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.

Itty-Bitty Review: Ear Snacks: Songs from the Podcast - Andrew & Polly

Ear Snacks: Songs from the Podcast cover

Ear Snacks: Songs from the Podcast cover

Readers of the site over the past year or so know I've paid a lot of attention to podcasts made for kids, and one of the most delightful of the bunch is Ear Snacks, a funny and occasionally surreal podcast for preschoolers from Los Angeles-based duo Andrew & Polly.

They've now collected the best tracks featured on the podcast's first season in the prosaically titled Ear Snacks: Songs from the Podcast.  That title is the most straightforward and boring thing about the entire album whose unifying theme, if anything, is silliness.  There's a meta-song for preschoolers about dancing to songs ("Dancing Pants," featuring fellow L.A. musician Mista Cookie Jar), a swinging song about getting the mail ("Mail," natch), and the crunchy pop of "I Wanna Be a Giraffe."  And I haven't even mentioned until now the stone-cold classic kindie classic track "Grapes."  It's not total silliness -- listen to the gorgeous "How Can You Tell If It's Going To Rain?" -- but the meter swings more to the giddy rather than somber.  (Just listen Andrew and Polly hiding in the hidden track at the end...)  I liked Odds & Ends, the duo's previous album that featured some songs from early podcast episodes, but I found the songwriting here to be a step beyond that -- they sound quite confident in their own, quirky voice.

At 37 minutes in length, the album is just the right length for the 2-to-6-year-olds who are the album (and podcast's) target audience.  (A shout-out as well to the liner notes, filled with "Snacktivities" listeners of any age can do using just their creative brains.)  Filled with goofiness leavened with just enough sweetness, Ear Snacks: Songs from the Podcast is a collection of music you don't need the podcast to appreciate.  It's a fabulous compilation of more than a year's worth of creativity, a great bunch of songs for listening at any time.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review. We also both participate on the board of Kids Listen, an advocacy group for kids' podcasts.

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: Simpatico - Renee and Friends

Renee and Friends Simpatico album cover

Renee and Friends Simpatico album cover

When I think of kids' music duets, the very first duo that comes to my mind is Renee Stahl and Jeremy Toback, AKA Renee and Jeremy.

In fact, they're about the first five duos that come to mind.  Sure, there are other duos -- The Okee Dokee Brothers, Key Wilde & Mr. Clarke, Molly Ledford & Billy Kelly, to name three I particularly like -- but the artistic talent they share with the world is not primarily derived from their vocal harmonies the way R&J's is.  Their three full-length albums do such a wonderful job highlighting their blended voices that, well, like I said, no other duo in kids' music comes close for me.

What should I make, then, of Stahl's new effort, Simpatico? She recorded this album with fellow Los Angeles singer/songwriter Rich Jacques and a bunch of musicians and friends -- and friends who are musicians -- and dubbed the group Renee and Friends.  It's not a completely new approach from the R&J work -- this is not an album of death metal polka -- but it branches out in some different directions.  At its most puzzling, those directions include a solo spoken-word piece by Colin Hay (best known Stateside for being the lead singer of Men at Work) and the chestnut "Happiness" from the musical You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, sung solo by actress/performer (and friend of Stahl's dating back to high school) Molly Shannon.  Neither are bad, just feel out of place on an album that at its best uses Stahl's warm voice as both lead voice and harmonic partner.

Those stronger tracks include the opening track "Gather Round," with Lisa Loeb, an ode to gathering over food with friends and family, which should be on any future Thanksgiving kindie playlist, however rare that occurrence.  Her duet with Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket on  "You Were Meant to Be" is particularly gorgeous.  For me, while her duets with Maya Rudolph (on Prince's "Starfish and Coffee") and Caspar Babypants and Rolfe Kent (on "I Am Not Afraid") are enjoyable, the heart of the album is really the last four tracks.  That's where the feeling of enveloping love and support that's animated the Renee and Jeremy work is paired with vocal arrangements that best showcase Stahl's voice as lead and harmony. 

The 35-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 7, though with the exception of two or maybe three tracks, this is easily an album you could play for yourself with no kids around at all.  You can hear 3 of the album's tracks here.

I've considered Renee and Jeremy's albums to be the sonic equivalent of comfort food warming the heart served by two very talented chefs.  If Simpatico doesn't reach quite those heights, perhaps that's just because I've become so accustomed to those two particular cooks.  But this album features enough dishes worth enjoying with the family to be worth trying something new.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: Songs, Stories and Friends 2: Where the Path Will Wind - Charlie Hope

Charlie Hope Where the Path Will Wind album cover

Charlie Hope Where the Path Will Wind album cover

I think highly of Charlie Hope. When you've compared Hope (favorably) with Raffi, you've clearly set a high bar for any artist, right?

So let's drain this review of Hope's latest album, Songs, Stories and Friends 2: Where the Path Will Wind of any tension whatsoever and say that I like it lot, but that your family's enjoyment of it will depend on what you expect from your audio entertainment.

This new album, Hope's fifth, takes a slightly different path (pun unintended, I swear) than her previous album, the delightful Sing As We Go! and instead echoes that album's predecessor, Songs, Stories and Friends: Let's Go Play!.  Unlike the more song-focused Sing, this album throws more stories and friends into the mix, all in service of an overall nature theme.  There are a couple audio games of "I Spy," some spoken word poems, and -- as always -- Hope's mother, who gives "The Three Little Pigs" a far less confrontational telling.

Now I'm always the biggest fan of Hope's voice and songwriting, so my favorite selections on the album are the songs, especially the traditional folk song "Barges," the sweet original "Like an Evergreen," and another original, "If I Were a Bird," which somehow manages to combine both flute and a soaring chorus.  Producer Michael Langford surrounds Hope's lovely-as-ever voice with tasteful arrangements, folk-y but not stuffy.

The 46-minute album will be of most interest to kids ages 2 through 6 -- you can listen to a medley of songs here.

Where the Path Will Wind is essentially an audio magazine, an aural equivalent, perhaps, to her Sing As We Go! video series.  If you're looking for a purely musical experience, therefore, this may not fit those expectations.  But will it engage your favorite preschooler or kindergartener?  You bet.  Definitely recommended.

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