Review: Muppets: The Green Album - Various Artists

MuppetsTheGreenAlbum.jpgCaring whether your kids have "good" (read: "your") taste in music, books, and movies is a foolish thing to do, so it means something that the day that my daughter said she really didn't like The Muppet Movie was one of the very few times when I actually, well, cared. It's a great movie, a little cheesy at points maybe, but funny and tender, one of the great movie musicals of the past half-century. (Seriously -- there are very few post-1960s musical on the AFI list of the Greatest Movie Musicals, and even fewer created specifically for the screen.) Why do I relate the story? Well, more so than most albums reviewed here, it's my opinion, not that of kids, which matters here, because Muppets: The Green Album isn't really a kids music album. The album is a collection of 12 Muppet-related songs, drawn mostly heavily from The Muppet Movie or from songs heard on The Muppet Show. Much like Disney's collections of covers from their own stable of American tunes, Disneymania, Disney's approach here is to get popular (critically or otherwise) artists to tackle the Jim Henson-related songs. The fact that some of these artists weren't yet born when The Muppet Show went off network television doesn't seem to have hurt their recruiting efforts. (The fact that the rest of 'em were kids when the show was still on probably helped tremendously.) And as is the case with any such collection, Disney or otherwise, this album succeeds or fails based on how good the songs are and whether the artists bring anything new to them (or, if they ruin their charm). As to the former issue, I think I've made clear my admiration for the Paul Williams-Kenny Ascher-penned songs for The Muppet Movie, but in addition to those classics, you also have songs like the Joe Raposo-penned Sesame Street song "Bein' Green." What do the artists do with them? Well, some combinations work really, really well -- punk group the Alkaline Trio give "Movin' Right Along" a fun kick in the pants it didn't know it needed, and Sondre Lerche resurrect "Mr. Bassman," a song from a Muppet Show episode. I liked The Fray's take on "Mahna Mahna" more than I expected to, though it's probably the most faithful cover here. OK Go put their own spin on the theme song, and even though I could do without the tacked-on guitar solo, they do manage to keep the listeners' attention during what is, well, a theme song. And Andrew Bird's take on "Bein' Green" nails Kermit's wistfulness without making his cover a carbon copy. But following Kermit is a tough act, and while many attempt to cover "Rainbow Connection," very few succeed, and I can't say that Weezer and Hayley Williams from Paramore do, either. As for "Night Life" from The Great Muppet Caper, covered here by Brandon Saller of Atreyu and Billy Martin, I'll just quote my wife after hearing it for the first time: "I never need to hear that ever again." So, is this a kids' album? Not really. I'll put the age range for the album at ages 8 and up, not because any of it is inappropriate for younger kids, but because unless they've seen lots of Muppets on TV/DVD, they won't have the context for the music. (Older kids can enjoy the music on their own terms, or perhaps even recognize a few of the bands.) For a little while longer, you can stream the album here. In the end, Muppets: The Green Album has a number of very good recordings from an underrated American songbook. Is it a great kids' album? No. Is it a lot of fun for those of us of a certain age who are still able to tap the kid inside? For the most part, yeah. For those Muppet fans, it's recommended. Disclosure: I received a copy of this album for possible review.

