Review: Love Bug - Raffi


There is no question that Raffi is kids music royalty, one of the first names lots of people probably think of when they hear the phrase "kids music."

But he's also been comparatively quiet in the past decade, at least in the kids music world, since the release of 2002's Let's Play.  Not quiet in the broader world, mind you -- he's the founder of the Centre for Child Honouring, and a prolific Twitterer -- but there's a whole decade's worth of preschoolers whose exposure to Raffi's lovely voice has been limited to older songs, starting with one of the foundational albums of kids music, 1976's Singable Songs for the Very Young.

So it was with some surprise that the world received news that the Canadian artist was going to release an album of brand-new recordings in 2014.  Sure enough, this summer he released Love Bug, and in many cases, it's like he never left.  Why now? Raffi says he "make[s] music when I feel a new stirring," and in this case it was feeling like he wanted to record music celebrating the natural and "real world." (Although an active Twitter user, Raffi uses a fair number of those tweets to suggest that kids should have far less of an online/electronic presence.)

There are parts of Love Bug that are absolutely among Raffi's best work (which, for the record, I find to be his first 3 albums, which have been played literally hundreds of times in our household).  The title song, with some kids singing along in parts? Classic.  Same goes for "Doggone Woods," which features the man who's sold millions of albums giving his best "woof!"  (There's something to be said for the idea that the reason Raffi has sold millions of albums is precisely because his empathy and understanding of kids allows him to bark on record.)  Songs like "Free To Play" and "In the Real World" teach lessons obliquely about, well, playing and exploring the real world (as opposed to online).  And as someone who's half-Canadian, I was glad to hear Raffi re-purpose Woody Guthrie's classic "This Land Is Your Land" for Canadian geography.

There are some songs that may frustrate some listeners -- "Mama Loves It" is more explicitly lesson-teaching, and the look I got from my wife after we listened to "Seeing the Heart" on a car ride spoke very clearly that she never wanted to hear Raffi sing about the "mother and son connection" ever again.  Ours is a Raffi household, and so I can accept the track "Wind Chimes," which is, simply, 1 minute and 22 seconds of wind chimes.  Others may not want to travel that path.

Technically, there are no great shifts compared to Raffi's past work.  The arrangements are gentle, non-obtrusive -- mostly piano and guitar-folk with mellow percussion that features Raffi's voice, as pristine as ever.  It doesn't sound like a kindie pop-rock record, and for that, we can be thankful.  The 43-minute album is probably best for kids 3 through 7 (and "Belugagrads," as Raffi has nicknamed his now-adult fans from his past, of all ages.)

I will say that I wanted to like this album even more than I did -- I wanted it to be every bit as perfect as I think Singable Songs is.  Other listeners may in fact think it is.  But it is good, very good, and every family who's had a place in their heart for Raffi in their lives will find lots of music here worth space in that heart as well.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: Rise and Shine! - Caspar Babypants


Music writers -- at the very least, this one -- aren't necessarily fans of consistency in their artists.  It stretches our ability to find something new to say about an artist when she constantly turns out the same type of thing.

Sometimes it's consistently bad, and I imagine that some writers could have fun picking apart those albums exhibiting significant failures of imagination, talent, or quality control, if not all three. (I am not one of those writers.)

But sometimes it's consistently good, and those are the trickier ones for me.  Chris Ballew, aka Caspar Babypants -- he's one of the trickiest.  His seven Caspar Babypants albums have been uniformly excellent, with only his most recent, Baby Beatles, a collection of Fab Four covers, at all deviating from the norm of well-crafted, lightly-arranged collections of gentle and gently skewed originals mixed with covers of folk classics that, like looking through a prism at different angles, retained the essence of the original but let you see (or hear) it in a different way.

So how does his latest album, Rise and Shine, differ from the rest of the CB work?  Hmmm… to begin with, it felt to me like it's his most toddler-focused album in quite some time, songs like the strings-laden Beatlesque "Rise and Shine" and the handclapp-y jam "Littlest Worm" with the hint of lessons might be most… useful for your almost-three-year-old.

