Podcast Review: Ear Snacks

Ear Snacks logo cover

Ear Snacks logo cover

Well, with this the plural in "Podcast Reviews Are Now a Thing Here" is in fact true.

The Los Angeles-based kindie duo Andrew and Polly first became known to the kids music world for their melodic and occasionally quirky music, but it's their podcast Ear Snacks that is, I think, their most forward-thinking creative effort for audiences of kids.

They call it a "radical new podcast for kids," and while I tend not to believe most descriptions that try to hype the individuality of the product, in this case I think the phrase fits.  Each episode is loosely structured around a single theme -- the most recent one, Episode 9, is "Rain," but they've also covered beeps, pairs, disguises, balls, and more.  The duo (married, with a kid of their own) tackle the topic by talking with one another, playing audio clips of kids talking about it, talking with adult experts, and playing music.  The adults they talk with are sometimes scientists, but sometimes they're just people with a hobbyist's interest (like Polly's father or a friend who just really digs seahorses).  The music, well, as you'd expect, it's really good.  (The song at the end of the "Rain" podcast is one of the best kids' songs you'll hear this year.)  And all of this is wrapped into a single, well-edited whole.

The podcast is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7.  The iTunes link for the show is here (you can find it elsewhere, of course, including at the podcast's main page above).  Episodes are roughly 15-20 minutes in length, and are released roughly monthly.  (Sometimes there are much shorter bonus episodes released in between the main releases.)  Aside from a suggestion of supporting the show, perhaps by buying a t-shirt, the show is ad-free.

I recently called Ear Snacks a half-absurdist podcast for kids, and I stand by that assessment.  Yes, it features kids, and curious ones at that, and that's nothing new, but its blend of music and its deemphasis on straight-forward storytelling is certainly unique for the emerging genre.  It's a hoot.

Review: Explorer of the World - Frances England

Explorer of the World album cover

Explorer of the World album cover

Frances England didn’t plan on becoming a kids musician when she made her first album more than a decade ago.  She just wanted to contribute something to her son’s preschool fundraiser, and wrote songs for a homegrown CD while supervising her son’s baths.  But that album’s popularity far surpassed the small world of that San Francisco school.  Last Friday she officially released her fifth album for families, Explorer of the World.

As the album title suggests, England is concerned with themes of exploration, observation, and investigation.  But rather than traveling long distances, she pays close attention to the world literally outside her front door -- walking her dog around her neighborhood, for example, noticing patterns and colors.  She’s inspired as much by visual artists like Wendy McNaughton and Keri Smith as by musicians, and like those artists, she encourages her listeners to pay attention to the art around them daily.

England’s music isn’t as shiny and poppy as that of her peers, but this new album is even more experimental than most kids music.  Instead of using chord progressions as the jumping-off point for songs, on some tracks she used field recordings she made walking around San Francisco.  “City Don’t Sleep,” for example, started with recordings from late-night walks along North Beach.

Co-producers Dean Jones and Dave Winer bring a lot of different perspectives in terms of the musical production, and the result is an album that vibrates as their approaches (Jones: earthy kitchen-sink sound; Winer: try-anything sonic collage and percussion) differ, but resonate with each other and with England.

I was trying to come up with the appropriate age range for the album, and while I'm going to put at ages 5 through 9, like much of England's more recent work, it's probably broader than that.  Not for toddlers, perhaps, but also for kids older than 9, if you get them to sit down and really listen.  (You can listen to this album -- along with the rest of her music -- here.)

Even though this album celebrates exploring her own backyard, Frances England is more interested in the process of keeping her eyes open to the world around her.  In discovering her own neighborhood, she reminds the rest of us that we can do the same with our own streets and sidewalks.  Highly recommended.

Review: Why? - They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants - Why? album cover

They Might Be Giants - Why? album cover

They Might Be Giants have been making clever and subversive pop music for more than 30 years.  Late last year, they released their second album of 2015, but this one is for kids of all ages.

In the year 2002, They Might Be Giants did something thought to be a little crazy - they released an album for kids.  That record, titled No!, was both a commercial and critical success, and sent the band down an unanticipated path as part-time kids’ music superstars. They then released 3 themed albums through Disney -- one each about letters  numbers  and science -- while continuing to make music for adults.  If you’ve paid any attention to kids music over the past decade, you certainly have run across the band.

Six years after that last kids’ record, the band returned in late 2015 with a new kids’ music album.  Free of a Disney collection, the new album is a spirited, free-form follow-up to No! appropriately titled Why?.

On the song “Out of a Tree,” everybody thinks it’s a disaster that an 8-year-old has gotten stuck in a tree... everyone, that is, except the adventurous 8-year-old himself.  And while the album doesn’t have a specific theme, many songs celebrate kids’ independent streaks.  Of course, sometimes that leads to decisions that aren’t the wisest in retrospect.

