Four on the Floor (Kids Music Reviews for Preschoolers)

Owl Singalong cover

Owl Singalong cover

Here's the next installment of reviews of albums before I pause a bit with my reviews.  Last week I covered some recent (2017) releases, but this week's roundup includes some albums more than a year old.

I wanted to take a look at some recent albums targeted at the preschool set, those kids moving close to (if not sitting directly on) the ground.  This isn't a complete listing of such albums, but they are four albums that I think give a fair overview of where 21st century music for your favorite 3-year-old is at the moment.

We'll start with the most famous kids musician on this list, and arguably, the first kids music superstar -- Raffi.  Most folks recognize the first wave of kids musicians -- legends like Pete Seeger, Ella Jenkins, Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly -- as folksingers, including the social justice component that folksingers have often been recognized as having, especially in the United States from the '30s through the '60s.  They weren't just singing about animals and playtime, they also sang about freedom and justice.  (Sometimes they even did so simultaneously.)

It took awhile, but Raffi has become every bit the political folksinger his predecessors were.  When he first burst onto the scene in the mid-1970s, his first albums were classic sing-along stuff, but he avoided political items.  Gradually, however, he mixed in songs celebrating the natural world, with "Baby Beluga" becoming a touchstone song for hundreds of thousands of kids in the early '80s.

His 2016 album Owl Singalong came comparatively quickly on the heels of his previous album, 2014's Love Bug, signifying new inspiration after more than a decade away from the genre, and this album is filled with lots of songs celebrating the importance of the natural world and, one senses, a new urgency from the 68-year-old Canadian singer.

There's a sprightliness to the music here, aided by Raffi's newfound discovery of the ukulele.  Longtime friend and collaborator Ken Whiteley and his son Ben help out with instrumentals, his niece Kristin Cavoukian sings on a couple songs, as do a number of others, and he deftly mixes new takes on old classic music circle songs like "More We Sing Together" and "The Lion Pokey" with folk songs written with a wider circle in mind, like "The Garden Song" and "Somos El Barco."  (Oddly enough, this may be the album pitched at the oldest audience of these four.)  Raffi's voice is as fine as ever, though he's still willing to be very playful with his voice, too.  All in all, this is a fine collection of songs, a worthy addition to Raffi's long discography.

Love Bug cover

Love Bug cover

Another artist who covers much the same ground as Raffi is Maryland's Valerie Smalkin.  A ventriloquist and musician who's been performing a long time, her 2016 album Love Bug (see, a Raffi connection right there!) could easily find a home in many a preschool classroom.  For the most part, the album is filled with originals with a couple more traditional songs ("Hey Betty Martin," "Bumblebee") mixed in.  The physical album comes with suggestions for making listening to the songs a more interactive process as well, which is not unusual for these types of albums -- it's another common theme we often see.  The execution of these songs in arrangements is just enough improved over most such albums that I think it won't wear out its welcome nearly as fast.  Smalkin's appealing voice helps out as well.  (I could do with less synth, but most similar types of albums lean on that synth even more than it's leaned on here.)  I wouldn't listen to this album by itself as much as I would the other three albums here, but for those looking for a little more movement and interaction as part of their listening experience, this might do the trick.

Songs for Little Ones cover

Songs for Little Ones cover

Moving on to an artist clearly inspired by Raffi -- Charlie Hope.  I've compared the Canadian/American Hope favorably with the Canadian legend, and her latest album, Songs for Little Ones, released late last year, does nothing to dissuade me from the comparison.

Whereas her previous albums tended to be a little more of a mix of original songs (and some darn catchy ones to boot) and classic kids' songs, this new album shifts the balance of the songs to the classic side, with only 3 originals -- still lovely -- and 22 covers.  I tend to think that new families should have multiple versions of these types of albums just so those families can hear how, say, Raffi's take on "Down By the Bay" differs from Hope's here, but there are far worse voices to include on a short list of albums of classic songs than Hope's bright, clear voice.  The arrangements here are more folk-pop -- no synths, but poppier perhaps than Raffi's earthier approach (just enough tasteful percussion or perhaps an occasional string instrument or recorder to liven it up).

