DVD Review Roundup: Gustafer Yellowgold, Readeez, and more

It's been a (comparatively) long-held belief of mine that DVDs generally don't change anyone's overall impression of an artist.  If you love the artist, only a shoddy, over-priced video will sour you on their DVD, while the most competently produced visual version of music your family didn't like on CD still won't make it onto your TV or computer.  With that in mind, here are 6 DVDs with a musical hook that may be worth checking out even if you're not completely familiar with the artists.

Let's start with the two best disks here, each from loooongtime Zooglobble favorites and each recommended without hesitation.  Not surprisingly they're from artists for whom videos are an integral part of their music-making -- Morgan Taylor's Gustafer Yellowgold series and Michael Rachap's Readeez series.  Gustafer Yellowgold's Year in the Day is the fifth CD/DVD set about the yellow alien from Minnesota by way of the sun.  Its theme?  Holidays of the year.  As Taylor has gradually used up the songs he wrote many years ago at different times and started writing new songs, the DVDs have become more focused thematically, and this one holds together better than its predecessors.  The songs are mostly the '70s (soft-)rock Taylor must write in his sleep, though he dips into more varied musical ponds, such as the electronica-esque touches of "Four Leaved Clover," written by Taylor's wife, singer-songwriter Rachel Loshak.  Other highlights also include the spirited leadoff track "New Is The New Old" and sweet Valentine's Day song "Keep It Simple Sweetheart."  While mostly uptempo, the album does nestle down into coziness with "Pumpkin Pied" and "Fa And A La," the final two tracks.  The distinctive animation drawn by Taylor and lightly animated hasn't changed, either (see the YouTube channel for more).  There's not a lot that's changed from pevious albums, and in the case of Year In The Day, that's a good thing.

There isn't a lot that's changed in the world of Julian and Isabel Waters, either.  They're the animated father-daughter team at the heart of Readeez and their innovatively-titled third DVD, Readeez Volume Three: Knowledge is good. (I kid because I love.)  Well, OK, there's a new character: Olivia Longlife, a librarian, who makes a handful of appearances.  And it includes "Readee-Oh," Readeez-style videos for songs performed by other kindie artists such as Recess Monkey, Coal Train Railroad, the Okee Dokee Brothers, and Irish band the Speks.

But at its core, this video, like its predecessors, features songs about a minute in length (maybe more) on preschool-aged topics accompanied by minimally-animated videos.  The songs and videos strike just the right balance of earnestness and whimsy and their brevity helps keep the more edu-ma-ctional songs from annoying the parent who may already know how to, say, eat properly ("Plate, Cup and Saucer").  The short length isn't surprising, considering Rachap's advertising background -- think of them as Pre-Schoolhouse Rock.  (Watch Vol. 3 videos and many more.)  As before, Readeez Vol. 3 isn't just good for you, it's, well, just good.

Beyond these two videos, here are four more worth exploring further.

  • Secret Agent 23 Skidoo - Spelunk the Funk!: Features a live show by the best kid-hopper in the business in his hometown of Asheville, North Carolina, drawn primarily from his Underground Playground album.  Lots of guest vocalists and props to Skidoo's daughter, DJ Fireworks, who spends the whole concert on stage dancing and sometimes singing.  Also includes a couple
  • Debbie and FriendsStory Songs & Sing Alongs: Debbie Cavalier has invested a lot of time (and, presumably, not a small amount of money) in making videos for her story songs with animation company Planet Sunday.  All those videos (plus the fun "Hangin' Around") make their way to this disk, plus 2 live performances.
  • Eric HermanThe Elephant DVD: I would say that it features "The Elephant Song," a kindie-video classic (and YouTube viral sensation) and leave it at that -- because, really, that might be enough -- but there's other stuff on here.  Ten more songs, live footage, 15 songs on a "jukebox" feature, and what might be the best kindie DVD bonus feature ever: Herman being interviewed by his daughters.  Somebody get them their own show!
  • Spaghetti EddieSpaghetti Eddie! and Other Children's Videos: It's brief -- just 5 songs and 15 minutes in length -- and the videos are pretty simple, featuring green screen technology, animation, and kids running around.  But for a relatively new kids artist, it's a decent-looking disk.  Check out the YouTube channel for more.