Despite the frustration the parent of such a kid might experience, a song like “Definition of Good” shows that sometimes moments of random curiosity spark warm family memories.

The freeform nature of the roughly 40-minute album makes it a little more difficult to nail down a specific target age range, but I'd peg it at about ages 4-10.

Many of the people the band sings about or to on this album question authority and explore the world in messy ways, coming up with answers to new questions.  That attitude is useful for not only 30-year-old rock bands but also much younger listeners -- it’s what helps give me hope that the world’s problems can be tackled head-on.

Review: Mi Viaje: De Nuevo Leon to the New York Island - Sonia De Los Santos

Sonia De Los Santos - Mi Viaje: De Nuevo Leon to the New York Island album cover

Sonia De Los Santos - Mi Viaje: De Nuevo Leon to the New York Island album cover

Dan Zanes' ¡Nueva York!We are in at least the third wave of Spanish-language kids music.  The first wave was a narrow but very deep wave, for the most part consisting of Jose-Luis Orozco and Suni Paz, who each have been making music and releasing records for roughly forty years.  (They're still doing so.)

The two of them (separately) made their folk music, often with little more than their voices and guitars, but in the late 2000s, the second wave swept through.  This second wave was considerably broader, but also far more shallow.  This was because most of the music was designed with the idea of teaching Spanish to English speakers in mind.  This led to literally dozens of Spanish-language albums featuring simplistic lyrics and, often, music to match.  There were exceptions, of course -- Dan Zanes' ¡Nueva York! from 2008, his attempt to translate his age-desegregated music to a non-English idiom and capture in music the vibrancy of the Latin culture in New York City was the most notable -- but mostly they proved the rule.  I don't know how successful these albums were in teaching Spanish, but the fact that such albums aren't released much these days suggests that there isn't much of a market for them, educationally or musically.

So here we are in the third wave, I think.  What are the features of the third wave?  I think they're threefold:

1) An expansion of the sound from guitar-based folk music to encompass not only traditional music from a wider range of Spanish-speaking countries, but also shinier pop and rock sounds.

2) The diminution of interest in the song as explicit Spanish-language teaching tool.  There are still songs and albums for which that's a more important point, but they tend to be much better songs, which makes any educational point go down much more smoothly.

3) The choice to write songs in Spanish just because it happens to be the best language for telling the story of the song.  Much as a musician might choose a particular genre, they can choose a language as well.  Here in the United States, of course, English is usually the default option... but it's not the only option.

It's in this third wave that we find Sonia De Los Santos, who brings us Mi Viaje: De Nuevo León to the New York Island, her first solo album for families.  Over the course of twelve tracks, De Los Santos sings about her journey ("viaje") from her home in Monterrey, Mexico to New York City.  For the most part, the journey isn't literal, but rather a journey in song.  Unsurprisingly, since De Los Santos first came to attention to the kids' music world when she joined Dan Zanes' band back around the time of ¡Nueva York!, Zanes plays an important role -- his Festival Five Records is releasing the album, and he and his band appear on several track.  ("Tan Feliz," a De Los Santos original, has a very Zanes-ian folk-rock sound.)

But this is not another Dan Zanes album, which allows De Los Santos to put her own mark on the style of family music Zanes popularized.  Setting aside the language difference (98% of the lyrics here are not in English), De Los Santos travels the Spanish-speaking hemisphere to dip into a broad series of styles.

As I live in the Southwest United States, and have for the better part of thirty years, perhaps I gravitated to the sounds most familiar to me, those of Mexico, the sons with sizable bands of stringed instruments (jarana and requinto, for example, which are versions of guitar).  So "La Golondrina" ("The Swallow," another De Los Santos original) and album closer "Monterrey" appealed to me.

But it's definitely a broader tour than that as she records songs from Venezuela ("Luna y Lucero," or "The Moon and Star"), Chile ("Indeicto Dormido," featuring a distinctive pan flute sound), and Cuba ("Burubndanga," with Caridad De La Luz aka La Bruja helping out on vocals).    She sings a lullaby, "Txoria Txori," in a language I've never even heard of before, let alone heard, Euskera, which is from the Basque region in Spain.  She even translates a couple English-language songs into Spanish, most notable Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."  Here, it becomes "Esta Es Tu Tierra," building from a single voice to a large chorus, and in its translation and structure, it's an artistic choice that is both subtler and bolder politically than anything else you're likely to hear on a kids' record this year.

