Last year saw a veritable sleigh-load of Christmas and holiday albums for families. This year's list of CDs is smaller, but there are a few disks that came out this fall and winter that your family may enjoy... My favorite was A Slugs and Bugs Christmas from Slugs and Bugs, AKA Randall Goodgame and Andrew Peterson, who were behind Slugs & Bugs & Lullabies. If you are interested in Christmas just from a secular perspective, you can skip the rest of the review, as this disk is definitely geared toward the crowd who attends church on more than just Christmas and Easter. The first song, "Happy Birthday Jesus," makes that clear, as do a number of other songs. (That song also features one of the niftier arrangements I've heard in some time, blending a modern bluegrass song with a kids' chorus taking on "The First Noel.") As you might expect from songwriters who've had some songs featured on VeggieTales videos, it's not entirely serious -- on what other Christmas album are you going to hear a song about roasting mice for eating ("Pass the Ketchup" -- it's not macabre, really)? While the shifting between secular and explicitly Christian feels a little uneven at times, at its best (like on "I Spy" or the amazing "The Camel Song"), the disk deftly mixes popular Christmas culture with its spiritual underpinnings with humor and grace.
... actually, they don't walk into a bar at all. But Uncle Rock and Ben Rudnick get quoted and they all are mentioned in an article on the kids music resurgence in this week's Metroland, an Albany, NY-area alternative weekly. (And, hey, I'm quoted.) I also like, in the last paragraph, the justification for family music:
As 21st-century parents, we expect musicians not just to entertain our kids, but us too. That may sound self- indulgent, and to some extent it is. But as entertainment companies beam their offerings to narrower and narrower demographic slices, the idea of parents and kids listening to the same music starts to sound pretty good.
I'm only lukewarm on the live-action portion of this video, the title track from Ben Rudnick and Friends' seventh CD. But I really, really dig the animation. And the song always makes me go "ribbit, ribbit, croak" for, like, hours afterward... Ben Rudnick & Friends - "A Frog Named Sam" (Hat tip: Gwyneth)
I wouldn't say that Ben Rudnick & Friends march to their own drummer -- their music for kids and families isn't too far out of the mainstream, particularly for those families whose tastes run to the folk/jamband side of the genre. But they seem more than willing to play songs that they want to play, and if they happen to interest the kids, so be it. Their latest album, the recently-released A Frog Named Sam, is almost 2 EPs smooshed together. The first EP, so to speak, the first 6 songs, features songs that would sound more familiar on a typical kids' disk -- the "frog out of water" story "A Frog Named Sam," "Race Car" (which does a good job of conveying the thrill of pre-NASCAR racing), and "I Need A Hand." The last song is recycled from a previous Rudnick album, but who cares, because it's the goofiest track you'll hear all month. The second EP, the last 5 tracks, are where the band pretty much decides they're bored with the kids' stuff and decide instead to record a folk music album; if the kids like it, so much the better. Now, anyone who responds positively to the phrase "Dan Zanes" will recognize the tracks -- "Erie Canal," "Old Joe Clark," even the original "The Santa Fe," written by band member John Zevos. They don't take many chances with the arrangement -- no Father Goose on "Old Joe Clark," for example -- but Rudnick and Friends have the slickest folk sound in the kids music field, so it's certainly a pleasant-enough spin. Kids ages 3 through 7 will enjoy the album most of all; you can listen to samples of the 33-minute album at its CDBaby page. If you're looking for shiny, poppy family music, Ben Rudnick probably isn't your man, but for a more earthy and rootsy take on music new and old, I think you'll like A Frog Named Sam. Recommended.
It's fair to say that a lot of the attention trained on the "new" breed of kids' musicians has been on the rock/pop genre. (I use "new" advisedly, because we all know that there's no such thing as an overnight sensation, especially in kids' music.) Which is somewhat unfair to musicians like Massachusetts-based Ben Rudnick & Friends, who've spent most of the past decade playing rootsier music, spending as much time with, say, bluegrass as with pop. Well, on their fifth and recently-released album Grace's Bell, Rudnick and the band show no signs of changing their approach. They continue playing songs that wander down the backroads of family-friendly music. From the opening track "My Name is Ben," which reworks "Old MacDonald" into a twangy band introduction to the uptempo clarinet-accented rendition of the classic "When the Saints Go Marching In," the album often sounds like it comes from a world untouched by American Idol or high-definition televsion. The album's primary strength is Rudnick's band, a talented group of instrumentalists that give the songs a thoroughly professional (though definitely not overproduced) sheen. The band just sounds good, unsurprising given the band's live reputation. When married to good songs such as the poppy "Vowels" or the world/country "Cowgirl Song" (featuring some nifty pedal steel work from New Riders of the Purple Sage's Buddy Cage), the effect is thrilling. My favorite track is the loping "Tuba Tune," which features a full brass backing band, of course -- it seems like there might be room for it in a second line parade somewhere in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. If there was anything that kept me from completely being overwhelmed, it was that sometimes the band jammed on too long on songs that just weren't as strong as those mentioned above. "Chet's Fabulous Diner," for example, just doesn't earn the 5-plus minutes it's given here. I'd peg the album as being most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 9. You can hear samples either at Rudnick's website or the album's CD Baby page. With Grace's Bell, Ben Rudnick and Friends have recorded an album of traditional and band favorites in their rootsy Americana style. If you have any interest in these more traditional styles performed with vigor and energy, you'll definitely want to check this album out, and even those weaned on a more rock/pop diet will probably find enough tracks worth singing along or dancing to. Recommended.