Itty-Bitty Review: Gustafer Yellowgold's Infinity Sock

GY_InfinitySock.jpgI could take a lot of time talking specifically about Gustafer Yellowgold's Infinity Sock, the fourth Gustafer Yellowgold DVD/CD set from musician/illustrator Morgan Taylor -- how it's another collection of mellow pop-rock tunes, alternately humorous and wistful, accompanying the slightly surreal adventures of our yellow friend from the sun, Gustafer Yellowgold. Or maybe how it features an honest-to-goodness narrative from start to finish. But what I'd rather do is spend a few words about what Taylor has done with Gustafer, and that's nothing less than create a totally immersive world of characters that Taylor could easily spend another ten, twenty, or thirty years exploring. Just as Dan Zanes has crafted his own niche of family music that never really delves into the specific lives of kids, with Gustafer Yellowgold Taylor has written "kids music" that has (seemingly) nothing to do with the specific lives of kids. After all, on this adventure (featuring Gustafer trying to find the toe-end of the titular sock), Gustafer visits a beehive to see an amazing bee-band ("Beehive") or visits an all-cheese clothing store (the very funny "Wisconsin Poncho"). These are not concerns of your typical 5-year-old. What this story and all the Gustafer Yellowgold stories are is Children's Literature, Fanciful and Fantastic Division. Gustafer is just as much the descendent of Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are as it is the descendent of Harry Nilsson's The Point. Which isn't to say that kids might not learn lessons here (the interconnectivity of life, inherent value of all beings, the need to explore), but they're born out of Taylor's basic philosophy, not forced upon the watcher or listener, and they assume that kids are smarter than we often give them credit for. (Which is a pretty good assumption.) This DVD/CD set is appropriate for kids ages 4 through 10. You can watch video clips from the half-hour story here. Visually the DVD, as always, looks great -- minimally animated but distinctive. (The bonus features, including a mockumentary and guitar and drawing lessons, aren't essential but nice to watch at least once.) Current Gustafer Yellowgold fans will enjoy Gustafer Yellowgold's Infinity Sock no less than the previous DVDs, and for the rest of you, this is as good a place as any to start. Like the best kids' lit, your kids could still be buying new Gustafer Yellowgold DVDs when they become parents themselves. Definitely recommended. Disclosure: I received a copy of the DVD/CD set for possible review.

Review: DVDs for Road Trips

I saw "for road trips" not because these are travel-themed but because there are seven of them. Seven seems like enough to get through at least a day or two of your drive across or through the country. Let's get to it, then. FieldTripsWithRecessMonkey5-8.jpgI don't think the guys in Seattle's Recess Monkey actually sleep. They already release more CDs than just about anybody else, and now they're cranking out a DVD a year, too. Like their first volume, Field Trips with Recess Monkey Episodes 5-8 features a combination of band "field trips" (Sirius-XM studios, Ella Childs at Spare the Rock, illustrator Jarrett Krosoczka), live shows, and their stellar videos. The videos are the highlight of the DVD ("The Teens" and "Sack Lunch" in particular) -- should episodes 9 through 12 be in the works (knowing the trio, they probably are), the band should consider creating a menu that'll allow viewers to just access the videos. Recommended. OrganicFarm.jpgThe Nields' Organic Farm DVD is, as you'd expect, an appealingly low-fi (dare I say "organic") affair. It's mostly a collection of tunes recorded in front of a live audience, and features the Nields singing a number of hits from their two family albums. As they were on record, the Nields sisters are joined by their father on a few songs. Among the non-live tracks are a couple songs showing how a parent or teacher might use a song as a simple teaching tool. It's a nice little bonus treat. Recommended.

DVD/CD Review: "Readeez Volume Two" / "Songeez" - Readeez

ReadeezVol2lowres.jpgThere are 3 operative points of comparison when discussing Readeez, the creation of Atlanta-based Michael Rachap -- Baby Einstein, Schoolhouse Rock, and Sesame Street. Or, at least, those were the three I thought of as I listened to the latest Readeez products, the Readeez Volume Two DVD and the Songeez CD. Let's start with Schoolhouse Rock, famously created to try to educate kids via advertising techniques. Rachap used to work in the advertising industry, but rather than deliver educational nuggets via 3-minute pop songs, he typically does it in about 60 seconds. Which means his educational scope, such as it is, is a little circumscribed -- it's hard enough to describe conjunctions in 3 minutes and essentially impossible in 60 seconds. So the songs that have some educational content, such as "A Special Name for Twelve" or "Circle and Square" (from the first DVD, but also on the Songeez disk), cover much narrower ground, which is fine. But if you're expecting "learning" from these two items, it's much more on the level of TMBG's Here Come the 123s (with some Dial-A-Song mixed in) than Here Comes Science. Let's move, then, to TMBG's Disney label mates, Baby Einstein. I know that it's easy to slag on the series, but if you set aside their overhyped claims for the product, their later stuff is competently produced and offers a wide variety of visual stimulation for young'uns. For an independently produced DVD, Volume 2 looks great. (It's what made this headline -- Readeez Company Acquired by Disney" -- so great. Yes, it's on both disks.) The attention to detail at times even surpasses Einstein's (note the timing of the placement of periods at the end of "The Land of I Don't Know"). The comparison does, however, highlight one of Readeez' ("Readeez's"?) few shortcomings, and that's the relative monotony of the visuals on the DVD. I like the concept of displaying the words as you hear them, and the crisp, clean look of the background and text is balm for a "Dear Teacher"-font world gone awry. But I long for more visual variety, as the Einstein videos employ. The occasional use of pictures or non-white backgrounds to offset the charmingly illustrated Julian and Isabel Waters (or live-action Rachap) would go a long way. Which brings us to Sesame Street. Forty years down the line, they've had some great songs written for the show. The best songs don't feel like they were written with education in mind. And while the Volume One DVD often felt like the "education" aspect played a more important role, Volume Two has much less of that feel, and, as a result is a more enjoyable experience sonically. (Though Volume One is not without considerable charm.)

