Friday, June 30, 2006

Review: Tall and Small - Rebecca Frezza

With her third studio album, Tall and Small (2006), set to be released next week, Rebecca Frezza and her band Big Truck make a bid for kids' music stardom. The New Jersey-based singer/songwriter has had videos on Noggin, but this album seems one of those CDs designed to attract even wider attention.

Take, for example, what would be considered the lead single off the album, "It Wasn't Me," about receiving blame (or placing it on somebody else). Frezza and Big Truck take the song, written by Ron Cardazone, and craft it into an insanely catchy tune with a number of musical layers. The secret is taking the "tattletale" song -- you'll know it when you hear it -- and weaving it into the chorus. (And this isn't the confident narrator of Justin Roberts' "My Brother Did It," but a much more uncertain 6-year-old, which may appeal to 6-year-olds for an entirely different reason than Roberts' song appeals to them.) Frezza is no slouch herself in the songwriting department, writing or co-writing 12 of the album's 14 tracks. A couple of the stronger tracks include the title track, which has a melody that climbs and falls repeatedly, nicely echoing the subject of the song, and "Show Me!," which borrows some of the guitar riff from "What I Like About You" to create an energetic song that encourages movement (I'm envisioning a very hyperactive crowd in concert).

The better songs generally were those which used the skills of the 8-member Big Truck band to good effect on the pop-rock tunes -- fiddle and mandolin on the Irish-tinged "Tell Me A Story," or the nifty guitar work on the "Can't Let Go Blues." I tended to prefer the faster songs, finding some of the lyrics on the slow songs worked a bit too hard at establishing the positive message that runs throughout the album. ("Happy" in particularly didn't work for me at all, though I could see how a 4-year-old, after wiggling through Frezza's faster numbers, might be more receptive to the message than I.) The faster songs seemed to convey Frezza's lyrical points with more ease.

The 41-minuste album is laser-targeted at kids ages 4 through 8. You can now hear clips of the album at Frezza's website (click on "Music & Lyrics" at the top, then on the album cover); they're also available at Amazon.

Rebecca Frezza and Big Truck are clearly shooting for the stars with this album, seeking a wider audience. As a whole, Tall and Small is an album deserving of that wider audience that this kid-targeted and adult-friendly CD will bring them. Recommended.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Even More Justin Roberts

Liked my interview with Justin Roberts? Want more of that plus a picture of Roberts' dog Udo? Then get thee to this Apple profile on Roberts. (Thanks to the Justin Roberts Newsletter for the heads up on that and a bunch more. Why haven't you signed up yet?)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Review: Snail Song & Magic Toast - The Sippy Cups

Review: A Play in One Act
With three characters: Dude 1, Dude 2, and Mr. Roommate:

Dude 1: Whoa, dude, that Sippy Cups song is deep!
Dude 2: Totally, dude!
Dude 1: I mean, it's about, like, life.
Dude 2: Totally.
Dude 1: It's like... a... uh... simile!
Dude 2: Simile? It is so not a simile, dude.
Dude 1: No, dude?
Dude 2: No, dude. It's a metaphor.
Dude 1: I'm not sure I agree with you, there, dude
Dude 2: Why not?
Dude 1: Well, look, there's this song, and it's about "Magic Toast," right?
Dude 2: Right.
Dude 1: And it sounds just like the Mamas and the Papas, maybe, or some psychedelic band from the late '60s, right?
Dude 2: Right.
Dude 1: So when they're talking about the magic toast and how it gives the boy a "lift," they're clearly making the analogy that breakfast is like life. And the toast is, you know...
Dude 2: Yeah, but what you're describing is a metaphor, dude. They're not using the word "like" or anything.
Dude 1: Hey, what you know about grammar, dude, could fit inside my...

Dude 1's Roommate, dressed as always in suit and tie, walks into the room.

Roommate: Oh, it's you again... dude.
Dude 2: Hey, man, what's your problem? You're always bringin' me down!
Roommate: Well, every time I come home from... what's that place called... oh, yeah, work, you two guys are sitting here eating grilled cheese sandwiches and having these abstract philosophical discussions.
Dude 1: We were not!
Roommate: Oh, really?
Dude 2: Yeah! We were having an abstract grammatical discussion.
Roommate: I don't believe it. What were you guys discussing?

Dude 1 explains the crux of the dilemma.

Roommate: Much as it pains me to say it, dude, your friend is correct. A simile is a figure of speech that expresses a resemblance between things of different kinds and is usually formed with "like" or "as." A metaphor, on the other hand, is a figure of speech in which an expression is used to refer to something that it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity.
Dude 1: Ah. Righteous, dude. You bring clarity.
Roommate: What I can't figure out is why you're spending the evening listening -- repeatedly -- to an album that is targeted to kids aged 2 through 7. I know, I know, it's appealing to a lot of adults, and the band's from San Francisco, but "Magic Toast" is neither simile nor metaphor... it's about TOAST! And while that song is OK (I confess to a weakness for the kazoos) and the "Snail Song" has a pretty awesome power pop finale, that's all the EP is. Two original tracks with the other two tracks just being the first two tracks overlaid with spoken word narrative.
Dude 2: Dude, you're just cheap.
Roommate: Uhhh... maybe you're right. Pass the grilled cheese sandwiches.
Dudes 1 and 2: Right on, dude.

Interview: Greg McIlvaine (The Hollow Trees)

I didn't start playing guitar seriously till I was 16... I remember bringing my guitar out to the living room and playing it for my mom. She said "That's great, but why do you stick your tongue out when you play?" Now I notice that my son sticks his tongue out when he's concentrating.

One of the more unexpected discoveries for me thus far this year was the self-titled debut album by the Los Angeles-based band The Hollow Trees. Inspired by Dan Zanes' recordings and released in late 2005, the album contains spirited renditions of folk songs and other kid-friendly tunes. Greg McIlvaine, guitarist and Hollow Trees co-founder, took time out to answer some questions. Looking for some kids' music recommendations you probably haven't heard before? Then check out the end of the interview.

And thanks to Greg for his time.


What music did you listen to growing up?
I don't remember any kid's music to speak of. I had one of those Fisher Price mechanical record players with the thick colored discs that I played with a lot.

My first musical memory is of a honky tonk band playing during the day at a bar on the beach. The only thing I remember about that was the bass line, the fifths which are traditional in country and polka music. I still love that bass line. Later I remember listening to the Dr. Demento show and thinking that it was the greatest thing ever.

My parents don't play instruments, but my dad is into music and was always buying records and new hi-fi equipment. Once I became more interested in music I began checking out his collection. He had a few records that I really attached myself to - a Josh White record, a Hoyt Axton record from when he was a folk blues singer, a Jimmy Reed record, Muddy Waters at Newport, a Johnny Cash record, an acoustic blues record called Down South Summit Meeting with Lightning Hopkins, Brownie McGee, and Sonny Terry jamming.

Eventually I discovered rockabilly through the Stray Cats and oldies like Elvis and Little Richard. There was a scene in LA which I knew through KROQ, and my favorite band - still to this day - is The Blasters. My dad took me to my first concert at the Country Club in Reseda - The Blasters with the then unsigned Los Lobos opening up. Awesome.

Any particular Dr. Demento favorites?
I really remember thinking that "Shaving Creme" was funny. Also "Existensial Blues" and "Fish Heads."

Did you grow up singing and playing the traditional songs you've recorded on the debut?
Not really. I didn't start playing guitar seriously till I was 16. The first song I learned was "Jailhouse Rock" by Elvis. I remember bringing my guitar out to the living room and playing it for my mom. She said "That's great, but why do you stick your tongue out when you play?" Now I notice that my son sticks his tongue out when he's concentrating. I played some folk and country but early on I was more interested in blues, rockabilly and punk.