Away We Go cover

Away We Go cover

Finally we have Caspar Babypants.  Chris Ballew has been remarkably consistent and productive in making remarkably good music for preschoolers over the past decade, and there's nothing in his latest, 2016's Away We Go!, that changes that assessment.  Ballew heads the other direction as Hope, as this new album leans more heavily towards original tunes than reworking classic kids' songs.  There are some nifty new takes, like the concluding track "If You're Sleepy," which converts "If You're Happy and You Know It" into a very sleepy (and very Beatles-esque) wind-down track.  It's mostly a solo effort from Ballew, with only Jen Wood providing vocals on "If You're Sleepy" and the Okee Dokee Brothers pitching in on a couple tracks, but his poppy arrangements are, as always, filled with verve and occasional surprises.  And as always, Ballew's lyrics are fanciful (tiny horses, runaway pancakes, best friends snail and spider) and playful.

If I were to pick the album I'd listen to most on repeat, it'd probably be the Caspar Babypants album just because it's the most varied in melody and words, with the Raffi a close, close second.  But Songs For Little Ones would make a fine addition to any home or preschool classroom, and I think Love Bug could find a good home in a classroom as well.  They're all recommended to varying degrees.

Note: I was given a copy of these albums for possible review.

Kindie Keeps on Tickin' (Reviews of Early 2017 Albums)

After questioning why people read record reviews, I also said that I'd be taking a break writing reviews, at least as how I'd normally conceived of them.

But I had a few more albums -- a couple dozen maybe -- I wanted to get through first.

So let's take a look at a quartet of recently-released albums that show how kindie keeps on tickin' even while I get a little antsy about writing reviews.

The quartet can essentially be split into a couple of duos, the first pair a little more conventional, the second pair a little more atmospheric and adventurous.  Both pairs of albums have a lot to offer their listeners, but will probably have their own distinct sets of fans.

Big Buncha Buddies album cover

Big Buncha Buddies album cover

Let's deal with the more conventional albums first, starting with Big Buncha Buddies, a self-titled debut from Keith Munslow and Bridget Brewer

Munslow is a musician and comedian with a number of albums under his belt, while this is Brewer’s first, but her sense of humor (and voice) blends nicely with Munslow’s.  Some songs use humor as the default (“That Was A Bad Idea,” “Why Did You Teach Me That Word,” which is a country ballad bemoaning a questionable parental decision) whereas others just have a comedic interlude (Brewer’s pleading with her overeager and misguided dog in “Stray Dog”).  But there’s always a non-cloying sense of love and friendship, most notably on the last track “Don’t Grow Up Too Fast” and on the album’s centerpiece literally and figuratively “The Loneliest Whale,” which posits a connection between a solitary whale and a child trying to make her social way through the world.  Gently, the 35-minute album presumes a world in which people have imagination, are a little bit weird, and make connections despite (or because) of it.  Which as a non-obtrusive background to a set of songs that will amuse your 5-9-year-old, is a nice bonus.

