Sunday, April 30, 2006

Review: We Shall Overcome (The Seeger Sessions) - Bruce Springsteen

We Shall Overcome (The Seeger Sessions) is Bruce Springsteen's children's music album.

Or, at least, it's as close as we'll ever get.

I have listened to Springsteen's newest album several times since picking it up on Wednesday, inspired by this NPR story. The story led me to believe that the songs, culled from folk musician Pete Seeger's songbook, could be just as appropriate for 4-year-olds as they would be for a 54-year-old.

There are plenty of other reviews of the album which approach it from an adult's perspective. My goal here is to talk about the album's appropriateness for kids.

Springsteen collects a whole host of musicians (17 in addition to himself) to play a wide variety of folk songs and spirituals in styles ranging from bluegrass to Dixieland. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the entire enterprise is the obvious sense of joy Springsteen and the band takes in playing these songs. The idea that people should get together and just sing and play isn't new to children's music (hello, Dan Zanes!), but it certainly gets a forceful endorsement here.

The songs that end up working best, then, are those songs which allow the band to let loose and play. "Old Dan Tucker," even though it's a song about a man who "got drunk and fell / In the fire and kicked up holy hell," is guaranteed to end up in my list of top 10 children's songs in 2006. It's played with bluegrass style and verve and had our entire family dancing. (Well, except for the nine-month-old. It's a great song, but not miraculous.) The Cajun stylings of "Pay Me My Money Down," in a version more umtempo than Zanes' version, give it an extra kick, fun for dancing. It's also the one song where Springsteen allows himself the barest hint of a modern-day reference (if you're using a computer, you'll recognize it). It's a testament to the enthusiasm Springsteen brings to the song that the thought Springsteen is a man who has his "money hauled in, in crates" barely crosses one's mind.

Where kids might not like the album as much is in its slower songs such as "Shenandoah" (in which our daughter during the extended intro, said, "Go back to the one with words.") As much as it pains me to say it, the version of "We Shall Overcome" on the album (recorded and released about eight years ago) is not much fun to listen to. And the extended instrumental soloing, even in the uptempo numbers, may or may not interest the kids.

Taken as a whole, however, this is a pretty amazing album from a man who is one of the few popular musicians even attempting modern folk music. ("The River" is one of the finest folk songs written in the second half of the twentieth century and The Rising, while not perfect, is still the best musical attempt to talk about the events of 9/11.) Parents will be able to use the songs to talk about a whole host of social issues -- economic justice, war, civil rights. And they may even, like I am now, be inspired to track down the original Seeger recordings. (Or just go to this website.)

I think kids age 5 and older may be best positioned to enjoy the lyrics and ideas raised by the songs. (Though, as I said, "Old Dan Tucker" is a stone-cold classic for all ages.) The album is available just about everywhere, of course. (You can listen to samples at Springsteen's site.) The album comes in the DualDisc format which has problems playing in some computer and car CD players (somebody needs to write a protest song about that); the documentary on the DVD side is just OK, but the two bonus tracks on the DVD side, "Buffalo Gals" and "How Can I Keep From Singing," are well worth the time to listen to.

Final thoughts: This is a great album. As an album of "old-time" music, it's much more cohesive than the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. (Along those lines, I wouldn't be surprised if this is the album that finally gets Springsteen his Best Album Grammy next year.) Your kids' enthusiasm for the album may flag during its 60-minute runtime, but they're likely to enjoy most of it as well.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Review: Eat Every Bean and Pea on Your Plate - Daddy A Go Go

The list of stand-up comedians who tried their hand at becoming musicians is long -- Eddie Murphy, Joe Piscopo, and Bill Cosby, for starters. The list in the other direction -- musicians becoming stand-up comedians -- is much shorter, if it exists at all. There is, after all, a fine line between stupid and clever.

John Boydston, who will release his fifth Daddy-A-Go-Go album, Eat Every Bean and Pea on Your Plate on May 2, 2006, may not be appearing at the Improv next week, but he does have stand-up tendencies. Ad libs, puns, humorous vignettes -- all make an appearance on the album.

Boydston's singing approach is somewhere on the tunefulness spectrum between Lou Reed and Craig Finn from The Hold Steady, in which he talks as much as sings. I didn't mind so much, because the it's not too out of sync with the music itself, which is straight-ahead, well-played guitar rock. (Your mileage on his vocal stylings may vary.) Perhaps "For Those About to Walk, We Salute You" doesn't sound quite enough like AC/DC to merit its title, but it's a fun little ditty that encourages walking without any sappiness. "Eat Every Bean and Pea on Your Plate," is a bluesy rocker that isn't much more than a listing of vegetables with ad-libbed jokes ("Okra! I love her show!") liberally sprinkled throughout.

The best tracks are those in which the humor is curbed a bit -- the aforementioned songs, the reworked cover of the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop" (on which Boydston's 14- and 11-year-old sons play bass and drums), the two instrumentals. Less successful for me were "Hang Up and Drive," in which frustrations with drivers who talk on their cellphone will completely go over most kids' heads, and "Pink Floyd Saves Hugh Manatee," in which the guest singer sounds just like Boydston and the song sounds nothing like Pink Floyd. And I found the earnest cover of "Listen To The Flower People" from the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap to be completely unnecessary, but maybe that's because I've got 20 years of associations with that song. Your child probably won't recognize the "Stonehenge" references you make afterwards, but that's your (or at least my) problem.

The album is probably best for kids age 5 through 10. You can hear samples and read lyrics (without Boydston's many ad libs) here. The album is available at the Daddy A Go Go website and at online retailers, and possibly at some retail locations.

In sum, maybe the best way to determine whether or not you'd like the album is for you to decide whether you like Jimmy Buffett. Don't misunderstand me, the album doesn't sound anything like Buffett, but it does have a very Buffett-like vibe. If you think Buffett is a joke and can't stand any of his songs, you won't like this. But if you understand where Buffett is coming from and don't mind the occasional Buffett song or album, you and your kids will enjoy listening to this.

Friday, April 28, 2006

I Found It! (The Website, That Is)

Welcome to readers of Brady Rymer's newsletter, which mentioned this site and my recent NPR appearance in its most recent edition. (Thanks, Brady!) Please take a look around, check out the links and reviews there on the right, and stop by anytime. We add new stuff on a regular basis. Glad you're here!

