Review: Two Kids Music Albums from Iceland

[Cue Jim McKay voice] Spanning the globe to bring you a constant variety of the best of kids' music from around the globe, it's Zooglobble! [End Jim McKay voice]

I've never been shy about shining the spotlight on kids music from outside English-speaking North America -- plenty of Spanish-language music from multiple continents, not to mention Putumayo and Secret Mountain (and other labels' ) albums from around the world.

I feel safe in saying, however, that this is by far the furthest afield I've ever traveled, because today I bring you not one but two album reviews from the fine country of Iceland.  Honest-to-goodness kindie music from the northern European country of just a shade over 300,000 people.

The first of the couple albums here is the classic Ekki bara fyrir börn.

"Classic?"  Huh?

Yes, because that album title translates into Not For Kids Only.  This, friends, is a faithful -- albeit Icelandic-language -- cover of the Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's classic 1993 family-friendly bluegrass album.

It's from Icelandic record label Warén Music, and while I'm not sure I could've told you what I expected such a remake to sound like in advance of hearing, I guess I was surprised at the result, which was... well, pretty straight-forward.  It is as if Garcia and Grisman learned Icelandic, got a pot of coffee, found a few more musicians, and re-recorded as if they were some American kindie version of Michael Haneke remaking Funny Games.  (What really happened? Somebody brought over a copy of the original, and the musicians were inspired to recreate it.)

Aside from the language barrier, musically it'll sound a lot the '93 version, albeit a little more punched up, as if a few more musicians stumbled across Garcia and Grisman as they noodled away in the woods.  It's a little odd at points to hear such familiar melodies with unfamiliar words (take "Lagarfljót" for example, the translated version of "Shenandoah").  And then there's Lautaferð bangsanna, which is "Teddy Bear's Picnic" as sung by a Tom Waits' vocal double in Icelandic.  (Listen to the whole thing here.)  With the language barrier, this is accessible to all ages.

I realize this is essentially a novelty record for the English-speaking world -- you'd have to be a massive Garcia/Grisman completist or speak Icelandic in your family to want this.  But it's joyful, and a neat reminder of music's boundary-less nature.

If Ekki bara fyrir börn is American kindie (or American proto-kindie) rendered inscrutable for the typical American audience, Skýjaflétta is thoroughly Icelandic in conception, but completely accessible to audiences of any language.  The album is the brainchild of Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir, who plays in amiina, an Icelandic sextet that grew out of a string quartet and, in addition to releasing music on their own has also played with Sigur Rós.  Sumarliðadóttir wrote the music to accompany a couple of modern dance pieces for very young children, up to age 3.  (According to Sumarliðadóttir, the first 5 tracks are for a piece called "Clouds," the remaining tracks score "Twist and Turn".)

As you might expect from that background, these aren't straightforward pop songs.  The word "Skýjaflétta" means "a braid made of clouds," and this is an ambient dreamscape, but a shiny one, filled with pops, clicks, and toy pianos.  Some tracks, like "Twisty Tangle and Turny Braid," (as translated in English) and "Build" are pensive, exploratory, while songs like "Explore" are designed for more reflective wonder.  They are all wordless, making them, of course, open to everyone.

You can listen to six tracks from the 31-minute album here.  Ironically, just as the Icelandic-language album is for all ages given that almost all Americans will just listen to the music, the instrumental nature of this album, makes it all ages, too, though kids under 5 might particularly groove to this.  This is a thoroughly charming album and while I'm sure I will never get a chance to see the dance pieces these were composed for, I'm glad the album has a chance to cross the ocean for families with adventurous listening habits.  Definitely recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: 123s and ABCs - Ella Jenkins

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Let's begin as we must always begin when talking about Ella Jenkins -- she is a legend.  The Chicago-based musician released her first album for Folkways Records (later Smithsonian Folkways) in 1957, and she's recorded for Folkways ever since.  Jenkins turns 90 years old later this year, but she's still playing live around the country.

This latest album follows up on 2013's Get Moving with Ella Jenkins with another collection of previously-released material.  As you might guess from the album title, this album features songs about counting and the alphabet, presented with empathy and without a trace of irony and hipness.  That's not a putdown -- one of the great joys of listening to and watching Jenkins perform live and on record is hearing and seeing how in sync she is with her audience.  She's not playing to the adults in the back of the room -- she's playing to the kids in the front.  (She wants to get the adults involved, too, but that's usually not at issue on recordings.)  She's leading and teaching them, and the kids adore her for it.  Once your kids have already mastered their letters and numbers, they probably won't want to listen, and you might not want to listen to the album on repeat regardless, but again, it's not for you.

