Review: Aqui, Alla - Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band


Is there any stopping Lucky Diaz and Alisha Gaddis, the couple at the heart of Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band?  The release a couple months ago of Aqui, Alla marked their sixth album in little more than three years.  That's on top of the TV show, the nonstop touring, and, oh yes, the Latin Grammy for for Best Spanish-language Children's Album for Fantastico!.

The answer, then, is probably no.

Unlike Fantastico!, which almost exclusively featured Spanish-language reworkings of their previous English-language hits, the new album features all new songs (plus "De Colores," because of course).  Diaz and Gaddis returned to team up with Gilbert Velasquez, who produced Fantastico!, and they somehow manage to merge Diaz' natural indie-pop sound with the sounds of Tejano music.  I mean, anytime you can bring in someone like Flaco Jimenez on accordion (on the leadoff track "Viva La Pachanga"), you just sit back and enjoy the result.  While most of the tracks are bouncy, danceable tunes, the album ends on a more mellow note, with the tender "Aqui, Alla" (about the multi-varied backgrounds of many Americans) before finishing with "De Colores," which isn't really a dance song (though Diaz et al. come close to turning it into one).

The one downside to the album -- and it's not going to be a downside for everyone -- is that the album comes with no way for the English-language speaker to bridge the gap between the music and their own experience.  For the Spanish-language speaker, of course, that's not an issue at all, but I found myself wishing that explanations of the songs in the promotional material were included in the album packaging.  You can enjoy the music without knowing a whit of Spanish, and yes, you can find lyrics and translations at Diaz' website -- but I think some of those families would enjoy it more if there were more of a guide right there with the CD.

The brief 26-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8.  You can hear the album here.

I love finding out what Diaz and Gaddis are cooking up next for families who love kids music.  The duo could have totally rested on their laurels with one Spanish-language album and left it at that, but they came back with Aqui, Alla, which is better in almost every way.  It gives me hope that a third album of their hybrid Spanish-language indie-jano (that's "indie" + "Tejano") will grace shelves and iPods at some point.  (And I'd encourage them to do even more to bring us non-Spanish dancers along for the ride.)  Definitely recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: First Songs - Danny Lion


Dan Flannery may be best known in the kindie world for being half of the well-loved duo the Flannery Brothers, but he has an alter ego as a dandelion-brandishing lion superhero.

Wait, what?  I must've been confused by the album cover.

The Flannery Brothers aren't defunct by any means, but Dan has taken his master's degree in Child Development and job teaching preschool classes and music and turned that into Danny Lion, his very preschool-focused music alter ego.  His debut DL album First Songs from late last year is a half-hour and a dozen songs of genial silliness for your favorite preschooler.  Super-simple -- there's a song about having a "Banana on the Head" that is exactly about that -- but that's the point (and the charm) of the album.  The instrument list includes ukulele, bass, and cajon, and… well, that's it, really.  It's just songs like and "Puppies in Cars" and "Dance Happy" which will, well, put a smile on your and maybe even Pharrell's face.

The album will appeal to kids ages 2 through 6.  You can listen to the whole album here.  This is simplicity done right -- letting the humor and happiness shine through.  Definitely recommended.

Review: Shy Kid Blues - Hullabaloo


Steve Denyes and Brendan Kremer -- AKA Hullabaloo --have spent more than a decade cultivating their audience in the greater San Diego area with their "free-range, organic kid-folk."  That's their PR description, but it's a pretty accurate one from where I sit, and one they've not strayed far from during their career.

They are not the first band that came to my mind when the phrase "spoken word" pops up, and I suspect even Denyes was unsure of the reaction to Shy Kid Blues, the band's tenth and latest album.  The album intersperses new Hullabaloo tunes between spoken word scenes -- essentially a kid-friendly origin story of the band itself, how Steve and Brendan met, developed a love for music, and started a band together.  It's also the story of how a shy kid -- Denyes (and Kremer, too) -- found the inner strength to conquer shyness and make music onstage.

Now, I am typically not a big fan of spoken word interludes, or musical stories (on record), so I was surprised to discover just how fun this album is.  The dialogue and scenes feel natural, not at all stilted, and the moral -- Kid Conquers Shyness -- is delivered subtly, almost as an afterthought, and with a sense of how things will be different but not totally so.  (Turns out, Denyes is still pretty shy.)  I think the music also benefits from the structure which breaks up the tracks (dialogue is played between each song) and gives Denyes an anchor from which he can write songs in different styles and on different topics.  I've sometimes wished for more variety in the sound of a Hullabaloo album, and this album provides that.  And the final song (save for the reprise), "Like a Bird Must Feel," is genuinely moving in the context of the album.

The 41-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 9 (a slightly older age group than many of the band's albums).  You can hear clips of certain songs here.

In an interview with the site, Denyes noted that he'd previously written and performed 2 one-man musical plays.  Based on the results in the kids' arena with Shy Kid Blues, I think he should  start planning kindie play #2.  It's my favorite Hullabaloo record.  Definitely recommended.

Review: No School Today - Danny Weinkauf


Kids music is not exactly short on shimmery, shiny pop with a hint of crunch.

But good shimmery, shiny pop for kids and families, that's a little more rare.

