Review: The Muppets Original Soundtrack (2011) - Various Artists

TheMuppetsSoundtrack.jpgThe Muppet Movie is a hard act to follow. Released in 1979, there have been a number of Muppet attempts to duplicate the first film's magic, none of which quite succeeded. I think that's due primarily to the first film's soundtrack, written by Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher, which was nominated for an Oscar, and remains today a source of inspiration and cover songs. Now comes the latest attempt, the Disney-produced movie The Muppets, which is released on Wednesday, Nov. 23rd, starring Jason Segel, Amy Adams, Chris Cooper, and, yes, a whole bunch of Muppets. Let's get this out of the way up front -- The Muppets Original Soundtrack isn't as good as the soundtrack to The Muppet Movie. It's too closely tied to the movie for the most part to provide the universality that the Williams-Ascher tunes did. But. Once you drop the notion that this is going to be as timeless as songs like "Rainbow Connection," you (and your kids) can enjoy the music from The Muppets on its own terms -- as a very good movie musical, fitting well into Disney's storied movie-musical history. It's not like you need to see the movie in order to understand what you're getting into (and I couldn't make the pre-release press screenings so I lack the context for the songs), but the soundtrack lays it out pretty clearly, even adding about 15 dialogue interstitials from the movie. So that means you have familiar tropes like the character-introducing opening number (the excellent "Life's a Happy Song"), Act 2 conflict songs ("Me Party," featuring a duet between Amy Adams and Miss Piggy), and the-song-where-the-villain-gets-to-shine ("Let's Talk About Me," which features couplets like "I got more cheddar than super-size nachos / I got cashflow like Robert has DeNiros"). Those songs and one more were written by Bret McKenzie (Flight of the Conchords), who was music supervisor for the soundtrack and who, therefore, can be blamed for the inclusion of Starship's "We Built This City" on it as well. (Seriously, I don't care how funny the scene is in the movie -- was there no other song that would have worked?) There are a lot of nods in the direction of longtime fans, such as Kermit's "Pictures in My Head" or Fozzie's cover band The Moopets "covering" "Rainbow Connection." The parents who'll be watching the movie will also be entertained -- the barbershop quartet version of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" sent the internet into spasms of (totally appropriate) apoplexy, and the Camilla and the Chickens version of "Forget You" (which I like to think of as "Cluck You") is a nifty way to satisfy the mixed audience for the PG movie. You can ignore the mostly superfluous cameos (I would not advise Joanna Newsom and Feist superfans to buy this soundtrack solely for their blink-and-you'll-miss-'em appearances), though Andrew Bird's performance on the "The Whistling Caruso" is cool and actually plot-relevant. You can hear samples from the soundtrack here. It's totally appropriate for kids of all ages, though I don't expect kids under the age of 5 to be that interested. In the end, is The Muppets an album you'd listen to from start to finish solely for the music? Probably not. But as a complement to what appears to be (sight unseen) a solid entry in the Muppet canon, it works very well. It's recommended for any family who enjoyed the movie and wants to relive the musical high points. Disclosure: I was provided with an electronic copy of the album for possible review.

