Video: "The Skunk and The Robot" - Ratboy Jr.

I've always appreciated the low-key offbeat humor of New York duo Ratboy Jr. -- Timmy Sutton and Matty Senzatimore sing songs that would remind you of Roald Dahl or Shel Silverstein if they were both gentler and perhaps a little less sentimental.

So there's not much of a reason why I like "The Skunk and The Robot," a video off their latest album Hamster Dance except that it features, well, a skunk.  And a robot.  It's Ratboy Jr. in video form.  (And if you don't like skunks or robots, there's always "Sponges," which features Timmy and Matty in puppet form.)

Ratboy Jr. - "The Skunk and The Robot" [YouTube]

Review: Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! - The Amazing Keystone Big Band with David Tennant

The Amazing Keystone Big Band - Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! album cover

The Amazing Keystone Big Band - Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! album cover

I wouldn't say that if there's one classical music piece you've heard, it's "Peter and the Wolf," because orchestral melodies are woven throughout modern life, even if you're only vaguely aware of it.  But if there's one classical music piece you've heard because somebody was trying to teach your child (or you, when you were young) the concepts of symphonic orchestral music, it's "Peter and the Wolf."

Composed in 1936 by Sergei Prokofiev in Russia, the piece tells the story of the young (and brave) boy Peter, who along with his animal friends, outwits and captures a wolf intent on eating several of them.  Prokofiev gives each character a primary instrument (strings, for example, for Peter) and a melody, and mixes and blends them both as different characters interact.  There's a narrator providing some basic storytelling guideposts, though Prokofiev tells his musical tale so well, that once the story gets going, the words are, while not unnecessary, not bearing the weight of the story.

The piece is a classic, and there are literally dozens -- if not hundreds -- of versions recorded over the years.  We've got at least a couple on our own shelves.  And because it's a classic, there's really no need to have more than one or two versions unless you like the particular narrator.

Or unless the musicians have taken an entirely different approach, which is the case on Peter and the Wolf and Jazz!, a brand-new recording from France's The Amazing Keystone Big Band.  The big band features 18 younger French jazz musicians, and this new version deftly blends Prokofiev's symphonic story with a big band sensibility.  So instead of the string section (violins, violas, etc.), Peter's theme is represented by the band's rhythm section -- piano, bass, and guitar (which are, as the album's liner notes remind us, stringed instruments themselves).  The wolf is represented by the trombones and tuba instead of the French horns, and so on -- instruments that are similar in tone, but not necessarily the same ones.

The melodies themselves are unchanged, but the band's arrangement brings in a wide variety of jazz styles -- stride piano, hip-hop, free jazz, blues, cool jazz, and the like.  None of the stylistic shifts seem out of place -- rather, they feel appropriate to the story.  The triumphant parade march at the end is a swing style which to my ears sounds something like a New Orleans second line band would play in their own parade.

As for the narrator, David Tennant, best known on these shores as one of the Doctor Whos, does a fine job telling the story.  The wouldn't necessarily recommend the album just for his narration, but it's more than up to the task.  The liner notes are excellent, featuring many pages of the narration and illustrations by Martin Jarrie along with explanations by the band of their arrangement choices.  (The 54-minute album is appropriate for kids ages 3 through whatever, but you knew that already.) 

Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! isn't the first attempt to rework Prokofiev's tale for a jazz audience, but as best I can tell, it's the first in a half-century.  More importantly, it's taken that classic piece and made it sound fresh.  As a jazz album, it's wonderful, and as a classical album, well, it's wonderful, too.  Highly recommended.

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

Itty-Bitty Review: Put Our Heads Together - Hot Peas 'N Butter

Hot Peas 'N Butter - Put Our Heads Together album cover

Hot Peas 'N Butter - Put Our Heads Together album cover

For about a decade now, the New York-based group Hot Peas 'N Butter have turned out a half-dozen albums of original music most distinctively characterized by a blend of sounds that I'd describe as global in nature.

Their latest album, Put Our Heads Together -- their seventh -- continues in that vein, lending a sound to kids music that is still somewhat unique.  While many other artists tackle a range of styles on a single album, and a handful like Dan Zanes or Mista Cookie Jar or Secret Agent 23 Skidoo will sometimes mix disparate styles on a single song, Danny Lapidus and his band really do blend Latin rhythm, bilingual lyrics, and modern global pop sounds together to create a bright sound.

This new album features uplifting, feel-good lyrics to go along with those bright sounds.  Tracks like album opener "Amistad," a duet with Dan Zanes, feature lyrics in Spanish and English that neatly illustrate the theme of friendship (which is what "Amistad" means in Spanish).  "Magic Elevator" weaves in an elevator "door-opening" sound into its story of a globe-trotting elevator.  "Colores" is another winning pop song.  And it's one of the better kids' albums at incorporating a kids' chorus with out getting too Kidz Bop-py.  I didn't think the album worked as well, though, when the lyrics were too on the nose -- "No Bullies" is too didactic for my tastes, and "Fresh Spokes" jams bike safety tips into a perfectly good song about the diversity of experience.

The 41-minute album will be most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 10.  Lapidus and crew write an effective pop song with a distinctive sound that's still somewhat rare in the kindie scene.  Put Our Heads Together isn't perfect, but there are enough tracks with a fresh, positive sound -- the majority of them, really -- to merit a spin.  Recommended.

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

Video: "The Boy Who Cried El Chupacabra" - The Hipwaders

Always nice to have new music from Bay Area-adjacent trio The Hipwaders.  Their latest effort is a 2-track effort -- think of it as a single with a B side, except it's not on vinyl.  The A side is a surf rock effort (if the surf was from the Sea of Cortez) titled "The Boy Who Cried El Chupacabra," a retelling of the "boy who cried wolf" story that is, somehow, perfect for the kids' Halloween season.  The B side is a cover of Pointed Man Band's "All That Krampus Wants" for those families who want to get a jump on the later holiday season.  (You can grab the single on iTunes or CD Baby.)

In any case, the band's roped in Will Guy to do the animations, and every time the "camera" pans out to show Tito and the band dressed up in mariachi outfits singing in high harmony, it makes me smile.

The Hipwaders - "The Boy Who Cried El Chupacabra" [YouTube]