More Weird! (Review Wrap-Up Fall/Winter 2017)

In a world where it seems music either gets pushed to the forefront for the masses or the background as wallpaper, it's pretty easy to lose sight of the weirdos -- which is, anyone who's making music who's not shooting for superstardom or complete anonymity.

I hesitate to call the following albums from the past 2-3 months the product of weirdos -- those artists I've met personally certainly wouldn't fall in that category -- but to the extent that these aren't albums aiming for the Billboard Top 40 or your local Pottery Barn soundtrack, they are a little weird.  I'm not sure that there would be many kids who would like all of these albums equally, but there are probably more than a few families in which at least one of the clan would find something of entertainment value within.  There are some other albums out this fall that have given me joy, but these are some of the highlights, as well as being music I haven't really covered much, if at all.


Dreamers album cover

Dreamers album cover

Dreamers - Lard Dog and the Band of Shy: That cover art, with its angular illustrations suggesting a family-friendly Picasso, nails the overall Lard Dog attitude.  The music itself, swing and Tin Pan Alley-influenced, seems beamed in from another generation -- this is an album that features a song called "Who's Your Favorite Beatle?." Meanwhile the lyrics at times seem beamed in from another planet altogether, either because they're non sequiturs or literally in some made-up language (lookin' at you, "The Kimbaloo.")  The second track, "I Like," expresses a variety of the singers' favorite things, including Stravinsky and Mork from Ork, which would scan poorly if sung in "My Favorite Things," but fits the attitude here just right.  There's a kindness here that is very endearing.

Endangered Species Project cover

Endangered Species Project cover

Endangered Species Project - Fire Dog: Mark Pagano and his St. Louis, Missouri-based band started off making music for adults, but is spending more time these days making music for kids and musically, there's no difference between this album and one made for the older set.  (Heck, kids'll love the guitar riff on "Kingdom Phylum" not knowing that it's ripped off from Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit."  Not that I'm complaining.)  This is a concept album about, unsurprisingly, endangered animals.  Where I think the album succeeds more than most similar "nature-inspired" albums for kids is twofold -- first, it's far more focused on endangered animals, with a song about the federal Endangered Species Act, songs about habitat and what it means to be endangered, and songs about some animals themselves.  It's a coherent whole.  Second, and I admit this is totally personal taste, I dig the indie-rock vibe.  (You or your kids may differ.  Or may rock out.)

Songs from the Monkey House cover

Songs from the Monkey House cover

Songs from the Monkey House - Jack Forman: The bassist from Seattle trio Recess Monkey (and afternoon DJ on Sirius-XM's Live from the Monkey House call-in show) releases his first album through Amazon Music and pretty much goes the full "Weird" Al on this one.  These are silly songs for the 7-year-old (and possibly 37-year-old) goofball in your life, with drooling dogs ("Dog Park"), Star Wars ("Yodeling Yoda"), and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ("Candy Tour") serving as some inspiration.  There's an amusing song ("No Name") about a band that has everything but a name in which the denouement from the punchline is better than the punchline itself.  Not that Recess Monkey ever made its name based on its heartfelt odes to family life, but Forman dials the comedic id way up here.  If someone in your family has ever entertained the notion of buying a rubber chicken (or is amused by said notion), this is for you.

Gonna Be Great cover

Gonna Be Great cover

Gonna Be Great - David Tobocman: Tobocman has a slightly rarer niche in kids music -- sophisticated AM-radio pop for more a slightly younger set.  (After all, his first album, Very Helpful Songs, was explicitly created to help teach kids the ways of the preschool world, a description that doesn't adequately convey how pleasant of a listen it was.)  There's a gentleness and quiet optimism on this new album, and while there are a few "helpful" songs -- the touched-by-southern rocker "Keep Your Hands To Yourself," the '70s funk "Don't Put Money In Your Mouth" -- the songs that'll probably stick to you and your 6-year-old's brain will be the more story-focused "Dalia" (a figure-skating elephant) or "The Cookie Factory" (yes, a song about bakers, but more subtly, an ode to the working man and woman).  And, hey, if your six-year-old doesn't appreciate the Shakespeare (or Beverly Hillbillies) references in "Something Called King Lear," just give her time.

Imaginary Universe cover

Imaginary Universe cover

Imaginary Universe - Johnny Bregar: I've long been surprised that the Seattle-based Bregar hasn't received more attention for his crafty and well-crafted roots-rock for kids.  I suspect that his under-the-radar impression is due to his comparatively low output (that link above is to his last album, released in 2012) and minimal touring.  It's really too bad, though, because he's particularly good at striking the balance between kid-focused but not "kiddie" lyrical approaches, heartfelt but not sappy.  In any case, it's so good to have Bregar and his voice back to tickle your family's ears on his latest album. You can listen to the entire album on the standard digital outlets as well as Bandcamp, and if you just have time for a couple tracks, give his take on the traditional "Ain't No Bugs" and the rocker "Sleepy Heads" a try.  (If I told you which song the latter reminded me of, it'd give away the whole joyful final act reveal of the song.)

