (Music Artists) Love This MySpace Thing

Did you know Gustafer Yellowgold has his own MySpace page? And blog? Who knew he was a Ween and Sun Kil Moon fan? And does he have latent cheese anger? (The blog, while not inappropriate, is really for the adults, not for the kids.)

You can also check out his music page, from which you can stream 3 songs, including a new track, "Rocket Shoes," which is a sparse, melodic track reminiscent of the first DVD's songs. Stills from the upcoming DVD are also available.

Incidentally, the Hollow Trees also have a MySpace page. But it's not quite as... different... as the Yellowgold pages.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Songs for Moms

Here's a list of songs for mothers or songs about mothers, in no particular order. I've avoided lullabies (songs by moms, typically), as well as songs about general parentual units, or songs about moms and dads.

If a song isn't on the list, it's because of one of the three "O"s: Oversight (I knew about the song and just forgot), Omission (I knew about the song and chose to exclude it), or Obtuseness (I didn't know about the song at all). I expect the third category to be fairly large, so feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section. And most (if not all) of these CDs are reviewed here, so if you're not familiar with a CD, look at the review sidebar to the right.

(By the way, Fran had the same idea and got there first, but between the two of us, I think we ought to come up with a decent mix CDs.)


"Mama Don't Allow" -- numerous versions; try Brady Rymer's version off of Every Day Is a Birthday
"Mama Hug" -- Brady Rymer, Every Day Is a Birthday
"Mama Is Sad" -- Justin Roberts, Yellow Bus (it's a song about divorce, so I'm guessing it's not gonna go on too many mix tapes)
"Five Little Ducks" -- try version on the Old Town School of Folk Music's Songs For Wiggleworms
"Thank You Mommy" -- The RTTs, Turn It Up Mommy!
"The Coffee Song" -- Ralph's World, At the Bottom of the Sea (not really about moms specifically, but it was the first song that came to my wife's mind when I mentioned the topic of the post)
"Hush Little Baby" -- try version on the Old Town School of Folk Music's Wiggleworms Love You, though it's just as often that Dad is the person buying baby that billy goat
"Mother and I" -- Bill Thomas (and a Circle of Friends), Time Can Be So Magic

Monday, May 08, 2006

Review: I Am Your New Music Teacher - Parker Bent

With many children's music albums struggling to crack the 30-minute mark, defining the length of a children's music EP is a tricky proposition. At just under 19 minutes long, the 2005 debut album from Los Angeles-based musician Parker Bent is either a long EP or a really short full album. Still, Bent packs a surprisingly diverse group of songs into the short runtime.

Bent is a preschool music teacher in Beverly Hills, California, and his subjects -- the alphabet, numbers, or pets, for example -- will be very familiar to preschoolers or their parents. One of my favorite songs on the album is the gentle pop-rock tune "I Wanna Go Home," about a preschooler who's reached his or her sensory limit, is tired, and just wants to go home. My other favorite track is "Count On," whose melody and fuzzy-guitar-and-handclap instrumentation reminds me of the rootsier "Tuesday Night Music Club"-era Sheryl Crow.

The vocal harmonizing on the brief acappella leadoff track "AAA" is totally different from the the above songs, but a nice bit of musical styling nonetheless. The humorous storytelling stylings of "I Am Your New Music Teacher" may be over the heads of the 3-year-olds in the audience, but with Bent playing the role of a controlling music teacher, his snarled lyrics, "We will not have any singing / We will not have any dancing / Instead I thought we'd spend / The entire music class / With everybody sitting in timeout" made me smile. The entire album has a gentle, albeit sly, sense of humor.

The album will probably be of most interest to kids age 3 to 6. You can hear samples of the CD and purchase it at Bent's CDBaby page. It's also available on iTunes Music Store.

Regular readers of this website will probably find at least one or two tracks worth checking out on the album. Even with its short length, the album shows Bent's promise as a children's songwriter and musician. Should Bent ever decide to release a double album (at, say, 38 minutes in length), it could be very, very good.

