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.

Two Unnecessary (Albeit Necessary) Kids' Albums

Lisa Loeb - Nursery Rhyme Parade album cover

Lisa Loeb - Nursery Rhyme Parade album cover

In one sense, I place albums of nursery rhymes in approximately the same category as entire albums of Beatles covers -- pretty much unnecessary.  The Fab Four's originals are so iconic (and often perfect) that redoing them seems pointless unless the artist is doing something entirely novel with the songs.  A single Beatles song mixed among originals or covers of other artists? Sure.  But an entire album?  Even if it's really good, they're more likely to send the families to dig out what Beatles music they have.

With nursery rhymes and classic kids' songs, I have the same basic issue, but with a different spin.  With albums covering classic songs like "London Bridge," "The Wheels on the Bus," and "Row Row Row Your Boat," and so on, artists have two possible approaches: 1) simple renditions that put the melody and lyrics up front, and 2) entire reworkings of the songs whose elaborate arrangements, rather than the song itself, become the point ("Pop Goes The Weasel"... gone metal!).

The latter approach isn't without merit -- such arrangements can sometimes help listeners of all ages hear an overly familiar song with new ears, or introduce those listeners to a genre they might not typically spin.  As you might expect, the former approach -- simple songs done (relatively) simply -- is my preferred approach, but the problem here is that, well, exactly how many such albums does a family need?

Besides the fact that the only member of our family in single-digits age-wise is our youngest Boston Terrier, we are also card-carrying members of Team Wiggleworms and Team Raffi.  Songs for Wiggleworms and Singable Songs for the Very Young (and their immediate successors) met our need for collections of nursery rhymes and familiar kids' songs a decade ago and, well, there's no need for anything new.  That's overstating things maybe a bit, but not a lot.  Songs for Wiggleworms features dozens of classic songs, usually with nothing more than a guitar for accompaniment.  Singable Songs for the Very Young is more expansive -- some original songs amidst the classics, with more elaborate arrangements -- but at its heart, it's still an album of classic kids' songs.

Laurie Berkner - Favorite Classic Kids' Songs album cover

Laurie Berkner - Favorite Classic Kids' Songs album cover

So from one perspective -- my own family's, reviewer's hat aside -- the latest releases from Laurie Berkner and Lisa Loeb, are utterly unnecessary.  We have the unadorned collection of songs, we have the slightly adorned collection of songs, and we've been listening to them for so long that they feel like much-loved stuffed animals.  Why anyone would throw those stuffed animals away for lovely new stuffed animals is beyond me.

But there are lots of families who haven't yet found that stuffed animal, and perhaps some of those families will find in Laurie Berkner's Favorite Classic Kids' Songs and Loeb's Nursery Rhyme Parade a stuffed animal that they can rely on.

Because make no mistake, these types of albums should be in the collection of every family with a preschooler in the house.  These are the foundational songs of childhood, with melodies (and often lyrics) that have lasted for literally centuries.  These are the songs that parents and caregivers should be singing to (and hopefully with) the young ones in their midst, and good collections of classic songs help families do that, by reminding the adults of songs (both lyrics and melodies) and offering the kids repetition to solidify their knowledge of the song.

Of the two albums Berkner's is more reminiscent of Raffi's fuller arrangements and approaches.  Her band appears on many tracks, and she shares vocals with a number of musicians.  Sometimes she sings a cappella, and some tracks end up on the other end of the production spectrum ("Shoo-Fly" features strings), but all the arrangements put the song first.  And Berkner still has one of the best female voices in kindie.

On her album, Loeb goes the more minimalist Wiggleworms route.  More a cappella, and when she is accompanied, it's usually just with a simple guitar.  If the listener wants the song, just the song with as little embroidery as possible, then Nursery Rhyme Parade is the album more likely to meet that listener's expectations.  To be clear, Loeb has a fine voice herself, and it's produced well, but it's hard to envision a much simpler album.