Song of the Day: Wake Up - The Ditty Bops

Last night I went to an open house at the school where our daughter will be attending kindergarten in the fall. The youngster was a bundle of nerves -- so hyper that a brownie and ice cream calmed her down. I was trying to encourage her to say hello to her (prospective) teachers, to look around, but she just bounced off the walls with her friends. I can tell she's really going to enjoy kindergarten (she went nuts -- or more so -- in the music room with all the instruments out), but there is also the realization that she's reaching another milestone.

Let's start the "Song of the Day" with the "adult" song -- "Wake Up," off the Ditty Bops' eponymous debut album. The Ditty Bops write wry folk-rock songs -- think Suzanne Vega perhaps, but somehow "Wake Up" got played on XM Kids one day. Perhaps this is why:

"Don't cause a scene / Mind your manners / Speak only if spoken to / You know what you are not do / Watch and learn
What if you never were short for time / All meetings cancelled clocks stopped at nine / Without alarms the silence beams / Watch and learn"

Yeah, OK. Kinda makes me wonder about all those boundaries we're setting. Would it really be so bad if the kids ran around outside until late at night? (Please don't answer that.) The lyrics are written to get adults to look at their own lives, but it's raising questions for the parents out there, no?

For a similar perspective, but targeted much more at the parents, check out Brady Rymer's "Dilly Dally Daisy," which, in the midst of a song about a cute but perhaps frustrating-to-the-parent daughter, includes these lines:

"Oh man, I wanna let her go
And see the world her own way, ya know?
'Cause pretty soon they're gonna get her in line
They'll say, 'Stand up straight! Tuck in your shirt!
Know where you're going and get there on time!' "

Those lines will go right over the head of the 4-year-old and right to the heart of the parent.

There aren't a lot of songs about how one chooses to be a parent. Those two, one accidentally, one on purpose, are two of the few.

Listen to "Wake Up" here. Listen to a clip of "Dilly Dally Daisy" here.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Baseball Songs

I don't like to change posting dates, but I'm adding so many songs here, and this predates the time a lot of people started visiting the site, so I'm making an exception here. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, or something like that. Originally posted April 2, 2006. Last revised May 16, 2006

I'm ignoring the fact that the baseball season is one game old. Baseball starts Monday, during the day, and nobody can tell me otherwise.

There are very few sports-related children's songs that come to mind. I can understand why, as sports like football and hockey require a lot of equipment and are typically for older kids (this is especially the case for football). Basketball and baseball are easier to play, perhaps -- less equipment, introduced at an earlier age. Since the major sports typically become mostly a spectator sport as we grow up, perhaps it's good that there isn't much children's music about sports since a song about watching other people do something is kinda depressing as a kids' song. (It does make me think that the genre of children's soccer songs is a niche waiting to be filled.)

In any case, the list of songs about baseball for all ages is reeeeeeaaaaalllllllly short. (OK, not so short anymore) Here goes:

-- "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" (well, duh) -- try Wiggleworms Love You, from the Old Town School of Folk Music (nicely bipartisan, cheering for both the Cubs and White Sox)
-- "Baseball Dreams" -- off At the Bottom of the Sea, by Ralph's World (Cubs all the way in this one)
-- "I'm Gonna Catch You" -- off Under a Shady Tree, by Laurie Berkner (it has one relevant line -- "So I jumped into Saturday / And I had a baseball batter-day" -- yeah, I'm really reachin' here)
-- "Centerfield" -- off Centerfield, by John Fogerty (not kids' music, but a great song anyway)
-- "Talkin' Baseball -- off countless albums by Steve Cashman, who just re-records and updates his song -- baseball history lesson in 3 minutes
-- "Big Train" -- off the RTT's Turn It Up Mommy!, as noted in the comments. About Walter "Big Train" Johnson. I'd probably disagree that he's the best pitcher ever, but that's another blog. Good song.
-- "Right Field" -- Peter, Paul and Mary. Again, see the comments.
-- "Cryin' in the Dugout" -- off Daddy-A-Go-Go's upcoming Eat Every Bean and Pea on Your Plate album. A humorous song -- "Baseball Dreams" played for laughs instead of nostalgia.
-- "The Greatest" -- Kenny Rogers. See the comments.
-- "Roll Around" -- Peter Himmelman, off of his My Lemonade Stand CD. A fun, rollicking song about a baseball who retires, then comes back to his calling.

And finally, an artist reviewed here on this very site wrote me to suggest four more songs, including at least one I'm miffed I forgot... the comments in quotes are the artist's, not mine.

-- "Catfish" -- off Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series. I am unfamiliar with this one. But it's Dylan.
-- "Joe DiMaggio’s Done it Again" -– Wilco and Billy Bragg, from their Mermaid Ave Vol. 2
-- "A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request" –- Steve Goodman – "Classic, and very funny." See "Talkin' Baseball," above.
-- "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" -- Brave Combo - "two very cool versions... wacky and fun." It's Brave Combo, how could it not be fun?
If any of you have more suggestions (or can point me to a family-friendly soccer song), leave me a comment.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Please Release Me (May 2006 Edition)

An admittedly selective (or perhaps not) list of upcoming children and family music releases:

May 2: Beethoven's Wig 3 (Richard Perlmutter), Eat Every Bean and Pea on Your Plate (Daddy-A-Go-Go)
May 9 (or 16): Catch That Train! (Dan Zanes and Friends)
May 16 (without a doubt): Johnny Cash Children's Album (Johnny Cash, natch)
May 20: Paws, Claws, Scales & Tales (Monty Harper) -- kids' librarians, check out for more info
May 23: Folk Playground (Putumayo, Various Artists)

We'll be reviewing many of these CDs in the weeks ahead. We'll be reviewing a whole bunch of other stuff, too, so if the stuff above doesn't tickle your fancy-bone, maybe something else will.

In addition to these releases, we expect new albums from a bunch of Zooglobble favorites, but we'll wait until we hear something more definite before mentioning it. Cautious are we. Talk like Yoda we do sometimes.

V-I-D... E-O-S...

... on the M-O-U-S-E!

