Itty-Bitty Review: On the Bright Side - The Bazillions

The Bazillions - On the Bright Side album cover

The Bazillions - On the Bright Side album cover

Minneapolis band The Bazillions have an ear for power-pop hooks.  Or, like, 23 ears, because each album of theirs has more hooks than one ear could possibly handle -- even one of those punks' ears with safety pins all over.

Their third album, the recently-released On the Bright Side, does not stint on the hooks.  "Superhero Rock Band," which kicks off the album, is like one of those movie pitches ("They're superheroes from DC and Marvel... but they play in a band!") that is so high-concept that song quality would scarcely seem to matter, but luckily for the power-pop enthusiast in the family, it's got crunchy guitars and a catchy singalong chorus, too.  That's followed by "Family Tree," a roots-pop song celebrating, well, family -- along with the album closer "Sons and Daughters," it's the first I've really heard the band try for something more emotional.

Of course, at this point, it wouldn't be a Bazillions album without several educational songs, including the jangly "Use a Contraction," the shimmering "Ed (Been There, Done That)," and their first science-related tune, "Water Cycle."  Longtime readers will know my general antipathy towards songs that have such an explicit educational bias unless the melodies and lyrics are really tight, but listen to the chorus for "Favorite Book," which is really just a reading-positive song, and tell me it isn't precisely constructed for maximum earworm.

The 37-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 10; you can hear three of the tracks from the album here.  As with their previous albums, On the Bright Side includes a number of power-pop and jangle-pop melodies that stand up to repeated spins, regardless of whether you need to learn some 2nd grade concept.  Whatever educational value they have (and is enhanced by their catchiness) is just a nice bonus.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review Two-Fer: Mister G's "Los Animales" and Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band's "Adelante"

The first wave of Spanish-language kids music was essentially created by Jose-Luis Orozco and Suni Paz, who've been recording music in Spanish for young children for decades.  (They continue to do, and you'll be hearing more from them in the months to come, but not today.)

The second wave of Spanish-language kids music was in the late 2000s and early aughts when there were a number of Spanish-language albums whose primary purpose was to, well, teach Spanish.  Songs about counting, about animals, about... well, the things a 4-year-old might be learning about.  While some of these results were reasonably sophisticated in their production and songwriting, they often put the learning in the foreground, limiting their appeal if your family wasn't specifically trying to learn Spanish.

The third wave might have started almost concurrently with the second wave, but as opposed to the second wave, which has petered out, has gained strength.  Rather than using music primarily as a tool for learning a language, this third wave uses Spanish-language music and musical styles because... it's fun to sing and write in those genres.  Unsurprisingly, the results, musically, at least, have been better, as illustrated most recently by two releases from this summer.

Mister G "Los Animales" album cover

Mister G "Los Animales" album cover

The first of the two summer releases is from Massachusetts-based Mister G.  For Mister G (aka Ben Gundersheimer), his music has gradually taken on a more bilingual bent, and his latest album, Los Animales, is his third such album (to go along with three other albums which are primarily in English).

As you might guess from the title and cover artwork, this new album takes animals as its focus -- elephants ("Siete Elefantes"), frogs ("La Rana") and dancing ants (the excellent "Baila como las hormigas") all make an appearance along with other members of the animal kingdom.  Almost entirely in Spanish, some of the songs are simple enough lyrically that no translation is needed ("Siete Elefantes" is a counting song), but others need translation if you're not a Spanish speaker, so I hope that the lyrics and translations get posted to the website soon.  (Hint, hint.)

Musically, some of the songs, like the folk-funk of the leadoff title track, or the Americana bent of "Vamanos," have familiar musical textures, but Gundersheiemer and his co-producers Noe Benitez and Emilio D. Miler take full advantage of the trio's many friends in the recording community who make music in the Latin and Hispanic worlds.  Some of highlights are the soulful "La Rana" and "Una Jirafa en Mi Casa" and the salsa-drived "Baila como las hormigas" (roughly, "Dance with the Ants").   (You can stream the 22-minute album, most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7, here.)  Recommended.

Lucky Diaz "Adelante" album cover

Lucky Diaz "Adelante" album cover

As for the Los Angeles-based Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band, they, too, have gradually discovered the joy of recording in Spanish.  Adelante is their seventh album, and third primarily in Spanish.  Their first Spanish-language album, ¡Fantastico!, featured re-translated versions of some of their shiny English-language pop hits (and was co-produced by Noe Benitez), while the follow-up Aquí, Allá featured original songs and a somewhat more traditional sound.  (I called the music on Aquí, Allá "indie-jano," or indie + Tejano.)