The cumulative effect is indeed that of a journey, but I wish De Los Santos had been even more of a guide.  De Los Santos' voice and the musical arrangements convey a fair amount of the songs' emotional and lyrical content, and she provides some brief comments in the liner notes, but there are no lyrical translations attached.  (The website has some, but not all, translations as of the time of this writing.)  I think, therefore, that some of the impact of the album will be muted for, say, the 5-year-old kid who doesn't happen to speak Spanish.

This will be an increasingly interesting choice for artists in the future -- do they make albums featuring non-English songs explicitly for an audience of primarily English speakers, or do they craft the albums for the target non-English-speaking audience and hope the English speakers come along for the ride?  I think that artists are going to come down on both sides of that question, and continue to wrestle with what they're trying to do.

The 41-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8.  You can listen to "La Golondrina" here.  As with most Festival Five albums, the physical album packaging is lovely -- it's definitely an album worth considering getting a physical version of.

Mi Viaje is an engaging album, and De Los Santos has succeeded in her goal of having listeners understand her journey from Mexico to New York City.  A Spanish-language kids music album might seem like a niche record, but as De Los Santos and others in this third wave of Spanish-language kids music of the past couple years have shown, it can speak to a fairly broad audience.  Definitely recommended.

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

Two Unnecessary (Albeit Necessary) Kids' Albums

Lisa Loeb - Nursery Rhyme Parade album cover

Lisa Loeb - Nursery Rhyme Parade album cover

In one sense, I place albums of nursery rhymes in approximately the same category as entire albums of Beatles covers -- pretty much unnecessary.  The Fab Four's originals are so iconic (and often perfect) that redoing them seems pointless unless the artist is doing something entirely novel with the songs.  A single Beatles song mixed among originals or covers of other artists? Sure.  But an entire album?  Even if it's really good, they're more likely to send the families to dig out what Beatles music they have.

With nursery rhymes and classic kids' songs, I have the same basic issue, but with a different spin.  With albums covering classic songs like "London Bridge," "The Wheels on the Bus," and "Row Row Row Your Boat," and so on, artists have two possible approaches: 1) simple renditions that put the melody and lyrics up front, and 2) entire reworkings of the songs whose elaborate arrangements, rather than the song itself, become the point ("Pop Goes The Weasel"... gone metal!).

The latter approach isn't without merit -- such arrangements can sometimes help listeners of all ages hear an overly familiar song with new ears, or introduce those listeners to a genre they might not typically spin.  As you might expect, the former approach -- simple songs done (relatively) simply -- is my preferred approach, but the problem here is that, well, exactly how many such albums does a family need?

Besides the fact that the only member of our family in single-digits age-wise is our youngest Boston Terrier, we are also card-carrying members of Team Wiggleworms and Team Raffi.  Songs for Wiggleworms and Singable Songs for the Very Young (and their immediate successors) met our need for collections of nursery rhymes and familiar kids' songs a decade ago and, well, there's no need for anything new.  That's overstating things maybe a bit, but not a lot.  Songs for Wiggleworms features dozens of classic songs, usually with nothing more than a guitar for accompaniment.  Singable Songs for the Very Young is more expansive -- some original songs amidst the classics, with more elaborate arrangements -- but at its heart, it's still an album of classic kids' songs.

Laurie Berkner - Favorite Classic Kids' Songs album cover

Laurie Berkner - Favorite Classic Kids' Songs album cover

So from one perspective -- my own family's, reviewer's hat aside -- the latest releases from Laurie Berkner and Lisa Loeb, are utterly unnecessary.  We have the unadorned collection of songs, we have the slightly adorned collection of songs, and we've been listening to them for so long that they feel like much-loved stuffed animals.  Why anyone would throw those stuffed animals away for lovely new stuffed animals is beyond me.

But there are lots of families who haven't yet found that stuffed animal, and perhaps some of those families will find in Laurie Berkner's Favorite Classic Kids' Songs and Loeb's Nursery Rhyme Parade a stuffed animal that they can rely on.

Because make no mistake, these types of albums should be in the collection of every family with a preschooler in the house.  These are the foundational songs of childhood, with melodies (and often lyrics) that have lasted for literally centuries.  These are the songs that parents and caregivers should be singing to (and hopefully with) the young ones in their midst, and good collections of classic songs help families do that, by reminding the adults of songs (both lyrics and melodies) and offering the kids repetition to solidify their knowledge of the song.

Of the two albums Berkner's is more reminiscent of Raffi's fuller arrangements and approaches.  Her band appears on many tracks, and she shares vocals with a number of musicians.  Sometimes she sings a cappella, and some tracks end up on the other end of the production spectrum ("Shoo-Fly" features strings), but all the arrangements put the song first.  And Berkner still has one of the best female voices in kindie.