New Ralph's World Song Streaming Online. Sort Of.

What do you get when you cross Piglet (Winnie-the-Pooh's best friend) with a snippet of the new Ralph's World song for Winnie the Pooh? Sniglets, of course!

Sorry, couldn't resist.

In any case, the website runs a clip of the new Winnie-the-Pooh song from Ralph's World. To me, it sounds a little more like the early Ralph's World stuff (in particular, "Animal Friends" off his debut).

Oh, and the page gives confirmation that the new Ralph's World DVD/CD set will be released this fall. I'd heard/seen that elsewhere, but it's nice to get confirmation on that.

Hat tip to the Semi-Official Ralph's World Message Board for the pointer.

This Week: Coast to Coast to Coast

This week at Zooglobble, we're going from LA to New York (with a review of Dan Zanes' Catch That Train!) and back again. See -- we exhibit both East Coast and West Coast Bias! (I can do the Chicago thing -- Justin Roberts and Ralph's World -- only so often. Though there are more reviews coming from those two, too.)

Also, it's been just over a month since the NPR interview that sent many of you here. Thanks again to everyone who's read, commented, e-mailed, or linked here. Also, many thanks to all the artists who have sent me their CD or DVD. I'm still working my way through them all, and while I won't review all of them here, I've got a lot of reviews (and other things) lined up in the weeks ahead.

Finally, here are links to a few posts in case you missed 'em the first time around.

Frances England's Fascinating Creatures -- review, interview
Lunch Money's Silly Reflection -- review
Bruce Springsteen's We Shall Overcome (The Seeger Sessions) -- review
Gustafer Yellowgold's Wide Wild World DVD -- review
Anne Hathaway's "Great Big World", from the Hoodwinked Soundtrack -- review. Goodness, there are lots of people wanting lyrics and mp3s for that song. (Too bad I don't actually have the lyrics or mp3s.)

Thanks again for reading.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Review: Beethoven's Wig 3 - Richard Perlmutter

Classical Music Geek Test: I took piano lessons as a child.

I'm sure many of you are thinking, Hey, I took piano lessons as a child. Lots of people take piano lessons. That doesn't make you a classical music geek. Yes, but...

I took piano lessons to strengthen my fingers for my organ lessons.

No kidding.

Between organ, piano, and violin lessons, I had a reasonably musical childhood, primarily focused on classical music. And although I only play the violin now on a semi-regular basis, I still enjoy listening to classical music.

So it's with that background I'm reviewing Beethoven's Wig 3: Many More Sing Along Symphonies, released in May 2006, the 3rd (natch) in the popular Beethoven's Wig series from Richard Perlmutter. The concept of the series? Take famous classical melodies and write (or re-write) lyrics for the melodies. Instead of the lyrics from an answering machine tape ad from many years ago ("No-bo-dy's HOME... no-bo-dy's HOME..."), Perlmutter in his first CD matched the famous notes from the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to the lyrics, "Beethoven's WIG... Is very BIG..."

In his first CDs, Perlmutter's lyrics focused on the composer, matching a composer's famous piece(s) with lyrics tied to the composer. Recognizing that perhaps he'd have to dip back into a particular composer's well once too often or go to composers whose few outside the classical music world would recognize, on Beethoven's Wig 3, Perlmutter ties the lyrics to particular instruments. Sometimes the resulting effect is great -- the unknown (to me) Beethoven work for mandolin is given lyrics suggesting that Beethoven wrote the song for a girl who done him wrong, breaking his heart so much that he never wrote for the instrument again. It's a delightful, sprightful piece with lyrics to match. Handel's Harp Concerto in B-flat and the very beginning of Rossini's "William Tell Overture" (before the "Lone Ranger" part) are two other successful matches. And the paranoid, almost non-sensical lyrics of "They're There," rewritten from Dukas' "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," though having nothing to do with the bassoon, are amusing.

In other cases, though, the lyrics don't match up as well. And I found the "Short & Suite" -- very short pieces in the middle of the disc -- went by too quickly to make much of an impact. (Even the longer pieces are typically excerpts from movements, not the full movement.)