The albums are different enough -- beyond the arrangements, surprisingly enough there are a number of songs that are featured on only one album or the other -- that you could conceivably get both.  But assuming you only want one, there are other differences that might influence your choice.  For example, Berkner's album is actually a 57-track collection that stretches to 2 hours and 9 minutes in length.  About half of those are remastered previously-released tracks (including 6 Berkner songs included as "bonus" tracks), but even then you'd get 27 new songs.  Loeb's collection zips by, 37 tracks in 31 minutes, and, perhaps more importantly, it's featured on Amazon Prime Music, which means that you're not going to be able to hear it on streaming services like Rhapsody and Spotify (both of which are streaming Berkner's new disk).  It's part of what appears to be a new effort by Amazon to target family audiences, and while you can buy Loeb's album from Amazon, either in mp3 or physical format, I think much of the audience will be Amazon Prime customers streaming it.  (There are very few albums of classic kids' songs in the Amazon Prime collection that won't induce parental frustration -- Loeb's is one of the few that passes muster.)

So, do you need these albums?  If you're a Laurie Berkner fan or a Lisa Loeb fan and you have kids still in preschool, then I think their albums will be an excellent fit for your family, even if maybe you already have a preschool song collection.  If you have preschoolers, but don't have a preschool song collection, then both these albums are worth exploring.  There are other albums that serve the same audience, but the arguments I might make for favoring one over another would be mostly my own particular biases.  You don't need these albums at all, but you do need albums like these -- perhaps even these albums -- very much so.  With those caveats, these are both definitely recommended.

Note: I received copies of both albums for possible review. 

Review: Beatles Baby - Caspar Babypants

Caspar Babypants Beatles Baby album cover

Caspar Babypants Beatles Baby album cover

Chris Ballew works fast.  Diligently, to be sure, but fast.  Beatles Baby is his tenth Caspar Babypants album in less than 6 years, and that's on top of his work with the Presidents of the United States of America and his new efforts in the world of ambient music.

Beatles Baby arrives this Friday, almost 2 years to the day after Ballew's first set of Beatles covers, the search-engine-challenging-in-retrospect-titled Baby Beatles.  As with its predecessor, its value in a world in which few if any Beatles covers are truly necessary is in its nimble and somewhat pared-down approach to the songs.

Many of the originals' signature touches remain -- Billy Shears gets his shout-out on the transition from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" to "With a Little Help From My Friends" at the start of the album, or the driving bass line in "Lady Madonna."  Also nifty is the reprise of "Sgt. Pepper's" near the end (again, just like the original) and the transition from "Golden Slumbers" to "The End" from Abbey Road (sorry, fans, of "Carry That Weight" -- that gets elided out).  In some cases, like on "Drive My Car," the simple arrangements are let the melodies shine through even more, though Ballew also pulls out some orchestral synth arrangements.  For me, the most interesting tracks are those on which Ballew puts more of his stamp on the piece -- the mellow take on "The End" or the somewhat sped-up take on "Hey Jude," or the "cleaned-up" take on "Piggies" (though some fans of the original might miss the Fab Four's rougher take.

As with all of the Caspar Babypants music, the 49-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 1 through 5, but of course the Beatles source material will automatically extend the high end of that age range another 80 or so years upward.

It's hard to make a case for this album as essential listening, for either Beatles fans or Caspar Babypants fans (and I count myself in both camps) -- why not listen to the original tracks from 50 years ago, and Ballew's written dozens of nifty pop songs for preschoolers in his own right?  But the clean and thoughtful stripped-down pop that's been a hallmark of the Babypants sound is every bit in evidence here as it's been in the past, and, married to one of the best songwriting duos of the 20th century, that's good enough for me.  Fast work, yes, but still just as good.  Recommended.

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

Review: Tomorrow Is a Chance To Start Over - Hilary Grist

Tomorrow Is a Chance To Start Over cover

Tomorrow Is a Chance To Start Over cover

It didn't occur to me until I sat down to write this review, but the label that has released the biggest, most diverse set of original music for kids and families over the past several years is a book publisher: Montreal-based The Secret Mountain.  They've released 23 albums over the past decade and more -- some totally in French (as would befit a publisher based in Montreal), some in English, some in languages from around the world.  Their book/CD collections have featured lullabies, folk music from around the world, even a couple books from the longtime kids musicians Trout Fishing in America.  And while some of the albums are re-releases of albums, dressed up with the accompanying book, many (like the Trout Fishing) albums are entirely new.