Trippin' Round the Mitten album cover

Trippin' Round the Mitten album cover

Onward to Randy Kaplan, whose latest album Trippin’ Round the Mitten features his usual set of humorous takes, often featuring Kaplan as an aggrieved narrator dealing with the frustrations of the world around him.  Now that Kaplan’s a father, he’s got an even more constant stream of inspiration.  Kaplan has excellent taste in cover songs, sliding in ELO’s “Jungle,” The Dead Milkmen’s “Beach Song,” and “Mr. Bass Man” (among others), not to mention a sharp parodic ear, reworking “Mr. Bass Man” into “Mr. Spaceman” (hi, Elon Musk!) and turning Maroon 5’s “Sugar”’s inappropriate-for-a-four-year-old’s lyrics into an ode to a four-year-old’s favorite ingredient.  Kaplan’s comedic approach could be wearying if it weren’t for the fact that he’ll thrown in an incredibly heartfelt song, like following up “Cat & Mice” (about what happens on a “guys weekend” with dad and son) with longtime producer Mike West’s “Tongue Tied,” a gorgeous apology in song that parents and kids have both felt.  And in the case of Kaplan’s “On the Phone on the Toilet,” the salty and sweet are inextricably mixed.  Kaplan doesn’t change his formula here, but when the formula works well as it does again, I’m OK with that.  Longtime fans will dig in; if you’re new to Kaplan, this album is a fine place to start for your favorite 4-to-8-year old.

Spectacular Daydream album cover

Spectacular Daydream album cover

Moving on then, to the dreamier pair of albums, starting with Mo Phillips’ Spectacular Daydream, which is a strong contender for Most Accurate Album Title of the year, as the Portland musician gives us a dozen songs that seem inspired by, or designed to encourage listeners to, sleep.  It’s not that this is a lullaby album, but the dreamy imagery (sample lyrics: “Your ears are made out of French toast”) and lush and often mellow musical arrangements -- and guest artists including fellow Portland musician Red Yarn -- encourage a relaxed listen rather than active engagement.  The prominent use of ukulele helps in this regard as well.  In fact, thanks to a grant from Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council, Phillips has turned the album into a ukulele songbook with elaborate drawings -- it’s definitely the one album I’d encourage tracking down in physical format if you care at all about it.  (The younger listeners in the 3-to-7-year-old target audience may want to color the illustrations, too.)  Along with Pointed Man Band’s Between the Waves and the Cardoons and Red Yarn’s Born in the Deep Woods, Spectacular Daydream is the third in what has been an impressive 2017 thus far for Portland-based kids music.

The Moonlights album cover

The Moonlights album cover

Finally we have The Moonlights, the debut from The Moonlights, better known to kindie fans as the duo's component parts, Dean Jones (Dog on Fleas, kindie super-producer) and Rachel Loshak (Gustafer Yellowgold).  From the album's very start, when "That Light" quotes Shakespeare, there's a fable-like quality to the 33-minute album that is completely enchanting.  (That album cover picture of a moon shrouded in fog is an excellent visual companion.)  The songs celebrate the natural world in all its many splendors, often in awe, but occasionally feature a more comedic touch.  "Symphony for Dogs" is about writing a symphony for canines that humans can't hear while "Early Bird" spins the phrase "the early bird gets the worm" into a whole series of animal pairings.  And while the dueting between Jones and Loshak is lovely on tracks like "Colour of Leaves" and "Bake a Cake" (the sweetest love song you'll hear on a kindie album this year), I think it's really Loshak's voice which is the star, a clear soprano deployed to beautiful and occasionally humorous effect, featured by Jones' typical instrumentally restrained but eclectic arrangements.  To me, this ranks up there with Dog on Fleas' best albums and Jones' solo Napper Delight.  These four albums are all worth you checking out -- all definitely recommended to be sure -- but this one is my personal favorite, definitely a candidate for my favorite of the year.

Top Kids and Family Podcasts (March 2017)

This month podcasters are using the hashtag #trypod on Twitter to suggest a podcast for listeners.  If you still haven't tried listening to podcasts, you're missing out on a wonderful world of audio content, and the hashtag is a great, albeit perhaps overwhelming, way to jump in.

If you're looking for a podcast for kids, you could of course look at my list of podcasts for kids but you could also look at the nebulously-ranked world of podcasts, this time for March 2017.  (Here is January's list of top-ranked kids and family podcasts.)  Popularity isn't always synonymous with quality, but you could do much worse than dipping into the shows ranked below to start out.