On her album, Loeb goes the more minimalist Wiggleworms route.  More a cappella, and when she is accompanied, it's usually just with a simple guitar.  If the listener wants the song, just the song with as little embroidery as possible, then Nursery Rhyme Parade is the album more likely to meet that listener's expectations.  To be clear, Loeb has a fine voice herself, and it's produced well, but it's hard to envision a much simpler album.

The albums are different enough -- beyond the arrangements, surprisingly enough there are a number of songs that are featured on only one album or the other -- that you could conceivably get both.  But assuming you only want one, there are other differences that might influence your choice.  For example, Berkner's album is actually a 57-track collection that stretches to 2 hours and 9 minutes in length.  About half of those are remastered previously-released tracks (including 6 Berkner songs included as "bonus" tracks), but even then you'd get 27 new songs.  Loeb's collection zips by, 37 tracks in 31 minutes, and, perhaps more importantly, it's featured on Amazon Prime Music, which means that you're not going to be able to hear it on streaming services like Rhapsody and Spotify (both of which are streaming Berkner's new disk).  It's part of what appears to be a new effort by Amazon to target family audiences, and while you can buy Loeb's album from Amazon, either in mp3 or physical format, I think much of the audience will be Amazon Prime customers streaming it.  (There are very few albums of classic kids' songs in the Amazon Prime collection that won't induce parental frustration -- Loeb's is one of the few that passes muster.)

So, do you need these albums?  If you're a Laurie Berkner fan or a Lisa Loeb fan and you have kids still in preschool, then I think their albums will be an excellent fit for your family, even if maybe you already have a preschool song collection.  If you have preschoolers, but don't have a preschool song collection, then both these albums are worth exploring.  There are other albums that serve the same audience, but the arguments I might make for favoring one over another would be mostly my own particular biases.  You don't need these albums at all, but you do need albums like these -- perhaps even these albums -- very much so.  With those caveats, these are both definitely recommended.

Note: I received copies of both albums for possible review. 

Review: Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! - The Amazing Keystone Big Band with David Tennant

The Amazing Keystone Big Band - Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! album cover

The Amazing Keystone Big Band - Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! album cover

I wouldn't say that if there's one classical music piece you've heard, it's "Peter and the Wolf," because orchestral melodies are woven throughout modern life, even if you're only vaguely aware of it.  But if there's one classical music piece you've heard because somebody was trying to teach your child (or you, when you were young) the concepts of symphonic orchestral music, it's "Peter and the Wolf."

Composed in 1936 by Sergei Prokofiev in Russia, the piece tells the story of the young (and brave) boy Peter, who along with his animal friends, outwits and captures a wolf intent on eating several of them.  Prokofiev gives each character a primary instrument (strings, for example, for Peter) and a melody, and mixes and blends them both as different characters interact.  There's a narrator providing some basic storytelling guideposts, though Prokofiev tells his musical tale so well, that once the story gets going, the words are, while not unnecessary, not bearing the weight of the story.

The piece is a classic, and there are literally dozens -- if not hundreds -- of versions recorded over the years.  We've got at least a couple on our own shelves.  And because it's a classic, there's really no need to have more than one or two versions unless you like the particular narrator.

Or unless the musicians have taken an entirely different approach, which is the case on Peter and the Wolf and Jazz!, a brand-new recording from France's The Amazing Keystone Big Band.  The big band features 18 younger French jazz musicians, and this new version deftly blends Prokofiev's symphonic story with a big band sensibility.  So instead of the string section (violins, violas, etc.), Peter's theme is represented by the band's rhythm section -- piano, bass, and guitar (which are, as the album's liner notes remind us, stringed instruments themselves).  The wolf is represented by the trombones and tuba instead of the French horns, and so on -- instruments that are similar in tone, but not necessarily the same ones.

The melodies themselves are unchanged, but the band's arrangement brings in a wide variety of jazz styles -- stride piano, hip-hop, free jazz, blues, cool jazz, and the like.  None of the stylistic shifts seem out of place -- rather, they feel appropriate to the story.  The triumphant parade march at the end is a swing style which to my ears sounds something like a New Orleans second line band would play in their own parade.

As for the narrator, David Tennant, best known on these shores as one of the Doctor Whos, does a fine job telling the story.  The wouldn't necessarily recommend the album just for his narration, but it's more than up to the task.  The liner notes are excellent, featuring many pages of the narration and illustrations by Martin Jarrie along with explanations by the band of their arrangement choices.  (The 54-minute album is appropriate for kids ages 3 through whatever, but you knew that already.) 

Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! isn't the first attempt to rework Prokofiev's tale for a jazz audience, but as best I can tell, it's the first in a half-century.  More importantly, it's taken that classic piece and made it sound fresh.  As a jazz album, it's wonderful, and as a classical album, well, it's wonderful, too.  Highly recommended.

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