Share: Free Music from Justin Roberts, Bloodshot Records, VeggieTales (and more)

FunForAllAges.jpgNot really sure what Amazon's been thinkin', but somebody last month must have said, "Hey, you know what would be cool? Free kids' music!" And, then, actually followed through on that idea, because now there are a handful of free EPs for the digital downloading, with easily 15 to 20 good songs worth your time. Justin Roberts leads the pack with his, er, Snack Pack EP, featuring songs from 5 of his albums. You probably have some of these already, but maybe not the earlier songs ("Little Raindrop" or "Billy the Bully"), and if you don't have any of them, then get over there pronto. The real find in the craziness is Roberts' fellow Chicagoans Bloodshot Records' Fun For All Ages sampler, which includes seven tracks from four fine albums, Songs for Wiggleworms, Wiggleworms Love You, Animal Crackers, and The Bottle Let Me Down. Do not hesitate in picking up this album, the Alejandro Escovedo track is especially lovely. But that's not all. VeggieTales aren't for everyone (particularly if you're not religious and you're listening to their Bible-based stuff), but their silly secular stuff can be fun no matter your denomination or lack thereof. Their Five Super Silly Songs EP is exactly that; it includes versions of a couple songs that were big hits on Kids Place Live, "The Hairbrush Song" and "The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything." What's that? You want more? How about some Sesame Street? Their Amazon sampler has a more energetic version of "Ladybugs' Picnic" than you might be familiar with (but it's still good) and also features "What's the Name of that Song?" You can also pick up an EP from the Wiggles as well as a Cedarmont collection and a sampler from a Rockabye Baby-style knockoff called "Cradle Rock." Not my thing, those last two, but your mileage may vary.

A Small Music Review in a Big Music Week

35 posts about music is not such a big deal -- I'm pushing 700 here. But 35 posts in a week? Now that's impressive. That's exactly what the enterprising folks over at Z Recommends have done with their Music Week. There's a healthy list of reviews up, but what's interested me the most is the interviews: Veda Hille from Duplex, Tito Uquillas from the Hipwaders, and Stephin Merritt. And there's more to come -- Jason Trachtenburg, Morgan Taylor (Gustafer Yellowgold), and Uncle Rock. Worth your time. Oh, and a guest review from yours truly. File under oldie-but-goodie.

Review: Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Vol. 2 & 3 - Various Artists

OldTownSchoolSongbooksVol2_3.jpgCan sequels upstage the original? The Chicago institution Old Town School of Folk Music released its Songbook Volume 1 last year (review), and the title implied that more was on its way. But could what followed surpass that solid collection? Yes. Old Town School of Folk Music Songbook Volume 2 & 3, released last week by Bloodshot Records, is its predecessor's equal in every way, and betters it. Over the 2 hours and 20 minutes on the 2-CD set, the School's instructors and friends breathe fresh life into 42 mostly traditional folk songs. These aren't really kids' songs -- they're folk songs (of many sources, from gospel to sailing to bluegrass), written for general audiences. But with few exceptions they're totally OK for kids and families. In many cases, the artists take a mostly traditional approach, with a healthy dose of banjo, fiddle, and and/or guitar instrumentation. But others take some risks -- the Zincs turn in a spare, quasi-electronica version of the traditional Shaker tune "Simple Gifts," while Scott Besaw engages in some multi-tracking to make his solo recording of "Nine Pound Hammer" sound very full. As sung by Mary Peterson, "Sportin' Life" could easily be a long-lost track from Patsy Cline. And some of the tracks are just luminous. Laura Doherty's rendition of Donovan Leitch's "Colours" is simple and sweet. "Lonesome Road," as performed by Back Off the Hammer, would fit right in on a Gillian Welch/David Rawlings disk. Cat Edgerton's "Water is Wide" should find its way onto many a lullaby mixtape. If I had to pick a single track from the bounty here, though, it'd be Jacob Sweet's take on Stephen Foster's "Hard Times." The timeless melody and lyrics, combined with Sweet's voice and the harmonies, are enough to give the listener goosebumps. There are a few tracks I'll skip over because I don't like the vocal style, but those are definitely the exception, not the rule. Even more so than the original, this collection is appropriate for kids, with very little in the way of subject material parents might object to. Call it appropriate for kids ages 4 on up. You can download Nora O'Connor's excellent recording of "Home on the Range" here, and listen to samples elsewhere on this fabulous thing called the Internet, about which you won't hear a single song here. I'd also note that you can get this album for less than $15 in most places. It's a great deal. Songbook Vol. 2 & 3 is chock-full of renditions of classic songs that are part of the American song DNA that will please many an ear. If this is how good the sequel is, then Volumes 4 & 5 had darn well better be in the works. Highly recommended.

