Video: "The National Tree of England" - Molly Ledford and Billy Kelly


Spring has sprung, and that means it's time for the release of Trees, the brand new album from Molly Ledford and Billy Kelly.

[Commence celebration.]

I encourage you to read my interview with the duo, and listen to the whole darn album, but before, after, or during (maybe not during) doing so, you can also watch a Brand New Video animated by Mr. Kelly himself.

[Commence celebration.]

I really love this song.

Molly Ledford & Billy Kelly - "The National Tree of England" [YouTube]

Review: Watching the Nighttime Come - Suz Slezak


Lullaby albums can be a nice way for an artist who typically records music for adults to slide into the kids music world -- maybe record a few public-domain lullabies and/or some love songs appropriate for tender ears, and with relatively little change, presto, you have a lullaby album!  The potential downside is that you get a bunch of songs recorded too loudly and with little of the magic that makes parents repeatedly put  good lullaby albums back into the CD player night after night.

Suz Slezak certainly could have gone that route.  Along with her husband David Wax, she's part of the folk-roots rock band David Wax Museum, but Slezak chose to record and release Watching the Nighttime Come, her first kids' music album, a lullaby album, under her own name.  She could have easily gone the route I outlined above, but instead this new album is remarkable for how much Slezak the vocalist fades into the background and lets Slezak the musician step forward.  I tend to think of the start of the album as being the aural equivalent of the album cover -- playful as day's last light fades and, well, waiting for nighttime.  Slezak's songs "Where Did You Come From" and "You Got Love" are dreamy tracks, but ones on which her vocals take something approximating center stage.

As daylight fades, however, the overall feel of the music, rather than anything vocally-based, becomes most important.  The heart of the album -- "Jessie's Waltz," "Tallis Canon," and "Caballito Blanco" -- are, respectively, an instrumental, a 6-minute version of a 450-year-old hymn, and a Spanish-language lullaby.  Those are not the artistic choices of someone who just wants to create a lullaby album with a snap of her fingers -- those are the choices of an artist who's deliberately creating a hushed mood.  That mood on the album eventually breaks somewhat, as all nighttimes break.  Here it's with a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye."

The album is going to be most appropriate for kids ages 0 through 5, but like most good lullaby albums, it's far more all-ages than a lot of kids music.  You can stream the 31-minute album here.

This is a somewhat idiosyncratic lullaby album, and if you're looking for renditions of the same set of lullabies you might typically hear on collections of sleepy songs, you should probably move on.  But I think this is exactly the kind of idiosyncratic that regular readers of the site will dig a lot, and even if you think you want yet another version of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on CD, I'm pretty sure that Watching the Nighttime Come will fit in nicely amidst your family's CD collection.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: Night Night! - Caspar Babypants


The family music of Chris Ballew -- recorded as Caspar Babypants -- has been so consistently good over his past eight Caspar albums.  (I don't think I've ever been as pleased with the result of any prediction of mine as the one from six years ago that suggested Ballew "might make a whole bunch of great CDs for the family.")

So when I got an advance review copy of Night Night!, his ninth album, out today, my question wasn't whether it'd be any good -- the quality goes without saying -- but whether he could translate his tightly-contstructed hook-filled melodies into lullaby form.

Because, as you might gather from the title, this is supposed to be a cool-down album.

I hope Ballew doesn't take this the wrong way, but his album is forgettable in all the right ways.  What I mean by that is the music, while catchy, isn't necessarily one bouncy hook-filled song after another.  Rather, it features a more consistent -- and obviously far mellower -- tone.  The opening track "Just For You," is a lovely song featuring words of unconditional love (one of the backbone topics of lullabies), as is "Sad Baby," but for the most part the strength of the album is that the songs almost imperceptibly slide from slightly bouncy with lyrics from the wandering brain of a child who's just turned out the light all the way to album closer "Made of Light," whose minimal lyrics and ambient sounds would fit right in amidst the contemplative "space music" of Hearts of Space.  (It's a cousin to the ambient music Ballew has started posting.)  So while there are fewer "classic" individual CB tracks, perhaps, as an album with a specific purpose in mind, it's kind of brilliant.

The 50-minute album is targeted at kids ages 0 through 5 or 6, though many of the tracks would probably fit on a relaxation album for a broader, older age range.  Night Night! is a stellar lullaby album with a set of soothing sounds for whenever a break is necessary.  Highly recommended.

