Looking Forward by Looking Back (Dan Zanes' "Lead Belly, Baby!")

Lead Belly, Baby! album cover

Lead Belly, Baby! album cover

When most people think about Smithsonian Folkways' kids' artists, I'd guess that the first names that come to mind are Ella Jenkins and Pete Seeger, with probably Woody Guthrie close behind.  But if I were to make that trio a quartet, I'd add Lead Belly to that list.  Lead Belly (born Huddie William Ledbetter in 1889) was a master of the 12-string guitar, and starting in the mid-1930s until his death in 1949, he recorded for a wide variety of labels.

His outsized influence on blues music generally masks the fact that he only recorded one album specifically for kids for Folkways, and that was an album released more than a decade after his death.  But in 1999, Smithsonian Folkways released Lead Belly Sings for Children, a collection of songs Lead Belly specifically recorded for kids in the 1940s along with other tracks that fit right in.  The liner notes describe it as "essential listening for all ages," and in this case, the hype fits.

Nearly three quarters of a century after Lead Belly started recording for Folkways founder Moses Asch, Dan Zanes has joined in.  As part of the typically detailed and lovingly-produced liner notes to the album, Zanes writes of being seven years old and discovering a Lead Belly record in the basement of his local library just as he was getting interested in the guitar.  In Zanes' telling, Lead Belly's music played no small role in Zanes' path toward becoming a musician.  In other words, this is a labor of love.

Now much of Zanes' all-ages musical path has felt like it came out of love and not any sort of calculated attempt at super-stardom, but this album does feel to me just slightly more personal, as if going back to one of his first inspirations helped Zanes tap into his own inspiration.  In time-honored folk tradition, Zanes adds his own voice and approach.  “Bring Me a Little Water, Sylvie” is given a slightly more uptempo, lilting feel.  Zanes has always been willing to make a space for hip-hop on his albums, but he's opened up a lot more room for it now.  There are many reasons that might be appropriate, but probably the most appropriate is that the arrangements breathe new life into these tracks.  The original Lead Belly recordings, after all, were primarily the man and his guitar -- they sound great, but there can be a certain monotony to those tracks.  But the arrangements here are wide open: in addition to the music store's worth of instruments -- concertina, saxophone, cowbell, mandolin -- five of the tracks feature guest raps.  

As with most music Zanes releases, this album features a couple dozen guest artists.  Some are famous -- hey, there’s Billy Bragg on “Rock Island Line!”… Is that really Chuck D offering up a verse on “Skip To My Lou?" to name but a couple such appearances.  But just as important to the overall feel are the guest turns by the musicians we’re probably less familiar with, like Jendog Lonewolf’s rap on “Julie Ann Johnson," while Memphis Jelks, invited onto “Skip To My Lou” by Chuck D., just about steals the show from the elder statesman.

If there’s anything I miss from the album, it’s the voices of kids.  Folkways albums for kids have always had lots of participation by kids -- Lead Belly Sings for Children is no exception, as it includes a number of tracks featuring Lead Belly singing to and with kids.  In contrast, aside from “More Yet,” there’s no chorus of kids on Zanes’ album.  (“Little Goose” makes an appearance on the intro to “Polly Wee” along with Father Goose, but that’s not really what I mean.)

After a series of themed albums that were musically satisfactory but less than fully… party-filled, Lead Belly, Baby! most closely replicates the freewheeling spirit of his early DZAF albums, the ones that propelled him into kids music stardom.  While in many ways this album will sound familiar to those fans of those albums (nearly twenty years old at this point), Dan Zanes is also walking some different musical paths than he was twenty (or thirty or forty) years ago.  If looking back to one of his earliest musical idols helps kick off another series of musical explorations into the future, then by all means bring it on.  Highly recommended.

Ella's Kids (Reviews of Ella Jenkins, Jazzy Ash, and Shine and the Moonbeams)

I've been thinking some about white guys with guitars.

I've got nothing against white guys with guitars -- I'm a white guy with a guitar (OK, ukulele), and as I think about my own favorite music, much of it is made by, you guessed it, white guys with guitars.  But there are a lot of white guys with guitars making music for kids.