Review: The Golden State - The Hipwaders

TheGoldenState.jpgThe kids music genre these days does a great job with music for the under-8 set, but for the most part abandons the tweens to the vagaries of older siblings and Radio Disney. Where are the albums for kids too old for Laurie Berkner but not ready for Lady Gaga? This year's best album for that age group is the latest record from the Bay Area band The Hipwaders. It's called The Golden State, and as you might guess from the title, it's a big, sunny power-pop embrace of their homestate, from the Beach Boys-like melodies on several tracks to paeans to life in California (see: "Come To California," "Slow Children at Play"). There are enough hooks here to outfit a pirate convention -- the driving "Hey, Josie!" might just be even more catchy than "Educated Kid" (and my fealty to that song is long-established), while "My Dog Steve" features an insanely catchy chorus that gets even catchier once the "na-na-nas" are thrown in. The trio sounds as good as they ever have. As for the part about the album being for tweens, that's more of a lyrical thing (though the power chords may also have something to do with it). On the angular "The Wrong Thing," the song's narrator is trying to make better choices: "They say you can’t grow without mistakes / Do they have to count every one I make? / I want to fly I want to soar / I don’t want to keep messing up anymore." "The Ramble," although it's about Central Park's Ramble, celebrates exploring the outdoors and could easily be about the California coast. The band also reworks one of their older tunes, "Stand Up to the Bully" with a ska beat. And while I've always thought the band focused more on boy protagonists (heck, there's a song called "So, You're a Boy") on here, "Go Go Girl" gives a "single-digit" aged girl just as much enthusiasm as any of guitarist/songwriter Tito Uquillas' other protagonists. The album is most appropriate for kids ages 6 through 11. You can listen to samples from the album here. A special shout-out to the album art from Brian Clarke -- simple packaging, but elegantly done. The back cover of The Golden State features a boy in profile, skateboard in hand, overlooking a verdant valley and lake. It's the portrait of a kid on the verge of exploring the outside world, just like some of the characters in and many of the listeners to the album. It's the same kid who might just be inspired to pick up a guitar after listening to the album. The Hipwaders' best album to date, Golden State isn't just a great album for the tweens in your life, it's a great album, period. Highly recommended. [Disclosure: I received a copy of the album for possible review.]

Itty-Bitty Review Two-Fer: Mr. Leebot and Lloyd Miller

There are pitfalls in trying to be objective in reviewing music, especially in the close-knit world of kindie music, where if everybody doesn't know everybody (yet), the degrees of separation are small enough that it makes Kevin Bacon look like a loner. And while I deal with that constantly here, adding a layer of "good works" on top of it all, well, consider this then your grain of salt for the two albums discussed here. ErraticSchematic.jpgFirst off is Austin's Mr. Leebot, whose latest album Erratic Schematic is fundraiser for an orphanage in Ethiopia from which Mr. Leebot (AKA Lee Davila) and his wife recently adopted two babies. As I've previously mentioned, the idea of adoption is important to me, so I was predisposed to like this album from the get-go. While Mr. Leebot's sound -- think of him as DEVO's kids music side project -- may not be for everyone, he's started to ever-so-slightly fill out his sound (I like the New Wave sound of "Cleaning Theme"). As a whole, it's Leebot's best album yet. And the track at the heart of the album -- "Our Family" -- should be heard far and wide. (Listen to it here -- just scroll down the page.) The album is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7. You can listen to samples here. As for an album geared toward a slightly older crowd, how about Hamlet? That's for high schoolers, right? Well ,The Deedle Deedle Dees' Lloyd Miller would beg to differ, having helped his wife's second grade class to write a musical based on the play. Miller recruited Dog on Fleas' Dean Jones and a couple of the Dees to record the music along with kids in the class. The result, Hamlet: The Album, is alternately rockin' ("Something's Rotten!") and pensive ("Tush, Tush") -- a little bit like the play itself, no? In best Fleas/Dees fashion, the album is ragged around the edges, the Band or the Stones mixed with a Shakespeare and Sesame Street. I'd much rather listen to these kids sing than any number of auto-tuned KidzBoppers. The album will be most appreciated by kids ages 6 to 11. And if the story behind the album isn't appealing enough, perhaps you'll be heartened to hear that all profits from the album will go to Japan earthquake relief. Listen (or order the album) below. While neither Erratic Schematic nor Hamlet: The Musical have a broad enough appeal for me to endorse the albums unreservedly for all listeners, both are solid enough albums to merit a listen even without the totally worthy backstories. I think a lot of readers will find a lot to like here. Give 'em a spin, maybe even your ducats. Recommended. Disclosure: I received a copy of Erratic Schematic for possible review.

