Itty-Bitty Review: Zee Avi's Nightlight - Zee Avi

ZeeAviNightlight.jpg

The Malaysian artist Zee Avi has been making music in public since 2007 when she first posted a recording to YouTube.   Seven years later, she's got three albums under her belt and her fourth, a kid-friendly collection of lullaby-friendly covers titled Zee Avi's Nightlight, spotlights simple arrangements and her slightly husky vocals.

Assuming you clear the initial hurdle of not mangling the music itself -- and Avi and producer Kevin Salem (yay Little Monster Records!) do clear that with plenty of room to spare -- the question becomes what songs do you choose to cover, and do you bring your own style to the song.  On  the latter point, she mostly succeeds -- could you ever hear Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" without McFerrin's mouth-music?  Apparently, yes, you could -- it's an excellent start to the album.  Her take on "Rainbow Connection" is more restrained than Kermit's original version.

As for her song selection, some choices are inspired -- the Velvet Underground's "Who Loves the Sun" and Joni Mitchell's "The Circle Game" -- but compared to some other lullaby cover albums, the overall selection is more staid.  And while the "Nightlight Medley" is an interesting mix of American and Malaysian lullabies, as an actual lullaby, it doesn't work as well as an actual lullaby.  (The album as a whole might be a touch too active for lullaby-ing.)

As with all lullaby albums, the 31-minute album is targeted at 0 to 4-year-olds and the parents who are desperate for them for fall asleep.  You can hear several songs at Avi's website.  As a lullaby album which for the most part stays solidly in the latter half of the 20th century, Zee Avi's Nightlight will certainly appeal to many modern parents.  While the album isn't the first I'd recommend for families looking to start a lullaby collection, I'd definitely place it ahead of lot of other such albums.  Recommended.

Note: I was provided a copy of the album for possible review.

Review: Two Kids Music Albums from Iceland

[Cue Jim McKay voice] Spanning the globe to bring you a constant variety of the best of kids' music from around the globe, it's Zooglobble! [End Jim McKay voice]

I've never been shy about shining the spotlight on kids music from outside English-speaking North America -- plenty of Spanish-language music from multiple continents, not to mention Putumayo and Secret Mountain (and other labels' ) albums from around the world.

I feel safe in saying, however, that this is by far the furthest afield I've ever traveled, because today I bring you not one but two album reviews from the fine country of Iceland.  Honest-to-goodness kindie music from the northern European country of just a shade over 300,000 people.

The first of the couple albums here is the classic Ekki bara fyrir börn.

"Classic?"  Huh?

Yes, because that album title translates into Not For Kids Only.  This, friends, is a faithful -- albeit Icelandic-language -- cover of the Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's classic 1993 family-friendly bluegrass album.

It's from Icelandic record label Warén Music, and while I'm not sure I could've told you what I expected such a remake to sound like in advance of hearing, I guess I was surprised at the result, which was... well, pretty straight-forward.  It is as if Garcia and Grisman learned Icelandic, got a pot of coffee, found a few more musicians, and re-recorded as if they were some American kindie version of Michael Haneke remaking Funny Games.  (What really happened? Somebody brought over a copy of the original, and the musicians were inspired to recreate it.)

Aside from the language barrier, musically it'll sound a lot the '93 version, albeit a little more punched up, as if a few more musicians stumbled across Garcia and Grisman as they noodled away in the woods.  It's a little odd at points to hear such familiar melodies with unfamiliar words (take "Lagarfljót" for example, the translated version of "Shenandoah").  And then there's Lautaferð bangsanna, which is "Teddy Bear's Picnic" as sung by a Tom Waits' vocal double in Icelandic.  (Listen to the whole thing here.)  With the language barrier, this is accessible to all ages.

I realize this is essentially a novelty record for the English-speaking world -- you'd have to be a massive Garcia/Grisman completist or speak Icelandic in your family to want this.  But it's joyful, and a neat reminder of music's boundary-less nature.