Lucky for familial connoisseurs of said music, Danny Weinkauf is pretty good at it, and his debut family music album No School Today has a handful of excellent, singable power-pop songs for the very young.

Weinkauf is not a stranger to the world of kids music -- he's played bass for a little band called They Might Be Giants, and his handful of songwriting credits for the band include "I Am a Paleontologist" -- so he's not coming to this cold.  At its best, No School Today has that same spirit of "anything goes" that animates much of TMBG's work for both adults and kids.  The heart of the album -- "Ice Cream," "No School Today," "The Moon Is Made of Cheese," "Whipped Cream" -- features songs that are a little hyper, a little silly, and with little in educational value.  In fact, while the songs with a modicum of educational value -- the (appropriately) bouncy "Marsupial" or "Archaeology" -- are fun and poppy, too, I think Weinkauf shines when he's most goofy and least educational.  (Though he does have a sweet side as well, shown to best effect on his duet with Laurie Berkner, "Our Love Fits.") There's room for more of that purely silly stuff in modern kids' music, and I suspect that Weinkauf has more of those nuggets in store.  I'd also note that the album does have a very synthesizer-y sheen to match its power-pop sound, so those of you looking for a more organic sound may not be interested.

The album's going to be more appropriate for kids ages 5 through 9.  You don't have to be a They Might Be Giants fan to appreciate this album (though TMBG fans are most likely to go nuts for this), just a fan of nicely-crafted, occasionally goofy, kid-pop.  Which probably includes a lot of you.  Definitely recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: In a Heartbeat - Laura Doherty


Chicago-based musician Laura Doherty is one of a number of kids musicians who should probably be more well-known nationally than they are.  Doherty makes the same kind of gentle folk-pop for preschoolers that has helped make Raffi and Laurie Berkner superstars, but without all the attention they receive.

I would be surprised if fans of Raffi and Berkner -- no matter if they're 4 years old or the minder of such 4 year olds -- didn't recognize in Doherty's music many of the same things that give those two a timeless appeal.  On her new album In a Heartbeat, Doherty uses her warm, inviting voice to sing simple (in a good way) songs about ocean creatures (the wonderful leadoff track "I'm a Little Fish"), feelings ("It's OK To Be Shy," "Butterfly"), and making music ("Electric Guitar" and "Drum Kit," the latter of which features Wilco's Glenn Kotche on yes, the drums).  Doherty and producer Rich Rankin have surrounded themselves with musicians who give the songs are solid musical footing, unfussy but sophisticated.

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7.  There are many kindie artists who are producing (wonderful) kids music that stretch the boundaries of the form in topic and musical approach -- Doherty is not traveling this path.  Which is perfectly OK.  This is reassuring music and what it lacks in "edge" it makes up for with the warm fuzzies.  I like it a lot, and there's no reason why your favorite preschooler with a pig on her head wouldn't groove to the music here, too.  Definitely recommended.

Review: Tales from the Monstrosity Scrolls - Rainbow Beast and the Rock Band Land Rockers

The longtime reader of this site will deduce that I have not been the biggest fan of music for kids written or performed by kids.  There are exceptions, more on the performing than songwriting side, but they tend to be the accent on music from adults, not the other way around.

Enter Rainbow Beast, the San Francisco trio of Brian Gorman, Marcus Stoesz, and Jen Aldrich.  Brian Gorman and Marcus Stoesz run “Rock Band Land.”  Over six weeks they take a class of 4-to-8-year-olds, help them craft a story, and turn it into a song they perform together on stage.  And earlier this year Rainbow Beast, along with the "Rock Band Land Rockers" (AKA some of their prepubescent collaborators) released Tales from the Monstrosity Scrolls, an album of what's essentially a "best of" those songs.

This collaboration between adult musicians and some very young songwriters is the kind of thing that I approve of, but in theory have little interest in listening to.  But these songs are far afield from the musical styles and subjects of many kids' music songs.  Have folks in your family who like The Flaming Lips, the Kinks, Built to Spill, or Metallica?  They'll hear echoes of those bands here.

And once you add the surreal imagery to the often tripped-out arrangements, you can hear just how... tame kids music can sometimes be.  You'll hear songs about poisonous snakes ("Remblin Race"), a girl who shoots ice -- and ice cream -- from her fingers ("Ice Girl"), and a pool that traps people who dive within it as a jewel forever ("Pool of Light").  A character's flesh falls off in "Fish Wife," while the title character in "Oliver in the Wrong Cast" loses his skin and is known as the "polka dot skeleton boy."

Puts those songs about learning to brush one's teeth into perspective.  The songs really aren't violent -- they're just epic adventures starring the kids at the center.  In fact, probably the biggest problem with the album as a whole is that it's one epic song after another, and after 71 minutes, it can feel exhausting.

Done well, a lot of kids music speaks to kids’ everyday experiences in language they understand.  But kids ages 4 through 8 -- the same ages as the songwriters -- will also respond to these flights of fancy and stories of worlds far, far away.  This album speaks to that need in kids, and, just maybe, might inspire a few new tales.  In the end, the album's mere existence should be considered a victory because it was the result of dozens of kids creating their own songs.  The fact that it's often eminently listenable to the outsider is just a bonus.  Definitely recommended.