Musically, it's appropriate for kids of all ages, of course, but the lyrics, given their complexity and speed of enunciation, probably make this most appropriate for kids aged 4 through 9. The disk is actually pretty short (about 33 minutes), and that includes the original instrumental versions for every piece on the album. (I guess you could even sing the Perlmutter lyrics karaoke-style if you wanted to.) The liner notes also have trivia questions and suggested activities. You can hear excerpts of the pieces at the Beethoven's Wig website. The album is available at the usual online and offline suspects.

I'm a believer that if you want your child to develop an appreciation for classical music you should just play the actual pieces of music. But if you don't have a classical music background, this series is a fine starting point. (And even if you do, it's a good starting point.) And while perhaps the first two albums had a slightly higher ratio of familiar-to-unfamiliar pieces, Beethoven's Wig 3 still has a fair number of selections familiar to somone whose exposure to classical music is mainly through movie trailers and television ads. You may find yourself just as interested in the music as your kids.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Review: Turn It Up Mommy! - The RTTs

Straight-ahead rock-and-roll is somewhat of a rarity in children's music. More common is a more pop- or folk-based approach. Sounds more appropriate, perhaps, for the playroom or coffeeshop.

Turn It Up Mommy!, released in late 2003, is the first children's album from the Washington, DC-based RTTs, who lead a double life as the Rhodes Tavern Troubadours, an "adult" rock and roll band. I'm not sure if that makes them a bar band (it seems a bit pejorative for a band with considerable musical talent), but whatever you call them, they've produced a fine little kids' music album.

Musically, the album gives no indication that it's geared towards kids. If you could turn the lyrics off and just listen to the music, you wouldn't know it was a children's music album. It's rock-and-roll that will be familiar to listeners of American rock dating back to the '50s. Of particular note is the guitar work, with a wide variety of styles, from the "surf guitar" heard on the ode to lifeguards "My New Hero" to the Chuck Berry stylings on "Turn It Up Mommy" to the roots-rock Jayhawks/Tom Petty "Rainy Day." The band sounds really good together and shines under the fine production.

The lyrics are geared for the most part to the kids and subjects near and dear to their heart -- learning the alphabet ("Learning My Letters"), pets ("Boofa"), and on the peppy opening cut, "Snack Time," which includes some classic lines -- "Well, who made juice in a box / Who made cheese in a stick / Who made little tiny crackers / That look just like goldfish / I want to shake their hand / Pat them on the back / 'Cuz they made all my favorite snacks." A couple songs are targeted at the parents -- I doubt that any kid really has ever complained about their parents doing taxes as in "April 14th" -- but even in those cases, singer-songwriter Jake Flack tries to write about the subjects from a kid's point of view.

I think the album's probably best for kids aged 4 through 8. You can listen to samples and order the album from the band's page at CD Baby. All in all, this is a solid little 27-minute album, of particular interest to fans of blues- and roots-rock like the artists mentioned above, or perhaps John Hiatt or the Fabulous Thunderbirds. But even if you lean toward more pop- or folk-oriented artists, you'll certainly find a few tracks worth your time here. Recommended.

Three Exciting Words: New. Elizabeth Mitchell. Album.

[Read the review of the album You Are My Little Bird here...]

Or is it four? (Really, are full names one word or more? Any grammaticians out there? Any wordsmiths want to say if "grammaticians" is an actual word?)

In any case, Elizabeth Mitchell, one of the best children's music interpreters out there, announced via newsletter that she'll be releasing her new album in August. It's nice to have the news confirmed by the source.

Perhaps we'll have a "You Are My..." name-the-album contest...

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Dan Zanes, Auteur?

Speaking of videos, I doubt Dan Zanes directed any of these, but it looks like he's adding a bunch of videos to his website. They're not all there yet, but a few from his All Around the Kitchen DVD are there right now.

Call him a producer then.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Chicago in August? Sure, It's Humid, But...

