Newborn: Johnny and Jason

JohnnyAndJason.jpgIt's a little odd to be discussing the Portland duo Johnny and Jason in my "Newborn" series when I've reviewed not one but two albums from half of the duo. But this new band from Johnny Keener (creator of the aforementioned albums) and Jason Greene feels sufficiently new to give it the "Newborn" treatment. They've just released their first album Go, Go... Go, Go, Go, and it's definitely a contender for one of the year's best debuts. The roots rock sound is somewhat familiar to listeners of Keener's work, but the hooks are hookier and the sound slightly fuller. "I Can Fly" kicks the album off with some country-fried punk, "What's Your Pet's Name" is a dreamy song with a kids' chorus, and "Corn Cob Man" or "Ride Wagon Ride" jangle just enough. And the album closer "Tomatoes and Toast" is a simple but beautiful homage to gardening. The best part for you is that not only can you stream the album below but, for a limited time, you can download the whole thing. For free. Portland's reached the tipping point where they're now a serious kids music town. Johnny and Jason are just one symbol of that creative explosion.

Review in Brief: Long John - Johnny Keener

LongJohn.jpgI suppose Portland, Oregon-based Johnny Keener could do worse than taking the path Elizabeth Mitchell has blazed before him -- one part covers of old tunes, one part covers of new tunes, add a pinch of original stuff, stir gently. With a mix of rockabilly, blues, and modern pop, Keener further refines the gentle formula above, originally outlined on his debut Elephants Over the Fence (review). What's new is the presence of a kids chorus on several tracks. At its best, the chorus enlivens old tunes, even giving Apples in Stereo's already-awesome "Energy" a tweaking that makes it a great kids' song. Keener's call-and-response with the kids on the title track shows off the chops he's honed at the Portland Children's Museum -- Ella Jenkins would be proud. (I also like the kids on Keener's original "Run Around.") The sound is perhaps a little fuller than the first CD, but there's nothing particularly fancy. Which gets back to how things haven't changed. There's still some nifty guitar work (check out Keener's bluesy take on "The Cat Came Back") and covers that seem odd but make perfect sense (Cat Stevens' "If You Want To Sing Out, Sing Out.") The album isn't perfect -- Keener's cover of John Fogerty's "Down on the Corner" doesn't add much to the CCR original, and I'd like to officially put a moratorium on covers of "Three Little Birds" -- but it gets the job done. Oh, and the album packaging is one of the niftiest of the year, a simple yet elegant cardboard envelope. Kids aged 2 through 6 will most appreciate the 25-minute disk, from which you can hear samples at its CDBaby page. Long John shows an artist maturing in his kids music vision, and it's a well-done collection of Americana-influenced tracks young and old. Recommended.

Review: Elephants Over the Fence - Johnny Keener

ElephantsOverTheFence.jpgThe Portland-based artist Johnny Keener released Elephants Over the Fence, but there are strong echoes of South Carolina, Seattle, and Brooklyn in the CD. The South Carolina echo has to do with the musicians on the CD. Backed by Emily Vidal on bass and Jason Greene (their alter ego is Yoyodyne, an adult pop group), Keener generally plays guitar reminiscent of Buddy Holly or Johnny Cash records. Hmmm... a trio reconfiguring itself to play kids music? Where have I heard that before? But there's no complaint as the trio gets a lot of mileage out of the mixture of traditional kids, originals, and offbeat covers here. The Seattle echo is from the leadoff track, "Miss Mary Mack," which, just as on Johnny Bregar's Hootenanny! CD, starts with the voice of a young girl singing the song, though here young Zella sings for a full 30 seconds before the band and a chorus of preschool kids join in. And the Brooklyn echo? None other than Dan Zanes, an obvious inspiration for Keener. While Keener clearly doesn't have the star power of Zanes (there's no Sheryl Crow on this version of "Polly Wolly Doodle"), Keener likes singing with kids and integrates them nicely on a few tracks. The best cut here is the cover of Woody Guthrie's "Bling Blang," which features guitar work by Keener accompanying a swinging piano by Yascha Noonberg. The two originals aren't too bad (I liked "It's Too Hot!," all about going to the local swimming pool), but the two songs that are most intriguing are the covers of Jonathan Richman ("Here Come the Martian Martians") and They Might Be Giants ("Robot Parade"). The Richman cover is pretty good and just goes to show that a compilation of kids artists doing Jonathan Richman songs is long overdue. Keener also acquits himself nicely on the TMBG track, slowing the tempo a bit to a more stately parade-like pace, and adding some robot-like spoken-word interludes. The 25-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 7. Tracks may be available soon at Keener's website, but here, with Keener's permission, are two tracks for your immediate enjoyment: Johnny Keener - Polly Wolly Doodle Johnny Keener - It's Too Hot! There is no wheel-reinventing going on here, but Elephants Over the Fence is an enjoyable listen, a smart-sounding CD with a loose energy appealing to kids and parents alike. Recommended.