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

Review: Whales Can't Whistle - Bunny Clogs


Can More! More! More!, Bunny Clogs' debut album, really be more than six years old?  Wow.  That album was all over the map, stylistically, but it was filled with joy and community-mindedness, as if Dan Zanes had been cloned as a Minneapolis funk-and-drum-machine-favoriting rocker.

But here we are in 2015, and I can take Adam Levy's kid-friendly side project off my "one hit wonder" list, and not just because technically they have a second album, Whales Can't Whistle, but because it's pretty darn good, too.  Unlike the first album, this one has a theme, animals in the world around us.  (Levy's daughter  But rather than tackle familiar animals, Levy takes as his subjects less familiar animals like nudibranches, capybaras, echidnas, and a Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish with a curious sense of humor.  Also, the "Chipantula" -- half chipmunk, half spider -- though I'm pretty sure that one's made up.  Some of the songs are more scientifically based, but more often the animals are the jumping off point for character sketches.  (Here's Levy's liner notes description of "Blimpsoz the Sea Pig": "A crazy echinoderm with a vaguely Ukrainian accent describing a traumatic childhood with a happy ending.)

I gravitated towards the poppier songs, like "Beetle Mania," with a vaguely '60s sound, an ear-wormy chorus, and fun shout-outs to the other Beatlemania.  One of the "Amelia's Pizza" has a funky piano line and a story worth of Randy Newman but with a happier ending (kid protagonist considers but rejects offer from large multinational corporation to sell and modify her pizzas.)  "Echidna Print" features a couple verses from C. Manesterio and funky samples from BK-One.

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 6 through 11.  You can stream the entire 47-minute album here.  If I had to choose just Bunny Clogs album to introduce someone to the band, I'd probably pick their debut.  But it'd be a tough call.  Fans of the first album will find much of the same (but different) on Whales Can't Whistle.  And I'm pretty sure you won't hear another album celebrating the fauna of the world this distinctive this year.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: Dancin' in the Kitchen - Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer


From the opening lines of "Dancin' in the Kitchen," the title track to Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer's new album, it's clear the duo means business with the album's full title, Dancin' in the Kitchen: Songs for All Families.  "Dancin' in the kitchen / with mama and mommy / dancin' in the kitchen with me…" they sing, with the entire song celebrating families off all stripes -- two moms, two dads, all sorts of families.

Fink and Marxer -- who themselves married each other last year -- aren't the first kids' artists to record a song about people who identify as BGLTQ or even families with gay or lesbian parents, but the inclusion of that song in this album is a step towards including those families as part of the overall diversity of family types in this country (and kids music).  In fact, more than half of the album are not new songs, but songs from artists like Justin Roberts and Uncle Ruthie Buell that fit within the broad rubric of "family," which kindie godparent Marlo Thomas defines as "a feeling of belonging" (it's the definition that the duo says they like most).

The album works best when it's celebrating the everyday-ness of families -- on the title track, for example, or on "Birthday Pup," a Lou and Peter Berryman tune detailing two dogs' many yearly birthdays, which Marxer performs here with Riders in the Sky.  Fink's "Twins," recorded with the Canote Twins (actual identical twins), and their Irish medley with Cherish the Ladies "Howdy Little Newlycome/Ceilidh House Polka" are examples of what I think of as one of Fink and Marxer's greatest strengths -- finding other interesting artists to make music with, and plugging themselves in, as it were, to those musicians' talents, especially when those talents mesh well with Fink's and Marxer's bluegrass and roots music skills.

Some folks may find the balance of "message" (even if it's one they support wholeheartedly) and fun of the music sometimes tips uncomfortably toward the "message," but that may depend on whether or not you feel like you've heard your family's story -- or other families' stories -- before.  I'm a parent of an adopted child, for example, and while I'm glad John McCutcheon's "Happy Adoption Day" has been around for a couple decades (Fink and Marxer offer their own version here), I've always only been "meh" on the song itself.

The 58-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9.  I think Dancin' in the Kitchen will be popular for its content and message, and a fair number of the songs here would have been appropriate on a wide variety of albums, not just one labeled "family."  Even if every song doesn't work for me, I'm glad for this album's existence.  Recommended.

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