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.

Kindie Keeps on Tickin' (Reviews of Early 2017 Albums)

After questioning why people read record reviews, I also said that I'd be taking a break writing reviews, at least as how I'd normally conceived of them.

But I had a few more albums -- a couple dozen maybe -- I wanted to get through first.

So let's take a look at a quartet of recently-released albums that show how kindie keeps on tickin' even while I get a little antsy about writing reviews.

The quartet can essentially be split into a couple of duos, the first pair a little more conventional, the second pair a little more atmospheric and adventurous.  Both pairs of albums have a lot to offer their listeners, but will probably have their own distinct sets of fans.

Big Buncha Buddies album cover

Big Buncha Buddies album cover

Let's deal with the more conventional albums first, starting with Big Buncha Buddies, a self-titled debut from Keith Munslow and Bridget Brewer

Munslow is a musician and comedian with a number of albums under his belt, while this is Brewer’s first, but her sense of humor (and voice) blends nicely with Munslow’s.  Some songs use humor as the default (“That Was A Bad Idea,” “Why Did You Teach Me That Word,” which is a country ballad bemoaning a questionable parental decision) whereas others just have a comedic interlude (Brewer’s pleading with her overeager and misguided dog in “Stray Dog”).  But there’s always a non-cloying sense of love and friendship, most notably on the last track “Don’t Grow Up Too Fast” and on the album’s centerpiece literally and figuratively “The Loneliest Whale,” which posits a connection between a solitary whale and a child trying to make her social way through the world.  Gently, the 35-minute album presumes a world in which people have imagination, are a little bit weird, and make connections despite (or because) of it.  Which as a non-obtrusive background to a set of songs that will amuse your 5-9-year-old, is a nice bonus.

Trippin' Round the Mitten album cover

Trippin' Round the Mitten album cover

Onward to Randy Kaplan, whose latest album Trippin’ Round the Mitten features his usual set of humorous takes, often featuring Kaplan as an aggrieved narrator dealing with the frustrations of the world around him.  Now that Kaplan’s a father, he’s got an even more constant stream of inspiration.  Kaplan has excellent taste in cover songs, sliding in ELO’s “Jungle,” The Dead Milkmen’s “Beach Song,” and “Mr. Bass Man” (among others), not to mention a sharp parodic ear, reworking “Mr. Bass Man” into “Mr. Spaceman” (hi, Elon Musk!) and turning Maroon 5’s “Sugar”’s inappropriate-for-a-four-year-old’s lyrics into an ode to a four-year-old’s favorite ingredient.  Kaplan’s comedic approach could be wearying if it weren’t for the fact that he’ll thrown in an incredibly heartfelt song, like following up “Cat & Mice” (about what happens on a “guys weekend” with dad and son) with longtime producer Mike West’s “Tongue Tied,” a gorgeous apology in song that parents and kids have both felt.  And in the case of Kaplan’s “On the Phone on the Toilet,” the salty and sweet are inextricably mixed.  Kaplan doesn’t change his formula here, but when the formula works well as it does again, I’m OK with that.  Longtime fans will dig in; if you’re new to Kaplan, this album is a fine place to start for your favorite 4-to-8-year old.

Spectacular Daydream album cover

Spectacular Daydream album cover

Moving on then, to the dreamier pair of albums, starting with Mo Phillips’ Spectacular Daydream, which is a strong contender for Most Accurate Album Title of the year, as the Portland musician gives us a dozen songs that seem inspired by, or designed to encourage listeners to, sleep.  It’s not that this is a lullaby album, but the dreamy imagery (sample lyrics: “Your ears are made out of French toast”) and lush and often mellow musical arrangements -- and guest artists including fellow Portland musician Red Yarn -- encourage a relaxed listen rather than active engagement.  The prominent use of ukulele helps in this regard as well.  In fact, thanks to a grant from Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council, Phillips has turned the album into a ukulele songbook with elaborate drawings -- it’s definitely the one album I’d encourage tracking down in physical format if you care at all about it.  (The younger listeners in the 3-to-7-year-old target audience may want to color the illustrations, too.)  Along with Pointed Man Band’s Between the Waves and the Cardoons and Red Yarn’s Born in the Deep Woods, Spectacular Daydream is the third in what has been an impressive 2017 thus far for Portland-based kids music.