Video: "The Starlighter" - Shawn Colvin

The Starlighter cover

The Starlighter cover

I don't want to say that I squealed aloud when news came across my desk that Shawn Colvin was doing an album for kids and families... but I sure squealed silently to myself.  Like many others of a certain age, I was a big fan of her 1996 album A Few Small Repairs, and I have a good feeling about her ability to bring tenderness and understanding to an album geared at a younger crowd.

The singer-songwriter announced this week that her next album would be The Starlighter, released exclusively through Amazon Music early next year.

On the album, Colvin returns to Lullabies and Night Songs, a 1960s-era book which featured composer Alec Wilder's arrangements of traditional and children's songs and artwork from Maurice Sendak.  Colvin already dipped into the book once for her 1998 holiday album Holiday Songs and Lullabies, and for this new album, she pulls 14 songs from the book.

The leadoff video for the album is for the title track, a hypnotic ballad whose video, based on Victorian paper theatres, matches its dreamlike quality.  The layered illustrations and motion design come courtesy of WeFail.  It's a lovely work of art, and leads me to high expectations for what's to come.

You can preorder the album here.  The Starlighter is released on February 23.

Shawn Colvin - "The Starlighter" [YouTube]

Christmas and Holiday Kids Music 2017

Every year when I put together these lists of Christmas and holiday-related kids music, I walk the fine line between trying get this up early enough to be of use and late enough to be of use.  What I mean by that is, if I publish on, say, November 28th, people complain it's too early and I'll have about 3 songs or albums from some very planning-oriented musicians.  And if I wait for December 23rd to make sure I get all the music included, everybody's just about sick of Christmas music and Hanukkah might already be done for.

So I'm trying to hit a sweet spot here.  I'll update it as necessary, but hopefully too many musicians aren't thinking, less than 2 weeks before Christmas, that maybe they should try to record something.

My Favorite (and the Best?) Kids Music of 2017

This past year has been challenging in terms of writing about kids music here at the site.  There are a variety of reasons for that -- you can read this post for a few thoughts in that regard -- but the fact remains I haven't reviewed as many albums.  I'm still receiving -- and listening to -- a lot of kids music, but those thoughts haven't been translated into words on a screen.  It took me, sadly, 'til the end of April 2017 to write up thoughts on the best kids music of 2016, for an album award year that ended more than 6 months before.

As for this most recent year, I did once again submit my votes for the annual Fids and Kamily Awards I co-coordinate.  You can read all about the 2017 Fids and Kamily Award winners here, but I do feel compelled to list my own ballot in the same year the awards were announced.  (Small victories, amirite?)

Looking over this list, I'm once again struck by how my own personal favorites once again fell back on familiar and long-time names....

This Podcast Has Fleas... Will It Have Legs?

This Podcast Has Fleas logo

This Podcast Has Fleas logo

Once NPR and WHYY and WBUR and Gimlet threw their (porkpie?) hats into the kids' music ring, could fellow podcasting all-star WNYC be far behind?

Of course not.

This morning sees the official launch of their first podcast, This Podcast Has Fleas, with a whole bunch of star power, including Jay Pharaoh and Alec Baldwin.  What's it all about?  Well, the promo copy describes it succinctly:

What happens when rival pets have dueling podcasts? Find out as Jones (Jay Pharoah), a slick cat with a taste for auto tune, faces off with Waffles (Emily Lynne), a dog who can’t help chewing her microphone.

As you might guess from that copy and the promotional audio trailer below, it's a comedic (and fictional) podcast.

The first episode actually dropped on Saturday, with the second episode out this morning.  Entertainment Weekly reports that it's a limited-run series -- six episodes -- which strikes me as a perfect length for this concept, which could be wonderful, or could wear out its welcome by the sixth episode.  But based on the smartly-produced first episode, which quickly set up the setting and the stakes, and had its fair share of laughs (your local 7-year-old will go nuts), I don't think it'll have any problem keeping listener interest over the series length.

Now I will note that the concept of a canine with social media/entertainment savvy is not entirely original -- hi, Dog With a Blog!, hello, Fetch with Ruff Ruffman!  In fact, the announcer's voice in the trailer sounds suspiciously like Ruff's (though I think it's Eugene Mirman's, who's also on the show).  But it's the mid-2010s now, podcasting is the new blogging, doncha know?

Here's hoping that it does well and that its sister show, Pickle, which is an Americanized relaunch of Zooglobble favorite Short & Curly, made in partnership with some of the same Australian producers and talent from the original show, has a successful launch starting December 11.  I certainly wouldn't mind seeing a little friendly kids' network competition, though hopefully that competition's a little more cooperative than that of the dog and the cat are at the start of this series.

Best Children's Album Nominees - 60th Grammy Awards

Since the Grammy Awards are celebrating their 60th awards on January 28, 2018, will they celebrate the Diamond Jubilee by giving all the winners diamond-encrusted-megaphone Grammy Awards?  That would certainly raise the suspense and interest in the winners, even in the smaller categories, up a notch.

But, sadly, I'm guessing the Recording Academy will not go to any such length, but we can still note the announcement of the 5 nominees for Best Children's Album.