This month's list looks similar to previous months, although the rankings of these particular podcasts within the "kids and family" charts in the iTunes and Stitcher kids and family charts always fluctuate a bit.  The total number of podcasts listed below is 30, down from the record high of 32 on the last chart and once again none of the iTunes Kids & Family podcasts hit the overall Top 200, but if you dip down into the Top 200 Kids & Family chart on iTunes, the total there (33) I think was a record.

As always: this is a blunt instrument, combining pure rankings from two fairly opaque charts, and for a variety of reasons has only marginal value as a measure of quality.  (Results compiled from Top 100 podcasts on iTunes and Stitcher "kids and family" charts on Thursday, March 16, 2017.  Podcasts that appear on both charts are listed with numbers; remaining podcasts only appeared on one list.)  In this particular month, the hybrid nature of the chart penalizes the brand-new Dream Big and relatively-new Disney Story Central podcasts neither of them chart on Stitcher while generally appearing in the Top 5 or 10 and iTunes.  So: grain of salt noted.

Two other reminders:

1.  If you're looking for a list that has most (or all) of these podcasts, check out my comprehensive list of podcasts for kids.

2. If you're interested in the future of podcasts for kids, you might be interested in Kids Listen, a grassroots organization of podcasters and folks like me interested in helping high-quality audio for children thrive.  We're looking for other interested folks -- producers or otherwise -- to join in!

With that out of the way, let's get to the chart.

1. (tie) Stories Podcast

1. (tie) Brains On

3. Storynory

4. Story Time

5. Tumble

6. Story Pirates

7. The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian

8. The Unexplainable Disappearance of Mars Patel

9. The Radio Adventures of Eleanor Amplified

10. The Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd

Others (listed alphabetically): Activated Stories, Bedtime History, Book Club for Kids, But Why, Children Stories and Joyful, The Children's Corner, Children's Fun Storytime, The Cramazingly Incredifun Sugarcrash Kids Podcast, Disney Story Central, Dream Big, Ear Snacks, Family Folk Tales, Little Stories for Tiny People, Molly and the Sugar Monster, Official Adventures in Odyssey, Peace Out, Short and Curly, Sparkle Stories, The Story Home, That Story Show

Video: "OK Toilet Bowl" - StevenSteven

I am Team Kids Music Is Generally Better When It's Not Educational.

But I am also Team StevenSteven.

So, when presented with "OK Toilet Bowl," from the duo's fine debut album Foreverywhere, I am conflicted.  On the one hand, it's a song encouraging kids to poop in the toilet -- there's little in terms of subject matter that could be more "educational for kids."

On the other hand... it's just such an awesome song.  And when the video features a cheesy '70s-style game show lyric video to go along with the cheesy vibe of the song, Steve Burns in a 'fro out to here, and its own dance move to rival the Macarena, I guess I'm sunk.  Team StevenSteven all the way, I guess.

StevenSteven - "OK Toilet Bowl" [YouTube]

Why Read Music Reviews?

I started this website in part because when I was a new parent looking for music to listen to with an infant Miss Mary Mack, all I could find were 50-word blurbs (not much more than a couple tweets, long before "tweets" were a thing).  They almost uniformly said that the albums were great.  I had no idea what they sounded like, and I didn't trust those reviews At All.

It was the turn of the century, and while I suppose I could have used Napster or other file streaming sites, I was never much of a person for illegality, and besides, it's unlikely there would have been much kids music on there.  Even more importantly, even if I had found kids music on there, I would have had no direction to find out what I should start out with.

So when I started writing reviews at the request of my wife, filling out a page or two of her parenting group newsletter, I was conscious of filling a need, not through blisteringly funny or devastating or inventive narrative, but through simple information -- who did the artist sound like (often meaning an "adult" artist), what was the best age range, even where somebody could purchase the albums, which was not so easy to find fifteen years ago.  (Thankfully, that last point is something I've dropped over time in my reviews.)