You can listen 3 tracks from the 31-minute album here.  Recommended if you've got preschoolers, and as always, if you yourself sing to preschoolers on a regular basis, regardless of whether you're in a classroom setting or not.

Itty-Bitty Review: I Like Everything About You (Yes I Do!) - Crosspulse Percussion Ensemble

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There's lots to like in the first family music album from the Bay Area group Crosspulse Percussion Ensemble.  For example, the "Caravan"-esque sounds of "Body Beat."  The joyful take on the children's classic "Little Liza Jane."  The earthiness of the percussion in the eternally oddness "Coocoo."

These songs are the product of years of singing and playing these songs in front of tens of thousands of kids, and it has the energetic attitude you'd expect to hear from a group experienced in performing live.

The song selection is appreciably diverse, with selections from around the world.  It is akin to a Dan Zanes album (or maybe Elizabeth Mitchell album) without all the amplification.

In fact, it's that comparative lack of diversity, sonically, that may hold the album back from being totally embraced by some of the audiences the Ensemble certainly hopes to reach.  It is not necessarily an easy album to listen to in the back seat of the minivan.  I think the performances -- watching these musicians create music out of their mouths, bodies, and percussion instruments and rarely anything stringed or melodic -- would be far more powerful live.

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 9.  You can hear some selections from the 42-minute album here.

This review makes it sound like I enjoyed the album less than I did.  I liked it -- maybe I just wanted to like it more.  This definitely isn't electric power-pop, and families only seeking that candy-coated sheen should stay far away.  But families with Ella Jenkins, Dan Zanes, and Putumayo CDs in their collection will probably find this a nice combination of them all.  Recommended.

Christmas Album Reviews 2013

We are a family that often writes our annual holiday letter long past Christmas.  (This year: not yet written.)  So as long as I can get out these Christmas album reviews before Christmas Eve night, I feel OK with it.  The 12 Days of Christmas, after all, start after Christmas, not before.

Having said all that, this was definitely a low-key year when it came to kindie and kid-friendly Christmas music.  Oh, sure, Todd McHatton added to his Christmas canon, and there were a handful of songs here and there, but compared to prior years, the haul was low.  Even Noisetrade, a reliable source for good holiday music samplers, didn't have anything this year I felt like passing along.  So this'll be a briefer look at just a half-dozen albums (because, hey, Christmas Eve is tonight and you don't have time to read a lot, right?).  They're not necessarily targeted at kids, but like most Christmas songs, they're perfectly appropriate for folks ages 4 through 94.

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First up, Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends' Smithsonian Folkways album The Sounding Joy, which to my ears was the one album most likely to join the regular rotation in our household.  In my review of the album, I noted that it didn't really sound like a "kids' album" (as opposed to Mitchell's other work over the past 10-15 years), but at this time of year, that isn't as necessary.  (There's only one what I'd call "kindie" album on this list this year.)  Christians will definitely appreciate this more than non-Christians (no songs about Santa here), but those with a deep interest in folk music will also appreciate it.  Definitely for hushed midwinter nights.

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Next up, the only real kindie album on the list, Felix Navidad, from Tara Scheyer & the Mud Puppy Band.  This 2011 album is the third (and most recent) album from the Augusta, Georgia band.  Scheyer has an appealing voice that meshes well with the pop-rock sound.  While there are a few Santa-based tracks (I really like "Santa's Chimney Slide," a band original), the majority of the songs are not -- while it's got a popper sound, because it draws from a number of less well-known songs, there is actually a fair amount in common with the Mitchell disk.

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The folks at North Carolina's Merge Records sent me their label's 3 holiday albums, and they are a unique trio.  The first (oldest) of the 3 is 2008's The Singing Saw at Christmastime from Julian Koster.  A singing saw is the poetic term for a saw played with a bow.  The resulting sound is ethereal and, depending on your attitude, magical or annoying.  I can't imagine listening to this 29-minute album straight through as there isn't a lot of variety to the sound of these familiar Christmas songs, secular and not.  But sprinkled through an eclectic holiday mix?  Most definitely.

