Review: The Peculiar Tales of the S.S. Bungalow - Big World Audio Theatre


Let's give a hearty "Ahoy, mateys!" for the crew of Big World Audio Theatre, whose debut story and music collection The Peculiar Tales of the S.S. Bungalow set sail earlier this year.

(Let me also promise you that the rest of this review will be free of sailing-related puns.)

Based in Portland, Oregon and headed up by Laki Karavias and Jason Reuter, the Theatre (really, a loose collective of area musicians and artists) turned to Kickstarter to raise monies for the production and release of the album.  The result is a lovingly crafted album and physical product that tells the story of Captain Gregory and the S.S. Bungalow's trek across the Atlantic Ocean to find the Lullaby Islands and the treasure found there.

Voice actor Kevin Barbare narrates the story, which is filled with enough dramatic plot turns, gentle good humor, atmospheric sound effects, and occasional Princess Bride-style meta-commentary to keep the target audience hooked and any adults tuned in amused.  The chamber pop-folk, featuring the occasional stringed instrument, horns, and pedal steel, runs the gamut from peppy to slow as befitting the story's twists and turns (sometimes in the same song, as in "Life Is Good."  "Follow the Albatross" sounds like it could have been culled from an Uncle Tupelo album.  One song, "Aquinas," commemorating a long-loved pet, is particularly sweet and moving in a way few kindie songs are.  While the songs are meant to serve a story, speaking as someone who primarily listened to the songs alone, they stand up well on their own.

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 9.  The story version of the album is nearly 75 minutes long; a second disk featuring only the song tracks clocks in at about 32 minutes.  (You can listen to the whole thing here.)  The physical version, featuring Ward Jenkins' illustrations, is solidly packaged -- for multiple reasons, the CD would make a lovely gift.  (I have no doubt that if they ever chose to go the vinyl route, that would look - and sound - splendid as well.)

The Peculiar Tales of the S.S. Bungalow was clearly a labor of love, with a fine attention to detail.  I would love to see one of those multinational entertainment conglomerates figure out how to spread this far and wide, though I know that's unlikely.  Instead, we'll just have to hope that Big World enjoyed this labor of love enough to make them want to attempt another.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I was given a copy for possible review.

Review: Watching the Nighttime Come - Suz Slezak


Lullaby albums can be a nice way for an artist who typically records music for adults to slide into the kids music world -- maybe record a few public-domain lullabies and/or some love songs appropriate for tender ears, and with relatively little change, presto, you have a lullaby album!  The potential downside is that you get a bunch of songs recorded too loudly and with little of the magic that makes parents repeatedly put  good lullaby albums back into the CD player night after night.

Suz Slezak certainly could have gone that route.  Along with her husband David Wax, she's part of the folk-roots rock band David Wax Museum, but Slezak chose to record and release Watching the Nighttime Come, her first kids' music album, a lullaby album, under her own name.  She could have easily gone the route I outlined above, but instead this new album is remarkable for how much Slezak the vocalist fades into the background and lets Slezak the musician step forward.  I tend to think of the start of the album as being the aural equivalent of the album cover -- playful as day's last light fades and, well, waiting for nighttime.  Slezak's songs "Where Did You Come From" and "You Got Love" are dreamy tracks, but ones on which her vocals take something approximating center stage.

As daylight fades, however, the overall feel of the music, rather than anything vocally-based, becomes most important.  The heart of the album -- "Jessie's Waltz," "Tallis Canon," and "Caballito Blanco" -- are, respectively, an instrumental, a 6-minute version of a 450-year-old hymn, and a Spanish-language lullaby.  Those are not the artistic choices of someone who just wants to create a lullaby album with a snap of her fingers -- those are the choices of an artist who's deliberately creating a hushed mood.  That mood on the album eventually breaks somewhat, as all nighttimes break.  Here it's with a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye."

The album is going to be most appropriate for kids ages 0 through 5, but like most good lullaby albums, it's far more all-ages than a lot of kids music.  You can stream the 31-minute album here.

This is a somewhat idiosyncratic lullaby album, and if you're looking for renditions of the same set of lullabies you might typically hear on collections of sleepy songs, you should probably move on.  But I think this is exactly the kind of idiosyncratic that regular readers of the site will dig a lot, and even if you think you want yet another version of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on CD, I'm pretty sure that Watching the Nighttime Come will fit in nicely amidst your family's CD collection.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: Night Night! - Caspar Babypants


The family music of Chris Ballew -- recorded as Caspar Babypants -- has been so consistently good over his past eight Caspar albums.  (I don't think I've ever been as pleased with the result of any prediction of mine as the one from six years ago that suggested Ballew "might make a whole bunch of great CDs for the family.")

So when I got an advance review copy of Night Night!, his ninth album, out today, my question wasn't whether it'd be any good -- the quality goes without saying -- but whether he could translate his tightly-contstructed hook-filled melodies into lullaby form.