If Ekki bara fyrir börn is American kindie (or American proto-kindie) rendered inscrutable for the typical American audience, Skýjaflétta is thoroughly Icelandic in conception, but completely accessible to audiences of any language.  The album is the brainchild of Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir, who plays in amiina, an Icelandic sextet that grew out of a string quartet and, in addition to releasing music on their own has also played with Sigur Rós.  Sumarliðadóttir wrote the music to accompany a couple of modern dance pieces for very young children, up to age 3.  (According to Sumarliðadóttir, the first 5 tracks are for a piece called "Clouds," the remaining tracks score "Twist and Turn".)

As you might expect from that background, these aren't straightforward pop songs.  The word "Skýjaflétta" means "a braid made of clouds," and this is an ambient dreamscape, but a shiny one, filled with pops, clicks, and toy pianos.  Some tracks, like "Twisty Tangle and Turny Braid," (as translated in English) and "Build" are pensive, exploratory, while songs like "Explore" are designed for more reflective wonder.  They are all wordless, making them, of course, open to everyone.

You can listen to six tracks from the 31-minute album here.  Ironically, just as the Icelandic-language album is for all ages given that almost all Americans will just listen to the music, the instrumental nature of this album, makes it all ages, too, though kids under 5 might particularly groove to this.  This is a thoroughly charming album and while I'm sure I will never get a chance to see the dance pieces these were composed for, I'm glad the album has a chance to cross the ocean for families with adventurous listening habits.  Definitely recommended.

Review: Got a Minute? - Milkshake

GotAMinute.jpg

If it's true that behind (or under) many a kids' musician is a child who encouraged (passively or actively) that musician to start making music for families, what happens when those kids grow up?

It's a question we haven't really answered in the 21st century.  The Baltimore-area band Milkshake may be one of the first artists of Kindie New Wave to deal.  As the kids of Milkshake's duo Lisa Mathews and Mikel Gehl reach tweenage and even teenage status, the band has suggested that their fifth album, Got a Minute?, will be their last.

Eleven years after the release of their debut Happy Songs, the band's changed quite a bit.  Mathews and Gehl are still at the helm, of course, but the band's six people strong at this point and on the new album they bring in a bunch of guest artists, including fellow Marylanders Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer.  That first album had preschool-friendly songs like "Fingers & Toes," but now Milkshake's recording songs like "Girls Wanna Dance" (about middle school dances) and "Workin' Kid Blues" (about doing errands and earning money at age 12).

In some ways, the band hasn't changed -- it's still on the eager side of the kindie spectrum, even if, just as kids do as they mature, some of the song subjects look to the world outside the narrator (see "Baltimore" and "More Than Me").  They've expanded their stylistic range over time (see on this album, for example, the hip-hop of "More Than Me" or the country of "Lookin Out the Window," the thoroughly sea chanty "We Just Wanna Have Fun," or even the instrumental "Seabreeze"), but for the most part they stick to making pop songs for growing kids.

If there is a weak link with the album it's that the inspiration for the "Got a Minute?" theme, their work for PBS Kids that comprises the final third or so of the album, sits uneasily with the rest of the album.  There's nothing horribly wrong with the songs, it's just that the 18-minute block of more simplistic 1-minute songs targeted at 4-year-olds feels tacked on at the end of a more ambitious (in many ways) 36-minute album that precedes it.

The first two-thirds of the album are most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 11; the last third for kids ages 5 and below.  You can hear several tracks at the band's music page.

After I listened to Got a Minute? once, on future spins I tended to skip past the opening track, a kinda-barely funny skit where Lisa and Mikel try to get their band into the studio to record a song only to find out that each bandmate is busy.  Upon reflection, though, I think I figured out what Mathews and Gehl were doing with that track -- it was their take on how our kids, who once followed us everywhere, eventually move on to their own things -- and we parents need to move on too, in some way.  If Milkshake is indeed moving on to other things, they've left their kindie fans with one last album that will no doubt please them.  Recommended.

[Disclosure: I was provided a copy of the album for possible review.]

