Saturday, February 25, 2006

Review: Rocket Ship Beach - Dan Zanes and Friends

Rocket Ship Beach was the first Dan Zanes album I ever heard. This was maybe 4 years ago or so. I liked it, but it didn't quite grab me at the time the way his 3 subsequent albums did. In going back to the album for the purposes of this review, I tried to figure out why.

Let's start out with the stuff I liked then, and still do. You wouldn't think that "Bushel and a Peck" from the Broadway musical "Guys and Dolls" would be a great fit for a chorus of elementary school children (whom I generally dislike hearing on record), but they sound great in the song. It's 180 degrees different from the Olive Oyl-stylings of Faith Prince in the Broadway revival from a few years ago, but lots of fun. My other favorite track on the record is Suzanne Vega's take on the "Erie Canal," which is... well, I don't want to say "eerie" (that would be too easy), but Vega's voice and Zanes' lap steel guitar blend together in a wonderful duet.

The rest of the album is... maybe it's just too folk- and bluegrass-based for an entire album for my tastes. Yes, Father Goose and the Sandy Girls make their appearances, as does Barbara Brousal, but the overall feel of the album is definitely more "folk festival" than the other Zanes and Friends CDs. Maybe part of that is that there's only one Zanes original ("Hello," on which Brousal duets). In any case, the album is less diverse musically (if no less technically and musically accomplished).

Don't get me wrong, I like the CD and I'm glad to have it in my collection, but I guess unless you're a big folk music fan, I would recommend one of Zanes' other CDs (probably "House Party") as an introduction to his stuff. The CD is best for kids ages 3 through 7 or 8, though like all of Zanes' work, it's definitely appropriate for people of all ages. Zanes' music is available in most stores with a children's music section. Recommended.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

News: New Dan Zanes CD Coming This May

Dan Zanes has, without a doubt, the best kids' music e-mail newsletter going.

Or, at least, it's the fanciest-schmanciest.

Occasionally it even includes bits of news worth passing along. His e-mail earlier this week includes this note from Zanes (or his e.e. cummings-obsessed PR-person/webmaster):

"the new dz and friends family cd is finished! it's called catch that train! it will be released in mid may. in addition to that old gang of mine which includes: father goose, barbara, cynthia, colin, yoshi, wunmi, and the rubi theater company, there are guest appearances by: the blind boys of alabama, nick cave, the children of agape, the kronos quartet, and natalie merchant."

So there you go. Nick Cave doesn't really strike me as a children's music artist, but neither Philip Glass, and that turned out wonderfully on House Party, so what do I know?

Review: Bottle of Sunshine - Milkshake

Children's artists can walk a fine line between sweet and sappy. Childhood is full of wonder, and trying to convey that can lead musicians into mushy-headedness.

For the most part, Milkshake avoids the Head of Mushy on their second album, Bottle of Sunshine. Milkshake, a duo from Baltimore, has two strong assets -- the sweet vocals of Lisa Mathews and the melodic and occasionally crunchy guitars of Mikel Gehl. Backed by a full band, Bottle contains a broad variety of children's pop, uptempo and down-, that does a good job of showcasing those assets.

The best songs on the album are the ones that stay away from mushiness. "Woo-woo" is a fun pop song leavened with humor about playing underwater ("If you find lost treasure on the ocean floor / please bring it back up to me.") "Boom Boom" is a country-tinged tune about dancing. And while "Book of Dreams" is a sweet pop song, elegantly produced, "Sleepytown" is a simple album-closer. (Is there some sort of union rule requiring closing a kids' music album with a slow, sleep-related song? Just wondering out loud here.)

As someone whose tolerance for mushy is perhaps lower than many, some tunes don't work as well for me. While I liked "Book of Dreams," "One Wish" reached too hard for the sense of wonder for my tastes and was fairly bland. And while I'm not against namechecking one's own band in song, which Milkshake does twice here, it has to be really catchy (paging Morningwood to the review, paging Morningwood to the review), which isn't quite the case here. (Still, I could see those two songs being fun for preschoolers in concert.)

The album is best for kids age 3 through 7. It's available at the usual online suspects. While I recommend the album, if you like me have a low tolerance for mushy, you may want to listen to some samples online before committing to the CD.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

News: Jamarama Live! Sets Western Tour, Ignores Fifth-Largest City in America

One of my favorite scene in the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap is when the tour manager of the band Spinal Tap tells them that their Boston gig has been cancelled, but tries to soften the blow, telling them, "Don't worry, it's not a big college town."

I bring this up because in looking at Jamarama's western and southwestern swing in March and April 2006, there's one city that, uh, seems to have been overlooked.