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Merge album #2 is from She & Him, the duo of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward.  It's their 2011 album A Very She & Him Christmas.  Fans of the duo's retro-pop sound won't be disappointed with this release (though if you're not a fan of the band, this won't change your mind, either).  Deschanel's winsome voice is an appropriate vessel for these secular songs of Christmases past ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Blue Christmas").  While there are a few uptempo tracks, for the most part, this is an album you'll want to play after the kids are in bed and you're recovering from the Christmas Eve activities looking at the tree.

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The most recent Merge holiday release is from Tracey Thorn.  Her 2012 album Tinsel and Lights is what I'd call a Christmas album, but not in the usual meaning of the term.  Instead of singing about the holiday, the album focuses on the emotions of the season, with Christmas as a backdrop.  (Thorn's lovely-yet-slightly-weary voice is perfect for this.) There are a few nice covers -- "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" makes an appearance, and Thorn also covers two modern Christmas classics, Joni Mitchell's "River" and Sufjan Stevens' "Sister Winter."  This is not a Christmas album your kids will ask you to play often, but it is one you'll probably dig out even after the tinsel and lights have been put away.

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Finally, Kelly Clarkson's Wrapped in Red made its way into our holiday music collection this year.  This 2013 release features Clarkson tackling a broad range of Christmas songs wrapped in glittery pop-rock sheen.  The originals and less-specifically-Christmas songs stand out on this album.  The "Wall of Sound"-era sound of the title track and the poppier "Underneath the Tree" show off Clarkson's voice to best effect, but I personally liked "Winter Dreams (Brandon's Song)" and her take on "Silent Night" with Reba (McEntire) and Trisha Yearwood.  And whatever demerits Clarkson she gets for the silly "4 Carats," she gets earns kudos for covering Imogen Heap's Christmas breakup song "Just For Now."  The album isn't a classic, but it's good enough to pack away and pull it out when you set up the tree next year.

Note: I was provided copies of all albums except the Kelly Clarkson album for possible review.

Itty-Bitty Review: Live at the Orange Peel - Secret Agent 23 Skidoo

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Those of us who review kids music talk about the importance of getting kids to see live music.  For all the work I put in reviewing albums from across the country, the connection with kids isn't made through the CD player in the minivan or the family iDevice, but through the shared musical experience of a concert.

Maybe it's because the live experience is so transformative that explains why there are so few live albums in the kindie genre and those that do exist, either on album or on DVD, don't fully capture the energy and joy from seeing a live act.

I can't say that Secret Agent 23 Skidoo's live album, the just-released Live at the Orange Peel, is the album that totally breaks free of those constraints.  But it is a lively survey of the undisputed king of kid-hop's first three albums.  Featuring ten songs evenly split among his first three albums (including some tracks like "Time Flies" that only appear on some versions of the albums), Skidoo and his band of co-conspirators show in 40 minutes why he's a popular act with family audience.  Returning to Asheville, North Carolina, where he got his start, his family, including his daughter Saki (A.K.A. MC Fireworks), and Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band provide the full musical experience that help set Skidoo apart from other kid-hop acts ("Magic Beans" sounds particularly good).  The songs aren't massively different in production on stage than on record, but hearing Skidoo (and Saki and the others) rap live does give it a little different feel.

I would rather see Secret Agent 23 Skidoo live with my family than listen to Live at the Orange Peel.  But that's no knock on the new album - more so than many live kindie records, this one feels like it's its own creature rather than a pale document.  Skidoo fans will be pleased; newcomers could do worse for an introduction.  Definitely recommended.

Review: The Sounding Joy - Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends

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For all her Velvet Underground and Allman Brothers covers, Elizabeth Mitchell's most intense obsession on her albums for families to my mind has been with Ruth Crawford Seeger.  Her first two (pre-Smithsonian Folkways) family albums drew from many folk music wells, but starting with You Are My Little Bird, in which she specifically cites Seeger's 1948 book American Folk Songs for Children as a resource, and on through Sunny Day and Blue Clouds she returns to praise the composer and musicologist's arrangements of the American folk songs.