DVD Review: Trying Funny Stuff - The Jimmies

TryingFunnyStuff.jpgAs a reviewer, I tend to dislike absolute statements because you never know what you'll hear or read or see afterwards that will cause you to regret your previous absolute. So with that in mind, let me say this with no "possibly"s or "maybe"s to get in the way: Nobody makes better kids music videos than the Jimmies. Nobody. Don't get me wrong, They Might Be Giants draw a lot of talent to their videos, Recess Monkey does a lot with a little, and folks like Gustafer Yellowgold and Readeez crank out a lot of great music via their primarily video-based format. And various artists might crank out an excellent video or two. But when it comes to creating those 3-minute videos we used to watch MTV for, the Jimmies consistently are the cream of the crop. It's no surprise, therefore, that the chief draw of Trying Funny Stuff, the new DVD from the New York band The Jimmies are the six videos on the set. "Do The Elephant," "Spanimals," "Cool To Be Uncool," "Bedhead," and "Taddy" are here (all available on their YouTube channel or here), along with the new-to-you video for "What's That Sound?," which is every bit as eye-popping as the other three (love the cloud dress). The production values Jimmies mastermind Ashley Albert and director Michael Slavens bring to the videos are pretty stunning -- they impress (and the songs they back up are pretty decent, too). They try lots of stuff, some funny and some just cool. The "behind-the-scenes" documentary starts out goofy, and I thought it was going to be one of those throwaway EPK documentaries, but maybe about five minutes in, you realize, hey, this is interesting, and not in a "interesting-for-the-parents, deathly-dull-for-the-kids" sort of way, but Slavens and Albert actually walk through how they created the effects for the videos and talk to kids rather than the adults. (Oh, and they run through a good dozen chicken-related puns in the span of about a minute, but they're not perfect.) The rest of the package is gravy. The karaoke setting for the videos, is cool, though I don't expect it'll get much use. And the concert video is fun, with the band rocking out in a New York auditorium, complete with guest banjo artists, gratuitous egg shaker solo, and Soaper the Scaredybot (you just have to see it). If you've seen the band in concert, then you know what to expect from the concert. They play songs both from Make Your Own Someday and the upcoming (at some point) Everyday's a Holiday. The DVD also comes packaged with a CD of the concert -- in other words, there's a lot of video and audio to enjoy. Kids ages 4 through 8 will most enjoy the DVD, which features nearly 90 minutes of video (besides the karaoke). You can buy the DVD here or at Barnes & Noble. To watch the Jimmies is to become a fan of the Jimmies. And sometimes you want to watch videos with your kids on something larger than a 3-inch YouTube screen. For those reasons alone, Trying Funny Stuff is worth your time. Definitely recommended.

DVD Review: Field Trips with Recess Monkey

FieldTripsLowRes.jpg The advantage of Field Trips with Recess Monkey, the first DVD from Seattle's Recess Monkey, is that it does a good job of conveying the band's essential nature, that of kids music's funniest band. This is not to say they're "ha ha Weird Al" funny (usually), more that their joy and sense of humor is way up front, part and parcel of all they do. (For example, the band continues to put on their materials, "Unauthorized duplication or other use prohibited by law and by Mayor Monkey, our hand puppet band manager.") The DVD consists of 4 episodes, each roughly 23 minutes in length, containing some combination of videos (the band consistently makes good cheap but good-looking and effective videos), concert footage, field trips, and natterings from Mayor Monkey. (I have been on the record with my adoration for MayMo. "Natterings" is a term of love.) If you had to watch all the field trips (to Seattle institutions like Pike Place Market or the Fremont Bridge) in a row, it would make for dull viewing (as would the concert video), but all mixed together, it's a reasonably entertaining sequence. I particularly enjoyed the trip to illustrator Matt Hawk's studio (he did the art for Field Trip) and the "Yellow Trike Races." In all the segments, you can tell the band's having fun, joking around, sometimes for the kids' benefit, and occasionally for the parents'. This video will be of most interest to kids ages 3 through 7. You can purchase the video at Amazon and see assorted clips (the videos and concert stuff) at the band's YouTube channel. Hopefully the fact that the band's continuing to produce videos means that this isn't the last set of episodes. I can't expect that many readers of this review aren't familiar with Recess Monkey. If you're not familiar with the band, Field Trips with Recess Monkey is a decent introduction to the band's killer songwriting and sense of humor. And if you are familiar with the band, then you'll appreciate the whole package here. Even (and especially) Mayor Monkey. Recommended.