While I liked those two albums, Adelante, advances what Diaz is doing -- this album merges his unerring pop-hook sensibility with what happens to be Spanish-language lyrics.  "Piñata Attack" is already a big hit, and features a sneaky surf-rock guitar line from Diaz himself, but that's hardly the only earworm on here.  "Cuantos Tacos (The Taco Song)" deftly weaves Diaz's Spanish-language verses (featuring a lot of counting) with Alisha Gaddis' English-language counterpoints -- even if you know very little Spanish, her "That's a lot of tacos for a guy who wanted nachos" hook in the chorus gets the basic point of the song across.  There's some updated '70s electronic funk ("Aquel Caracol"), hip-hop ("Guacamole Boy"), and new wave ("Cantaba La Rana" -- again with the frogs!).

While it's not entirely in Spanish -- there's more mixing of Spanish and English, some songs do need translation if you're not a Spanish speaker, so I hope that the lyrics and translations get posted to the website soon.  (Hint, hint.)  The 34-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9.  Definitely recommended.

The third wave of Spanish-language kids music is really the wave in which an English-language family puts on an album not because they want to learn Spanish, but because it's fun or helps the child grow in a global sense.  Both Los Animales and Adelante succeed on that score.  Los Animales is more for the younger listener, Adelante is more for the pure dance party.  I happen to like Adelante more, but that's mostly just personal musical preference.  I'd be happy to have either of these albums pop up in a record rotation.

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

Itty-Bitty Review: Plymouth Rockers - Rocknoceros

Plymouth Rockers by Rocknoceros album cover

Plymouth Rockers by Rocknoceros album cover

Sufjan Stevens was merely trying to attract some media attention when he released Michigan and said he was going to record a song for every state, but it's still a great idea -- a series of albums featuring songs about every United State.

Washington, DC-area band Rocknoceros, celebrating 10 years of making music together, head into their second decade intending to succeed where Stevens merely joked.  Inspired in part by Stevens' idea, their latest album Plymouth Rockers covers thirteen states, one river, and one general celebratory notion (a country-rock version of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America.")

Fifty states!  What opportunity for musical exploration!  And the trio do take advantage of it, featuring some island music ("Aloha," Hawaii, natch), bluegrass ("The Sunshine State," Florida), and some blues ("Louisiana") amidst the southern/country rock that's always been a genre staple.  (Of special note, Williebob's nifty guitar work on their remastered version of "Texas.")

But of course if you're going to tackle one subject on an album, the key is whether it's interesting lyrically.  At its best, the band gets at the states at a sideways angle -- the weather in "Would You Like To Visit Kansas?," the pirate sea shanty in "Mississippi River," and, in the album's best track, friendship in "I've Got Friends in New Jersey."   (Not quite as sideways, though, as John Linnell's gloriously askew State Songs album.)  The songs that are more travelogue in nature are duller in comparison.  (If you go back to that interview, linked above, I think the band recognizes that they don't need every song to be that checklist of famous things in every state and that, it's probably better if it isn't.)

The songs will on the 37-minute album be of most interest to kids ages 5 through 9.  Plymouth Rockers isn't a perfect album, and your kids probably won't ace their next geography quiz because of it.  But as the leadoff to another 2 or 3 albums of state songs, it's a darn good introduction and collection of Rocknoceros-y pop tunes.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: Bon Voyage - Jazzy Ash

Bon Voyage by Jazzy Ash album cover

Bon Voyage by Jazzy Ash album cover

New Orleans’ musical tradition has produced many memorable artists.  But while Jazzy Ash isn’t the first kids musician to use the city of New Orleans as musical inspiration, for a region with such a vital musical heritage, when it comes to kids music it’s still been underrepresented.  With her latest album Bon Voyage, Jazzy Ash continues to further fold New Orleans’ rich musical tradition into songs for the kindergarten set.

Jazzy Ash is the nom de plume of musician Ashli Christoval.  Although her mom was from New Orleans, her dad from Trinidad, and she spent summers in New Orleans with her mom’s aunts and grandparents, it wasn’t until a couple years ago on that she really started to incorporated the music of the Crescent City into her own recordings.

On Bon Voyage Christoval covers one of New Orleans’ best-known native sons, Louis Armstrong, on “Heebie Jeebies,” a song he made famous.  But beyond the Dixieland jazz sound strongly identified with the city, Jazzy Ash uses her bright, playful voice in other genres more commonly associated with the rural areas around the city, like the zydeco sound on “Leap Frog.”  And while a couple songs draw attention to their New Orleans origin, for the most part Christoval uses the bayou mixture of jazz, blues, and creole as the starting point for songs that could be appropriate for Louisiana, but might be at home as well in her current home state of California (see the gypsy jazz track “Firefly").

The album is most appropriate for listeners ages 3 through 7, and while you can't stream the whole thing online, you can listen to "Heebie Jeebies" here (and pick up a beignet recipe here.)