Review: Outside My Door - Lori Henriques

OutsideMyDoor.jpgThis review sort of felt like a Krzysztof Kieślowski movie in miniature, with randomness and chance affecting my life (albeit in a small way). I recently received a CD from Portland-based artist Lori Henriques which, while the packaging looked lovely on the outside, had a 2008 copyright date on it. Given my stack of CDs, a 3-year-old CD would not normally be placed at the front of the line. But in a random e-mail, I happened to mention that fact to Henriques, who pointed out that the copyright just applied to the songs themselves, not to the recording, which was, in fact, new. So: yay for chance! Because it meant I listened to this a lot sooner than I would have otherwise, which means I can tell you about it much sooner than I would have otherwise. Outside My Door: Songs for Children of All Ages is unlike any kids' CD I've heard in a long time. It's a throwback to 1970s piano jazz, nothing but Henriques' voice and nimble piano work. It's inspired by Sesame Street, though the lyrics especially are a bit advanced for the preschoolers who are that show's target audience. (Henriques also cites Dave Frishberg as an influence -- he wrote some songs for Schoolhouse Rock!.) It's a Broadway (or perhaps off-Broadway) musical waiting to be made, or perhaps the subject of the first kids' music-themed episode of Marian McPartland's Piano Jazz, or a Randy Newman album consisting of pleasant narrators. On a slightly more kid-music-related tip, the songs are a little reminiscent of David Tobocman and lyrically it reminds me a bit of Molly Ledford's lyrics for Lunch Money, with words like "ennui" (in "Something You Learn"), "plapable" ("It's Hard To Wait for Your Birthday"), and "Odysseus" ("Mean People"). Heck, it features the phrase "T.O.," which Henriques helpfully provides a Wikipedia reference for. All this eruditeness -- the fact that I'm using "eruditeness" in a review of the disk -- might make it seem very hoity-toity, but it's not. (And not just because she rhymes "goat turd" with "awkward.") The 29 minute album isn't going to cause a lot of dancing; in fact, it's got more melancholy in it than at least 95% of all kids' albums. But kids, if they sit down and really listen, will hear words that do indeed speak to them -- the difficulty of waiting for your birthday ("It's Hard To Wait for Your Birthday") or a secret desire to be a twin ("If I Had a Twin"). The 29-minute album is appropriate for kids ages 4 through 10. You can hear the whole thing here. Also of note: gorgeous packaging courtesy of Henriques' brother Joel Henriques, proprietor of my new favorite website Made By Joel. Another chance discovery. So there you have it -- an album that I said was unlike any kids' CD I'd heard for a long time is compared to maybe a half-dozen other artists. But Outside My Door is something quite remarkable -- an album of "piano jazz for kids" that isn't limited by any of the words in that phrase. A refreshing sound, and an absolute pleasure to listen to. Highly recommended.

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.

Itty-Bitty Review: The Bestest of the Best - Dog on Fleas

BestestOfTheBest.jpgIs it uncharitable of me to say I don't understand why Dog on Fleas hasn't had greater popular success? I mean, that statement implies a) that Dog on Fleas hasn't achieved tremendous success, and b) the American family-music-buying public is clueless (or, alternately, c) that I'm clueless). All the things that are part of the family-music success of, say, Dan Zanes or Elizabeth Mitchell -- the organic musical arrangements, the rescuing of lost parts of the American and world songbook, the hooks -- are right there. And certainly fellow musicians such as Mitchell and Uncle Rock know the Fleas and its chief songwriter Dean Jones and hold 'em in high esteem. I'm hoping that The Bestest of the Best, the perfectly-titled greatest hits compilation of the New York band will help rectify the situation with the general public. It's a 20-song collection of tunes stretching all the way back to the first Fleas' album, Fairly Good Songs for Fairly Good Kids, and a fine introduction to the band's happy blend of folk, pop, and other funkier styles. I gravitated towards the selections from my favorite Fleas' album, When I Get Little, but there are other excellent tracks from other albums there, too -- the jazz-hipster "Dig" from Fairly Good Songs, for example, or the sweet, lazy, indie-pop of "Clouds" from Hoi Polloi. The album also includes 3 newly re-recorded versions of old songs plus their great rendition of "Buffalo Gals" with Elizabeth Mitchell and Daniel Littleton from the overlooked High Meadow Songs release. In best Dan Zanes fashion, the Fleas' music is most appropriate for kids ages 3 to 93. You can hear samples of the tracks here or full versions of some of the songs here. Depending on how many Dog on Fleas albums you own, The Bestest of the Best, may merely be, well, fairly good. But if you don't have any Dog on Fleas, please get this album and find out what some lucky others already know -- listening to this band is a very pleasurable and joyful experience. Recommended. Disclosure: I was provided a copy of the album for possible review.