Saturday, March 4 Santa Barbara, CA Arlington Theater
Sunday, March 5 Long Beach, CA Terrace Theatre
Saturday, March 11 Marin, CA Marin Center
Sunday, March 12 San Diego, CA Spreckels Theatre
Saturday, March 25 Las Vegas, NV Aladdin Resort & Casino
Sunday, March 26 Fresno, CA William Saroyan Theatre
Saturday, April 1 Salt Lake City, UT Ford Theatre
Sunday, Apri 2 Denver, CO Paramount Theatre
Saturday, April 8 Dallas, TX Nokia Theatre
Sunday, April 9 Houston, TX Verizon Wireless Theater

No offense to the fine folks of Fresno, but where in the name of Raffi is Phoenix on this list? We're not all senior citizens, golfers, and cacti, you know. Kids. Lots of kids. Swarming with kids. And a population bigger than any of those cities listed above (OK, the LA area deserves its shows, no quibbling there).

Sigh. I'm especially disappointed because Dan Zanes is taking over from Laurie Berkner as the headliner on this swing (with the Ohmies filling in on some dates). Would really liked to have seen him...

News: 2005 Grammy Winners Picked, Nobody Notices

Well, in news that I must admit didn't surprise me terribly, Grammy voters picked two relatively well-known names within two relatively unknown categories this week for the 2005 Grammys.

For Best Musical Album For Children, the Grammy went to Songs From The Neighborhood - The Music Of Mister Rogers - Various Artists (Dennis Scott, producer) [Memory Lane Syndications, Inc.]. For Best Spoken Word Album For Children, the Grammy went to Marlo Thomas & Friends: Thanks & Giving All Year Long - Various Artists (Christopher Cerf & Marlo Thomas, producers) [Warner Strategic Marketing].

And to the satisfaction of one anonymous and snarky Zooglobble commenter below I'm sure, Ralph's World did not win.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

News: Laurie Berkner's New DVD and Coffee

I got an e-mail from Laurie Berkner the other day. Well, technically speaking, it probably came from her webmaster and not from Laurie herself, but still. It said that the new Laurie Berkner DVD, We Are the Laurie Berkner Band, would be released on February 14 and come packaged with a 5-song bonus CD (4 songs previously released). And that would have pretty much been the extent of this post, except that I found the following article from Billboard, via the Arizona Repubic.

In the article, we find out that...
1) Starbucks is co-releasing the DVD through its Hear Music division.
2) It'll be available at Starbucks stores.
3) Berkner's albums have sold a total of 359,000 copies.
4) The DVD will feature a song called "Mocha Mocha Grande Latte."

(OK, I was kidding on that last point.)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Review: All Through the Night - Mae Robertson and Don Jackson

Ah... the traditional lullabies. "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." "All Through the Night." Elvis.

Elvis? As in Presley?

I admit, I would not have expected Elvis Presley to be tops on my list of good lullaby artists. But Mae Robertson's and Don Jackson's album All Through The Night: Lullabies and Love Songs includes not just one but two songs made famous by Mr. Swivel-Hips himself. And those songs -- "Can't Help Falling in Love" and "Love Me Tender" (co-written by Elvis) -- fit in wonderfully with this beautifully chosen and sung collection. Though not written specifically for a parent-child relationship, their placement in this collection shifts your perspective on the lyrics -- they really can be lullabies.

One of the advantages of the 15-song collection is that with the exception of the songs I've already mentioned above and "The Water is Wide," I was completely unfamiliar with the songs. Since the same dozen or so lullabies end up making it onto any lullaby CD, this variety is a good thing. Besides Elvis, Robertson also covers Van Morrison and poet Robert Burns on this CD. (Of course, on later CDs she covers Joni Mitchell and the Talking Heads, so this isn't just a one-CD fad.)

The songs are treated in a gentle folk style, guitar and occasionally piano and other folk instruments (Celtic harp, dobro). Over an entire album, the songs begin to blend together, but with a lullaby CD, that's as much to its credit as its detriment. And Robertson, with a beautiful voice, knows how not to oversell her songs.

I stumbled across this CD when I was desperate for a change from traditional lullaby CDs (even good ones) with our first child. This may have been the one I used to accompany late-night feedings more than any other. It's available at and Robertson's own website. Like any lullaby CD, it's most appropriate for kids aged 0-2, but your kindergartners may still want to listen at night. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

News: Justin Roberts To Release Meltdown!, Two More Albums

It's not that I'm so excited about the new Justin Roberts record, but his new CD Meltdown! does include the exclamation point at the end of the title. Judging by the search engine results that bring people to this website, there's definitely some interest in finding out more about the CD. Well, the CD now has a March 21, 2006 release date, album cover art, and track listing. (See the cover art and track listing here.)

Another interesting thing you can find out by going to the above link is that Roberts has released another couple albums with his musical partner Liam Davis. Why Not Sea Monsters: Songs from the Hebrew Scriptures and Why Not Sea Monsters: Songs from the New Testament are the albums -- the titles seem fairly explanatory. (My favorite song title from the two CDs? "Nothing Much in Tarshish.") Although part of the website indicates the CDs were released in December 2005, the individual album pages don't actually allow you to, er, order the CDs, so perhaps that's jumping the gun a bit.

In any case, Justin Roberts fans (and I'm one of them) will have a lot of Roberts music to choose from in 2006.