Dan Zanes' latest (April 25) newsletter informs us that he filmed videos for 4 songs back in January and that those videos -- "Catch That Train!," "Let's Shake," "Malti," and "Down in the Valley," -- will be airing on Playhouse Disney. They apparently will include singing, dancing, and egg-frying. (I'm down with the first two, unsure of the last.)

The newsletter also notes that the new Catch That Train! CD will be released on May 16. Somebody better tell Amazon, because they still have a May 9 release date listed...

Let me also take this opportunity to note that I'm adding links to Noggin's music videos on the sidebar. Just in case, you know, you need to watch music videos on your tiny computer screen. Playhouse Disney, at this point, is evidently concerned about the long-term effects of squinting on the nation's youth and their parents, as no link is currently available to their videos...

Monday, April 24, 2006

Review: Silly Reflection - Lunch Money

I think the best way to introduce this review is by talking about how much stuff our daughter has. I'm not talking about massive amounts of overblown toys and games. I'm just talking about her stuffed animals, which almost crowd her out of her bed. Or her My Little Ponies, which she decorates with her ponytail holders. Kids' lives are defined as much by objects and things as they are by people -- favorite books, favorite clothes, favorite foods.

Children's music tends to focus on feelings (I'm happy! I'm sad!) or concepts (numbers, letters). But Silly Reflection, the late-2004 debut album from the South Carolina-based trio Lunch Money, draws its inspiration from kids' stuff. Trains ("Caboose"), roller coasters ("Roller Coaster," natch), umbrellas ("Umbrella") -- these are the things that fascinate kids because they've never seen such things before. Singer/songwriter Molly Ledford likes to use similes to describe these things in ways concrete ("I'd like to introduce the caboose / Last in line, red like a stop sign") and a little more abstract ("Umbrella, you're quite the little magic trick / You start off looking like a stick / But with a little rain / You bloom like a flower"). And here is a sampling of the words used on the album: "vamoose," "esprit," "ukelele," "amphibians," and the phrase "thick as thieves." These are not typical kids' music words.

But it's the music that I really dig -- it's very Kill The Moonlight-era Spoon with some Yo La Tengo and Shins mixed in. Wonderful melodies with the barest of instrumentation which make the small musical flourishes -- trumpet and double bass and fingersnaps and handclaps -- stand out that much more. It's hard for me to pick out a favorite song, but I love the way the wistful melody and harmonizing in "I Want A Dog" mixes with the longing lyrics of a child wanting a dog before getting too old (and constantly changing her mind as to the dog's name). All that, and it's wryly amusing, too. ("I look at the paper, but it's really not up to me / I'll just have to hope and look longingly.")

At 22 minutes long, Silly Reflection is short but sweet -- there isn't a bad song on the album. Lyrically, it will hit home most for kids age 3 through 7. But it really is one of those children's music albums you will find yourself playing when the kids aren't around. You can listen to three songs off the album here -- they're fairly representative of the CD, so if you like those, you'll like the rest of the album. You can buy the CD from Lunch Money direct or from the usual online suspects. Highly recommended.

This Week in Random Zooglobble Notes

This week: Baseball, handclaps, mandolins, and parental philosophies. In song! (Dan Zanes only in passing.) Come back and see what I mean.

Also, those Milkshake music videos on PBS Friday? They're now available here. Musically, they sound like typical Milkshake (pop-rock, more pop than rock). Lyrically, they're pretty prescriptive (as one would expect for an Earth-Day-related song). Visually, there's lots of kids and the presence of your favorite (or not) PBS characters. Of the three songs, I think "Washing Machine" is the best...

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Song of the Day: Let's Shake - Dan Zanes and Friends

I don't know whether Dan Zanes intended to write a "lead single" for his new album, Catch That Train, but it's got one. "Let's Shake" is infectious, radio- (or at least Noggin-, er, Playhouse Disney-)ready, and not quite like anything else on the CD. Now, that's not a slam on the song, because Zanes' albums invariably sound a little like a Putumayo CD in their wide variety of cultures and musical styles, except that it's all from one artist and his band. But unlike the rest of the album, assiduous in pulling songs from other cultures and times, "Let's Shake" is a little bit of garage rock, sounding very 2006. It sounds similar to "House Party Time" off Zanes' last CD, House Party, except a little faster and even more stripped down. (Or as stripped down as any song with what sounds like a tuba among the instruments can be.)

Lest I be misconstrued, I have nothing against "lead singles." U2's "Vertigo" doesn't sound much like the rest of "How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb." Doesn't mean that it (or the rest of the CD) isn't a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, the streaming of Catch That Train! at Amazon has stopped, so for the moment you can't hear the whole thing. Go there to hear samples (and note an updated and stepped-up release date of May 9). Go here to see U2's page for the Vertigo single (you'll probably only be able to see/hear snippets).

Friday, April 21, 2006

Reminder: New Milkshake Music Videos

In the off-chance you're home today (or your TiVo has been taken over by your kids), you can see 3 new videos by the kids' music band Milkshake on PBS today. For more details, see this press release or, as I think they still say, check your local listings.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Review: Giddyup! - Buck Howdy

The Virginia-based Buck Howdy bills himself as "The King of Kids' Cowboy Music." While that might sound like an example of "big fish/small pond," his 2005 album Giddyup! does nothing to make someone doubt that claim and might even gain some fans outside the genre.

Let's start with the best-known song, "Baked Beans." It's a silly story about gastrointestinal distress on the range that would grow old very quick if it weren't so expertly crafted. I mean, between listening to the album and satellite radio, I've heard the song 15-20 times at least -- a song about "cutting the cheese", for goodness' sake -- and it's still tolerable. (Which is a good thing, because I'd imagine 5-year-old boys would want to listen to the song 15-20 times. In a row. Every day. For, like, six months.)

That song is tolerable over repeated playings in large part because the musicianship is top-notch. Howdy's small band plays western swing, bluegrass, and traditional country tunes with precision. Howdy has an appealing voice with just enough twang. The album just sounds great.

The album is split evenly between Howdy originals and covers. If you're worried that the whole album is jokey, don't be. With the exception "Baked Beans" and "My Favorite Kind of Bugs," the originals are straightforward cowboy songs (albeit targeted at 6-year-old cowpokes). Some of the covers work well (Jimmy Dean's "Big Bad John"); others, while not bad, left me with a "why bother?" feeling ("Hokey Pokey").