In college I hosted hootenannies every Sunday for about three years. It wasn't a jam, instead we'd pass one guitar around and people would play their new songs or old hits. I would play "On Top of Spaghetti" and "It's a Small World" for laughs, but now that seems like foreshadowing.

Later I got more in to country music and decided to create myself a repertoire. I began learning lots of standard country songs, moving back in time from Willie Nelson to Hank Williams to Jimmie Rodgers. Eventually that path led me to ballad singers and that was around when The Hollow Trees started.

How did you select those songs (i.e., were they your favorites, your son's favorites, ...)?
In general we try to find great songs which are not as well known so we don't have to rely too much on the songs everyone has heard a million times. We've learned a few of them because they're good for sing-alongs when you're playing live, but I didn't see any reason to record them. The exceptions are "Polly Wolly Doodle" which is one of our signature songs, and "Shoo Fly" which was my son's favorite song for awhile.

I should also mention here that Laura [Steenberge, the band's bassist and co-founder] is an extremely accomplished musician and she really helps with choosing the material and working up the arrangements. We try to pick songs that we really like and have fun playing, and figure that our joy will be passed on to the kids and parents in the audience.

Where did you record the album? It has a very intimate feel and sounds like it could've been recorded in your living room.
Pretty close! It was recorded at home in my office using Adobe Audition software on my PC. I have been doing home recordings since high school, starting with a 4-track, then graduating to a digital 8-track, and now the computer. There's nothing fancy as far as equipment, but the computer does give you a lot of options. Some songs are live, some all overdubs, and some a mix. I try to keep it simple and remember Ray Charles' advice: If it sounds good it is good.

Exactly how many people are singing on the rollicking "Jack Was Every Inch a Sailor"?
I think there's 11 people, but at least 2 tracks of each of them. Laura and I sang on it, and my buddy Matt Welch who sings on several tracks on the record. Then on a couple occasions when we had friends over I would have everyone come upstairs to sing on it. I don't have enough sets of cans (that's what musicians call headphones) for everyone, so I would put one set on myself and play my guitar and kind of conduct everyone. It made for a loose feel which came out nice, especially with my son and his buddy on there.

Which songs are your favorites to play? Which songs draw the most response in concert?
That's a hard one because I really like playing all the songs. We open our shows with "Polly Wolly Doodle." It's a magical song which always makes you a little happier than you were before. "Bunny Hop" is fun because we have the kids come up with different animal sounds. Sometimes they'll say giraffe and we'll have to ask them what a giraffe sounds like. Laura and I switch instruments for "Everybody Has Hands" and that's a big favorite.

Did you have fun writing the originals on the debut, or were those difficult to do?
These particular songs all came pretty easily. "Nelson" and "Forest Melody" describe The Hollow Trees' universe. "Bunny Hop" came from the idea of combining a dance song with an animal sounds song - the perfect storm of children's music!

You mention Dan Zanes as an inspiration for the group; who else recording kids and/or family music inspired you?
Like Dan Zanes I mostly look to older music for material and inspiration. The first kids' music I bought, when my wife was still pregnant, was a used copy of Burl Ives' out of print CD "Chim Chim Cheree and Other Favorites." I thought it was awesome and Burl's voice made every day seem like Christmas. I began getting more of his music and I love it, the old folk ballads especially. "Lavender Cowboy" is a song I learned from one of his non-kid records. For any serious kids' music fan with a record player I would recommend his album called "Animal Folk" on Disney's Buena Vista Records. It's a gatefold with a book of lyrics and illustrations inside. We've learned almost every song on there, including "The Black and White Pigeon" and many others which we haven't recorded.

Besides Burl I like other 60's folk singers like Ed McCurdy, Oscar Brand, Richard Dyer-Bennett, Ella Jenkins, all of the various Seegers. Tom T. Hall's "Country Songs for Children" is a big favorite too. Yazoo Records has a bunch of great compilations of really old recordings, and there's two volumes aimed at children called The Story that the Crow Told Me which are a lot of fun if you like that real old-time music.

What's next for the Hollow Trees and the album?
My wife and I are expecting our second child any day now so we're taking a bit of a break on playing live shows, but we'll be back playing in a couple months. We have quite a few new tunes ready so we'll record again soon. The CD is getting around by word-of-mouth and through great reviews like yours, so it's exciting to watch that. We're having a great time and look forward to more fun musical adventures in the future.

Do you think you'll change the mix to record more original tunes, or do you like the mix of mostly older material with a handful of new tunes?
It will probably be the same kind of mix, depending on the original material we have and how the recordings come out.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Justin Roberts and Newfangled Technology

Justin Roberts might not be very adept at performing magic or telling jokes, but he is one heckuva songwriter. Thanks to the Land of Nod, you can hear the proof.

In a 15-minute (or so) podcast, Roberts inaugurates the "Land of Nod Nodcast Podcast" by crafting one catchy theme ditty, playing some of his stuff from Meltdown!, Not Naptime, and Great Big Sun, and displaying a very self-deprecating attitude. He even has a demo version of "Our Imaginary Rhino" for our amusement. (And, hey, if kids' music albums eventually get the expanded/remastered treatment now given to every album more than 10 years old, why shouldn't the stellar Meltdown! be at the top of the list in 2016?)

Not content with audio-only content? Devon at Head, Shoulders, Knees... found YouTube footage of Justin Roberts' "Airplane of Food" video.

Buck Howdy more your style? Fran at the About Kids' Music site has got you covered.

And if you're still just happy reading... The Lovely Mrs. Davis has a guest post from Charity Kahn (from Charity and the JAMBand).

Go forth, enjoy, then sit back and enjoy the cool pleasures of dancing or singing with your kids on a summer day (or night).

Monday, June 26, 2006

Review In Brief: Kids Rock For Peas! - The Sippy Cups

How best to describe the San Francisco-based The Sippy Cups? Perhaps they're what would happen if your favorite '70s cover band decided they just wanted to play for preschoolers. And added puppets and jugglers. On their 2005 debut album Kids Rock For Peas!, the seven-member ensemble (recorded live at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco) cover a wide range of '60s and '70s songs on the 47-minute disc, from the Beatles ("Dear Prudence") to the Velvet Underground ("Who Loves the Sun") to the Ramones, mostly ("I Wanna Be Elated"). You might ask, you know, those are pretty darn good songs -- in the original -- why in the world would I want to buy cover versions? Well, not that the Sippy Cups' versions are better than the originals, but the vigorous renditions of the songs and the occasional alterations to make them child-friendly (or child-friendlier) give them value in their own right. (They single-handedly rescue War's "Low Rider" from the clutches of beer commercials and "Jungle Boogie" from the clutches of Quentin Tarantino.) If the occasional song seems out-of-place ("Bennie and the Jets") or the live banter just slows the pace down, that's the risk one takes with a live package. (The presence of "Super Guy" will probably bring a smile to the parents' faces.) The songs are probably best for kids ages 2 through 6, though obviously any album covering the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Neil Diamond will probably find fans whose ages reached double-digits long ago. You can check out some video clips here. Recommended, unless for some weird reason you think Lennon/McCartney (or, er, McCartney/Lennon) wasn't that great of a song-writing duo.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Welcome Interstate Managers, er, Salon Readers

Welcome to those of you finding us because of the Salon article on "kindie rockers". (Welcome also, as always, to people looking for downloads of and lyrics to "Great Big World," from Hoodwinked. I still can't help you with those, despite your insistent pleas.) Thanks, Salon, for the link, and for posting some fabulous mp3s from said rockers. (Scott Lamb's article is worth sitting through the Honda ad non-subscribers will have to watch in order to read the article -- it's a nice summing up of the current state of kids' music.)