But that's the barest of distinctions, and the album feels every bit part of the Caspar Babypants world we have come to know and love.  It celebrates the natural world, with songs featuring birds, worms, mice, and squirrels -- sometimes acting more or less like they actually do in the real world, in the crisp "Pretty Crabby," and sometimes acting more anthropomorphically, as in what is probably one of my top 5 Caspar Babypants songs, "Bird in an Airplane Suit" ("Look up / look up / you can sometimes see / a bird in an airplane suit").  (I also quite enjoy the simple and wistful "Girl With a Squirrel in Her Hat.")

Ballew's ear for reworking traditional songs and mixing those new arrangements amongst his sometimes whimsical originals remains as sharp as ever.  "Rain Rain Come Today" is very much reworked, something you might have heard in the '60s.  And while the traditional lullabies on the disk are hardly lullabies - "Hush Little Baby" is funky, and "Rock a Bye Baby" also fails the sleep test, he does end the album on a slow note, tempo-wise.

I'll peg this album as most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 6.  You can hear samples from the 50-minute album here.

In the end, Rise and Shine is another solid entry in Ballew's kid-canon, as strong as any over the past decade, perfect for your youngest kid or niece or nephew, but still just as delightful to their older siblings (or their parents).  Sometimes novelty is overrated, but Caspar Babypants isn't.  Highly recommended.

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

Itty-Bitty Review: I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly - Thomas Hellman and Emilie Clepper


The Canadian imprint The Secret Mountain has been a big hit in our household, particularly with Little Boy Blue, for its combination of musical selections and illustration, both from a surprisingly diverse range of genres.

The Secret Mountain's latest book I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly is likely to continue its winning streak 'round these parts.  It uses the songs of Alan Mills, born a century ago in Quebec and celebrated for his many albums of folk songs, particularly for children.  Musically, he's best known in North America -- and probably elsewhere -- for composing the music to the title track, given a sprightly rendition here by Canadian musicians Thomas Hellman and Emilie Clepper.  "Sprightly" is a good adjective for the album generally -- the goofy rhymes on the polka "Heel, Toe, and Away We Go" are given extra oomph by the accordion and brass accompaniment.  Most of these songs may not be familiar to most listeners south of the border (most weren't for me), but they'll be engaging to many preschoolers.

The 39-minute album and book will be most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 5.  You can listen to the songs here (follow the links for the songs after the leadoff title track).  The book itself features lyrics for all the songs -- stretched out over several pages for the title track, a 2-page spread for the rest -- with the distinctive illustrations of Quebecois artist PisHier (big heads everywhere!) providing an amusing visual counterpoint.  Regardless of whether I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly is an introduction or a re-introduction of Alan Mills to you and your family, the very youngest among you will find some delight here.  Definitely recommended.


Review: Through the Woods - The Okee Dokee Brothers


There aren't many blockbuster albums in the world of kindie.  There are lots of albums that sell well, and lots of albums that achieve a level of critical popularity inside and outside the kindie world -- but something that combines parts, that's rare.

The Okee Dokee Brothers' Can You Canoe? was one of those rare albums.  It was critically acclaimed as the best album of 2012, winning the Grammy for best children's album of that year as well as taking the top spot in the Fids and Kamily Awards.  It also continued to be one of the few kindie albums (Non-Laurie Berkner/Elizabeth Mitchell/TMBG Division) to make Top 50 charts at iTunes and Amazon.

All of which is to say, Justin Lansing and Joe Mailander, those boys from Minnesota, had a mighty big task in following up that album. Did they succeed with Through the Woods: An Appalchian Adventure Album?

It's hard to say, precisely because of its predecessor's tremendous success. Are all the elements there? Yes -- a big-hearted spirit, a fancy for metaphor, tenderness leavened with humor, it's all there.  But I would be lying if I said I had the same instantaneous reaction to this new album as I did 2 years ago, and maybe the reason it's taken me 3 months to write this review is that I've been trying to figure out why.