I don't want to speculate on exactly why this is, but it can't be to the advantage of kids music that the lists of artists making kids music on a national level looks -- and, in terms of the musical styles of those artists, sounds -- way less diverse than, say, the Billboard charts, which might feature Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, or Rihanna (not to mention Pitbull or Drake or whomever) near the top.  I'm fully in favor of exposing kids to a wide variety of musical artists and musical genres, and right now that's not as easy as a parent might hope.

It's a little strange, especially because the very first kids music star was (and is) an African-American woman: Ella Jenkins.  In 1957, she released Call-and-Response Rhythmic Group Singing on Folkways Records, and over the next 60 years, she's released more than 30 albums on Folkways, then Smithsonian Folkways.  (Her 1966 album You Sing a Song and I'll Sing a Song is Smithsonian Folkways' best-selling album of all time, from any genre.)  And while Jenkins is not one to toot her own horn or make a big deal out of her politics (this is an hour-long interview from a decade ago where she does neither), but it's not hard to review Jenkins' discography and think that she, too, would want to see many different types of kids' musicians making themselves visible.

Jenkins recently released Camp Songs, her first album of new music in six years, and with the recent release of albums from a couple younger artists who've taken inspiration from Ella in different ways, I thought it was a good time to take a look at all three of these albums, all of them definitely recommended.

Camp Songs album cover

Camp Songs album cover

Camp Songs is labeled as being by Ella Jenkins and Friends, and that "and Friends" appendage is definitely important.  It's probably too much to expect an artist who just turned 93 years old to be up for leading a bunch of kids in song with nothing but a guitar and her voice.  Indeed, as Tony Seeger noted in an interview, "her voice was not as strong as she had hoped when the time came to record."  But she was definitely the animating spirit behind the album.  And in some ways, Jenkins receding somewhat to the background allows for a fuller musical experience.  It's not just Jenkins and a guitar, there are many more jumping in to share their voices.

As you'd suspect by the title, there are many camp favorites on the album -- "Kumbaya, "Down by the Riverside," "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," to name but three. It's led in many places by Tony and Kate Seeger, brother and sister, who have lots of experience leading a group of singing kids (read more about that here).  There are also musicians from Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music (including Erin Flynn!) who lead some other songs and a children's chorus.  Ella sings a bit, plays harmonica on a few songs, and generally blesses the entire affair. If Ella isn't exactly front-and-center, I have no doubt that she's very pleased with the playful and communitarian nature of the end result.

Before heading into the next couple reviews, a brief shout-out to Robbi Kumalo, who performs music for kids as Robbi K, and is, as best I can recall, the only African-American woman aside from Ella with any national visibility whose main role was making music for kids in the 2000s (and before).  If you like the sounds of Ella and the next two artists and want more in that vein, I'd recommend check Robbi out.

Ashli Christoval has taken the sounds of New Orleans heritage via her mother and crafted a career making music for kids as Jazzy Ash.  She has spoken about her debt to Ella Jenkins -- seeing Jenkins make an appearance on Mister Rogers:

That moment was very monumental for me. I knew that I wanted to be part of the artist community that used art to preserve the wonderful the stories of culture.
Swing Set album cover

Swing Set album cover

On Swing Set, her fourth album, she comes the closest yet to seamlessly blending the African-American musical heritage, particularly jazz, with the singing together and movement work that Jenkins pioneered on record.  It kicks off with a swinging (pun unintended) version of "Li'l Liza Jane," which features an ebullient group call-and-response.  (Much more Preservation Hall Jazz Band than Elizabeth Mitchell -- to say that I like it as much as Mitchell's version is high praise from me.)

The word I kept writing down as I took notes on the album was "joyful."  This is, friends, the most joyful album of the year.  From Uncle Devin's hand-clapping on "Hambone" to Jazzy's insertion of "Fried! Froglegs!" as something Grandma's going to enjoy in "She'll Be Coming Around the Mountain" to her giving her band a kick in the pants in the slow intro to "When the Saints Go Marching In" ("Too slow, let's put a little swing into it!") -- there's so much happiness here.  It very much honors the stories of Christoval's culture, and in songs like "Miss Mary Mack" and the brief call-and-response interludes with a children's chorus, it honors Jenkins' legacy.  It's also a blast -- it's every bit as fun as that cover art above suggests.