... it's got Lollapalooza. Although Kidzapalooza's website is mum, Lollapalooza does list a few children's musicians, including Justin Roberts, Candy Band, the Q Brothers, Peter DiStefano, and Chicago's much-revered Ella Jenkins. More are certainly on the way.

Oh, and if you don't like those artists, there might be a few others of interest in the main lineup. You know, like 30 or 40.

Lollapalooza is scheduled for August 4-6, 2006, in Chicago's Grant Park.

New Noggin Videos for Old Songs

News from the Justin Roberts newsletter that Noggin will begin airing videos for "Willy Was A Whale" and "If You Got 1" next week. Fran also notes that Buck Howdy will have videos airing on Noggin soon as well.

So soon you can watch these videos (which appear to be new, or at least they're not on their respective websites) where they were meant to be seen. On TV, not on a computer. When you were watching A-ha's "Take On Me" video on MTV 20 years ago, did you ever think you'd be watching videos. With kids. Of yours. On a cable channel specifically for those kids. And that that channel would air more videos than MTV?

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Interview: Frances England

After listening to Frances England's debut album Fascinating Creatures, I thought she would be a great artist to kick off an occasional series of interviews here on the website. I wanted to find out more about one of the most unique children's music albums I've heard in quite some time and the artist behind it.

England graciously agreed to the interview, even admitting that it was a "great excuse to stop studying." (Hey, anything I can do to help. I remember my own graduate school days.) Thank you very much, Frances.

This is a long interview, but worth your time.


What sort of musical background or experience did you have prior to recording the CD?
I started playing the violin when I was young but slowly gave it up as I hit my teens and started playing guitar in college. I’ve never been in a formal band but have always enjoyed sitting around singing and playing music with people (mostly around campfires or at small parties and get-togethers).

What led you to recording Fascinating Creatures?
A couple of different things. After my son was born I started collecting kid’s music and for the most part was pretty disappointed in what I was finding (this is of course before I knew about cool blogs like yours that shine a bright, guiding light on this genre of music). [Ed. note: I swear, I made no request for such a comment.] Slowly, I started replacing the stuff I loved listening to – indie artists and bands like the Postal Service, Sufjan Stevens, M. Ward – with the Wiggles and Raffi. Don’t get me wrong, I know there is value in some of that stuff and Liam is a huge Wiggles fan but it wasn’t the type of music we could genuinely enjoy together. So I started writing songs that I hoped would appeal to both of us.

The other thing that led to me recording Fascinating Creatures was the fact that Liam goes to a cooperative preschool, which is a nonprofit and counts on its member families to raise a certain amount of money each year. Rather than ask friends and family for donations I decided to make a cd and sell it as my fundraiser.

Did you write the songs with your son in mind?  Were there particular songs that grew out of your experiences with him?
Most of the songs on the album definitely have Liam’s name written all over them – Tricycle, Busy As A Bee, Charlie Parker, Books I like to Read, and Blueberry Pancakes come to mind immediately. I also wrote the last song, Little Bright Star, as a love song to him. Liam definitely inspired the themes, but I also think the things he’s interested in as a 3 year old are pretty universal at this age – what 3 or 4 year old doesn’t like digging in the dirt or spinning around on a trike?

Does Liam have a favorite song on the album
It’s a toss up between Charlie Parker and The Books I like to Read.

You mention (among others) Cat Power and Yo La Tengo as artists you enjoy listening to.  Did you have particular artists or songs in mind as you recorded the album?
As I was writing the songs, I wasn’t consciously thinking about wanting to sound like any particular artist or band. As we began recording though, I did catch myself thinking that I wanted the title track to have a sort of Yo La Tengo feel and wanted Galaxie 500-like guitars on “Books I like to Read.” Also, I am a huge Gillian Welch fan and was listening to her a lot when I wrote some of the more folksy songs like “Paint a Picture,” “Where Do They Go” and “Blue Canoe.”