If you're new to the site, I encourage you to look around -- links to other kids'-music-related blogs as well as to every full album review (including Justin Roberts, Dan Zanes, Laurie Berkner, and Milkshake) can be found on the right. If you're wondering what to get that 4-year-old nephew for his birthday, check out my page of album recommendations by age. I treat kids' music the way any parent who really likes music would -- with my own set of interests but with an understanding that perhaps not every song off Spoon's Gimme Fiction is going to appeal to my 5-year-old (let alone my 1-year-old).

There's so much great kids' music being made, and not just by the rockers mentioned in the article who have made their way to kids' TV screens. Dig in -- you're bound to find something you and the kids in your life will really like.

Saturday AM edit: You know, I could actually help readers "dig in" if I specifically mentioned a few artists and albums that readers might not be familiar with if they're only sticking to the TV/Noggin crowd. No disrespect meant to the Noggin crowd -- Zanes, Roberts, and TMBG, in particular, are all among my favorites kids' artists -- but these four albums are tremendous, too.
Silly Reflection, by Lunch Money (review)
If You Ever See An Owl, by the Terrible Twos (review)
Fascinating Creatures, by Francis England (review)
Gustafer Yellowgold's Wide Wild World DVD, by Morgan Taylor (review)

Review: Lead Belly Sings For Children - Lead Belly

It's hard to think about a time before "children's music" was even a genre, back before, well, if we weren't walking to school in the snow uphill both ways, at least before satellite and internet radio offered people thousands of listening choices. But there were a few artists that recorded songs for kids (if not exclusively) a half-century ago and for their continued presence on CD, we have the fine folks at Smithsonian Folkways to thank. Of the four major kids' artists on Folkways' roster (Ella Jenkins, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie), Lead Belly's collection of children's music is the most compact (read: easiest to review), and that's where I'll begin.

Lead Belly was born in 1888 and, according to the detailed liner notes in Lead Belly Sings For Children, Folkways' 1999 collection of his children's material, he claimed to have collected 500 songs over the 60 years of his life. From that perspective, Lead Belly was clearly important to 20th century American music and this collection should be considered "essential" for that alone. It's a reference CD of sorts. But I'm sure you have heard many "essential" albums that sat unused on your shelf for yours or went back to the library without even one renewal -- is this one of those albums?

Thankfully, there is enough great material that merits repeated spins by a modern audience. The album is grouped by type of song, starting off with children's rhymes and game songs from many years ago, such as "More Yet" and "Sally Walker," then sliding into blues songs (though those are certainly mixed throughout the entire collection). The spirituals collected here are given fine renditions as well, getting a group of children to sing with him on "Every Time I Feel the Spirit" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." The collection ends with a series of work songs, many of which will be familiar to modern listeners, including "John Henry" and "Pick a Bale of Cotton." (Any interpreter of children's and folk songs worth his or her salt will have covered at least one of the songs here.)

My ears are spoiled by modern production values, and so I was pleased by the fact that these recordings, some of which are more than 60 years old, sound pretty good. Lead Belly's voice is appealing (I particularly liked the way his voice sounded on his slightly bluesier take on the chorus of "Blue-Tailed Fly (Jimmie, Crack Corn)") and his guitar work (it's generally just him and his guitar) is easily heard. (An exception to the "solo" rule is his lively rendition of "Pick a Bale of Cotton" with the Oleander Quartet.) A minor quibble with the disk is that Lead Belly's introductions (and there are many of them) sound a bit muddled compared to the songs themselves. When Lead Belly get a crowd of children to sing along, however, they sound great.

Children aged 2 through 10 or so would probably most appreciate the songs here (though different songs will appeal to different age groups. You can hear clips at the Smithsonian's site.

Given the broad historical overview of the collection, and the relative sameness of the songs, it's unlikely that Lead Belly Sings For Children will become you or your child's favorite children's music album. It's very likely, however, that you will find a few songs worth playing repeatedly and that it won't gather much dust on your shelf. Recommended.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Just Go Crazy

Our family celebrates an inordinate number of holidays in June. We have no less than 5 birthdays, plus (at the moment) a couple Father's Days. There are entire countries with fewer holidays than our family. Most celebrations in June overlap partially, if not completely, with somebody else's celebration. I've pretty much reconciled myself to the fact that Father's Day will always play second fiddle to our daughter's birthday. Give me a hand-drawn card (or picture) and an excuse not to do yardwork, and that's enough for me.

Our daughter, of course, had other ideas. She wanted a -- and you parents know that I'm not kidding one iota here -- "Love Heart Pony Hello Kitty Care Bear" party. You can't really get a cake like that at Safeway, but that's neither here nor there. For reasons not worth delving into here, said party was very small. Four guests. I gotta tell you, while attending gargantuan parties with more kids than the Polyphonic Spree has band members can be fun, hosting such a party is Not For Us. But we (and by "we," I mean "my wife") put a lot of thought into planning the party, which revolved around a few games. The String Game (follow a string throughout the house) -- hilarity ensued. The Treasure Hunt (The Amazing Race on a much smaller footprint) -- hilarity ensued. And the Freeze Game, which is infinitely better if you can find a song that's actually about the game, such as on "Freeze," by Babaloo, off his "Room For Everyone" disk, rather than having to hit pause on the CD player every few seconds. It's a lot easier to "just go crazy" when the song asks you to.

For what it's worth, the CDs in the CD player for the party? They Might Be Giants' Here Come the ABCs, The Terrible Twos' If You Ever See An Owl, the Putumayo Caribbean Playground collection, Jack Johnson's Curious George soundtrack, and, for adult amusement, Paul Simon's Graceland.

Remarkably, at the end of the day, we weren't crazy. We'll continue our refusal of Polyphonic Spree parties. It's Spoon parties for us.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Review: Stomp Yer Feet! - Johnny Bregar

Pity the preschool children's musician. Forced to play the same set of familiar songs at least some of the time, yet Raffi (and before him, Ella Jenkins, Pete Seeger, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie) got there first and staked their claim. Few artists have managed to make a career out of playing the songs that the above artists perfected. (And believe me, many have tried. And failed.) Laurie Berkner is perhaps the only modern artist who's completely succeeded, and her fame is as much for her original music as it is for her rendition of traditional classics.

In walks Johnny Bregar and his late-2005 kids' music debut Stomp Yer Feet!. Bregar, a Seattle-based musician, played in local folk/rock band Big Spoon and found the selection of kids' music for his preschool-aged son wanting. His debut is a stellar collection of mostly traditional folk and other children's tunes, dusted off and given a fresh coat of paint.

The album starts off with "If You're Happy And You Know It," played with soul on an electric Rhodes piano ("just like Ray Charles used to play," Bregar writes in the song notes), and immediately all the characteristics of this winning album are revealed -- real instruments both familiar and rare, new sets of lyrics to traditional songs, and Bregar's rich and ever-so-slightly-raspy voice . The "Alphabet Song?" 12-bar blues. "Polly Wolly Doodle?" A little bit of Dixieland, a lot more bluegrass. "Waltzing Matilda" sounds as if it was recorded 60 years ago (but with much better recording equipment). And the ukelele just rocks.

All of which might get tiresome eventually if it weren't for the fact that the few originals on the 42-minute disc are pretty good, too. "Blah de la" might get annoying after listening to it 100 times, but its simplicity also makes it a perfect fit for the album -- even the youngest preschooler could probably get the hang of it and sing along. "Pancakes" is another simple cut, not much more than a chorus, but one that Matthew Sweet would be happy to record. And the one fully-realized original, "Moon," about wanting to touch things a kid probably shouldn't, is the song the Counting Crows will record when they eventually decide to stop recording songs for PG-rated movies and set their sights on G-rated movies.