Those of you buying the album for the Trout Fishing in America performances will likely be disappointed, as they don't make much of an impression in their songs ("S'mores," "Giddyup!"). Laurie Berkner's appearance is another matter -- her duet with Howdy on Dale Evans' "Happy Trails" is sweet and makes you wonder where Berkner has been hiding that fabulous voice on her own CDs.

"Happy Trails" is one of my two favorite songs on the album; the other is the last "Bonus Track." To reveal too much about the song would ruin the surprise, so I'll just say that it's a song that will likely amuse the 6-year-olds and possibly make the adults laugh out loud.

Giddyup! is probably best for kids aged 4 through 10. It's available in the usual online and offline suspects. If you want to listen to most of the album (though, sadly, not my two favorite tracks), you can listen to the tracks here. Unless you or your kids have a genetic twang deficiency, you will probably find something to like in the album. Recommended.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

You Got Johnny Cash In My Children's Music...

... No, you got children's music in my Johnny Cash!

People, people, people -- compromise is possible in these times of discord and strife. I present to you the Johnny Cash Children's Album.

I hereby admit to being only a casual fan of Mr. Cash's music, but this album intrigues me...

"But I wiped snot on a man in Reno once / Just to watch him cry..."

(No, really, kid, it's a song about trains. You love trains. Let's go watch Thomas.)

We (Also Heart) Cool Moms

Thanks to the ladies at Cool Mom Picks, who along with highlighting Clea and the Lovely Mrs. Davis, recommended this fair blog for children's-related music reviews. Unlike the ladies recommending and being recommended, I am neither cool nor a mom, but nobody's perfect, right? If you're new to the site, welcome. Wander around or start here for a small guide to the site.

(And I never would have known that there are different qualities of glitter. You learn something new every day. Can we get some sort of law mandating the use of higher-quality glitter at birthday parties? Please?)

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Song of the Day: Great Big World - Anne Hathaway

(Because "Song-of-the-Whenever-I-Get-Around-To-It" isn't nearly as catchy...)

The Little Red Riding Hood spoof Hoodwinked wasn't a huge hit -- wink-and-you-miss-it, you might say. (In any case, I winked, and I missed it.)

But I've heard "Great Big World" a few times, and it's almost enough to make me want to see the movie. It's the typical "intro" musical song, where a character sets the stage, so to speak, for the events to follow. These seemed to be a lot bigger in the animated Disney musicals of the early 1990s ("Belle" from Beauty and the Beast is the best example, a textbook example really, of how to write one of these tunes.) Lyrically, "Great Big World" talks about just that, an apropos subject for a lead character who I'm assuming is about to walk into the woods. (Without having seen Hoodwinked, I don't know if it sets the stage visually as well as "Belle" does in its movie.)

Sonically, "Great Big World" harkens back to those big bright poppy tunes of the 1960s, with a massive wall of sound, especially on the chorus. But it's Hathaway's delivery that fully sells me on the song. Hathaway has a clear voice that isn't perfect or pitch-corrected to death (at least, it doesn't sound that way to me). And she delivers the lyrics with a slightly sarcastic attitude that makes me smile ("They say that goodies / Make the world / Go round"). The combination of the retro-pop and Hathaway's voice reminds me of the Bangles in their late-80s heyday. Good song all the way 'round.

You can hear a sample of "Great Big World" (and every other track from Hoodwinked's soundtrack here). You can see some Bangles videos, including the sorta "Great Big World"-esque (but not really) "Walk Like an Egyptian" here. (Go on, you know you want to.) And there are hundreds of sites where you can get mp3's from the Beauty and the Beast soundtrack, but you really ought to just see the movie if you haven't already. It's by far my favorite animated Disney musical (excluding those from the wizards at Pixar, of course.) And now, thanks to my daughter, I'm watching it repeatedly once more.

We (Heart) Justin

You don't often get to see your own name and website referenced in an e-mail from a musician you really like. So thank you, Justin Roberts, for the kind words in your recent mailing list note (if you haven't done so yet, you can sign up here).

Regardless of whether you came here because of Justin's e-mail or because of some entirely random internet search, you can get a little overview of the site here. Thanks for stopping by.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Review: Fascinating Creatures - Frances England

I initially approached Frances England's 2006 debut album Fascinating Creature as if I were playing a game of "spot-the-influence." Did I hear Elizabeth Mitchell (who recorded a low-key and lo-fi debut CD a number of years ago)? Did I hear Cat Power or Yo La Tengo, a couple artists England herself cites an influences?

And after a couple spin-throughs, I thought that to play that game was unfair to England, who has recorded one of the most adventurous children's music albums in some time, quite unlike anything out there at the moment.

England wrote all 13 songs on the album and recorded it with her husband's cousin Billy Riggs. Lyrically, England covers the 4-year-old waterfront -- tricycles ("Tricycle"); trains, trucks, boats and airplanes ("Where Do They Go?"); and the fun of a blueberry pancake breakfast ("Blueberry Pancakes") -- without talking down to the listener. These aren't new topics for children's music, but lines like "Tell me where do all the big boats go? / As they crash against the wild, dark sea / With containers stacked both high and low / The captain steers towards land and safety" aren't a typical children's music lyric.

Musically, the first half of the CD is a low-key affair, primarily acoustic guitars and light percussion. But on "Charlie Parker," the middle song on the album, that the album kicks into a higher gear, adding electric guitar and drums. It's a little odd to hear a rock song about jazz greats (albeit with some scat singing), but it works. The next song, "Digging in the Dirt," about gardening (natch), is an even fuzzier rock song. Eventually the CD winds down again, returning to acoustic guitar and England's voice.

Although England's voice reminds me a little bit of the nasally twang of folksinger Iris DeMent (particularly on "Where Do They Go?"), it wasn't until I heard England rock out that I figured out who she reminded me most of -- Tanya Donnelly in her Belly years, alternative rock in which Donnelly's voice was used as another instrument along with the wall of guitar sound. England yodels, yips, and in general provides the musical variation on the simple instrumental backup.