One of the songs I really like on the CD is "Charlie Parker" -- do you have a favorite jazz artist or three?
My husband’s parents are big-time jazz lovers so they’ve turned us on to some great music. Aside from the four masters I mention in the song – Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and John Coltrane, I also really love Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan, and lesser known jazz violinist, Eddie South.

What are your (and your son's) favorite books to read?
I’m in graduate school studying library science so, unfortunately, the only adult books I get to read these days are textbooks. But Liam and I read lots of great books together everyday. At the moment, the top five picture books at our house include: 1.Man On the Moon, A Day in the Life of Bob, by Simon Bartram (superb!), 2. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, 3. Polka Dot Bats and Octopus Slacks by Calef Brown 4. Richard Scarry’s Cars, Trucks and Things That Go, and 5. Children Just Like Me by Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley.

All 13 songs on the album are originals -- did you consciously decide that you didn't want to record traditional songs (or songs by other artists)?
Although I love traditional songs, I didn’t cover any because I had a lot of my own songs to choose from. When we started recording, I’d probably written 20 or so songs but because of the limited time I had to record, I decided to narrow it down to the 13 that appear on the album.

Was there any particular reason why the songs that made the album got picked over the rest?
For the most part, they were the first batch of children’s songs I’d written so I’d spent more time practicing them then some of the others.

Which is harder for you to write -- music or lyrics?  Why?
I tend to come up with chord progressions and melodies first and then add lyrics on top of them. Often a song just spills out…I think I wrote Tricycle in about 30 minutes. I don’t really have a hard time writing these kinds of songs…It’s a lot more difficult for me to find the alone-time that is sometimes necessary to get into a creative space and mindset (I think every parent can relate to that!).

So when did you find the time to write?
Funny enough, a lot of these songs were written in our bathroom as Liam was taking his night-time baths. Maybe because of the acoustics of the bathroom, Liam has always really enjoyed me playing music to him there while he soaks and splashes in suds. I love it too as it’s a great way to wind down the day for both of us. I also got some time to myself to polish up the lyrics when my husband took Liam on a couple of overnight trips - camping and to Grandma’s house.

I'm assuming this was your first recording experience.  What did you like about it?  What didn't you like?  What took you by surprise?
I recorded Fascinating Creatures with my husband’s cousin, Billy Riggs. We met 6 or 7 times and did it all from his apartment in San Francisco. For the most part it was really fun and Billy was really great to work with. The thing that probably most surprised and disappointed me was how technical and computer-driven so much of it is. Maybe from watching clips from old Sun Studio recordings, I think I had this romantic vision of what the whole recording process looked and felt like. But in reality there’s a lot of sitting in front of computers. Of course I say this knowing that I would have never been able to afford to make this album were it not for this kind of home-use technology.

You mention being "slowly driven mad" by your son's music collection.  Are there any children's or family musicians that you do like?
I think Dan Zanes ROCKS! I really love him – not only his music, which I think is fabulous, but also his whole emphasis on strengthening community through song, dance and music. I’m also a really big Elizabeth Mitchell and Ralph Covert fan. Through sites like Zooglobble I’ve just recently discovered more kids music artists that I’m looking forward to checking out.

How much of your music collection do you play in front of your son?  Is there anything you won't let him listen to?
Liam listens to pretty much everything we do but definitely let’s us know when he’s not happy with our selection. Also, if I know there are bad words in certain songs, we skip those when he’s around.

What are his favorites ("kids" or otherwise)?
Liam loves Dan Zanes, Elizabeth Mitchell and Ralph Covert as much as I do. In terms of adult music, M. Ward is tops with Liam, but the Magnetic Fields, A.C. Newman, and the Old 97’s are close behind. He’s also really into Nat King Cole, the Carter Family, and Gene Autry’s cowboy songs.

What's next for you and the album?
Well, I’m having a baby this summer so I’m looking forward to slowing down a bit and helping this new, little person grow into our family. In terms of this album, who knows. I’m honestly really surprised at how well it’s doing and am still shocked when I find out complete strangers are buying and listening to it. Word of mouth has been huge in helping spread the word so I’m hoping that friends will keep telling friends to give it a listen and check it out. Since I released Fascinating Creatures I’ve written quite a few songs so I’d love to put out another album in the next year or two.

