Review: Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Volume 1 - Various Artists

OTSFMSongbookVol1.jpgI begin here by noting my tremendous affinity for Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, or at the very least, for the Wiggleworms CDs they've released -- longtime readers will know I'm a big fan. That doesn't even get to the School itself, which for fifty years has provided countless hours of musical instruction and performance for Chicago-area residents, old and young alike. Jealous? Me? Living hundreds of miles away? Just a little. (OK, a lot.) So with great enthusiasm that I gave their Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Volume One, released by Bloodshot Records (another Chicago institution, though not quite as old), a spin and held my breath -- could it somehow meet my expectations? And the answer is, well, yes. Over the course of 23 songs in 77 minutes, the album puts together songs well-known and not, from artists well-known and not. There's so much here to listen to that singling out a few songs seems unfair to the album, but life's not fair, which is itself a lesson that's heard on a few songs here. So then, three songs: "Take This Hammer" -- Jon Langford gives an exuberant reading of this folksong, first collected in 1915, his raspy voice accompanied by his guitar and Rick Sherry's jug and percussion. It's an old song, but it sounds tailor-made for the 21st century. "Drunken Sailor" -- Dan Zanes shows up with his band in full "Sea Music" mode, giving a idiosyncratic mid-tempo version of the song. It's not the full-tempo, punk-pirate version one commonly hears, but the band's musicianship and their voices -- I love that band's set of pipes -- actually help you hear the lyrics and appreciate them. "Salty Dog Blues" -- If "Drunken Sailor" is the song you're not sure you should be playing for your 5-year-old but you do anyway, Rick Sherry's rendition of "Salty Dog Blues" is not safe for the younguns, lest you be asked to explain what it means to be someone's "salty dog." (I, on the other hand, as a fully-capable adult, think the cut is great.) There are some songs that seemed too reverent for my tastes, but that's a personal thing, and all the tracks are well-done. People more familiar with the folk canon may have different views, but I also think the album really begins to pick up speed in the second half where the songs are more familiar -- "St. James Infirmary," "Down in the Valley," an excellent "Wayfaring Stranger" from John Stirratt. Even setting aside "Salty Dog Blues," there's little here lyrically that would engage younger kids, so I think it's probably most appropriate for kids ages 8 and up. (Not saying that there aren't tracks appropriate for younger kids, such as Erin Flynn's reading of "Amazing Grace," just that this probably isn't your first choice.) You can download a couple tracks from the CD at Bloodshot's page for the album. (And here's my own suggestion, free of charge, for the School -- a bound, printed version of the Songbook, with chords and lyrics, would rock.) Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Volume 1 is a solid collection of folksong recordings that reflect not only the strength of America's musical heritage but also of the School itself. Families with older kids should definitely check it out. The name "Volume 1" implies that more are on the way, and for that, I can't wait. Recommended.

Review: Animal Crackers - Wee Hairy Beasties

AnimalCrackers.jpgWhen Bloodshot Records' classic kids and family music compilation The Bottle Let Me Down was released in 2002, it was, well, something of a novelty. Adult artists -- edgy ones, even -- doing kids' music? What was perhaps surprising was just how darn good the collection was. Now it's 2006 and adult artists doing kids' music, while not yet passe', is certainly not a novelty, not when every rocker with kids underfoot may be thinking that there's an audience out there that's waiting to be served. So it hardly seems necessary to note that the Wee Hairy Beasties, whose debut album Animal Crackers will be released next week, actually consist of musicians with a long history of playing in places far seedier than your local day care center -- Jon Langford and Sally Timms, of the punk band the Mekons; Kelly Hogan; and Devil in a Woodpile. It also is much less surprising than it would have been four years ago that this album is more fun than a barrel full of monkeys. Or ants. OK, it's way more fun than a barrelful of ants. Barrelfuls of ants are never fun, but the rewrite of the Bo Diddley classic "I'm a M.A.N.," which is turned into "I'm an A.N.T." definitely is. "Housefly Blues" introduces young listeners to the problems of the common housefly. Langford's distinctive and slightly raspy voice is a great fit for the zippy "Ragtime Duck." And so on, through a whole range of country, bluegrass, and swing arrangements. My favorite track on the CD is "Cyril the Karaoke Squirrel," on which Hogan's sly vocal delivery and the '60s-era arrangement draws the listener into a story about intolerance which, as you might expect from Bloodshot Records, doesn't end quite the way you'd expect. I'm going to put an age range of 3 to 8 for the 33-minute album, thanks to the animal subject matter, which always goes over big with preschoolers. You can download the leadoff track, the ragged-sounding (in a good way) and lots-of-fun "Wee Hairy Beasties" and pre-order the album at its Bloodshot page. Make no mistake, Animal Crackers is a kids' album. But it's made with love and enthusiasm and will engage kids while making the parents smile. And if you had any affinity for The Bottle Let Me Down, you shouldn't hesitate at all to get this album. Definitely recommended.