The album isn't perfect -- the mix of instruments on the rock songs sounded a bit muddied to my ears, for example. And England can sometimes try to fit too many syllables into a lyric. (One of my favorite songs on the CD, the closer "Little Bright Star," doesn't do that, and shines -- pun unintended -- for it.)

But that's quibbling. Fascinating Creatures is a good album, a very promising debut. (My wife likes it, and she's a much harsher critic of these kids CDs than I am.) It's probably best for kids age 2 through 7. Right now the CD is available through CD Baby, where you can hear samples of each track.

Finally, the copy I received was attractively packaged in a slimline case and burned on a nicely printed CDR, which may or may not be the version available for purchase. Those of you looking for a more complete package as with CDs from more established artists may be surprised. But what my copy lacked in heft it more than made up for in the feeling that here was something that I could say was the start of something big, like it was a little secret known to only a few. But I don't think this CD or Ms. England will stay secret for long. Recommended.

This Week: Actual Music Reviews!

Lo-fi! Country! Movie soundtracks! And, of course, Dan Zanes!

In the wake of replying to dozens of e-mails while the entire family got sick with various unpleasant ailments, my reviews of music took a back seat this week. But we're feeling better (mostly) and ready to rock this week. (Except when we're not.) Stay tuned, and thanks for reading.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Jamarama Reviews, Part Two

A few weeks back, I searched for some reviews of Jamarama's West Coast swing. An extensive newspaper review turned up nothing, but a few blogs provided a little bit of coverage. Since then, Jamarama had six more dates and completed their spring tour (no further dates have been announced).

The list of reviews on these second set of dates is once again slim and unfortunately none of them are nearly as interesting as, say, a behind-the-scenes view of the tour. Still, one takes what one can get... and, you know, the only one that goes into more detail than "Dan Zanes is awesome" in the midst of a whole bunch of stuff utterly irrelevant to this blog is Fran's review of the Dallas show. Lots of pictures.

I tried, people...

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Baby, You Look Faaaaabulous

Ah, yes, late nights at nightclubs. Getting home at 4 AM.

OK, I never really did that, and I get up at 4 AM now to deal with a 9-month-old who's cutting teeth and recovering from a stomach flu simultaneously. But it's always fun to reminisce about the good old days that never were, including going out to discos.

Except now I can. If I, er, live in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boulder, and San Francisco, all of which have hosted or will soon host Baby Loves Disco events.

The concept?

DJs. Discos. Diaper changing stations.

That's right, now you can get loose on the dance floor with your very own kids dancing to (what I assume would include) tunes such as "Love Train," "Boogie Oogie Oogie," and -- why not? -- "Play That Funky Music." [Edit: Here's a sample playlist. None of the above, but "Ring My Bell," "Shake Your Groove Thing," and, yes, "I Will Survive."]

The sensible parent in me says, do we really want 4-year-olds to dance to disco music, which is not always the most child-friendly, lyrically? The fun guy in me says, this sounds like a lot of fun, and I bet my daughter would love it, too, assuming she wasn't too overwhelmed by the sheer visual and audio stimuli.

(Hat tip to the Semi-Official Ralph's World Message Board for the link.)


Today I was also going to post something about Chica-go-go, which a kind reader alerted me to. It had a very Pancake Mountain-like vibe which intrigued me. (It also appeared that half of the Bloodshot Recordings label has appeared on the show.)

But in case of blog-mind-meld, Clea beat me to it, and wrote more than I would've anyway. So go there instead.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

DVD Review: All Around the Kitchen! - Dan Zanes and Friends

Let me begin by saying, for the benefit of the newcomers to the site, that I if were trapped on a desert island with an iPod, and could pick just one children and family music artist to listen to (their kids' music only), it would probably be Dan Zanes. In part, this is a matter of material -- he's released 4 kids' albums and another 2 albums easily categorized as family music, so that's 6 albums right there. (Why limit yourself to just a couple albums?) But more importantly, to help me stave off going all Tom Hanks on the volleyball for as long as possible, Zanes' albums are eminently sane, hummable, and hopeful. They're albums I have no problem listening to when the kids are nowhere around.

Which brings us to his 2005 DVD release, All Around the Kitchen!. The DVD is a collection of his videos for Noggin and Sesame Street, along with some concert footage. Let's start with the videos. There are six of them, and by far my favorite is the Sandy Girls' rendition of "Go Down Emmanuel Road," which is an animated video for Sesame Street that shows the numbers one through five to nice anthropomorphic (numero-morphic?) effect. "Hello, Hello" for Noggin, is also animated (looking much like the Zanes/Donald Saaf book on which it's based). The other two Noggin videos are reminiscent of the Laurie Berkner videos -- the band acting goofy in front of a white background with shots of kids acting goofy in front of a white background. The final video, "Wanderin'," consists of concert footage and reminded me most of all those concert-footage videos by hair metal bands in the '80s (think Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive"). I doubt my kids will make that association, though... So that's six videos, 15 minutes, and your kids will probably like them.

The concert... well, I liked the concert, filmed at NYC's venerable Knitting Factory club in late 2004. The sound is great. It's well-filmed. But I don't know how much kids will love it. There are a number of crowd reaction shots where the kids are just sitting there, looking sort of like the audience in the Beatles' first Ed Sullivan Show appearance that wasn't crying uncontrollably. They're entranced, but they're not quite sure to make of 5 or 6 people up on stage making such a large sound. And so your kids may have the same reaction. They may get up to move more when Father Goose makes an appearance for the last 3 or 4 songs; in seeing the concert, I have a much better appreciation for what he brings to the band. The concert, then, is 9 songs, 30 minutes, and your kids' mileage may vary.

For those of you looking for an overview of Zanes' kids music, this isn't perfect, because 10 of the 15 songs come from Zanes' first two albums, with just 5 songs from his other four albums. Having said that, he hasn't changed his musical style much, and if you like the music on the DVD, you should definitely check out all his CDs. You can see a couple of his videos, including "Hello, Hello," here. It's a good DVD, but I recommend the videos more than the concert, at least for the kids.

Now... if I had a video iPod, would I choose Dan Zanes or They Might Be Giants? Hmmmmm...