The songs will appeal most to kids age 2 through 6. You can listen to samples here and buy the album either through Bregar's website, Amazon, CDBaby, or Land of Nod.

I hate to do this to the guy, because Bregar seems like a nice guy, but Johnny Bregar could be the next Raffi. Like Raffi, he's got the musical chops, the sense of humor, and a great voice. (If he's singing about whales 10 years from now, I can't be held responsible.) If you're looking for a collection of traditional kids' songs, and you either already have Raffi's collections or you can't stand Raffi's collections, you should really check out Stomp Yer Feet! -- Bregar's staking his claim to that niche of kids' music. Highly recommended.

Did I Miss the Memo?

Because what's with all the Kidzapalooza love? Didn't I already mention this oh, about, seven weeks ago? (Not that I'm counting. OK, I'm counting.) Will there be an Austin City Limits Festival flurry two weeks from now?

But the posts do highlight some of the additions since my original post along with Clea's thoughts on Perry's lineup.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Review in Brief: Kaleidoscope Songs Volumes 1 and 2 - Alex Mitnick and the Kaleidoscope Band

Kaleidoscope Songs Volumes 1 and 2, released in 2004 and 2006 by Alex and the Kaleidoscope Band would seem to have all the elements of a successful children's music album. Lyrics that target kids and their experiences, a large cast of musicians playing an even larger set of real instruments, and a fine, soulful voice in lead singer Alex Mitnick -- what's not to like? Well, despite all those advantages, there wasn't enough that said to me, "you won't mind hearing this repeatedly." This is partially the result of those lyrics targeted right at the 3-year-old audience -- they're not meant to speak to the parent ("I'm so glad to be alive / I like to learn new things / I like to notice all that I can," for example). The music itself is mostly mellow children's pop, and perhaps I was looking for a hook that never came. Only in a few songs did I find a spark -- "So Blue" and "Rock of Ages" both had a pleasant Van Morrison-vibe to them, while "Water Lily" is a gentle and appealing tune with touches of reggae. Those three songs are off Vol. 2 -- if you're interested in learning more about the band, I'd recommend starting there. You can listen to samples of some songs here. Your preschool-aged kids may like the two Kaleidoscope Songs albums, your preschool-aged kids' preschool teachers may find a lot of songs good for inclusion in lessons on the albums, but you, the parent, may not be so enthused by the albums.

Me and Julio Dancing Down By the Schoolyard

Via the New York Times, a story about how many NYC schoolkids celebrate spring by dancing on the playground.
No one is quite sure when New York City children began celebrating spring by dancing in schoolyards, their teachers leading them, often awkwardly, through the steps, their proud parents gathered round, snapping pictures and clapping along. It is a peculiar urban rite — called Dance Festival in most of the city, and May Fete on Staten Island — that has been around, it seems, for as long as the public school system itself.
And they're worried about this tradition failing? How could an enterprising company not have stepped forward already and offered to sponsor this thing citywide? Why hasn't this spread throughout the country? Couldn't you imagine a Pancake Mountain-coordinated day in Washington, DC? Chica-go-go in Chicago? Setting aside the fact that we'd have to dance around the May Pole in March here in the desert Southwest to avoid burning our hands on the May Pole, this would be great here, too.

You could play local artists -- OK, perhaps not every Prince or Replacements song would be great for the Twin Cities, but there'd be a few from each. You could play international artists, too. Oldies, new stuff, whatever.

If any of you New York readers care to describe in more detail how exactly this works (how long does this take, is this really as cool as it sounds, or is it more pathetic in execution), I'd love to hear it.

Monday, June 19, 2006

This Week: More Thematic Drift

More cool stuff coming up this week -- reviews, interviews, and the like -- but no coherent theme, except perhaps a broadening of the site's scope to look at albums released before, say, seven minutes ago.

If you missed my reviews of Keith Munslow's Accidentally (on purpose) and Josephine Cameron's Close Your Eyes, check 'em out. The latter is the first "Review in Brief" here on the site, designed to get to the point with fewer semi-obscure references. And thanks, too, to Fran for linking to my article on things I'd like to see more and less of in kids' music.

Thanks as always for reading, e-mailing, submitting, and commenting.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Review: Little Red Wagon - Timmy Abell

I doubt Lester Bangs used the word "gentle" to describe music in his reviews, but he probably didn't write reviews of kids music too often. There's no better word, however, to describe Timmy Abell's 2005 album Little Red Wagon.

On his fourth music album (he has recorded albums of stories as well), the North Carolina-based Abell blends modern folk songs of his own with traditional folk songs familiar to many. If there is any unifying component to the album it is the sense of, well, gentleness that pervades the songs in both treatment and theme. Abell is an accomplished musician, and one of the pleasures of listening to the album is the nifty playing of both Abell (who plays banjo, guitar, and hammered dulcimer, among other instruments, on the album) and the other musicians. The musicianship is particularly noticeable on the traditional (and silly) "Turkey in the Straw" and the brief but sweet Abell original "Rounded Glass Jig," with what I believe to the hammered dulcimer making a beautiful sound on the latter. No matter whether uptempo ("Turkey" or "I'm My Own Grandpa") or subdued ("Jig" or the pleasant title track), the songs exude a sense of calm. Over an entire album, it may be a little too much gentleness, but there's a sense of unity to the songs.

Not all of the lyrics are specifically kid-focused, but those that are have some style to them. "Going To Grandma's" weaves various modes of transportation into a zippy little (and true) narrative about the many different types of vehicles used to get from one distant place to another. "Secrets" is a textbook example of how to write a children's song with moral content, illustrating the point rather than lecturing the listener. The song combines a nifty metaphorical chorus ("A cat in a bag becomes very uncomfortable / Birds in a cage become eager to fly") with verses about the progress of a secret through the narrator's circle of acquaintances to show what happens to secrets rather than saying "Secrets Are Bad!" It's a neatly effective track.

Like many folk albums, there's nothing that would prevent playing this album for very young kids, but lyrically it's probably most appealing to kids 4 through 8. You can hear samples and read lyrics for the album here (click on the Little Red Wagon album cover) and purchase the album either at Abell's website or other retailers (online or iTunes).

As noted above, the album is a very gentle folk album, and if you don't think that will appeal to you, there's nothing on the album that would change your mind. But I've heard Abell compared to a younger Pete Seeger and I think that the comparison is a pretty good one. Abell's clear voice and use of the folk tradition are reminiscent of Seeger in his prime. The album is a pleasant retreat from more active, more modern kids' music. Recommended.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Links: Father of Two

A few links to toss out the day before Father's Day. See if you can guess the common theme.

Bill, father of two, has SteveSongs in studio and has pictures of them and Milkshake to prove it. (Yeah, yeah, SteveSongs was prerecorded...)

Chag, father of two, has an amusing dadblog at Cynical Dad. In the all-important sports-world scoreboard, his affinity for the Yankees (a negative for me) is far outweighed by his affinity for the North Carolina Tar Heels (big thumbs up).

Thanks also to Brady Rymer, father of two, who mentioned my interview with him in his newsletter this week. (Sign up at his homepage.)

Oh, and I, father of two, have updated my "Songs for Dads" post.

Enjoy your Father's Day, y'all, father or not.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

More and Less

After years of listening to, carting around, losing, and, if need be, "misplacing" children's music albums, I have a few suggestions for those of you out there producing music for kids and families. No matter if you're doing theatrical productions, indie rock, or glossy children's pop, here are four things we can use more of, four things we can use less of.