Any interest in performing publicly?
I play every week at Liam’s school and also do occasional birthday parties for friends, which for now is enough. I’d love to get into doing more performances but with Liam, a new baby fast on the way, and trying to wrap up grad school, I feel like my plate is full. In the next year or so though, I’d love to devote a lot more time to the performance side of things.


Again, thank you to Frances for sitting down with me (in a virtual manner) and setting the interview bar very high for this website. Again, check out Frances' website for more info.

Monday, May 01, 2006

DVD Review: Gustafer Yellowgold's Wide Wild World

An innocent wandering through the world is hardly an original concept for a story. The Who's Tommy, for example, or countless first novels.

To say that Gustafer Yellowgold's Wide Wild World borrows the concept, then, is no knock on this "Musical Moving Book," as it's called. The concept may be borrowed, but the execution is quite unique and wonderful.

Gustafer Yellowgold is the brainchild of New York-based songwriter and illustrator Morgan Taylor. Taylor has previously self-released several CDs but here has combined his songwriting talents with his illustrating skills to produce a concert which combines live music from Taylor and a small band of musicians with illustrations projected on large screens. It's the music and illustrations behind this live "moving book" which are captured here on the 24-minute DVD. There isn't much of a plot; it's more of a series of character sketches.

Gustafer is an alien from the sun who tells his story of life on the sun in the opening song "I'm From the Sun." It's an uptempo number which shows exactly how difficult life can be on the sun. ("No snowflakes on the tongue" is one of the complaints.) It's a jangle-pop tune with bongos, giving it a little Guster-like feel. The best song on the DVD is the concluding "New Blue Star," which is about, well, a new blue star, but could just be easily interpreted as a love song -- it's a gentle midtempo rockersworthy of Matthew Sweet in his less guitar-focused work (think Blue Sky on Mars without all the synthesizers). Another one of my favorite tunes is "Pterodactyl Tuxedo," a friend of Gustafer's who may be exasperating at times but is also a true friend ("He's always had the time / To pick up the phone / When you're calling way too late / He's always been the kind / To help you pickin' bones / When your faith begins to fade.") The music is hard to peg, but besides the bands listed already, there are hints of the Beatles (in the slow songs), World Party (yeah, a Beatles tribute band, virtually), and the Flaming Lips.

The lyrics here make it sound rather serious, and there's an undercurrent of sadness in Gustafer's story. His eel Slim ("Your Eel") will leave one day. The "Mint Green Bee" is sad and cries. But that sadness is leavened by the whimsical illustrations. This isn't really animation; particular animations are moved around the screen to give a primitive sense of animation. It might not sound compelling, but it's quite engrossing. It's used to particularly good effect in the surreal, vaguely They Might Be Giants-like "I Jump On Cake" ("I jump on cake from up above / I step on pie so warm and lovely / It's mine to punt, vanilla bundt / All freshly baked, I'm on your cake"). A picture of Gustafer moves (with blinking eyes) from up above onto a tempting cake. Pies explode like fireworks.

I'm always one to find nits to pick, and the only thing I can come up with here is that it's a DVD only. Perhaps in the future they'll consider bundling the DVD with an audio-only CD. Other than that, it's great. The album is probably best for kids age 3 through 8. You can see (and hear) video clips from "I'm From the Sun" and "Your Eel" here. You can purchase the DVD from the Gustafer website. Of note as well is the ability to sing along with the video, karaoke-style -- not sure how popular that will be, but since the videos all have the words on the screen, it's not inconceivable that it'd be used.

Gustafer Yellowgold's Wide Wild World is a work of great creativity, visually and musically. It's definitely worth your time to check it out.

This Week: Aliens, Springsteen, and a Zooglobble First

The new Bruce Springsteen album I was so excited about I already reviewed it, but I've got some other cool stuff lined up this week. Regular readers will enjoy it, I promise.

Irregular readers might too, but I offer no such guarantees.