Monday, April 10, 2006

Everything I Haven't Already Said

Tomorrow, I'll get back to the music, but a few more things I wanted to mention.

First, thanks for all the e-mails you've sent and blog comments you've left. I really appreciate all the artist suggestions (some I've heard of, some I haven't), CD submission requests, and compliments on the interview. (I was even somebody's driveway moment!) Please keep them all coming -- even if you don't agree with me, as long as you do it respectfully, I'm not going to delete the comments.

Second, thanks to Melissa Block and NPR for asking me to do the interview. It was really lots of fun, and, yes, I realize how lucky I am to have the opportunity.

Finally, well, let me start this way...
Nobody understands me,
though memmily blitt each day.
Nobody understands me,
but I guess zooglobble that way.

-- from "Nobody Understands Me," by Sandra Boynton and Michael Ford, from Philadelphia Chickens
In my original "Welcome" post from last week, someone left the following comment:
This all confuses me a bit. For me, as a parent, I take pleasure in seeing my child move to and sing with and enjoy music. The idea that I would want to pull my hair out because my child is taking pleasure in music by listening to the same track over and over (music that I perhaps don't enjoy well because, gee-I have 20 years of musical intake on my child) is ridiculous. I have a fear that the current kids music revolution (aka, "you will like it too!") is going to lead to a musically narrow-minded generation. Music programs are being cut across the country, and we have kids listening to hip hop and rock because their parents can't stand music that is really suitable for their ears AND for their development, World instruments, classical instruments, music that allows space to move and express oneself in a way that children should, is all being overshadowed by the notion that parents should like the same music as children who are generations younger than them. Its a silly thought if you ask me. When your child is 20 and listening to music you think is utterly horrible then you can say what you think about their taste. To say you hope to have a kid with better taste in music baffles me. They are kids! Do you also hope they have better taste in fashion? Hairstyle? Coffee? Wine? Let kids be kids and get the basics then develop their tastes. At 4 years old, take pleasure in their pleasure. To do otherwise would be selfish.
Now, when somebody tells you something you agree with (or 90% with) in a tone that suggests that you completely disagree, one wonders if, like Boynton and Ford's narrator, it's the speaker that's the problem.

So at the risk of further not being clear, let me state a few things that I might not have previously made clear here (or in the very tightly-edited 5 minutes on NPR).

1) Kids should listen to a broad range of music, including "world instruments, classical instruments, music that allows space to move and express oneself in a way that children should" -- could not agree more. Just because there aren't many reviews of world music or classical music albums on the website should not be construed as a lack of endorsement on my part for those types of music. We play those CDs for our kids, too, and I play violin and piano for my kids. (That's not even getting into singing, which we do constantly, in varying degrees of tunefulness.) I just don't have the critical vocabulary to talk about many of those CDs constructively. So that's why you're more likely to reviews of children's rock, folk, and pop music here.
2) Parents should take pleasure in seeing their children move to and sing with and enjoy music -- could not agree more. It's hard sometimes for me to turn off the CD player in the car or at home and just sing with my kids. But it's just as important to me that they sing and hear me or my wife sing as it is to hear musicians who are really good at it. And watching my daughter master a song (she's almost got "Do-Re-Mi" from The Sound of Music) or dance goofily gives me a wonderful feeling.
3) "To say you hope to have a kid with better taste in music baffles me." -- Nowhere have I ever said that I wanted a kid to have better taste in music. In fact, I agree with you 100%, and said so just last week. Trying to cultivate in your child a particular taste in music is a fool's errand, in my opinion (to say nothing of its appropriateness).
4) The one place I would disagree with the author is the implication that the parental enjoyment of the music is irrelevant. I firmly believe that it is possible to find age- and developmentally-appropriate music that both parents and children can enjoy (or, at least, that the children can enjoy and the parents will tolerate for long periods of time). I think I've reviewed a number of those CDs here. And I also believe that it is important that kids see their own parents enjoying their own music. If that means slipping in a Wilco or Matthew Sweet CD into the CD changer, so be it.

I mentioned this before, but I do encourage new readers to explore the links on the sidebar to find some different perspectives on children and family music. Devon has similar musical tastes, but has a more pedagogical perspective at Head, Shoulders, Knees, and all that.... Bill also has similar musical tastes, but a much larger CD collection, and plays them on his radio show at Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child. For a slightly more rockist approach, try The Lovely Mrs. Davis Tells You What To Think; for a definitely more rockist approach, try (Sm)All Ages. Plenty of good reading and musical suggestions.


OK, enough about me. Tomorrow: Dan Zanes.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Welcome, Again

I'm still getting lots of interest in the website from my interview with Melissa Block on the April 7th edition of NPR's All Things Considered. And because I've posted a couple times since I first posted a "Welcome" entry with some guidance to the site, I wanted to make sure that new visitors saw that post. Thanks for visiting!

DVD Review: We Are... The Laurie Berkner Band - Laurie Berkner

In order to write this review, I must reveal a shocking secret:

I shot J.R.

Uh, wait, sorry, I'm confusing my shocking secrets. That wasn't me. Let me try again.

We don't have cable television.

That's right. No cable, no satellite dish, just a big ol' antenna on the top of our roof.

Why is that so important to this review? Well, Laurie Berkner is the biggest superstar in the children's music industry and I think that can probably be traced directly to Laurie's constant appearances on Noggin, Nickolodeon's preschool TV channel. Her videos and appearances on Jack's Big Music Show introduced her to the country at large and had to have been a major factor in Starbucks' decision to inaugurate their entry into the DVD market with this DVD.

And it's something that's been completely irrelevant to my experience of Berkner. So I watched these videos with the eye of someone who hadn't seen these videos a hundred times. (Heard the songs perhaps a hundred times, but that's a different matter.)