More real instruments, fewer kids: I know little about the economics of the children's music business, but I know that recording a large band of musicians is more expensive than recording a small band or solo artist. You have to pay more musicians and it probably takes more time in the recording studio (if you have your own studio, I guess that's not so much a problem). Hootenanies might be fun, but they're not necessarily cheap. And the more instruments you use, the more you have to think about how it'll sound when you're playing live and you have a smaller band... or no band at all.

But it sounds sooooo much better when you use a broad array of real instruments. Songs that sound cramped and dinky with a programmed synthesizer sound so much fuller with a full band. You don't even need a full band -- the occasional fiddle or horn section on just one or two songs adds a tremendous amount of life to an album.

If you need to save recording studio time, you can always cut back on using kids in your songs. I generally find kids' voices more appealing as a musical spice (on the chorus, say) than as the main meal. No need to cut 'em out entirely, but just like a horn section and cayenne pepper, a little bit of a chorus of six-year-olds goes a long way.

More lyrics in the liner notes, less name-checking: I suspect part of the reason for not putting lyrics in liner notes is that it adds space and, therefore, cost to those notes. But especially with songs for kids, it's nice to have the lyrics handy, especially if the songs are traditional songs for kids intended for the parents and/or kids to sing along. Putting the lyrics on the artist's website is a nice try, but going over to the computer and finding the appropriate webpage isn't the easiest thing to do with a baby on your hip who's very interested in that mouse you're moving around with your right hand.

And speaking of lyrics, the small trend of children's music bands namechecking themselves in song has Got. To. Stop. Now. We get it, you're [-----------] and you're so much fun to listen to. There are two responses here: 1. Prove it. 2. Don't write a song about it. (Or, if you do, it had better be insanely catchy. See Point #1.)

More chords, less weird packaging: Before we pass by the concept of lyrics in the liner notes entirely, I should mention how nice it is also to have chords included in the liner notes. And I'm saying that as someone who doesn't even play the guitar and would have to plunk out chords on the piano. Chords are cool. In some sense it's aspirational -- it makes the parents think they might just one day learn how to play guitar and lead singalongs around the campfire. (And maybe it'll inspire a few parents to actually do that.)

But weird packaging is uncool. (Yes, the linkages here are increasingly tenuous.) Put your music in an oddly-shaped package and you run the risk of never having your disk played. The Sandra Boynton book/CD collections are nice, but we don't play them much because there's no convenient place to put the book (in which the CD is stored) near the stereo, let alone in the car. The CD sampler on the Laurie Berkner DVD is nice, but because it's pacakaged with the DVD, if you want to listen to it in the car, you're forced to take the DVD case with you, which is not the most elegant of solutions. (If only it were in the shape of a cup-holder. Then we'd be OK.)

And finally...

More songs, less Barney-bashing: You might be able to determine whether or not you'll like a song in 29 seconds, but I can't. I mean, it takes about 10 seconds to decide you hate a song, but a lot longer to decide that you (or your child) love it. So while I understand the costs of bandwidth, I heartily encourage artists to put full-length versions of some of their songs online. There are a number of different ways to get full versions of songs out to the public -- podcasts, Myspace, and, well, actual mp3s, to name just a few. It's better to put three full songs online than clips of all twelve. It's the best way to sell yourself to a public looking to find out more about a genre that's somewhat hidden.

But when you sell yourself by putting down someone else, you're just selling yourself short. (Did I just sound like Dr. Phil there? Urgh.) It's one thing for writers online and off- to bash Barney, the Wiggles, or Raffi (writers are trying to make distinctions), but another thing entirely for artists to do so. When you sell a recognizable fraction of the eight gazillion albums those artists have each sold, then you can say how much better you are than them. Until then, just talk about how great you are. The abuse of Raffi by some kids' musicians -- who, if he didn't invent kids' music, certainly created the idea of the kids' music genre -- is particularly mystifying to me. It's as if Fall Out Boy decided to promote themselves by trashing the Beatles.

Despite the weirdness of my segues, I think the concepts are not without merit. If you'll excuse me, I've got to continue my scientific experiments on making scratch-proof Arthur DVDs. (And you know how much of a Nobel-worthy accomplishment that would be.)

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Review In Brief: Close Your Eyes - Josephine Cameron

Josephine Cameron's 2005 release Close Your Eyes isn't really a kids' music album, but at its core it's an album of lullabies both traditional and original, and that's enough to a merit a review here. Based in Maine, singer-songwriter Cameron has a winsome voice reminiscent of Susanna Hoffs -- it's not my perfect voice for lullabies, but Cameron's phrasing and the understated jazzy instrumentals (piano, a little guitar, occasional drums) serve the songs nicely. The CD starts out a bit too loud and emphatic for proper lullabying, though Cameron's duet with Anna Vodicka on a medley of All Night All Day/Swing Low (Sweet Chariot) is enjoyable nonetheless. Starting with track #5, "Dream a Little Dream," however, Cameron puts together a mellow set of melodies, concluding with a lovely wordless "Lullaby" (co-written by Cameron and her producer Anthony Walton). (You can here clips of most tracks here and of the title track here.) Close Your Eyes is a nice choice and recommended for listeners seeking a lullabies album that avoids the standard fare and arrangements.

Songs For Dads

(Revised June 16, 2006)

While there are a few songs for moms, the list of songs for fathers is pretty short. So short, I considered putting Rankin' Don's "Father Goose" songs from Dan Zanes & Friends albums on the list. While fathers are sometimes characters in kids' music (the RTTs' "April 14th," Keith Munslow's "Accidentally"), they're rarely the subject. Here, then, is the short list -- if you have additions, please note them in the comments.

-- "Daddy-O," off Frances England's Fascinating Creatures
-- "My Dad!," off Alex and the Kaleidoscope Band's Kaleidoscope Songs, Vol 1
-- "Cat's in the Cradle," Harry Chapin (just kidding!)
-- "I'm So Glad To Be A Dad," off Dennis Caraher's Bow Wow Baby
-- "My Daddy Is Scratchy," off Jamie Broza's My Daddy Is Scratchy (thanks to Fran for the reminder)
-- "My Daddy (Flies a Ship in the Sky)," off the Daddy-O! Daddy Woody Guthrie tribute
-- "Courtship of Eddie's Father" (see comments)
-- "Dad" by Father Goose (comments)
-- "Thank you, Daddy" (comments)
-- "The Coffee Song," by Ralph's World, off At The Bottom of the Sea. (Yeah, I used it for the mom's list, but a reader reminded me it mentions D...A...D.D.Y.)

A reader also recommended Daddies Sing GoodNight: A Fathers' Collection of Sleepytime Songs, which isn't really a collection of songs about dads, but close enough...

And, a few for the adults (from commenters and e-mailers)...

-- "My Dad (My Pa)" by Nancy Sinatra
-- "Bein' a Dad" by Loudon Wainwright III
-- "The Kids Are Alright" by The Who
-- "Slow Turnin," "Your Dad Did," and "Stolen Moments" - John Hiatt
-- "Still Fighting It," Ben Folds ("You're so much like me / I'm sorry.")

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Review: Accidentally (on purpose) - Keith Munslow

The Rhode Island School of Design may be known for many things, but musically it may be most known nationally for being the incubator of the Talking Heads. On a smaller scale, however, perhaps it should also be known for Keith Munslow. Munslow, who has taught in RISD's Young Artist Program, released his third album for kids, Accidentally (on purpose), in 2005, and while there's nothing remotely resembling, say, "I Zimbra" on the disk, it's still a well-crafted album of children's music.

