Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Review: Paws Claws Scales and Tales - Monty Harper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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