Because, as you might gather from the title, this is supposed to be a cool-down album.

I hope Ballew doesn't take this the wrong way, but his album is forgettable in all the right ways.  What I mean by that is the music, while catchy, isn't necessarily one bouncy hook-filled song after another.  Rather, it features a more consistent -- and obviously far mellower -- tone.  The opening track "Just For You," is a lovely song featuring words of unconditional love (one of the backbone topics of lullabies), as is "Sad Baby," but for the most part the strength of the album is that the songs almost imperceptibly slide from slightly bouncy with lyrics from the wandering brain of a child who's just turned out the light all the way to album closer "Made of Light," whose minimal lyrics and ambient sounds would fit right in amidst the contemplative "space music" of Hearts of Space.  (It's a cousin to the ambient music Ballew has started posting.)  So while there are fewer "classic" individual CB tracks, perhaps, as an album with a specific purpose in mind, it's kind of brilliant.

The 50-minute album is targeted at kids ages 0 through 5 or 6, though many of the tracks would probably fit on a relaxation album for a broader, older age range.  Night Night! is a stellar lullaby album with a set of soothing sounds for whenever a break is necessary.  Highly recommended.

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

Review: Dancin' in the Kitchen - Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer


From the opening lines of "Dancin' in the Kitchen," the title track to Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer's new album, it's clear the duo means business with the album's full title, Dancin' in the Kitchen: Songs for All Families.  "Dancin' in the kitchen / with mama and mommy / dancin' in the kitchen with me…" they sing, with the entire song celebrating families off all stripes -- two moms, two dads, all sorts of families.

Fink and Marxer -- who themselves married each other last year -- aren't the first kids' artists to record a song about people who identify as BGLTQ or even families with gay or lesbian parents, but the inclusion of that song in this album is a step towards including those families as part of the overall diversity of family types in this country (and kids music).  In fact, more than half of the album are not new songs, but songs from artists like Justin Roberts and Uncle Ruthie Buell that fit within the broad rubric of "family," which kindie godparent Marlo Thomas defines as "a feeling of belonging" (it's the definition that the duo says they like most).

The album works best when it's celebrating the everyday-ness of families -- on the title track, for example, or on "Birthday Pup," a Lou and Peter Berryman tune detailing two dogs' many yearly birthdays, which Marxer performs here with Riders in the Sky.  Fink's "Twins," recorded with the Canote Twins (actual identical twins), and their Irish medley with Cherish the Ladies "Howdy Little Newlycome/Ceilidh House Polka" are examples of what I think of as one of Fink and Marxer's greatest strengths -- finding other interesting artists to make music with, and plugging themselves in, as it were, to those musicians' talents, especially when those talents mesh well with Fink's and Marxer's bluegrass and roots music skills.

Some folks may find the balance of "message" (even if it's one they support wholeheartedly) and fun of the music sometimes tips uncomfortably toward the "message," but that may depend on whether or not you feel like you've heard your family's story -- or other families' stories -- before.  I'm a parent of an adopted child, for example, and while I'm glad John McCutcheon's "Happy Adoption Day" has been around for a couple decades (Fink and Marxer offer their own version here), I've always only been "meh" on the song itself.

The 58-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9.  I think Dancin' in the Kitchen will be popular for its content and message, and a fair number of the songs here would have been appropriate on a wide variety of albums, not just one labeled "family."  Even if every song doesn't work for me, I'm glad for this album's existence.  Recommended.

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

Review: The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra / Jubilee!

Two books, two very different celebrations of two very different men from Candlewick Press.  Or how very different were they?


Jubilee! features the subtitle One Man's Big, Bold, and Very, Very Loud Celebration of Peace, and from that wordy subtitle you may not be surprised that the book focuses on a story from the last part of the nineteenth century, when florid descriptions ruled the day.  Author Alicia Potter recounts the story of Irish-born bandleader Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, creator of the National Peace Jubilee in 1869, which he conceived of to celebrate the return of peace at the end of the Civil War.

I was completely unaware of Gilmore and his Jubilee, and so I found that Potter does a good job of maintaining narrative tension in the story.  If you, too, are unfamiliar, after reading the story you might wonder why, as it involved the construction of a building (the Temple of Peace) which stood 500 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 100 feet tall at its highest point.  Or you might be amazed that a concert featuring a thousand musicians (including a hundred firemen hammering time on anvils) and ten thousand singers has faded from historical view.  Potter's text is accompanied by clear, detailed illustrations from Matt Tavares, who nicely captures both the small-scale scenes (Gilmore, awake at night from worry about whether the concert will come off) and the very large-scale scenes.