Munslow employs a wide variety of musical styles on the disk. Perhaps the best track is "Bad Robot," a swampy, bluesy stomp about a robot rampaging through the neighborhood (sort of). With a winning melody and a horn section (not to mention great lyrics and), the song works for both the 7-year-old and the adults in the car. (The dryly witty sound effects at the very end show the care taken to put this album together.) Beyond the blues, Munslow employs the polka ("Absentee Polka"), swing ("Dancin' in the Kitchen"), and even a touch of Randy Newman-esque pop, but without the cynical view of the world ("Cardboard Box"), among other styles. Munslow and his large cast of backup musicians give his lyrics a fine, well-played setting.

Lyrically, Munslow likes to tell stories. If you're reminded a little bit of Bill Harley (I was), it's not surprising to find out that Munslow and Harley have collaborated on a number of projects in the past. The title track, which leads off the album, includes some amusing couplets ("I accidentally tracked that mud in/ accidentally pushed my cousin / accidentally clogged the drain /accidentally called up Spain") but also crafts a small comeuppance for the narrator. A number of songs deal with imagination, both positively ("Cardboard Box" and "I Just Wanna Be a Frog") and, er, less so ("Bad Robot").

Kids ages 4 through 9 will most appreciate the overall package of the songs (the music is appropriate for a broader audience, it's the lyrics that won't interest the youngest ones very much). You can hear samples and read the lyrics from the 29-minute album here. The album is available through Munslow's store, CDBaby, and the iTunes Music Store.

While the album isn't perfect throughout, that's probably just because the first three or four songs are so strong that the merely good songs on the rest of the disk just don't quite compare. But overall Accidentally (on purpose) is a fine, well-crafted album of creative children's pop. Recommended.

Yeah, I Liked Catch That Train! Too

Wow, you go from reading Dan Zanes' newsletters to finding yourself quoted (or at least linked) in Dan Zanes newsletters. It's enough to make you a little dizzy. (Thanks to the fine folks at Festival Five for the mention.)

If you're one of those newsletter readers, and you're new to the site, welcome. You'll find a lot of other artists here who are making a career out of making family-friendly (or, as Zanes puts it, "age-desegregated") music. Zanes is pretty unique, but if you like his stuff (and I certainly do), you're certain to find another artist or blogger you'll enjoy (if you haven't already).

For those of you not on the DZ e-mail list, two things:
1. Why not? (Go here and enter your e-mail address to join.)
2. The newsletter posts a link to where you can watch video clips of the 4 videos currently showing on Playhouse Disney. (Catch That Train!, Let's Shake, Malti, and Down in the Valley)

(Congrats, too, to the Lovely Mrs. Davis for the linkage as well.)

Monday, June 12, 2006

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

One of Zooglobble's West Coast readers, Katy, was inspired by my review of the two Why Not Sea Monsters? albums (featuring Justin Roberts and Liam Davis) to provide her own view of the albums. Her spiritual background (much stronger than mine, as you'll see) makes for a slightly different perspective on the disks. And while I don't envision making reader reviews a common occurrence here (though y'all are welcome to do so in the comments), I thought this review merited its own post.


As a minister in the United Church of Christ as well as mother to two girls (5 and 7 ½) who are big Justin Roberts fans, I wasn’t sure at first what to make of these scripture-based CDs. Until I listened to them. And then I was completely sold. First off, I should confess that I describe myself as a liberal/progressive Christian (yes, we do exist!), so it’s hard for folks like me to find scripture-based material that’s fun to listen to and at the same time consistent with the message we want to teach our kids. As a rule, I tend to be leery of contemporary Christian music because I find it is often poorly done musically, or it’s bad theology, or both. With a Master’s Degree from University of Chicago Divinity School (the “Harvard” of U.S. theological schools), Justin Roberts has done his homework here. His music makes the texts accessible and theologically sound to my way of hearing, without dumbing them down.

I find the Hebrew Scriptures CD is somewhat more enjoyable than the New Testament. I tend to turn toward this CD more often, but more because of the music than the texts they’re based upon. I love his take on the story of Noah’s Ark on “Make That Two.” And the lyrics to “No Spring Chicken,” in reference to the story of Abraham, are beautiful (“But love is longer than the Nile/lift your eyes to the stars above/And watch them as they burst and bloom with love.”). Finally, his and Liam Davis’s version of Craig Wright’s song, “Where Were You?” from the Book of Job, is stunning. It always sends chills down my spine. Having said that, I find the line, “Imagine towers wreathed with smoke” jarring because I can’t help thinking of 9/11. Still, the overall mood of the song more than makes up for that one line.

As for the New Testament CD, it contains so many of my favorite gospel stories that emphasize Jesus’ message of love and inclusion, that I really like it too (the Prodigal Son in “Now You’re Back,” the Banquet of Heaven in “Guess Who’s”, the Good Samaritan in “Not Today”). There’s also the story of Zacchaeus in “What’s He Doing Up There?” As a tax collector, Zacchaeus would have been ‘persona non grata’ in the culture of the time since he served the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, Jesus sees his faith and invites him to a meal, which completely challenged contemporary views on socially acceptable behavior (Jesus did a lot of that). I also really love “Shh Shh Shh”, about Mary and Martha, and “Rub-a-dub-a-dub-dub.” I never would have thought to put the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet to a reggae beat with a kazoo orchestra—but it totally works. Roberts and Davis infuse all these stories with so much new life and humor that I hear them in a whole new way. That’s no small task. And I really appreciate the inclusion of biblical women in both CDs (Lydia, Ruth, Mary and Martha, Sarah, etc.).

Another benefit of these CDs is that they have led my daughters to ask me, on many occasions, “Mommy, tell me about this story…” As a result of these CDs, we have had many more discussions about God’s love, serving the poor, including people who are often left out, etc., than we would have otherwise. It’s really nice to have some good music between Sundays to back up the values we want to live by as a family. I will definitely be using these CDs in our Sunday School program, and I am telling friends and colleagues in other churches about them too.

This Week: All Over The Board

If I have no theme for the week other than "no theme," does that mean I have no theme?

While I'm pondering that conundrum, do check out my reviews of disks from Duplex and Captain Bogg & Salty if you missed 'em. (And, yes, there will be plenty more this week.)

And thanks as always to everyone who reads, comments, and e-mails. Keep 'em all coming!

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Review: Pegleg Tango - Captain Bogg & Salty

Let's see... rock songs with not a little bit of theatricality. Lots of nautical themes. Band out of Portland, Oregon. We're talking about the Decemberists, right?

Well, not exactly. Pegleg Tango, released in 2005, is the second album from the Portland-based group Captain Bogg & Salty. Captain Bogg & Salty has been playing pirate-themed rock and pop for kids and adults since 1999. Unlike Monty Python's famous short film appended to the start of The Meaning of Life, The Crimson Permanent Assurance, which applied the themes of the business world to a pirate movie structure, Pegleg Tango more often applies themes of pirate life to a rock/pop song structure.

Musically, the six-piece band appropriates a number of different styles on the 39-minute disk -- gorgeous pop on the midtempo "Sea Monster," theatrical Decemberists-esque storytelling on "Scallywagg," or the '50s rock rave up "Pirate Party," to name just three. The theatrical background of the band (many of them with musical theater or sketch comedy backgrounds) comes through most noticeably on songs such as "I'm A Pirate," which interrupts its surf-rock tune to do an amusing "Wide World of Sports" riff, or "Sea Kings," an Elvis-like slow pop tune featuring a spoken-word interlude by the clearly demented Captain Bogg himself.