With Bon Voyage, Jazzy Ash fully connects with her own family’s musical heritage, yet incorporates those 100-year-old traditions into 21st century kids music.  It's a buoyant and warm-hearted album for the younger set.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: Deep Woods Revival - Red Yarn

Deep Woods Revival album cover

Deep Woods Revival album cover

Long before “kids music” was a category in the record store stacks or iTunes playlists, folk music was the heart of recorded music for kids.  And while folk music remains an integral part of kids music, in the modern kids music world, other genres -- rock, to be sure, but also hip-hop, reggae, and others -- have expanded their influence.

Now, I would argue that that increase in non-folk music in kindie has specifically been one of the major contributors toward the vitality of the genre, but others would also argue that something has been lost when the music that was part of the American culture for generations slips away.

Portland’s Andy Ferguson, a puppeteer and musician who records for families as Red Yarn, doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who would rail against shifts in musical tastes.  Rather, he's viewing it as a challenge to be met head-on.  After all, if you title your latest album Deep Woods Revival, by definition you've decided to bring all the energy you can muster to new takes on old classics.

In the case of the traditional song “Buckeye Jim,” for example, it’s a fairly straightforward cover of the version Burl Ives recorded more than a half-century ago with some new lyrics added on.  For another track, “Animal Fair,” Ferguson merges two songs from Carl Sandburg’s famous American Songbag, pulling “The John B. Sails” into the mix.  Those are just two examples -- the entire album draws on a variety of folk music sources -- Alan Lomax, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Henry Spalding’s Encyclopedia of Black Folklore and Humor.

While the first half of the album is described as being for all kids, the liner notes suggests that the second half is for "brave kids and grown-ups."  That half includes songs touching on more serious topics, like death and the not-always benevolent nature of the animal world.  The album’s title track, the only song with entirely new music and lyrics, leads off that half and features a chorus of Portland-area musicians standing in for a forest’s worth of critters great and small having a revival.

I think the album is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 10.  (I think the second half might be of more interest to kindergartners and older, but it's not inappropriate for even the younger set.)  You can stream the 36-minute album here.  I'd also note that the physical copy of the album features some lovely artwork (dioramas! maps! illustrations!) made by many people, but most notably Ryan Bruce (art direction and illustrations) and Heather Lin (album design).

Red Yarn’s fervor for American folk music is evident on Deep Woods Revival.  While folk music has never gone away in the children’s music genre, he forcefully makes the case for its continued relevance in the era of the mp3.  Highly recommended.

ote: I was given a copy of the album for possible review.

Review: All Kinds of You and Me - Alastair Moock

All Kinds of You and Me album cover

All Kinds of You and Me album cover

I think Alastair Moock is the rare artist for whom taking on Free To Be... You and Me, the classic 1972 album and book from Marlo Thomas, would be a safe choice.  That's because Moock's last album was Singing Our Way Through, the celebrated and Grammy-nominated album Moock recorded while he and his family helped his daughter Clio fight leukemia.  The album sang to kids and families going through tremendously difficult times with grace and even a little bit of humor.

But still, yeah, just about anything would seem lighter after that.  And with Clio's leukemia in remission, for this latest album, All Kinds of You and Me, Moock turned instead for inspiration to that 1972 classic which celebrated gender individuality, equality, and neutrality.  That album inspired him (he speaks to it most directly on "You and Me") and now he's trying to pay it forward.

My favorite songs on the album are the ones that wear that desire to honor the album and its impluses lightly.  "It Takes All Kinds," which leads off the album, is an infectious song about a boy who wears a dress, a girl who loves worms, and a cat who drinks wine. It's a song about acceptance, but the chorus -- "It's me, it's you, it's us, it's true / It's life, it's fine, it takes all kinds" -- doesn't hit the listener over the head with the message of you should accept others.  Generally, the idea of "should" is far away from the album's lyrics, which is to its credit.  "Kenya Imagine?," which could have become a very "should"-filled song about thinking of others around the world and how everyone has the same needs, reaches its apex when Moock and Jennifer Kimball sing "Love!" repeatedly (a dozen times, to be precise) -- it's a reminder, not a command.  And "Everything's Upside-Down But Me" is another strong track in which the title is not really a metaphor - it's a most Shel Silverstein-like song.

Moock gets strong assistance with his folk-with-a-hint-of-rock from 75% of Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem, with producer Anand Nayak playing on many tracks (and duetting on the horn-aided "All in a Day"), Scott Kessel, and the always-welcome Rani Arbo providing vocals on a number of tracks.

The 45-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 9.  You can stream the entire album here.  (And for those of you still buying your music in the physical format, always nice to see album art from Key Wilde.)

Unsurprisingly for an album born out of an acute medical crisis, Singing Our Way Through was an album intensely focused on the here and now.  With the medical crisis past, with All Kinds of You and Me Moock turns his attention to the world his daughters will grow up in.  At its best, the new album features the same grace of its predecessor with a level of high spirits that encourages others to envision the same world Moock sees for his daughters.  I think Marlo Thomas would be proud to hear it.  Definitely recommended.

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