The best answer I can come up with -- and it's not a great one, though it is an honest one -- is that it's mellower, its philosophy perhaps more inwardly focused.  Compared to Canoe, whose can-do attitude and celebration of exploration was front-and-center from the first note (my NPR review of the album is one my favorite pieces there and draws heavily on those themes), this new album, inspired by walks along the Appalchian Trail, generally sings in a more relaxed key.  The title track, featuring a lovely descending bass line, is the spiritual successor to the last album's title track, but most of the songs are more content to celebrate tiny moments -- dancing with neighbors in "Jamboree," the gentle love song "Evergreen," the ode to keeping things loose "Out of Tune."

The Brothers do a good job of reworking some well-known folk tunes like "Big Rock Candy Mountain" (featuring Hubby Jenkins from the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and "Hillbilly Willy," their version of "Old Dan Tucker."  Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer each make a separate appearance, with Marxer's banjo playing on "Fiddlestick Joe" of particular note. Dean Jones co-produces with Lansing and Mailander, and Jed Anderson with his usual light (and spot-on) touch.

The album will be most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9.  The album packaging, featuring art from Brandon Reese, is lovely -- it's the sort of thing that warms this physical product fan's heart.  (There is also a DVD with music videos and footage from the trip.)

So, in sum, Through the Woods is an excellent album, one that should provide your family with hours of very pleasurable listening.  If you came to love the band because of Can You Canoe? then you will continue to love them no less after this new album.  And if you, like me, love this album a little bit less, it's OK, too -- it's still pretty great.  Highly recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: Newborn, Too - Sara Hickman


Sara Hickman was one of the first kindie crossover artists -- musicians who made their name making music for adults who discovered the world of making music for kids.  Starting in 1999, when she released the album Newborn, followed by Toddler a couple years later, the Texas-based Hickman always kept one toe in the kindie world, releasing or coordinating 5 albums and a DVD.

Fifteen years after releasing Newborn, Hickman has a brand-new album for the youngest of young'uns -- Newborn, Too.  While Newborn was a mix of lullaby and uptempo tracks, the new album is designed just for sleepy time.  As is often the case with lullaby albums from intelligent singer-songwriters, Newborn, Too features a number of well-chosen modern songs given new life in this new lullaby setting.  Some are familiar -- John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" and Billy Joel's gorgeous "Goodnight, My Angel" -- while perhaps the most affecting are less well-known, such as Adrian Belew's "Dream Life."  Hickman's emphasis on families of whatever sort on songs like "Family Tree" and "Welcome Home" (a lovely song for parents with newly adopted children).  While some of the songs are a bit too brightly produced for my own sleepy time lullaby preferences, the album generally stays safely in the lullaby camp (and avoids the goopiness lullaby albums can be prone to).

The 47-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 0 through 5, and with its emphasis on modern songs, appropriate, too, for adults looking for a mellow album featuring Hickman's strong voice and interpretive sense.  It's been awhile since Hickman made a straight-up album for kids, but Newborn, Too is a welcome return to the fold.  Recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: We're a Club in the Woods - Bears and Lions


My introduction to the Florida-based duo Bears and Lions was at Kindiefest a couple years back, where a couple guys dressed up as, yes, a bear and a lion (in '70s era basketball uniforms, no less), strode up on stage and proceeded to play one of the more goofy sets of songs I'd heard in kids music.  Jangly, southern-fried guitar-pop songs about jumping out of airplanes, man's best friend, and PAN! CAKE! SWEEP! STAKES!  (Just listen to "Pancakes" all the way through, trust me.)

So a lot of my attitude regarding their 2014 debut, We're a Club in the Woods, is colored by the impressions their slightly anarchic set created.  They mostly played  uptempo songs during their abbreviated Kindiefest set, and the gleeful energy on tracks like "Pancakes," "Airplanes," and "Mediocre Kid" is every bit present here on the album.  Slightly less energetic songs like "Jeremiah" don't stand out nearly as much.  The album, when played live, is intended to be more a story, so the pogoing theme-song-like "Bears and Lions" makes more sense if you think of it as the song they play at the very end of the set after Bear and Lion have formed their own club in the woods.  It's not a perfect album by any means, but nobody would consider it cookie-cutter kindie-pop.

The 36-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8.  You can stream the album here.  We're a Club in the Woods is a little odd, but in a good way, and well worth checking out.  Definitely recommended.