Please Release Me: October 2006 Edition

Well, it's not like Oct. 3rd isn't already busy enough as it is, CD-release-wise -- new stuff from Beck, the Decemberists, the Hold Steady, even the Killers (though their new album is getting absolutely miserable reviews). But, hey, even in the kids' music segment we got a new (sort of) Ralph's World. Not to mention a bunch of other stuff to look forward to. So here we go: Oct. 1: AudraRox - I Can Do It By Myself Oct. 3: Ralph's World - Welcome To Ralph's World Oct. 8: The Sippy Cups - Electric Storyland Oct. 10: Gothic Archies (Stephin Merritt) - The Tragic Treasury: Songs from a Series of Unfortunate Events Oct. 16: V/A - Colours Are Brighter Oct. 17: V/A - New Orleans Playground (Putumayo) Oct. 24: Wee Hairy Beasties (Jon Langford, Sally Timms, Kelly Hogan, Devil in a Woodpile) - Animal Crackers Oct. 24: V/A - Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Vol. 1

Review: The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs for Bumpy Wagon Rides - Various Artists

BottleLetMeDown.jpgChicago's Bloodshot Records is known for for their insurgent country, or some other name for music that sounds like country but sounds nothing like Nashville. With their 2002 compilation The Bottle Let Me Down: Songs for Bumpy Wagon Rides, Bloodshot could easily have staked their claim to "insurgent kids music." (Or, even more marbly-mouthed, "y'all-kid-ternative.") With a broad range of "adult" artists (from Alejandro Escovedo to Freakwater to Nora O'Connor and Steve Frisbie -- partner in Frisbie with Justin Roberts accomplice Liam Davis) and a collection of both kids' classics and originals, it's hard to summarize the 26-track, 63-minute album. But the one word that keeps coming back to me as I think of the CD is fun. On many kids' albums from "adult" artists, you get the feeling that the musicians are deigning to play this "kids' music," and it shows in a song that, well, isn't much fun to listen to. Not here -- the musicians are having fun playing these funds, and it shows. The Waco Brothers' spirited take on the folk classic, "The Fox," and the Asylum Street Spankers' punked-up bluegrass version of "I Am My Own Grandpa" shows no signs of "well, let's make a track for the kiddies." They're making tracks that any music fan would appreciate, kids not excluded. The Cornell Hurd Band's original "Don't Wipe Your Face On Your Shirt," is an amusing plea for respectability most parents will relate to, while Escovedo's live version of his "Sad & Dreamy (The Big 1-0)" (with the chorus of "I'm the big 1-0 / Candy just doesn't taste as sweet anymore") will ring bells with the tween set. Like you would expect from an album produced by an "insurgent country" record label, many of the tracks are not sanitized. Carolyn Mark's fun retelling of "The Three Billy Goats Gruff" doesn't sand off the rough edges of the story, for example, and Devil in a Woodpile's swampy cover of Mississippi John Hurd's "Funky Butt," is just what you might expect from the song title. And while most tracks stay safely on the parental side of appropriateness, Robbie Fulks' "Godfrey" (about an sickly, unemployed magician) and Freakwater's inneuendo-filled "Little Red Riding Hood" are probably way on that other side. The parents themselves will probably like those songs while thinking repeatedly, "Should I fast-forward? I should probably fast-forward. Right? Tell me I'm right." Some of the tracks are appropriate for kids as young as three, though the album is appropriate for kids who are as old as 10 as well. You can hear samples at any major online retailer. In the end, this is a solid album with no weak tracks. Your kids won't even know that they're being exposed to a great collection of bands and songs, they'll just love these energetic renditions. And so will you. It's probably the best compilation of adult-musicians-doing-kids-music out there; its status as a minor classic (or even a major one) is deserved. Highly recommended.

Review: Wiggleworms Love You - Old Town School of Folk Music

In the mid-80s, the writer/director John Hughes produced Pretty in Pink, in which the less-than-upper-middle-class main character (played by Molly Ringwald, natch) has to decide romantically between her best friend Ducky and a boy from the "right side of the tracks." To many viewers' great chagrin -- how could you not pick Ducky! -- she picks the golden boy. A few years later, Hughes basically rewrote Pink as Some Kind of Wonderful and reversed the ending, with the main character picking his from-the-wrong-side-of-the-tracks best friend as his romantic partner. It's a much more satisfying ending. What does this have to do with Wiggleworms Love You, the 2005 album from the Old Town School of Folk Music. OK, aside from the fact that both Hughes and the Old Town School are associated with Chicago. Well, this new album is sort of like the "golden boy" character with all the advantages compared to the poor original, Songs For Wiggleworms. The first album sounded like it was recorded in an actual Old Town classroom, with time constraints reminiscent of parent-teacher conferences. ("I'm sorry, it's 6:45, it's time for the Sweeneys.") Very few of the songs had anything more than voice and acoustic guitar. This new album is greatly expanded sonically. It sounds much better, and the instrumentation is, on some tracks, surprisingly full. Percussion, bass, stringed instruments of all kinds (banjo, mandolin, fiddle) -- heck, there's an accordion on seven tracks. It sounds much more like a "folk music" album. (All of this may be the result of the fact that an honest-to-goodness record company, Bloodshot Records, released the CD.) So why wouldn't you want this CD? Well, you would... if you already had Songs For Wiggleworms. The problem is that they already got most of the great tunes on the first CD. There are fewer of the great "oh, I'm gonna sing that to my young'uns" songs. There are maybe 12-15 songs that meet that criteria on the CD, or about 1/3 of the 42 songs on the album. The other songs are obscure to varying degrees, usually dependent on how familiar you are with the early Raffi oeuvre. (I can't believe I just used the phrase "Raffi oeuvre.") That's not to say that there aren't some great tracks on the album -- "If I Was a Bird," the meta-rave-up "Mama Don't Allow," and the tailfeather-shaking "Looby Loo" are three standouts. But unlike the first CD, on which the listener could sing virtually every song, many without the CD, this CD may be great to listen to but isn't necessarily as user-friendly for taking that out into the daily world with your child. This sounds like a mixed review, but it's really not. It's just that I think the first album's ragged charm is just so perfect for its intended use that this more polished sequel slightly disappoints. If you already have Songs, I recommend Wiggleworms Love You wholeheartedly. If you don't, I think the first album is the better starting point. The CD is for children aged 0 through 6 and is available through the links above, plus the usual online suspects.