The Moonlights album cover

The Moonlights album cover

Finally we have The Moonlights, the debut from The Moonlights, better known to kindie fans as the duo's component parts, Dean Jones (Dog on Fleas, kindie super-producer) and Rachel Loshak (Gustafer Yellowgold).  From the album's very start, when "That Light" quotes Shakespeare, there's a fable-like quality to the 33-minute album that is completely enchanting.  (That album cover picture of a moon shrouded in fog is an excellent visual companion.)  The songs celebrate the natural world in all its many splendors, often in awe, but occasionally feature a more comedic touch.  "Symphony for Dogs" is about writing a symphony for canines that humans can't hear while "Early Bird" spins the phrase "the early bird gets the worm" into a whole series of animal pairings.  And while the dueting between Jones and Loshak is lovely on tracks like "Colour of Leaves" and "Bake a Cake" (the sweetest love song you'll hear on a kindie album this year), I think it's really Loshak's voice which is the star, a clear soprano deployed to beautiful and occasionally humorous effect, featured by Jones' typical instrumentally restrained but eclectic arrangements.  To me, this ranks up there with Dog on Fleas' best albums and Jones' solo Napper Delight.  These four albums are all worth you checking out -- all definitely recommended to be sure -- but this one is my personal favorite, definitely a candidate for my favorite of the year.

Review: Born in the Deep Woods - Red Yarn

Born in the Deep Woods cover

Born in the Deep Woods cover

Some artists take tentative steps into kids music, but Andy Furgeson seemed to know exactly what he was doing from the get-go.  Playing as Red Yarn, the Austin-bred, Portland-based musician and puppeteer brought the fervor of a revival to his first kids' album, 2013's The Deep Woods, and then doubled-down on that feeling with his 2015 follow-up, the appropriately titled Deep Woods Revival.  Both albums brought energy and emotion to old folk songs to make those old songs sound urgent and vital.

After a 2016 detour into some stripped-down arrangements on Wake Up and Sing, Furgeson is back with the final entry in his "Deep Woods Trilogy," Born in the Deep Woods.  If the first two Deep Woods albums sound like they were recorded in a church somewhere, this new album has a much more Southern-fried rock sound.  Not quite in a bar, perhaps, but not exactly church pew, either.  For everyone who ever thought what Red Yarn needed was more cowbell, Born in the Deep Woods is the album for you.

The title track, a Furgeson original, has a driving sound that might fit in more with the earlier albums, but "Old Mother Goose" definitely has that Southern "classic rock" sound even as it weaves together some traditional nursery rhymes like "Hey Diddle Diddle" and "All Around the Mulberry Bush."  There are more completely original songs on this new album -- four or five depending on how you're counting -- than on previous works, but I think it's a testament to Furgeson's songwriting skills and his production work alongside co-producer Adam Selzer that it can hard be hard to tell his takes on songs sung for generations apart from the ones written for and inspired by Furgeson's two kids.

Furgeson knows how to have fun with a song -- check out the video for "Mockingbird," in which Furgeson plots the detailed musical background of the song with a detail rivaling the search for the Zodiac Killer -- but he seems particularly focus on the meaning of parenthood.  Songs like "Little Baby Born Today," "Old Black Dog," and "Deep Woods Revisited" address life -- both birth and death -- in the tone of voice of a parent.  The epic "Born Again" does, too, filled with slide guitar instrumental breaks and lines like "When we reach our destination / Across the river, across the nation / We find we're right back where we came from."  Could the Allman Brothers record that song and have it sound a little bit like the Red Yarn track?  Most definitely.

Born in the Deep Woods is not a kids music album, but only to those who haven't spent a lot of time thinking about kids music.  There's an alphabet song on here that even though I'd listened to the album a half-dozen times I didn't realize it until I looked at the lyrics.  (Which you should totally do if you decide to get a copy of the lovely physical copy.)  It is an intricate album, and while it's appealing musically and not cryptic in any way, for some listeners, the simpler Wake Up and Sing may be the better entry point to the Red Yarn discography.  You could put this album on for the 10-minute drive home from school, but it fits more a 45-minute Lego construction session.

I, for one, am looking forward to where Furgeson moves on from Born in the Deep Woods.  The Deep Woods have been a rich source of inspiration for the Red Yarn albums, but I also think that his songwriting on this album in particular indicates he can look beyond the folk music tradition that's informed so much of his work.  Not that he'd ever abandon that music -- and I don't want him to -- but I'm more interested at this point in seeing where he goes next than in further expansion of the Deep Woods mythology.  I hope he comes back to the Deep Woods in time, but I'd like to see what he discovers when he ventures out further to explore.  Highly recommended.