If you're looking for true pirate songs, I have a feeling you'd be a little disappointed by the disk, which only has 3 or 4 songs which I would consider shanty-like. Lyrically, however, even the most modern tunes have a very piratical focus, alternating between the boredom of life at sea (and what's done to alleviate that boredom) and the excitement of plundering. Frankly, the only parts of the disk that I didn't care for very much were the 3 audio sketches, and that was mostly for the fact that audio level on those was so much quieter than the music that it made it hard to listen to.

Kids love pirates, though without the visuals, I think the CD itself would appeal most to kids age 5 through 9. You can listen some sound clips at the band's website here or more here.

There are those of you for whom listening to pirate music would be akin to walking the plank. (What, you didn't think I'd make at least one pirate reference here?) You should stay away from this. But for the rest of us, even though the captain is slightly deranged, the journey on Captain Bogg & Salty's Pegleg Tango is an enjoyable one. Recommended.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Links Are My Bandsaws

I don't have many power tools, and unless guided by somebody more adept, my puttering around the house is typically limited to replacing light bulbs or fixing [insert name of minor house failure -- and we have a lot of them -- here].

But I do putter around with my sidebar, and so I wanted to draw your attention to a couple additions there on the right.

First, Troy at Songstreet is a compatriot of Devon at Head, Shoulders.... If you're interested in musical activities with young kids, both sites are great places to go.

Second, although Bill at Spare the Rock will always be first among kids' radio equals for me, the fine folks at WFMU's Greasy Kids Stuff also have great playlists. You can see (and listen to) playlists here.

I should also note that the Lovely Mrs. Davis and Fran at the About Kids Music site have both continued to post lots of reviews recently and you should check them out if you don't on a regular basis.

Finally, thanks to a couple kids' books sites for links -- Big A little a and Book Buds. As many kids' music CDs are released every year, there are probably 5 times as many kids' books published. I don't have a kids' books sidebar section (yet), but those two are good places to start to learn more about new (and old) kids' books. (I also want to note that fellow blogger Clea at small ages has her own pair of crafty books out -- check out her blog for more details.)

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Review: Ablum - Duplex!

Presented with a band that includes 3-, 11-, and 12-year-old kids as members, plus an album cover that makes it look very much like the 3-year-old was the artistic director for the album, Ablum (2005), by the Vancouver-based Duplex!, had a couple strikes going against it according to my general bias against kids in bands and bad album cover art.

Thank goodness I have no idea what I'm talking about there, because this is a very good album. Consisting of adult members from assorted north-of-the-border bands (The Beekeepers, p:ano, and more) plus a few of their kids, Duplex! is very much a side-project supergroup. And while my temptation is compare them with labelmates and Western Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers ('cuz I'll do anything to work in a reference to them), the more appropriate comparison is the Eastern Canadian supergroup Broken Social Scene. While the New Pornographers work up their tunes into a polished if frenzied power pop sheen, Broken Social Scene plays things loose, sometimes sounding ragged around the edges.

It's the general ragged charm of the album, plus the willingness of the group to throw just about everything against the wall and see what sticks, that is its strength. From the Grateful Dead-noodlings of the album opener "Yr Mama" to the Cake stylings of "Heatin' Up the Milk," there are few musical stylings that it doesn't cover. Euro-cabaret of 8 1/2 Souvenirs? Try "Mr. Slim or "Bethlehem." Sleater-Kinney? Try "Nucat." Ska? "DNA."

The album is not without a strong sense of humor, amusing both youngsters and hipsters. For kids, the album's particular enjoyment in rhymes is particularly noticeable in "The Salad Song, " which takes a decidedly anti-green approach ("Spinach, cucumber / I think I'm going under / Cabbage and sprouts / I have a lot of doubts"). Adults will probably appreciate more the cabaret song "Bethlehem" and its less-than-reverent view of the city ("Bethlehem / Where the beds are fluffy and the rocks are hard / where everyday is a holiday card"). For the most part, though, the subjects (including poop, monkeys, and multiplication) are very kid-focused.

When you throw everything against the wall, some of it is bound to, uh, slide off. The spoken word "Lament of the House Rabbit" is tedious while "Lookit Me!" is as annoying as your 4-year-old who wants you to look at her every five seconds for what seems like an eternity. But those are exceptions, not the rule.

Kids age 3 through 8 (or 38) are most likely going to enjoy this album. You can buy the CD at many online stores (physical and download formats), and find samples there. (There are no samples at the Mint Records page for the band.)

If you have any sort of indie-music tendencies, you will find something to amuse and entertain you in Ablum. The giddy fun in making the record comes through loud and clear on the album, and you'll find yourself telling others, "Yeah, the album cover's kinda dorky, but wait 'til you hear it..." Definitely recommended.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Review: Rock Your Socks Off - Charity and the JAMband

There must be a scientific study out there verifying what a lot of parents already know through personal experience -- your child's endurance when it comes to dancing outpaces yours. Sure, you go to the gym three times a week, but your kid, he's Lance Armstrong with the stereo on.

If this sounds at all familiar to you, then the third release from the Bay Area-based Charity and the JAMband, Rock Your Socks Off (2006), will come as a welcome relief to your legs, because it's filled with enough boogie-friendly music to tucker out even the most energetic of kids.

The album is filled with kid-friendly and self-empowering themes mixed with a (I wouldn't say it if weren't true) jam-band attitude and style. On the album's best songs, singer-songwriter Charity Kahn encourages kids to move to the music with a soulful voice and wordplay both direct and abstract. On the infectious "Happy Fluffy," lyrics such as "You're gonna jump around / Jump jump around / Jump around / Jump up and down" are matched to a bouncy melodic line that does its best to encourage actual jumping. Meanwhile, on the closest thing to an actual jam on the album, the leadoff track "Travellin'" includes a whole mess of bluesy nonsense wordplay ("car jam jeep jam double-decker bus jam / bug jam beetle jam chuckwagon van jam").

Musically, the 6-person JAMband itself has a great sound together, but with enough looseness to not feel too structured. Although it's mostly soulful and funky, the music takes some detours (the amusing "Towel Tango," for example). Some of the tracks are really motion oriented and may not sound all that appealing while stuck in traffic driving to soccer practice (I'm thinking here of "We Need Mud" and "Cake"). And two tracks just before the end ("Wish" and "Peace Dream") bring the dance party to an abrupt halt. After more than 30 minutes of dancing and movement, it's probably necessary, but these two tracks are really slow and lyrically serious and feel out-of-step with the rest of the album.

Lyrically, the album is probably most appropriate for kids age 4 through 8, although any kid stable enough to boogie will probably enjoy the rhythms and music here. You can listen to samples of the album at the CDBaby website for the album as well as watch a video for "Cake" at the Indie Food Channel.

The Grateful Dead and Phish have each gone their separate ways. But with Rock Your Socks Off, you could actually rediscover a little bit of the jam-band magic (even after you need to take a break collapsed on the living room floor from exhaustion). Recommended.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Song of the Day: Baby Kangaroo - Joe McDermott

A quick one... Joe McDermott is an Austin, Texas-based kids' musician. "Baby Kangaroo" is off his third album, entitled Everywhere You Go. It's a catchy little ditty about the joys of owning a baby kangaroo. Near the beginning, McDermott sings...

"I think you should get a baby kangaroo
It might just be the perfect pet for you
They bounce (16x)
And they also hop"

And so it's this cute and cuddly song for 3-year-olds. But as the song progresses, the narrator quickly shows the weariness of owning a kangaroo over a long period of time...

"In about two years it will be fully grown
You'll need a bigger yard and you'll need a bigger home
Cause when he was little he loved to bounce
And now he's bigger and he loves to Bounce"

The lyrics don't quite do the weariness justice (nor do they include the amusing off-the-cuff remarks). The lyrics also don't do justice to the two other things I like about the song:

1. The fact that it's sung virtually a cappella, and
2. The sole instrument accompanying the voices is what sounds very much like a ping-pong ball.