Review: Strange Dees, Indeed - The Deedle Deedle Dees

StrangeDeesIndeed.jpgWeird, weird, weird, weird, weird. But in a good way. I can't imagine anybody would ever call Brooklyn's The Deedle Deedle Dees a typical kids music band. The band's always been content to follow its muse -- chief songwriter Lloyd Miller drawing inspiration from biographies and folklore in writing the songs and the rest of the band providing a wild musical counterpoint. While some of the band's songs (e.g., "Major Deegan" from Freedom in a Box and "Little Red Airplane" from American History + Rock'n'Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees) are very catchy, they've never been shy about wearing their curiosity (musically and lyrically) on their sleeves. In so many ways, the Wiggles they are not. Those albums prepare the listener -- sort of -- for Strange Dees, Indeed, which is all over the map, musically. From the very first track, "Ah Ahimsa," in which the Dees talk about Gandhi's non-violent approach to music I would describe as "Bollywood-meets-The-Band," the band lets their many musical freak flags fly. Aided and abetted by producer Dean Jones, the album goes on to feature: dreamy atmospherics on "a song for Abigail Adams," klezmer on "The Golem," the sounds of '40s France on "Marie Curie," and what Miller describes as his attempt to channel Queen's Freddie Mercury on "Sacagawea." That's only halfway through the album, before the spoken-word piece with jazzy accompaniment featuring one of the band member's grandmother recalling the time she (literally) bumped into Mayor LaGuardia ("Mayor LaGuardia's Stomach"). On their earlier albums (particularly Freedom in a Box), the Dees' albums could be an awkward mix of the historical songs and more toddler-focused songs Miller hones in his weekly sing-alongs. But now that Miller's found a separate outlet for some of those simpler songs, what's left over are, with a few exceptions, songs written with older kids in mind -- most appropriate for kids ages 7 and up. You can listen to five of the songs from the album here (or at the player below). My favorite song on the album is the penultimate track, "Henry (Hudson), How Ya Gonna Find a Way?," which "Sacagawea" notwithstanding, is the album's stadium sing-along (with bonus hand claps). It's appropriate to me because lyrically, the Dees' songs usually focus on a small facet of a historical personage's life, rather than trying to teach the listener everything they need to know about, say, Sojourner Truth. It encourages further exploration, Henry Hudson-style. With Strange Dees, Indeed, the Deedle Deedle Dees have done their part -- will your family do yours? Definitely recommended. Disclosure: I received a copy of the album for possible review. Strange Dees, Indeed (sampler) by Bethbcpr

Review: Tumble Bee - Laura Veirs

TumbleBee.jpgLooking to take a bit of a break after a long tour and giving birth to her son, Portland-based singer-songwriter Laura Veirs decided to do a kids album. But instead of writing a dozen or more songs with kid-friendly themes, she decided to research kid-appropriate folk songs. The result is titled Tumble Bee: Laura Veirs Sings Folk Songs for Children -- a simple, direct title reflecting the simple, direct music inside. Many of the dozen songs (plus an instrumental reprise) on Tumble Bee will sound familiar to a long-term listener of music for kids or anyone who has more than a couple Smithsonian Folkways albums. (There is but one wholly original track, the title cut.) "All the Pretty Little Horses," "The Fox," "King Kong Kitchie Kitchie Ki Me O" -- these aren't songs that Veirs rescues from obscurity -- they're part of the (American) folk canon. Nor is "Jump Down Spin Around," which Raffi nicked from Leadbelly (and recorded it as "Pick a Bale o' Cotton"). But that latter track -- which Veirs credits to Harry Belafonte (she was struck by his version of the track) -- is given an extra boost of energy on the new album, with a chorus of friends singing along in response to Veirs' words and adding a few stomps for emphasis. I'd call Tucker Martine's production of his wife's music as unfussy, designed to highlight Veirs' voice and the classic melodies -- why get in the way? Bela Fleck provides lovely (but not showy) banjo work on on "King Kong Kitchie." Colin Meloy duets with Veirs on "Soldier's Joy," making it sound a little bit like a track from some Bizarro Decemberists album where all the song have happy endings. And perhaps my favorite vocal turn is from Veirs herself, yodeling on "Prairie Lullaby." Given the timeless nature of many of these songs, my typical suggestion of an age range is somewhat foolish, but it'll probably be more appreciated by kids ages 3 and up. (Though perhaps if you start younger, by the time they hit preschool they'll have all the lyrics to "The Fox" memorized.) You can sample the disk anywhere, but for a little while longer, go here to stream the album. Tumble Bee is a lovely album through and through. Fans of Elizabeth Mitchell's and Dan Zanes' family albums should be especially drawn to it, though this trawls narrower, folkier waters. But it also compares well to albums of Mitchell's Smithsonian Folkways predecessors like Pete Seeger and Leadbelly. Methinks Ruth Crawford Seeger, another one of Veirs' inspirations for the album, would be proud of it. It's a small gem, and while it's not actually a Folkways album, it's a kindred spirit to that tradition. Highly recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: Sing Along Piano Classics - Beethoven's Wi