Shooting Stars album cover

Shooting Stars album cover

Another artist who is walking in Ella's path, but a less-appreciated one, is Shawana Kemp.  Kemp is best-known in the kids music world as Shine in Shine and the Moonbeams.  On their 2013 self-titled debut album, Kemp's voice was the star, a voice that could literally stun listeners.

Kemp is back after far too long of an absence with Shooting Stars, an album released this spring that I'm hoping gets a little more notice.

The music of Shine and the Moonbeams has always been fairly complex -- jazz, R&B, and a fair share of funk.  It's not an approach Jenkins has ever been much interested in.  The reason I say that Kemp is also in walking in Ella's path is that the music of Shine and the Moonbeams is emphatically child-centered emotionally.  It's amazing to watch Jenkins with kids, because even though she's not a parent, Jenkins is so present.  It's clear that the kids are her most important audience, and she doesn't care about getting cool points from the adults in the audience.  (She just wants them singing along.)  And while performance-wise Kemp knows how to leave an impression on the entire room, when it comes to songwriting, the kids most definitely come first.  "Shooting Star," which leads off the album, is a glorious song about everyone having their own talent.  "Peekaboo Baby" is blues for the very youngest kid, and "Tough Love" is a funk rocker that explains exactly why the parent is not going to go easy on her kid.

Those songs are mixed into a set that also features some reggae ("Ace Boon Coon"), late '70s (?) funk ("Tell Me Why"), and the empathetic vocal soul of "Any Body Other Than Me."  And to have songs like "Soul Food Holiday" and "These Shoes" (a straight-forward jazz song whose lyrics encourage self-acceptance, especially of body image) that speak most directly to an African-American audience on a mainstream kids music release is awesome to hear.

I know I've combined these three albums into a single review for convenience and to make some overarching points, but I'd hate to see these albums get pigeonholed for a certain audience.  I'd much rather that these albums be the inspiration for future albums, for Ashli's and Shawana's kids... and Ella's grandkids.

Recent Spanish-Language Kids Music Albums (and One Portuguese Album)

While the flood of kids music designed to teach kids a foreign language has thankfully slowed down somewhat (the results were usually very dry, musically-speaking), what's left over is generally of higher quality.  I wanted to highlight ever so briefly some recent Spanish-language (or mostly Spanish-language) albums for kids.  I've even thrown in a Portuguese-language album for good measure.  Whether any of these would sneak into my 2015 list of ten great Spanish-language kids music albums, I'd need to spend a little more time thinking about, but all of these five albums are worth listening to in one way or another.

Arriba Abajo cover

Arriba Abajo cover

The highest-profile of the five albums here is probably 123 Andres' Arriba Abajo, which picked up the 2016 Latin Grammy.  Based in Washington DC, Colombian-born Andrés Salguero has carved a niche by playing Spanish-language music that features more sounds of Central and South America than just Mexico.  This album features 10 songs sung entirely in Spanish, then the same 10 songs with English lyrics.  The lyrics are targeted at a preschool age (see "Cosquillas," or "Tickles"), so they are simple and direct, while the music is definitely more sophisticated.  (I particularly enjoyed "El danzon y al cha cha cha" and "Vuela, vuela" for the music.)  You can stream the album here and elsewhere.  I'm not sure kids would learn Spanish just by listening, but there have been far, far worse attempts at these sorts of album -- this is far more tuneful.

¡Alegria! album cover

¡Alegria! album cover

Los Angeles-based Sandra Sandia took a long time between albums.  The late 2015 album ¡Alegria! arrived about 7 years after its predecessor.  The inspiration for the project was some drum loops produced by a musician called DJ Salada, all with a Brazilian flavor.  The vast majority of the lyrics are in Spanish, and unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective) translations are nowhere to be found.  But as a pure listening experience, that may help.  And with songs about cats, snakes, whales, and, erm, flying saucers ("Platillo Volador"), the album is clearly targeted at kids.  With a more modern South American sound, this album might serve as a useful counterpoint to the more traditional sound of 123 Andres.