Here, then, are some notes on the videos:
1. These are very simple videos -- the band, some kids, and the occasional graphics or set design. Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video, this is not. Of course, when you think of the target audience -- 3- or 4-year-old kids -- this is entirely appropriate.
2. The band has an appealingly friendly attitude in the videos. Brian and Susie mugging to the camera, and all three (especially Susie) not being particularly concerned with matching their instrument-playing to the music. This is not a criticism as it allows them to show themselves having fun playing music.
3. The band has taken all the colors the Wiggles don't wear in their outfits, found the brightest clothes in those colors, and wear them all simultaneously. By the way, if there's a cow farmer out there missing a purple or orange cow, I think Laurie slaughtered them to make her leather pants.
4. These videos are very similar but not identical to those that are actually on Noggin. (See the originals here. I actually watched those to check.) The band rerecorded the songs and the videos for this DVD, but kept both much like the old versions. Now, they're close enough that they're likely to fool the little ones, but for adults, the difference may generate a bit of cognitive dissonance a la the switching of Darins on Bewitched. [Edit: In the comments, Laurie's "PR Mama" points out, correctly, that not all of the videos on the DVD are actually shown on Noggin. That's correct, only 4 of them are (or, at least, only 4 of them are available on Noggin's website). I apologize for not being clearer in my text.]
5. The DVD is a bit like a greatest-hits album for Berkner, containing all of her big hits -- "Pig on Her Head," "Victor Vito," "Bumblebee (Buzz Buzz)". Berkner's knack for melodic hooks and fun lyrics are on full display. When a song doesn't quite work (for me, it's "Under a Shady Tree"), the video doesn't work, either. (In addition to being a boring melody to me the lyrics mention the grass under Laurie's feet when there's no grass around.)
6. Unlike many requisite new songs on greatest-hits albums, "Walk Along the River," is a great song -- it should be a pop hit. (I cannot, try as I might, get the phrase "I take a step / I take a step / I take another step" out of my mind.)
7. The DVD is about 30 minutes long with maybe another 8-10 minutes of "bonus" videos.

In the end, reviewing this DVD is a bit like reviewing the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy. You either like the movies or you have no interest, and a review isn't going to sway you either way. As an overview of Berkner's work, it's very good. As an occasional "babysitter" for mommy and daddy (raises hand), it will probably get your kids to jump up and interact with the TV. (And of course it's even more likely to do that if you join in, which I've done, too.)

Again, if you're unfamiliar with Berkner's work or the videos, check the originals out here. If you like those, you'll like the DVD. I like Berkner and I like the DVD.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Thank You For Calling Zooglobble. All Operators Are Busy At The Moment...

... We will take your calls in the order they were received.

I expected that talking about children's music on NPR would generate additional visitors here, but I've been a bit overwhelmed by the number of e-mails and comments over the past 24 hours. Thanks to everyone who's taken the time to drop me a line or offer a comment. I read each one and will definitely reply as appropriate.

And, yes, I do plan to post another review soon.

Friday, April 07, 2006


Hi! You're probably here because you heard me talk with Melissa Block about children's music on today's (Friday, April 7th) edition of All Things Considered. (If you did, can you please let me know how I did? I haven't heard the interview myself yet. East Coast bias...)

If you've developed a nasty twitch in your eye because you absolutely cannot stand the music your preschooler or elementary-aged child is listening to, take a few minutes to look at the reviews here, linked on the right-hand side or search on "review" up top. You may find an artist you're not aware of making music for kids and adults that you just might love. Or, at least, not hate. (We're pretty flexible around here.)

Find a list of albums reviewed here, organized by age, here. Here are my reviews of the Justin Roberts album Meltdown! and the Brady Rymer album Every Day Is A Birthday, which were discussed in the NPR piece. Reviews of the Laurie Berkner DVD and new Dan Zanes album are forthcoming.

You can also find links to people thinking and writing about (or even playing) kids' music on the right-hand side.

If you're a children's musician, I'm always on the lookout for good music I haven't yet heard. Find out how to get in touch with me here.

We'll be posting new stuff every week. I hope you'll stop by again another time to discover or discuss other music you and your kids can both enjoy.


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Review: Meltdown! - Justin Roberts

Writing children's music that appeals to both kids and adults is a tricky proposition. Many artists target their songs at the kids and try to include enough interesting musical or lyrical ideas to keep the parents from ripping the CD out of the car's CD player and throwing it onto the road in utter frustration after listening to it for the third time today. It's more difficult to write songs that speak equally (or at least not utterly disproportionately) to both generations. Justin Roberts is one of the best practitioners of that art.

Released in March 2006, Meltdown! is Justin Roberts' fifth album for kids. Roberts has been compared to James Taylor, a comparison earned mostly because their voices are similar. But Roberts' musical strengths are his uptempo rockers, not wistful ballads, and this album shows off his guitar-based pop-rock to fine effect.

Roberts has honed his pop hooks to a fine point. "Our Imaginary Rhino," the lead single, pulls out every stop to create a great power-pop song -- an irresistible pop hook, "c'mon, c'mon, c'mons," and "na-na-nas" It's such a great tune that I'm willing to overlook the lyric "Cause it's more than super fino / When you're imaginary rhinos." (Hey, there are only so many words that rhyme with "rhino," and I think I speak for everyone reading when I say that "wino" would not be an appropriate word for a children's music album.) The song has been in my brain for more than a month now and shows no signs of leaving.

My other favorite song on the album is "Cartwheels and Somersaults," another uptempo song about an older brother's happiness upon the arrival of a younger sibling. While it's written from the perspective of the older sibling (the narrator and subject of many of Roberts' songs are the kids themselves), the chorus is totally relatable to the parents -- "And it's all your fault / yeah it's all your fault / It's you we love / (Mama can I hold her) / You we love / (Let's put her on your shoulder)." The giddiness of the music (with a vaguely "Lust For Life" bass line) matches the giddiness another family member can create in that family's life. And let's face it, we don't get to hear songs that talk about that part of our lives too often, but Roberts has figured out how to do it here.

The rest of the album is pretty good, too. The gratuitous Modern English references in the title track, the '80s synthesizers in "Maybe the Monster," the sneaky older brother blaming all the accidents on his siblings, they're enough to keep the parents listening while the kids bop their heads. I've never been as big a fan of Roberts' slower songs -- personal taste here -- but the closing track, "Song For You," is a nice ballad that could be sung to your child or your spouse. It's a song that James Taylor would be proud to record.

While younger siblings may bop their heads along to the bouncier songs, Meltdown! is best for kids aged 5 to 10. It's available at the usual online suspects and may or may not be available in some big bookstores. Meltdown! is Justin Roberts' best album yet. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

News: Belle and Sebastian and Erasure and Kids?

