Occasionally I receive a disk that is religious in nature -- this is what happens when you're willing to review religious kids' music (e.g., this Justin Roberts set of disks), even rarely. At this point the number of such disks I've received over the past year or two is approaching double digits. So it's time for a roundup of kids music albums that address in forms high and low, silly and serious, a Higher Power. Obviously, if you're in the secular/agnostic/athiest camp when it comes to spiritual belief, I doubt this post will be of much interest to you and you should probably just move on. I'm sorry, there's really no way to not write these reviews and not mention God, Jesus, etc. Having said that, the majority of the songs here are appropriate for all families not matter your religious convictions (or lack thereof). And, in any case, I promise this kind of post only comes around once every two or three years. I think it's also particularly useful for me to outline (in very broad terms) my own religious perspective, because I think most people's reaction to the music here will come not from the quality of the music itself, but from their spiritual attitudes. Anyway, I've been unchurched for much of my life, but have for the past 8 or 9 years been a member of a church affiliated with a liberal, mainstream Protestant denomination. I love the old hymns, can't stand a lot of praise music, and am not the kind of person to proselytize. Preachiness is a turn-off. (And no, I don't like long walks on the beach or kittens, either.) For what it's worth, I don't see conflict between They Might Be Giants' "Science is Real" and my religious beliefs. Soooo... with those thoughts in mind, I'm ordering the music here not in alphabetical or "quality" order, but rather in order of "preachiness," from least to most. (I can't define "preachiness," other than to say, I know it when I hear it.) I'm not saying that the agnostic among you should listen to any of these albums, but if you're going to give any of them a try, I'm guessing you'll like the albums as a whole more at the start of the list. So let's begin. OK, I'm cheating a bit, because the first album here is devoid of religious references. The only reason I'm including the late 2009 album Words that Rhymes with Orange from singer-songwriter Ross King here is because he's also a worship leader and usually records Christian music. I have no idea what that music sounds like, but Words that Rhymes with Orange is catchy pop with no small amount of heart and humor. My favorite track on the album is "Lionmonkeybacondonkey," which somehow manages to be funny ("Oh how I / wish I had a monkey that knew how to ride a donkey / I'd teach them both karate cuz you never know") and tender ("And if my monkey and my donkey both had black belts in karate / no one would be mean to me") at the same time. While there are life lessons (e.g., don't whine, try new foods), they're gently presented, and they're mixed with a few totally random songs ("Juicebox," which adds some hip-hop to an ode to the juicebox). OK, I guess the other reason I wanted to mention the album is that I never got around to reviewing it almost 2 years ago and I'm feeling kinda guilty about that omission now. If you didn't have it presented to you in a religious context, you'd probably just find it a nice little kids' CD regardless of your feelings about God. Recommended. Butterflyfish is the trio of Matthew Myer Boulton, Elizabeth Myer Boulton, and Zoë Krohne who draw inspiration from the music of Dan Zanes and Elizabeth Mitchell in putting together a set of mostly original music celebrating God and faith. Compared to many of the albums on this list, there are probably more songs that explicitly reference God on their two albums, 2009's Ladybug and 2010's Great and Small. But the musical setting of homespun bluegrass and folk (mostly provided by multi-instrumentalist Zachariah Hickman on the first album and from a quartet of folks including Mark Erelli on the latter) and the gentle lyrics from Matthew Myer Boulton don't trigger my interior Preach Alert System. If I had to pick an album for the newcomer to spin, I'd go with the latter Great and Small, which features some fine songs, like the title track or "You Be You." You can listen to samples from both albums here. Butterflyfish takes a Dan Zanes approach to kids music -- this is as much "family music" (consciously so) as it is "kids music." As they sing, on "The Old Familiar," about old hymns, "those harmonies kept me from harm." Both albums are recommended for fans of Zanes and Mitchell who probably already subscribe to the view that singing is a force for good in the world and won't mind a Christian spin on that notion. But there's more. Much more.
The list of crowdfunding posts here is lengthy, and it's about to get even longer. It had seemed to me that the mania for family musicians to fund their projects through sites like Kickstarter had calmed somewhat, but it's started up again with a vengeance, with at least 5 projects worth your time to check out, several of them with hip-hop flair. First up is Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, who's drumming up support for his third kid-hop album Make Believers. The project just launched, and at the higher funding levels you can get the shirt off Skidoo's back! (OK, not really. Just his coat. Or his hat.) Anyway, here's the video with Skidoo's whole family pitching in. Kid-hop option #2 is from Boston-based artist RhymeZwell, and it's to fund the filming of a new video for the first single off his upcoming second album Robots on the Dance Floor. And while the implication in his promo video that there's nobody doing kid-hop is, erm, well, see above and below, we'll just chalk that up to the sales pitch. And judging by the concept video's production values (and the song itself), I think the final result may be pretty slick.. Rewards include copies of the album. Kid-hop #3: Big Don (aka Don Robinson) is an Austin-based hip-hop artist who's raising funds to print and distribute Big Don's Brand New Beat, his second album for kids. (I remember getting a copy of his first album randomly placed in my hands at an Austin City Limits Festival a few years back; it was a lot better than most albums randomly placed in my hands.) As you might expect, rewards include copies of the new album. Hip-hop not your family's thing? Well, there's more...
Time for a video for a gentle little ditty -- a gentle little ditty called "Bears" that involves the use of the word "maggots" and seems to condone eating seals and kids. It's cute, really it is. It's courtesy of Randall Goodgame and Andrew Peterson, the duo behind Slugs and Bugs and is on their Slugs and Bugs and Lullabies disk. Not that they asked for one, but my tagline for the video would be "This ain't no teddy bears' picnic." Slugs and Bugs - "Bears" [YouTube]
Last year saw a veritable sleigh-load of Christmas and holiday albums for families. This year's list of CDs is smaller, but there are a few disks that came out this fall and winter that your family may enjoy... My favorite was A Slugs and Bugs Christmas from Slugs and Bugs, AKA Randall Goodgame and Andrew Peterson, who were behind Slugs & Bugs & Lullabies. If you are interested in Christmas just from a secular perspective, you can skip the rest of the review, as this disk is definitely geared toward the crowd who attends church on more than just Christmas and Easter. The first song, "Happy Birthday Jesus," makes that clear, as do a number of other songs. (That song also features one of the niftier arrangements I've heard in some time, blending a modern bluegrass song with a kids' chorus taking on "The First Noel.") As you might expect from songwriters who've had some songs featured on VeggieTales videos, it's not entirely serious -- on what other Christmas album are you going to hear a song about roasting mice for eating ("Pass the Ketchup" -- it's not macabre, really)? While the shifting between secular and explicitly Christian feels a little uneven at times, at its best (like on "I Spy" or the amazing "The Camel Song"), the disk deftly mixes popular Christmas culture with its spiritual underpinnings with humor and grace.