PANORAMA album cover

PANORAMA album cover

The most adventurous album (subject-wise, but also musically) of the bunch may be Moona Luna's early 2016 album PANORAMA.  It loosely tells the story of a family bus trip through South America, which means it has the time for songs about traveling (the title track), walking around cities at dusk ("Atardecer (Sunset)"), or just being with family ("Llevame (Take Me with You)").  Moona Luna's mastermind Sandra Velasquez has crafted some memorable melodies and, like all of these albums, a nicely-layered production.  And while Moona Luna's first songs were much more rigid in featuring Spanish-language verses and then direct-translation English-language verses (or vice versa), these latest songs are more flexible.  It means that you could take just about any song out of the context of the album, and still want to listen to it amidst a bunch of English-language kids music with more of a pop-rock flair.  (Stream it here and elsewhere.)  It's my favorite album of the bunch, but if it's yours depends on what you and your family are trying to get out of listening to Spanish-language albums.

Cuando Era Pequeña cover

Cuando Era Pequeña cover

For a shinier, poppier (albeit still Latin-influenced) take on the bilingual album look to Los Angeles’ Nathalia Palis (aka Nathalia).  On her 2016 album Cuando Era Pequeña (When I Was Your Age), the Colombian-born Palis switches from English to Spanish nimbly, sometimes within the same chorus, but also leaves room for songs sung entirely in one or the other language.  There is no (overt) language acquisition goal here, just themes that’ll sound familiar to anyone who’s spent time in the kids music world -- dancing like dinosaurs (“Dinosaur Dance,” natch), birthdays (the all-English “It’s My Birthday”), and perseverance (the pop-rocker “Otra Vez”).  There’s a big distance between this album and, say, the Paulinho Garcia album below, one that’s bigger than the language difference, but it’s also healthy that non-English language music for kids and families can cover such a wide range of styles and subjects.

Aquarela album cover

Aquarela album cover

Finally, unlike the other albums here, Aquarela from Brazilian-born, Chicago-based Paulinho Garcia is sung in Brazilian Portuguese.  (It's a release from the Global Language Project, which encourages the study and learning by kids of languages other than English.)  The melodies are sung by Garcia, accompanied by a small number of musicians who lay down the barest of musical accompaniments.  For any of you who have heard, say, Getz/Gilberto (and many probably have, even if you don’t know it), the samba sounds here (and the accompanying female vocals of Silvia Manrique) will have a soothing, familiar feel.  The title track is delightful, as is “Meu Limao, Meu Limoeiro,” but those are only a couple of the highlights.  If you want to learn Portuguese, the physical album includes lyrics in both the Portuguese and the English translation, but the relaxed take on these traditional Brazilian kids’ songs make for a pleasant spin regardless of whether you've got a second language in mind.

Better Late Than Never: 2016 Children's Grammy Nominee Reviews

One of the embarrassing things about writing about the nominees for the 59th Annual Grammy Award for Best Children's Album is that even though I did so in late January 2017, many months after the 5 nominated albums were released, I had only reviewed one of the 5 nominees, Frances England's Explorer of the World.

So while I'm transitioning out of more intensive review mode into something... else, I did want to make sure I added a few words about each of these nominees.

As I went back and listened to these albums, or at least these following four albums, I was struck by the idea that these albums weren't necessarily albums that took incredible creative leaps beyond what the artists had done before.  Instead, these albums are good examples of the type of music some of kindie's most popular and consistent artists have to offer.

RecessMonkeyNovelties.jpg

Let's start with the act that's been the most prolific for the longest time, Seattle trio Recess Monkey.  The biggest -- and really only -- novelty of Novelties, the band's 13th (!) album, is the fact that it was released on Amazon Music and can only be purchased or streamed there.  Aside from that, it's another  solid collection of pop-rock songs pitched at your favorite ever-so-slightly snarky 7-year-old.  Yes, the song "Sweaty Yeti" is every bit as silly as that title might suggest.  Compared to other albums of theirs like Desert Island DiscNovelties dials up the clown prince factor, and dials down the emotional factor which, while never prevalent, sometimes played a supporting role.  But this is immediately identifiable as a Recess Monkey album and given the large role the band has played in encouraging other kindie musicians and their consistency (13 albums in, like, 12 years), the Grammy nomination was deserved.