I gradually copied those interviews over to this website when I started it in 2004, and I suppose if I had stuck with just reviews, I might have tired of the website fairly soon.  But a little website called "YouTube" got its start in 2005, and gradually over time it became easy to embed videos, and then songs and albums into website posts.  What could easily have become a website filled with nothing but words about music became something that mixed those words with the music and images featuring that music.

And people responded.  Not in throwing fistfuls-of-money-at-me ways, but parents and artists responded with words of thanks and requests for advice.  I knew I had an audience and figured I was having some sort of impact -- it seemed like there were others that were looking for the same I had been looking for a few years earlier.  I never wrote for the adulation or attention, but it was useful to know that my desire to find a somewhat more fully-rounded approach for music for kids and families -- kids music worth sharing, to coin a phrase -- was not some crazy approach that I, and I alone, sought.

I wrote a review about Red Yarn's newest album Born in the Deep Woods last week.  It's an excellent album, and I had a lot of fun writing the review.  Really, how often do you get to make a "More cowbell!" reference that makes 100% sense in the context of, well, just about anything you write?

But writing that review helped me see in even starker contrast how writing a review has been a comparatively rare event for me over the past 6-12 months.  For someone who's written reviews of maybe 750 albums, of maybe 50 albums a year or more, to slow down to maybe a dozen over the past eight months or so is a pretty big reduction, and I've been spending a lot of time thinking about why I've slowed down.

Some of it, to be sure, is just capital-L Life.  Kids get older, you get older, and the amount of time and energy it takes to put family and personal responsibilities front and center increases (or, at least, it has for me).

But some of it is also recognizing that the impact of any one particular review is not what it once was.  That's a result of many factors, including how social media seems to drive a lot of discovery these days.  Eight or nine years ago, a good "feed reader" took care of notifying the devoted audience, with Google and other search engines informing the rest.  These days, social media coordinator is a job, and one that I'm not willing to fill (nor do my family and personal responsibilities let me) more than on a cursory level, letting my audience know there's a new piece available, and maybe a (comparatively small) percentage will see the link.

Also, did I mention roughly 750 reviews?  That's a lot of words, and there is no small amount of effort that goes into making sure I'm not repeating myself, and trying not to bore myself.

Sometimes I don't always succeed in not boring myself, and if I'm boring myself, then I'm probably boring the reader, too.  That's one of the things, I think, that struck me about that Red Yarn review -- it was fun to write and craft in a way a lot of my reviews recently haven't been.  And while I probably can't expect to write a Snail Song & Magic Toast review or a review of a Recess Monkey album done entirely in limerick form every time, I probably need to figure out how to improve my batting average, as it were.

I've got maybe a couple dozen albums that have been released over the last 8-12 months that I want to write some sort of review on, and my goal is write those reviews in the rest of March and April.  After that, however, I think I need to take a break with reviews as I currently conceive of them.  It doesn't mean that I want to stop writing about kids music, but I'm not sure that the review model works anymore, or at least works for me anymore.  I need to figure out a different way to write about kids music (and kids podcasts) that interests me and interests readers, and going back to the days of 50-word blurbs 15 years ago is not the answer (for me anyway).

So for those of you who read the title of this post and thought that I'd posit an answer to that question, hopefully by now you've figured out that this is not that post.  Rather, I'm asking you to answer that question for yourself -- and share that with me.  What do you get out of album reviews?  Anything?  Do you ever read them?  That question can apply to this website, but I'm interested more broadly -- what do record reviews do for you?  Do they help at all in the world of kids music?  How about more broadly than that -- any form of entertainment, for any age?  What convinces you to take a chance on an album, a movie, a book, a podcast, a play -- you get the idea?  Is it because somebody wrote an album review so eloquently that you couldn't wait to listen?  Or did your friend whose musical tastes you trust say, "You have to listen to this?"  Or did Spotify's all-knowing brain figure out exactly what you'd geek out over.