The ping-pong ball is now my favorite part of the song.

You can hear a 1-minute clip of the song here.

So now, dear reader, you have three choices for what to listen for the traditional 2nd-song-in-the-Song-of-the-Day-post. It's a Choose Your Own Adventure, Zooglobble-style!

1. For another amusing (and even more meta-) a cappella song, try "A Cappella," off Larry Sherwin's Turn Up The Music! (Go to the appropropriate link here.)

2. For accompaniment that includes a ping-pong ball, try They Might Be Giants' "Bed Bed Bed Bed Bed," from No!. (You can hear samples at many places, including CDBaby.)

3. Or, for a more traditional "Song of the Day" reference, go to the Futureheads' website and check out any of their many videos. Nobody combines punk sensibilities and four-part harmony any better. (Go here and click on "Videos." "Hounds of Love" is an awesome, awesome cover.)

This Week: Heading West

So long, Chicago -- this week on Zooglobble it's West Coast-related artists. That's right, we'll have reviews of new albums by Ice Cube and Pearl Jam and... [whisper, whisper]... oh, you're probably right. OK, scratch that, we've got some other artists to talk about.

And if you missed the interview with Justin Roberts or the review of his Why Not Sea Monsters? albums with Liam Davis, check 'em out.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Review: Chocolate Milk - ScribbleMonster and His Pals

In college, I had a friend who occasionally entertained crowds by doing rock classics in the one-and-only voice of Ethel Merman. You've not lived 'til you've heard an Ethel Merman impersonator doing performing "Black Dog" by Led Zeppelin. ("Hey hey mama, said the way you move...") The incongruity of rock lyric and near-cartoonish voice rarely failed to bring down the house. Nobody could take that voice seriously.

I think most people would agree that "Black Dog" isn't a kids' song, but the question remains: why is it that some children's music feels the need to use cartoon voices? Cartoonish voices are good... in cartoons. Stripped of the visuals, cartoonish voices can become very tiresome very quickly. Do you want to hear an entire album of alternative pop recorded by, say, Bugs Bunny?

ScribbleMonster and His Pals attempts to bridge that gap on their 2004 album, their second, Chocolate Milk. ScribbleMonster is joined by ScribbleKitty, ScribblePiggy, and ScribbleBunny in singing seriously catchy power-pop melodies. Can the combination work?

Not entirely. This is best demonstrated on the title track (which fills the "void of festive, drinking songs for kids"); it's actually found twice on the album. On the first version of the song, voiced by ScribbleMonster, the growly voice causes me some ScribblePain. The second version, voiced by ScribbleJim (James Dague, the Chicago-area group's songwriter and voice for ScribbleMonster) provides no small amount of ScribbleJoy and is a ridiculously catchy song. "Beautiful Day" borrows part of the chord progression from Weezer's "Island in the Sun," and has the same, mellow alterna-pop feel of Weezer's song. In a good way. Because it's sung by "ScribbleKitty," whose voice is, well, normal, it's pleasant to listen to. (And while we're on the subject of songs sounding a lot like other, older songs, "Don't Cry, Dance" makes me wonder if the ScribbleAnimals haven't been to more than a few showings of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.)

The power-pop melodies and instrumentation will be familiar to fans of alternative pop and rock over the past 20 years, with mid-tempo rockers and quite a bit of fuzzy electric guitar. The lyrics are written with good humor and have little pretension. "The World's Greatest," for example, a driving rocker about being whatever you want to be, a standard topic for kids songs, has a list of entirely reasonable careers, including lines about "I'm gonna be the world's greatest plumber / I'll clear a clog like nobody else can." Any song that sings about becoming a plumber without condescension is OK by me.

The album will probably appeal most to kids ages 3 through 8. You can hear a number of songs at the ScribbleBooks Music page, or watch some additional videos at their Video page. You can buy the 32-minute album through the ScribbleMonster website and the other usual online suspects (in physical or download format).

In the end, I can't recommend Chocolate Milk entirely because of the cartoonish voices, but other listeners may not have the same eye-twitching that the voices cause me on some of the tracks, so if you're interested check out the Music and Video links above. Behind those cartoon voices you'll find a nice batch of kids' alterna-pop. And if ScribbleJim ever releases an album, I am so there.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kid Astro - Ralph's World

Listening to The Amazing Adventures of Kid Astro (2004), Ralph Covert's fifth album as Ralph's World, one can't help shake the feeling that Covert spent a lot of time listening to AM radio growing up. Because the album sounds like what kid might hearing moving up and down the AM side of the dial (and occasionally flipping over to FM).

Take one of the strongest cuts on the album -- "Fee Fi Fo Fum," which is a great little slice of bluesy garage rock. Covert sings it with a Jagger-like swagger; and even '90s garage-rock revivalists The Smithereens wouldn't do it any better. (Not to mention Covert slides in some healthy self-esteem lyrics such as ("It doesn’t matter who our friends are / if you got some Fee Fi Fo Fum / It doesn’t matter who our friends are and / let me tell you everybody got some"). "Dumptruck" has a funky countryfied sound with a slinky bridge. "We Are Ants" is a sweet piece of bubblegum pop that would sound great on any oldies station today. (Sure, it copies some of the chord structure from "Fee Fi Fo Fum," but why wouldn't you when it sounds so good?) "Sun in My Eyes," despite some clunky lyrics ("And the simple things are simple / And the truth will still be true"), sounds like a Beatles outtake.

Even on the songs I didn't enjoy I can appreciate what Covert's trying to do. "The Tea Tale" is a slice of James Taylor at his most acoustic. The lyrics and arrangement don't do much for me, but I recognize that's a matter of taste, not execution. And the title cut nicely blends the outrageous tropes of Saturday-morning adventure cartoons with the ever-popular-with-kids-genre of... prog-rock. For all those kids begging their parents to play their copy of Genesis' The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. (OK, I really don't care for prog-rock. Having said that, it's not half-bad.) On all the songs, Covert backs himself up with a crack band and well-placed soloists (the clarinet on the zippy "Miss Molly Crackerjack," for example).

With songs about dumptrucks and first kisses, it covers a wide range, age-wise, perhaps ages 3 through 10. You can read lyrics and get an mp3 of "Fee Fi Fo Fum" at the Ralph's World site here. The 36-minute album is available at many online (iTunes Music Store, included) and finer retail locations.

Over the years in Ralph's World, Ralph Covert has honed his children's pop and rock songwriting skills, coming up with great hooks while generally steering clear of lyrical sappiness. The rockers and gentle acoustic ballads combine in The Amazing Adventures of Kid Astro to make for an album which sounds just as nice coming out of your speakers in the 2000s as it would have in the 1970s. Definitely recommended.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Please Release Me (June 2006 Edition)

The list of June 2006 children's music-related releases is pretty slim, at least compared to May 2006. So now that all the kids (except those in those newfangled "year-round" schools) are on summer vacation, the labels are, too? Ah, well...

June 6 - Cars Soundtrack -- Hey, it's got Sheryl Crow, James Taylor, and Randy Newman. That's enough to at least be worth further investigation. (To listen to 1-minute samples of each song, go here and click on "Music" up on the right-hand side.)
June 20 - Eric Herman - Snow Day. Releasing an album titled "Snow Day" on essentially the first day of summer is just cruel to those of us living in Phoenix. Setting that aside, you can listen to random tracks off all of Herman's CDs here.
July 5 - Rebecca Frezza - Tall and Small. Yeah, it's a July release, not June. Sue me, it was a short list.

Lots of stuff coming up this summer and into the fall.