BradyRymerPressPlay.jpg

Next we have Press Play, from New York's Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could.  If Recess Monkey's calling card has been silliness and high energy, Rymer's has been emotionally open roots rock, and he's been offering it for even longer than Recess Monkey, albeit at not quite as frenetic a pace.  (Press Play is Rymer's eighth album for families, dating back to the year 2000.)  Rymer sings unironically about the virtues of trying new things, being kind, and the blessings of family.  They're the kind of sentiments that, stripped of Rymer's energetic singing and his harmony-filled Little Band That Could, could feel cheesy or trite.  But Rymer's music has always managed to move past that and make those valuable notions on tracks like the country-tinged "Dress in Blue" and the horn-and-organ-aided "Chain Reaction" fun to dance to.  Rymer earned another Grammy nomination for Press Play, and it's because his music usually goes down as comfortable as a plate of burger and fries in the hometown diner the band is posing in an album photo.  

OkeeDokeeBrothersSaddleUp.jpg

The only one of this year's nominees who had previously won a Grammy (for Can You Canoe?), The Okee Dokee Brothers, came back with the final album in their three-part "Adventure Album series," Saddle Up.  As you can probably guess from the title, after traveling down the Mississippi River and up the Appalachian Trail, this time the duo went out west, spending a month on horseback in June 2015.  So there's more of a cowboy theme to their music, though I wouldn't describe this album as the boys going full Riders in the Sky.  As with the album's two predecessors, this album gently weaves a few more traditional songs (such as "Ragtime Cowboy Joe") into the originals.  One of the niftiest tracks is "Sister Moon and Brother Sun," which features Navajo lyrics on a story with Native American roots -- its mere presence on a "Western" album is, if not groundbreaking, at least noteworthy for its relative rarity.  The album features a slick DVD, and while the boys didn't earn another Grammy for this one, I think the three Adventure albums are definitely one of the most critically (and, comparatively, commercially) successful trio of kids' albums of the 21st century.  Fans of the Okee Dokee Brothers would likely have taken this just as much to heart as their two previous albums.

SecretAgent23SkidooInfinityPlusOne.jpg

Last on this list of reviews is the actual Grammy winner this year, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, a previous nominee and first-time winner for Infinity Plus One.  Skidoo continues to be the most vibrant practitioner of hip-hop for the younger set -- nobody else is as consistently intricate lyrically and musically.  I don't think Infinity Plus One is quite as... weird as its predecessor The Perfect Quirk, but it is far out, man.  Literally.  Because as you might guess from the album art, Skidoo's got a serious deep space vibe going on here.  A song like "Pillowfight Pillowfort" seems in the distant past at this point.  I'd say the whole album is more space-inspired than space-themed (the killer track "Secret Superhero" isn't really about space, for example), but in more than a couple places he proves to be a huge Carl Sagan fan.

As always, one of the secret weapons of Secret Agent 23 Skidoo albums' high repeat listenability is the depth of the musical arrangements.  You might hear "hip hop" in terms of the album description and think there's no connection with, say, Brady Rymer's roots-rock, but tracks like "Young Soul" and "Long Days & Short Years" would not sound out of place at all on Rymer's album.  (Actually, can we get a Skidoo/Rymer collaboration?  Thanks in advance.)  Infinity Plus One is a very solid collection of songs targeted more at the upper elementary school crowd, and while I think any of Skidoo's albums are a worthy entry point to his work for your family, this newly Grammy-crowned work is definitely an excellent place to start.  I'd recommend all these albums -- hopefully I've given enough clues to suggest which might be most appropriate if you're entirely new to kids music.

FrancesEnglandExplorerOfTheWorld.jpg

Very finally, I would be remiss if I didn't re-remind you of the review I did for Frances England's Explorer of the World, the other album nominated in this category.  I described it as "more experimental than most kids music," and if the four albums above are more refinements of the artists' individual artistic paths, I think Explorer shows off England's exploration (appropriately enough) of new paths, particularly in the music arrangements.  Tracks like "City Don't Sleep" feature sonic collages featuring everything but (and probably including) the kitchen sink.  This album was every bit as worthy a Grammy nominee as the four albums above, and I just didn't want you to forget about it as you were considering the albums above.

 

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.