Jubilee! will be most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9 (the text itself is probably more for kids in 2nd grade on up, but the pictures make it appropriate for reading to those younger than that).  While the Jubilee itself was a celebration of peace, this book is a celebration of grand plans and the ability of music to capture the imaginations of tens of thousands of people.


America has long been a nation of immigrants who've fully embraced, and been embraced by, their new country -- see Gilmore, above -- but does that apply to those who visit from other planets?  Two-time Caldecott Medal winner Chris Raschka's new book The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra captures in impressionistic illustrations the life of Herman P. "Sunny" Blount.  If you know Blount, you probably know him as Sun Ra, the musician and poet (among other things) who claimed that he was from Saturn.

As Raschka writes in the start of the book, "No one comes from Saturn.  And yet.  If he did come from Saturn, it would explain so much."  The story Raschka tells is of a person who fully embraced life and the many opportunities in America.  He played piano, leading his own ensemble before leaving high school, and was one of the first musicians to use electronic keyboards.  His band, the Arkestra, made its own clothes.

If it seems like Ra was a little out of the mainstream, you'd be right, and Rashka's text celebrates that "follow your own drummer" path without glossing over the difficulties (one of my favorite lines in the book: "One disadvantage of coming from Saturn, though, was that Sun Ra could never really understand or care too much about money.  The New York landlords, on the other hand, did, and kicked the Arkestra out…").  Raschka's watercolor and ink illustrations contain riots of color and feel true to life even if they aren't completely faithful to "real life."  This artistic choice is perfect for Sun Ra, known for his eclectic jazz compositions.

The Cosmobiography of Sun Ra will appeal most to readers ages 6 through 10.  It's not a huge book, dimensions-wise, and the swirls of color rather than precise drawings may make this book better enjoyed side-by-side than shared with a classroom of kids for optimal appreciation.

Both these books celebrate musical heroes whose names will be unfamiliar to kids and probably their parents.  In their own distinct ways, they honor the memories of these two visionaries.  Recommended.

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

Review: Gustafer Yellowgold's Wisdom Tooth of Wisdom - Gustafer Yellowgold


First off, no, that's not a misprint -- the sixth Gustafer Yellowgold album really is called Gustafer Yellowgold's Wisdom Tooth of Widsom.  The extra "wisdom" is for, er, wisdom.

Yes, that's a deliberate pose our favorite yellow alien from the sun is striking on the DVD cover, as the story inside deals with his search for wisdom.

As creator Morgan Taylor has run out of the original batch of songs that made up the first few Gustafer DVDs, individual DVDs have become more unified in structure, songs organized around a single principle.  Wisdom Tooth of Wisdom is the first DVD, however, in which I felt like there was something at stake in the story.  Rather than just illustrating a personality quirk (e.g., "I Jump on Cake," still a classic GY song), the songs here help move along a plot that sees Gustafer struggle with giving up something that's important to him and what the true source of wisdom is.  His external journey -- finding the source of the titular tooth -- is matched by an interior journey.

Of course, the heart of any Gustafer DVD is still the music, and it's every bit as '70s-soft-rock-with-a-hint-power-poppy as ever.  (That's a good thing, natch.)  "Telephone Called" is a bit of Broadway jangle-pop, followed by the fuzzed-out and hand-clapped strains of XTC heard in "It Suits You."  (Yes, the DVD case suggests that XTC reference, but darned if it doesn't hit the nail on the head.)  One of my favorite tracks, "Toothloser," sounds to me like Billy Joel at his early '80s narrative best, with "Secret Fox" a wistful follow-up.  Other strong tracks in "I Can't Feel My Face" (shout-out to Billy Shears!) and "Yawn," the first song I've heard that actually tries to be yawn-inducing.  The music might have some odd lyrical references if you're not familiar with the video, but the music isn't dependent on the visuals for your enjoyment.

As always, the animation -- featuring Taylor's own art -- is minimal, more moving picture book, but it's the most technically-proficient video yet, often beautiful to look at.  (There's a scene near the end where somebody's recording a meeting on a cell phone, and you can see the characters on the tiny phone's screen doing exactly what the actual characters are doing.)  The videos themselves have some nice jokes for the adult (or smart kid) to appreciate in addition to the broad humor in many of them.

The video is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 10.  You can watch a preview of the 41-minute DVD here.  The DVD includes a couple bonus features (a 6- minute guitar lesson with Taylor for his hit "Cakenstein" and a 20-minute documentary about the making of the DVD) and more importantly, a 30-minute CD with all 10 songs from the video.

Now that Taylor has been living with Gustafer in his head and on the screen for more than a decade, he's had some time to stretch what he's going with the character and his world.  This is all to the good, and makes me that much more excited about the next Gustafer video, already in the works.  The music is definitely recommended, as good as ever, and the DVD is highly recommended, the best Gustafer Yellowgold video yet.

Note: I was provided a copy of the DVD/CD for possible review.