The 23rd and latest album from The Secret Mountain is a book/CD titled Tomorrow Is a Chance To Start Over, a "Bedtime Story and Dream Songs" collection from Vancouver-based musician Hilary Grist.  In both its music and its accompanying pictures, it is to my mind the most modern- looking and sounding release from TSM.  Grist has four folk-alt-pop albums for adults under her belt, and this new album sees her turn her attention to that most unconditional of love songs, the lullaby.  The title track is one of the most gorgeous songs you'll hear all year, for kids or not.  Its message of dropping worries, that tomorrow is, well, a chance to start over, is reassuring for sleepyheads of all ages, and Grist's vocals are somehow soaring without being totally inappropriate for a sleepytime disk.

With the exception of "Cradle Song," a reworking of Brahms' Lullaby, which concludes the album, the rest of the songs are original lullabies.  Some of them like "Fall in My Loving Arms" and "I'll Be There sound as if they might have been originally written for an adult audience (though not inappropriately so), others ("Say Goodnight" and "City of Green and Blue") feel more kid-centered.  Of course, the beauty of many of the best contemporary lullaby albums lies in part in the ability of the singer to pull together different songs to weave an overall mood of unconditional love.   And songs like "Float Away," "Le Petit Oiseau," and "Still" help produce that mood.  The album starts out a little "loud" for a lullaby album, but by the end, it's all very

The book features an original story about brother and sister Ira and Isabelle, who find themselves struggling to fall asleep and so take a boat far away but instead of finding a Sendak-ian collection of wild things, are greeted by a robin who encourages them to drop their worries and fly.  (The theme leads well into the title track.)  The siblings' clay characters were created by Grist, and the photographs -- a first for a Secret Mountain book as opposed to illustrations -- a distinctive mixture of collage and tiny models by an artistic team led in part by Grist's husband Mike Southworth.  Babies won't appreciate the photographs, perhaps, but their parents certainly will.  You can also hear Grist read the story as the album's first track.

I think that most successful lullaby albums work for both the target age range of kids ages 0 through 5 as well as their parents, and by that measure Tomorrow Is a Chance To Start Over succeeds quite well -- it's a lovely collection of songs, with some memorable images to match.  Here's hoping The Secret Mountain continues to bring new artists like Grist into their fold in future years.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I received a copy of the book/CD set for possible review.

 

Itty-Bitty Review: Hello My Baby - Vered

Hello My Baby

Hello My Baby

A good part of Vered's second album, Hello My Baby (subtitled Songs to Bond You and Your Baby) doesn't sound much different from its predecessor, her debut album Good Morning My Love.  The folk-pop songs are very tightly arranged, with Vered's lyrics often requiring her to sing, or almost rap, them quickly (see, for example, "Gotta Go").  And like its predecessor, the subjects and lyrics for most of the songs are designed to, well, bond parent and baby, so the song helps explain the child's perspective to the parent, and/or gently remind the parent the consequences of actions like being on the phone too much ("Phone").

If there's a big change from the first album, it's in the songs that speak much more directly to the parents.  "More of a Baby" is a duet with the Okee Dokee Brothers' Justin Lansing that recognizes the value of a baby's attitude toward the world.  "Something Other Than a Mom" reflects the voice of a mother trying to take back some of that personal identity she had before becoming a mom.  With a cello helping to underscore the frustration and sadness that can be mixed into life as a parent, it's rawness one doesn't hear often in kids music; rawness about parenting just isn't heard much in music, period.  And if that track is wistful, the album closer "All I Want" features the year's most memorable kindie chorus, with a handful of kindie musicians (album producer Dean Jones, Joanie Leeds, Rachel Loshak, Jon Samson, and more) singing "All I Want / is to sleep / seven hours straight / all I want / is to sleep."  Compared to most of the other tracks, this song is loose, letting all the emotion flow and spill out.

The album is most appropriate, as you might expect, for kids ages 1 through 5 and their new parents, natch.  (You can listen to samples of the 43-minute album -- soon -- here.)  To the extent that Vered sought to create an emotional dialogue between parents and their infants and toddlers, Hello My Baby succeeds.  For those parents, it's definitely recommended.

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

Review: Watching the Nighttime Come - Suz Slezak

WatchingTheNighttimeCome.jpg

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.