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

Rainbows and Unicorns and Kids Music (Foreverywhere - StevenSteven)

Foreverywhere album cover

Foreverywhere album cover

If teaching kids how to be patient -- how to defer gratification until later -- is a useful skill, then the release of Foreverywhere, the debut album from StevenSteven, may be the world's most important parental tool.

Perhaps you think I'm kidding that an album about rainbows and unicorns is the most anticipated album in kids music history?  Let me put it this way -- I made a joke about how kindie fans had waited so long for the album that it had become the Chinese Democracy of kids music.

Twice.  I'd forgotten that I'd made the joke already.

But here we are, February 24, 2017 -- more than a decade since former Blue's Clues star Steve Burns and Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd first unleashed upon kids music the world's most awesome tribute to Groundhog Day -- and, yes, Foreverywhere is out in the world and the result is rainbows and unicorns, and in particular, a guitar-shredding Princess Rainbow and a Lonely Unicorn who joins her band, falls in love, loses her, then searches literally the entire universe to find her again.

Honestly, the whole album feels a little bit like that sentence -- epic, heartfelt, and a little rambling at points.  (Also, it's meticulously crafted, which is probably more than I can say about the sentence.)

After several listens, I came to think of the album as three EPs smooshed together.  There's the science-y, "fact"-based set of songs in the first half -- the fuzzy psych-rock of "Mimic Octopus," the game-show-turned-pop-song "OK Toilet Bowl," and the song guaranteed to put a smile on my face every time I listen to it, "A Fact Is A Gift That You Give Your Brain" -- those are the tracks that will make power-pop fans of any age move their heads to the rhythm.  Then there's the goofier and sometimes downright odd takes on kids music tropes in the second half -- "If You're Ginormous And You Know It" features one giant drummer, while "The Happy Then Sad Then Triumphant Spider" takes more than six minutes to tell the tale of one spider, one rain spout, and one sun.  (It's like those chorales that take their lyrical inspiration from about 3 lines of Biblical verse.)

And the third set is the epic story of the Lonely Unicorn and his search for Princess Rainbow, which stretches across 3 songs spread through the entire album.  If you think six minutes is too long of a song for your favorite 4-year-old, wait 'til you play them the nearly 11-minute closing title track.  And I suppose that's where some parents will think, "AWESOME!" and other parents will say, "ARE YOU NUTS?"  Personally I am sympathetic to the latter group -- I'm not sure how many younger kids will retain their attention on those longer, somewhat sleepier tracks -- but am pleased that the duo just went for it.  (Skip the tracks, go back to "A Fact," if you need the shorter blast.)

You may hear lots of kids music this year, and you may even hear kids music this year you like more than Foreverywhere, but I'm pretty sure you're not going to hear anything like it in kids music this year.  There is no small amount of rainbows and unicorns in this album ready to be unleashed upon the world, and, yeah, it was worth the wait.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I received a copy of this album 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.

Itty-Bitty Review: I Chew - Hullabaloo

I Chew album cover

I Chew album cover

I don't know if practice makes perfect, but it usually helps things considerably.  When you write a song a day for a month as Steve Denyes of San Diego's Hullabaloo did last year, not all the songs are going to be keepers, but the songwriting muscle will be stronger at the end than at the beginning.

For the band's latest album I Chew, Denyes (along with bandmate Brendan Kremer and Shawn Rohlf) took the best of the bunch, added a handful of new songs, and recorded them in their familiar simple folk-roots style.  The result is a collection of 16 songs that cover a surprisingly broad range of styles in its 21 minutes.  Silly songs like the nonpartisansong "Senator John Arthur Clydesdale III" bump up against the political "I Wear Pink," which gently makes the apparently still controversial argument that boys can wear pink and play with dolls.  (I know! But Denyes sings of actual pushback he received.)  "Air-O-Plane" is a sequel in many ways to Woody Guthrie's "Car Car" and "Aeroplane," while "I Can't Let It Go" speaks just as much to the 40-year-old obsessives as the 14-month old ones.  There's a hint of Shel Silverstein, too, in "Boring," not to mention the spoken word "Worm with Wings."  (The tracks will be most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7.)

Denyes didn't just have a month to hone his songwriting -- he's been playing for kids for more than a decade.  And slowly but surely, he's become one of kindie's better songwriters, a living argument in favor of consistency while occasionally mixing things up (by, say, writing a song a day).  As he sings about in "Day 16," start trying to write a song, and eventually you'll have a song.  Do it often enough, and some of it will end up pretty good.  Definitely recommended.