Sorry for getting all meta in this post, it's not something I typically like to do.  And to be clear, I am most definitely not looking for praise or attention with this.  I'm doing this because I think the creation of music and audio (and culture generally) specifically for children is something worthy of more praise than any form of kid culture (save for books) gets, but I think the way I've been doing this for about 15 years is no longer particularly effective.  That could be the result of my own limitations as a writer and site administrator, but regardless it's time to figure out a new approach, and I'd like your help.  Thanks in advance.

Review: Born in the Deep Woods - Red Yarn

Born in the Deep Woods cover

Born in the Deep Woods cover

Some artists take tentative steps into kids music, but Andy Furgeson seemed to know exactly what he was doing from the get-go.  Playing as Red Yarn, the Austin-bred, Portland-based musician and puppeteer brought the fervor of a revival to his first kids' album, 2013's The Deep Woods, and then doubled-down on that feeling with his 2015 follow-up, the appropriately titled Deep Woods Revival.  Both albums brought energy and emotion to old folk songs to make those old songs sound urgent and vital.

After a 2016 detour into some stripped-down arrangements on Wake Up and Sing, Furgeson is back with the final entry in his "Deep Woods Trilogy," Born in the Deep Woods.  If the first two Deep Woods albums sound like they were recorded in a church somewhere, this new album has a much more Southern-fried rock sound.  Not quite in a bar, perhaps, but not exactly church pew, either.  For everyone who ever thought what Red Yarn needed was more cowbell, Born in the Deep Woods is the album for you.

The title track, a Furgeson original, has a driving sound that might fit in more with the earlier albums, but "Old Mother Goose" definitely has that Southern "classic rock" sound even as it weaves together some traditional nursery rhymes like "Hey Diddle Diddle" and "All Around the Mulberry Bush."  There are more completely original songs on this new album -- four or five depending on how you're counting -- than on previous works, but I think it's a testament to Furgeson's songwriting skills and his production work alongside co-producer Adam Selzer that it can hard be hard to tell his takes on songs sung for generations apart from the ones written for and inspired by Furgeson's two kids.

Furgeson knows how to have fun with a song -- check out the video for "Mockingbird," in which Furgeson plots the detailed musical background of the song with a detail rivaling the search for the Zodiac Killer -- but he seems particularly focus on the meaning of parenthood.  Songs like "Little Baby Born Today," "Old Black Dog," and "Deep Woods Revisited" address life -- both birth and death -- in the tone of voice of a parent.  The epic "Born Again" does, too, filled with slide guitar instrumental breaks and lines like "When we reach our destination / Across the river, across the nation / We find we're right back where we came from."  Could the Allman Brothers record that song and have it sound a little bit like the Red Yarn track?  Most definitely.

Born in the Deep Woods is not a kids music album, but only to those who haven't spent a lot of time thinking about kids music.  There's an alphabet song on here that even though I'd listened to the album a half-dozen times I didn't realize it until I looked at the lyrics.  (Which you should totally do if you decide to get a copy of the lovely physical copy.)  It is an intricate album, and while it's appealing musically and not cryptic in any way, for some listeners, the simpler Wake Up and Sing may be the better entry point to the Red Yarn discography.  You could put this album on for the 10-minute drive home from school, but it fits more a 45-minute Lego construction session.

I, for one, am looking forward to where Furgeson moves on from Born in the Deep Woods.  The Deep Woods have been a rich source of inspiration for the Red Yarn albums, but I also think that his songwriting on this album in particular indicates he can look beyond the folk music tradition that's informed so much of his work.  Not that he'd ever abandon that music -- and I don't want him to -- but I'm more interested at this point in seeing where he goes next than in further expansion of the Deep Woods mythology.  I hope he comes back to the Deep Woods in time, but I'd like to see what he discovers when he ventures out further to explore.  Highly recommended.

Note: I was given a copy of the album for possible review.