Review: Lullaby - Justin Roberts

It's been awhile since I've written a review here.  There are a number of reasons for that, most of them entirely unrelated to kids music.

A small reason for my recent lack of reviews, however, is trying to figure out how to write to music without resorting to the same phrases and frames of reference I've been using for so long.  It's hard to do the same thing year-in, year-out without feeling a little drained.  It takes effort to mix it up, to stretch oneself in a new direction.

Which brings us ("Finally!," you say) to Justin Roberts' new album Lullaby.  For the follow-up to his masterful album Jungle Gym, Roberts didn't choose to write another album of perfect pop and power-pop songs (for that, we'll have to wait until 2013).  Instead, kindie's finest songwriter stretched in a slightly different direction, writing an entire album of, well, if not exactly lullabies, then at least songs for downtime.

Roberts isn't a stranger to slow songs, of course -- songs like "Dad Caught Stars" and "Song for You" are among his best work -- but they typically serve as the dessert, not the main course as they are here.  So instead of songs about bullies or baseball, Roberts has crafted a late-night album of love songs.

Of course, that's what a lot of lullabies are, an attempt to soothe the troubled child (or adult) with a pleasant melody and words that offer comfort and the reassurance of a watching and loving eye.  And some of the best lullaby albums are those that repurpose "adult" song and reframe them as songs of love from parent to child.

Most songs here, stripped of their origin in a "kids music" album, would sound just as appropriate in a mellow, "adult music" album.  Only "A Wild One," which sounds like a lost Van Morrison track, might draw a few odd looks from listeners were it mixed in with other non-kids-music tracks.  The track itself is dedicated "for Maurice," who, based on the lyrics regarding a boy reading books before bedtime, is clearly Maurice Sendak.  It's as close to an anti-lullaby this lullaby album gets.

Key to the feelings of warmth engendered by the album are the musical styles and arrangements.  The Latin samba of "What the Stork Sent," the '70s singer-songwriter folk of "Nothing on You," the string quartet on "Heart of Gold" -- Roberts is using a more muted palette, but appropriately so.  Roberts wrote the arrangements for the album with help from producer Liam Davis, who again creates an overall soundscape that serves Roberts' songs well.

Because this is a lullaby album, I am obligated by the terms and conditions of being a kids music reviewer to state that the 38-minute album is targeted at kids ages 0 through 5, but like many of the best "non-traditional" lullaby albums, its practical age range is much broader.  The album packaging, featuring paintings by Alison Jay, is, like the album itself, elegantly (but not fussily) understated, but I don't think you're missing out if you choose to get the album on mp3.

When I was in college, I would joke that they handed out copies of James Taylor's Greatest Hits album and Van Morrison's Moondance at freshman orientation, so prevalent were they in dorm rooms and apartments.  I still get some warm, fuzzy feelings when I occasionally pull them out.  Lullaby gives me those same sort of feelings, and I can see it unironically being part of parents' non-kids-time listening rotation.  I expect the album to be part of many families' relaxed afternoons, evenings, and late-night feedings.  Different tempo, same great songs.  Highly recommended.

Review: Little Seed - Elizabeth Mitchell

Here's my ugly Woody Guthrie secret: I never much liked Woody Guthrie's music.  Not the songs themselves, just their presentation on record.  Neither of his two albums for kids he recorded in 1947 and released in 1956 -- Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child and Nursery Days -- get much play in our house.  To my ears, it almost sounds like Woody was just rushing to get these recorded, and nobody would suggest that these 65-year-old recordings of Woody and his guitar are sonically gorgeous.

The songs themselves, however?  Those are great.  They just needed someone to give them a little tender loving care.

Who better than Elizabeth Mitchell, possessor of one of kids' music most gentle and empathetic voices?  In the decade-plus she's been recording kids' music, she and her husband Daniel Littleton have consistently been one of the best interpreters of songs, drawing both from the folk tradition as well as more modern tunes (Velvet Underground, anyone?).  Each of her previous albums have included versions of Woody Guthrie songs and now on Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woody Guthrie she mixes those versions with some newly recorded tracks for what is now an essential Guthrie-related album, a nice tie-in to the bigger Woody 100th birthday celebrations.