Fold your hands, child, indeed.

As I've said before, I have no shame when it comes to referring to old news when it's new news to me. This June 2005 article titled "Preschool of Rock" (ha, ha, that's funny, because there was that movie, with Jack Black, about these kids... oh, never mind) from the British paper The Guardian says nothing that every other article about rockers making kids' music hasn't said. But it's an entertaining piece and contains this one little piece of info that's news to me.
Erasure plan to release a record for children, while Scots indie band Belle and Sebastian are curating a compilation of kids' songs. Rumours suggest they have
solicited contributions from such unlikely sources as Franz Ferdinand, Scissor Sisters, Primal Scream and cerebral post-rockers Four Tet.

Erasure? '80s synth-pop? I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Erasure (I love "A Little Respect"), and so I think that could be not a little bit of fun, should it move out of the realm of rumor and into the realm of my CD rack.

Belle and Sebastian? Twee-pop "curated" album? What is this, a museum or an album? I know Belle and Sebastian disdain the "twee-pop" label, and I admit their new album has considerably more muscle than their past work, but I'm a little more dubious about the idea of bands like Franz Ferdinand recording music for kids. Don't get me wrong, I have and enjoy both of Franz's CDs, but I'm not convinced of their ability to simplify their angular post-punk melodies and change their lyrical approach.

Could be worse, I suppose -- Pete Doherty could be one of the contributors.

(Hat tip to Dadbloggit for the original article.)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Song of the Day: Wild Mountain Thyme - Dan Zanes and Dar Williams

As a general rule, I prefer Dan Zanes' uptempo rockers to his slower, more acoustic tunes. He and his band have a ragged quality that encourages dancing and general tomfoolery. (I am in full support of general tomfoolery.) The acoustic stuff, more folky in nature, isn't bad, but it's not my first pick for what of Zanes to share with others.

If there's an exception to my general rule, it's his duets, particularly those with women. Zanes has a knack for picking female singers with whom to duet. I'll gladly listen to Dan Zanes and Barbara Brousal sing just about anything, including the phone book (in Spanish, of course). "Waltzing Matilda," with Deborah Harry or "Loch Lomond," with Natalie Merchant (off the new album, Catch That Train!) -- both are great versions of classic songs. Zanes pairs his ragged voice with the angelic voices of his partners, and the result is wonderful.

But there's no better duet in his discography than "Wild Mountain Thyme," with folk-rocker Dar Williams, on the Night Time! album. It's a wistful love song, itself a relative rarity in the Zanes discography. (He typically shies away from romantic love songs in his children's music albums.) Zanes and Williams take their turns on the verses, but sound best together, with Williams' clear voice matching perfectly with Zanes' voice. Zanes notes in the liner notes that the opening lines to the chorus, "And we'll all go together," are what he loves about the song, and it's what I love, too. It begs for singing along.

Find a link to the song here.

And, I know it's miles away from this song lyrically and musically, but I can't hear the chorus without hearing Billy Joel's "Goodnight Saigon," with its chorus "And we'll all go down together." To hear it, go here to Billy Joel's discography, click on "The Nylon Curtain" album cover and go from there.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Who's This Blog For Anyway?

A couple posts worth reading:
1. Mrs. Davis' thoughts on this article from New York magazine.
2. Devon's thoughts on this article from the New York Times Magazine. (Registration required)

Before you begin, I warn you that both articles are very long -- the summaries in the blog posts are enough to give you a good taste of the whole thing.

Having said that, let's tackle the Wiggles first, then move on to the adults.

You've not found any Wiggles reviews in this blog, and you never will. Not because I dislike them -- I remember a Wiggles video we checked out of the library a few years ago. It didn't really interest my daughter, and it didn't really interest me. (It wasn't supposed to, I knew at the time.) And I can so totally see why they appeal to toddlers and pre-schoolers, my daughter notwithstanding. The simple colors, the simple songs. As Devon points out, the Wiggles are targeting the kids, not the adults, to the Wiggles' credit. I'd put Laurie Berkner in the exact same category (only on rare occasion does she slip in a lyrical snippet to amuse the adults). I think that's the case with most music targeted at toddlers and preschoolers. But when music is targeted at "kids and parents," that's usually just marketing hoo-hah designed to get parents to buy the CD. Only the most talented artists can create music that can engage a 4-year-old and a 34-year-old.

As for the adults, the "Grups," short for grown-ups, as the author calls them, well, I guess I don't feel all that warm and fuzzy about them. As I read the article, part of me thought "well, OK, this is just a New York-centric view of the world." And the rest of me thought, "you only think your (my) generation is different from all the rest."

It's not.

The Neal Pollack quotations are scary, though I've read enough Pollack to know that you can't take anything he says totally seriously. So leaving him aside, let's move on to a more reasoned quotation from another mid-30s parent:

"The point isn’t to raise cool kids. We want passionate kids. And I think that by us doing the things that we love to do, that models that passion for our kids.”

This is somehow different from what previous generations wanted? My parents were happy letting me sit in the corner with a stick and a rock? Maybe there is a difference with the current generation, maybe it's exactly that -- some parents do want to raise cool kids, to raise little versions of themselves.

But that's painting an entire generation with a broad brush when the characterization only applies to a handful of parents across the country. Most of the parents I know wear T-shirts on the weekends, maybe drink craft-brewed beer, and are working all different types of jobs. Maybe some of the music snobs listen to Bloc Party or the Arcade Fire. (Raises hand.) But we're living normal lives, making our way. And if we want to listen to music, we just want something that isn't going to drive us up the wall as we listen to the same CD driving to the library or to Grandma's or to preschool or to swim lessons or while we're sitting in the family room drawing with crayons. We're not trying to craft a child's musical background -- we're too tired and don't have the time.

I write this blog, reviewing songs because I listen to these children's music CDs a lot, almost as much as I listen to my Bloc Party and Arcade Fire CDs. Maybe I slip in the latest Spoon or Shins CD. But usually 3 or 4 of the other songs are Justin Roberts or Dan Zanes or Raffi.

So this blog is for you, the sedan (or minivan-)driving parents of America. You have control of the CD changer. Use it wisely.