On her latest album for Smithsonian Folkways, the Christmas-themed The Sounding Joy, Mitchell and her family and friends, dives deeply into Ruth Crawford Seeger's final songbook, her 1953 book American Folk Songs for Christmas.  A sizable majority of the album's 24 songs come from Seeger's books and even many of the arrangements for which Mitchell and husband Daniel Littleton claim credit are noted as inspired by Seeger's songbook.

If the music of Ruth Crawford Seeger has been Mitchell's obsession, the guiding principle of her Smithsonian Folkways has been that she wants to rope 21st century communities into the grand folk music (in the broadest sense of that phrase) tradition -- a principle that Seeger would have endorsed whole-heartedly.  Her circles of influence ripple ever further outward -- on this album, I count 37 musicians in total.  She of course relies on Littleton and their daughter Storey, but on many others, including Natalie Merchant, John Sebastian, fellow community-roper Dan Zanes, Aoife O'Donovan, and Joan Osborne.  Amidst these celebrated musicians, the most impressive guest is Peggy Seeger, one of Ruth Crawford Seeger's daughters, who takes the melody on two tracks.   Could Folkways have picked an artist more interested in furthering their own aims than Elizabeth Mitchell?  I highly doubt it.  

And while I'm talking about Elizabeth Mitchell's obsessions and guiding principles, why not also suggest a undercurrent in her work, that of belief and faith?  Though the number of religiously-inspired tracks on her albums ("This Little Light of Mine," "Peace Like a River," and her glorious take on "Jubilee") can be counted on one hand and have not explicitly referenced God or other higher beings, Mitchell's tracks come closer to addressing the divine in everyday life than any other non-religious kids' musician.  And now she's got an entire album devoted to Christmas, one of Christianity's two most important holidays.

This is not a secular Christmas album -- this is a Christmas album that is very much tied to the story of Mary giving birth to Jesus.  Which isn't to say that it's praise music or even completely Christian, either.  While I like the liner notes by Mitchell and Natalie Merchant (not to mention Mitchell's song notes), I think the most gracious notes are by Daniel Littleton, who celebrates Seeger's melding of these many different birth narratives with several tracks about the stars and solstice.  They may not come from the same Christian tradition, but songs like "Oh, Watch the Stars" fit comfortably within the context of a birth on a cold winter's night many, many years ago.  Listeners from a non-Christian tradition may be able to appreciate the music itself, and the stories, but I think the album will feel most comfortable to those who grew up in that tradition (regardless of whether they still reside within).  Having said that, the songs aren't super familiar to modern ears -- Christmas Eve warhorses (warhorses I love, incidentally) like "Joy to the World" and "Silent Night" are definitely in the minority here.  This album will stretch the musical knowledge of all but the most educated musicologist.

As for the music itself, the throughout arrangements are lovely but in many cases fairly simple, accessible to people with far fewer musical accolades.  In some places it's as if we've been dropped into a campfire song group - handclaps and percussion, such as those that dominate on the opener, "Oh, Mary and the Baby, Sweet Lamb."  Elsewhere (see "Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow"), Mitchell and Littleton seem to channel the Alison Krauss Christmas she inexplicably has not yet recorded.  It's sometimes bluesy, sometimes soulful, and almost always reverent, though with a gentle touch.  The performances are all lovely -- I'll only single out one, and that's Mitchell's performance with daughter Storey on "Joy to the World," which I love if only because as Mitchell says in her song notes, based on her youth, she "always sung the harmony! So [she] asked [her] daughter Storey to join me."  The voices blend together very well, and it's that sort of careful planning mixed with serendipitous good luck that runs through the album.

This album isn't a family music album, it's a Christmas album, and so the age range I normally put on my reviews doesn't apply here.  There are certainly holiday albums that are targeted specifically at kids -- this is not one of them.  And while right now you can get the 70-minute album on mp3 at Amazon for just $5.99, if physical copies mean anything to you, you should get the physical copy of this album.  The album packaging is stunning.  Also, while I had to get my copy of American Folk Songs for Christmas used as it was out of print this summer, it's back in print once again. (Note: that's an affiliate link.)

 

In thinking about this review, I came to the conclusion that if I had to reduce the world into two types of people, it would be those who listen to Christmas songs and those who sing them.  Though it has its own sonic beauty, The Sounding Joy is more for the latter.  The communal experience of singing in celebration is honored here, somewhat hushed, always joyful.  Highly recommended -- may it repeat often.

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