The Top 50 Kids Songs of All Time: Songs 31-35

The list continues. I'd been planning to post this entry this morning, so I found the fact that somebody just posted a comment on the last list of "Hey, whatever happened to the rest of the list?" amusing. And to think I originally thought I'd crank these out in about two weeks. In any case, here are the previous entries: Songs 36 through 40 Songs 41 through 45 Songs 46 through 50 And don't forget, there's still time to enter the contest. You can win a free CD! 35. "All Through the Night" - traditional: A traditional Welsh lullaby with less than straightforward lyrical hurdles to jump ("Soft the drowsy hours are creeping / Hill and dale in slumber steeping"), it's the melody that makes this classic. I'm amazed that this isn't covered more -- it's not like the lyrics are that difficult -- easily within the reach of a parent tired of singing more familiar lullabies. (Listen to a sample from Mae Robertson's rendition here.) 34. "Skidamarink" - traditional: Most uptempo lullaby ever. Actually, I'm not sure it's even a lullaby -- I just first heard it on a lullaby album. Compared to the very serious lullabies (see #35, for example), this is a refreshing alternative. (You can hear a sample of the version that introduced me to the song here. Listen to a sample from the Old Town School of Folk Music rendition here. A bit more uptempo.) 33. "Skip To My Lou" - traditional. There's the innocuous version ("Fly's in the buttermilk / Shoo, fly, shoo") and the embittered, scorned-preschooler version ("Lost my partnet / What'll I do?... / I'll find another one / Prettier than you"). (Raffi does the innocuous version, Bullfrog Jumped includes the other version.) 32. "If You're Happy and You Know It" - traditional. One of those songs that if you're the least bit cynical and tired you're just not going to appreciate. But it's a very simple song that kids have fun with -- who doesn't like clapping their hands or stomping their feet when they're 3? (The Old Town School of Folk Music -- who else? -- does a fun version on Songs For Wiggleworms -- sample here.) 31. "BINGO" - traditional. Actually, this is kinda hard for kids to completely master, though they'll have fun clapping. Now that I think about it, by the time the song gets to "clap, clap, CLAP CLAP OH!," I still have problems with it. Unfortunately, I can't think of any must-hear versions of the song -- it's too prescriptive for massive creativity. (Still, you can always go back to Wiggleworms Love You here.)

Review in Brief: Music For Tots - Little Miss Ann

MusicForTots.jpgWith experience singing in Old Town School of Folk Music Wiggleworms classes, Chicago-based Ann Torralba would seem a logical choice for recording a CD targeted at the preschool set. And sure enough her debut kids' CD as "Little Miss Ann," Music For Tots, is geared for exactly those kids. A folk-poppy blend of traditional kids' songs, covers, and originals, the 22-minute disk is notable for its arrangements, which take out-of-the-ordinary approaches to familiar songs. Sometimes these arrangements sound great, such as on "You Are My Sunshine," which is given a different melody and jazzy percussion background, or "Pirate Ship," which employs a tin whistle to fun effect. Other tracks' arrangements aren't as endearing (the rhythm on the Pete Seeger-inspired "Edamame" was just, well, too angular, for example), but Torralba gets points for at least trying something different. (And I particularly enjoyed the Torralba originals.) The disk is appropriate for kids ages 1 through 5. You can hear samples of all the tracks (and purchase the CD) here. With its reinterpretations of traditional songs, this disk would work really well in preschool programs. And while I don't think the CD will become the favorite of many families, Little Miss Ann's musical and lyrical re-interpretations on Music For Tots are good for the occasional sing-along for young families.

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.