The seven new tracks here are every bit as good as the five that have come before.  "Bling Blang," quite possibly my favorite Woody kids' song, gets a sparse backing arrangement of little more than banjo, ngoni, and knee slaps that is quietly and intensely joyful.  ("Why, Oh Why?," almost certainly my least favorite Woody kids' song -- and that's being generous -- is almost tolerable to me.)  I love Clem Waldmann's percussion on "Rattle My Rattle" and the simplicity of Mitchell and Littleton on "Merry-Go-Round," reminiscent of those lo-fi afternoon recordings on You Are My Flower lo these many years ago.

These songs are most appropriate for kids ages 0 through 5, though kids raised on Mitchell's recordings (ahem) will enjoy them beyond kindergarten.  As alluded to above, five of the tracks on the twelve-track album are previously released and on a 29-minute album, that's no small percentage, and really its only downside.  (The mp3 version on Amazon, currently just $4.99, may be an acceptable compromise, though that would be mean forgoing the as-usual excellent physical packaging from Smithsonian Folkways.)

Longtime Elizabeth Mitchell fans will love the new recordings on Little Seed, and if you're a newcomer to Mitchell's music for families, it's a sweet half-hour introduction to the kids' artist most visible folk interpreter.  She does right by Woody Guthrie.  Definitely recommended.

Review: A Little Love - Renee & Jeremy

Cover albums are, depending on one's perspective, the last refuge of scoundrels or a songwriter's tribute to classic songs.

Of course, that's an adult's perspective.  Such debates are nowhere to be found in kids' music, mostly because preschoolers don't truck in adults' notions of hipness and because the history of the genre has been one of handing down songs from generation to generation.  There's a reason why kids have been singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" for hundreds of years in dozens of languages -- it's because it's a damn good song.

And lullaby albums are especially susceptible to the cover treatment.  It's hard work crafting loving songs that are memorable (but not too memorable, because, hey, the kids are supposed to go to sleep).

One of the bands that have worked the lullaby seam quite well in recent years are the LA duo Renee & Jeremy.  Many of their chilled-out songs (especially on their debut It's a Big World) are mellow, modern gems of love.  So it was with a little trepidation I gave their new album A Little Love -- a collection of ten covers given a mostly down-tempo burnish -- a spin.  "They write a good song," I thought, "why would they want to record others'?"

Whatever their motivation, the resulting album highlights Renee & Jeremy's number one weapon in making parents weak at the knees and kids very relaxed -- their voices.  Jeremy Toback and Renee Stahl are the best vocal duo in kids' music, bar none, and it's the interplay and harmonies between them that turn what could otherwise be a collection of "why bother?" covers of overly familiar tunes into something much bigger.  "Daydream Believer," "Shiny Happy People," "Love" -- all songs I never needed to hear other than by their original artists, but which R&J give a sufficiently mellow spin and artfully draw out the lullaby-ish nature of the song to prove me wrong.  And in some cases, like their take on Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away" and Coldplay's "Yellow," they provide an entirely different perspective from the original, breathing new life into those songs.  Some of that is due to the arrangements, but much of the credit must go to duo's voices, which seem perfectly matched.

It's mostly a lullaby album (ages 0 through 5), but besides the parents, the 25-minute album will probably translate well to the toddlers' older siblings as a mellow-afternoon spin.  (You can listen to 90-second samples via the widget below.)

I expected to like A Little Love, but was surprised how much I ended up enjoying it.  It has nothing to do with the fact that they're covering songs of my musical childhood and everything to do with the fact that they're turning those songs into music of our collective childhood.  That, and the fact that I'm pretty sure I would buy an album of the duo singing anything, including the happy hour menu at TGI Friday's.  I actually have a lot of love for A Little Love.  Definitely recommended.