BeethovensWigSingAlongPiano.jpgWhile the concept of Richard Perlmutter's Beethoven's Wig is kinda genius -- take famous classical melodies and attach often-funny lyrics to them -- I'd kinda found the past couple entries a little lacking, at least compared to the first couple albums. It was the Die Hard of kids music -- starting out strong, but no longer essential. Well, John McClane won't head back to theatres for a fifth time until February 2013, but Perlmutter is bringing back his own creation for a fifth time in the recently-released Sing Along Piano Classics. If this new album is any indication, you may want to keep that weekend free for moviegoing because Bruce Willis Richard Perlmutter brings back his "A" game. As the title suggests, Perlmutter uses famous piano melodies as the basis for his "Weird Al"-like parodies, and many of them hit the mark. "A Piano Is Stuck in the Door" reworks Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" to amusing effect, while "Poor Uncle Joe" appropriately talks about death in Frederic Chopin's Funeral March. A death of a car, but still. Most of the melodies are very familiar, and Perlmutter tweaks that familiarity on that in some cases -- lots of nonsense syllables in his version of W.A. Mozart's Sonata in C Major, or a clucking chicken in "My Little Chicken." And his take on Mozart's "Alla Turca" (unfamiliar name, but a familiar melody), which he calls "Mozart Makes Kids Smart," is slyly sarcastic ("Instantly / kids can be / the Little Einsteins we expect now / Did you know / with more Mozart / there'd be no child left behind?"). Given the occasionally tricky wordplay, the album is most appropriate for kids ages 6 and up. The 45-minute album features both versions with and without the lyrics; you can hear samples here. Ironically, given his gentle mocking of the "Mozart Effect," Sing Along Piano Classics is actually a pretty good introduction to some famous classical melodies, pairing some well-loved (and in some cases, centuries-old) melodies with smart and silly lyrics. It's a lot of fun. Yippee-ki-yay, Mozart-lover. Definitely recommended.

Review: Little Nut Tree - Dan Zanes and Friends

LittleNutTree_lowres.jpgI've already reviewed Dan Zanes' latest album for NPR. But there's a lot I can't say in a sub-4-minute review with sound clips, so I thought I'd add a few comments on Little Nut Tree, Zanes' sixth "proper" family album. First, it's been a long time since Zanes released a "family" album, more than five years. And while Nueva York!, The Welcome Table, and 76 Trombones weren't bad albums -- even the least-satisfying Zanes album is better than 85-90% of family music released in a given year -- they lacked the everything-including-the-kitchen-sink variety of songs that is an important part of Zanes' appeal. It's not the scattershot approach of many kids' albums -- one reggae tune, one hip-hop, one glossy pop -- but rather songs from many traditions, filtered through Zanes' garage-folk lens, which lends his family albums some continuity but keeps the music fresh.

Review Four-fer: Hullabaloo, Alphabeticians, Mister G, Monty Harper

As you would probably expect, I get many more disks than I could possibly have time to review (unless somebody decides that they want to nominate me for a MacArthur Fellowship). Given my time constraints, there are many reasons why I don't review an album, including it stinks or I can't figure out what to say about it. But there are a number of decent albums with a particular point of view that don't get reviewed in a timely manner just because life goes on. Here, then, are four albums, each with a different approach to the genre -- your family is likely to dig at least one of them. RoadTripHullabaloo.jpgSan Diego-area musician Steve Denyes is a prolific songwriter (see here for a side project of mine he originated), cranking out a Hullabaloo album at least once a year. His latest record Road Trip tackles the theme of, well, car travel (natch), with thirteen tracks covering the experience (truckers' horns, traffic jams, the unfortunate demise of bugs on the windshield). The opening title track is a fun country-rocker, while the rest of songs take a slightly mellower, folkier, Johnny Cash-ier approach. (You can stream the album here.) The album is most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 7. In one sitting, the songs begin to run together, but there are a lot of songs here that would work well in a mixtape for your next trip. Recommended for: your next trip to Grandma's house, your afternoon errand-run. AlphabeticiansRock.jpgMoving up the coast to Portland we find The Alphabeticians, a duo consisting of Eric Levine and Jeff Inlay, AKA Mr. E. and Mr. Hoo, which gives you a little sense of the goofiness that this duo trades in on their formal debut Rock. A little bit of the Pixies and R.E.M. (literally, in the case of the song "Eric Saw Peter Buck's Girlfriend and Then He Saw Peter Buck"), with a healthy dose of They Might Be Giants, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and Schoolhouse Rock mixed in. It could use a little more polish production-wise in spots, but there are some great songs in there (I recommend giving "Metaphor" and "Monkey on my Shirt" a spin at the album's streaming page.) The album's most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 8. Recommended for: the sassy younger kids on TV sitcoms, families who have at least one TMBG album (kids' or adult's) around the house, kids who want lots of alphabet practice.