Review: Night Night! - Caspar Babypants

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The family music of Chris Ballew -- recorded as Caspar Babypants -- has been so consistently good over his past eight Caspar albums.  (I don't think I've ever been as pleased with the result of any prediction of mine as the one from six years ago that suggested Ballew "might make a whole bunch of great CDs for the family.")

So when I got an advance review copy of Night Night!, his ninth album, out today, my question wasn't whether it'd be any good -- the quality goes without saying -- but whether he could translate his tightly-contstructed hook-filled melodies into lullaby form.

Because, as you might gather from the title, this is supposed to be a cool-down album.

I hope Ballew doesn't take this the wrong way, but his album is forgettable in all the right ways.  What I mean by that is the music, while catchy, isn't necessarily one bouncy hook-filled song after another.  Rather, it features a more consistent -- and obviously far mellower -- tone.  The opening track "Just For You," is a lovely song featuring words of unconditional love (one of the backbone topics of lullabies), as is "Sad Baby," but for the most part the strength of the album is that the songs almost imperceptibly slide from slightly bouncy with lyrics from the wandering brain of a child who's just turned out the light all the way to album closer "Made of Light," whose minimal lyrics and ambient sounds would fit right in amidst the contemplative "space music" of Hearts of Space.  (It's a cousin to the ambient music Ballew has started posting.)  So while there are fewer "classic" individual CB tracks, perhaps, as an album with a specific purpose in mind, it's kind of brilliant.

The 50-minute album is targeted at kids ages 0 through 5 or 6, though many of the tracks would probably fit on a relaxation album for a broader, older age range.  Night Night! is a stellar lullaby album with a set of soothing sounds for whenever a break is necessary.  Highly recommended.

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

Itty-Bitty Review: Newborn, Too - Sara Hickman

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Sara Hickman was one of the first kindie crossover artists -- musicians who made their name making music for adults who discovered the world of making music for kids.  Starting in 1999, when she released the album Newborn, followed by Toddler a couple years later, the Texas-based Hickman always kept one toe in the kindie world, releasing or coordinating 5 albums and a DVD.

Fifteen years after releasing Newborn, Hickman has a brand-new album for the youngest of young'uns -- Newborn, Too.  While Newborn was a mix of lullaby and uptempo tracks, the new album is designed just for sleepy time.  As is often the case with lullaby albums from intelligent singer-songwriters, Newborn, Too features a number of well-chosen modern songs given new life in this new lullaby setting.  Some are familiar -- John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" and Billy Joel's gorgeous "Goodnight, My Angel" -- while perhaps the most affecting are less well-known, such as Adrian Belew's "Dream Life."  Hickman's emphasis on families of whatever sort on songs like "Family Tree" and "Welcome Home" (a lovely song for parents with newly adopted children).  While some of the songs are a bit too brightly produced for my own sleepy time lullaby preferences, the album generally stays safely in the lullaby camp (and avoids the goopiness lullaby albums can be prone to).

The 47-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 0 through 5, and with its emphasis on modern songs, appropriate, too, for adults looking for a mellow album featuring Hickman's strong voice and interpretive sense.  It's been awhile since Hickman made a straight-up album for kids, but Newborn, Too is a welcome return to the fold.  Recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: 'Til the Morning: Lullabies and Songs of Comfort - Edie Carey & Sarah Sample

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Reviewing lullaby albums can be difficult because the expectations people have for lullaby albums can vary dramatically.  Some people want music to play in their infant's room while the infant sleeps, while others want mellow songs for cool-down time, and still others want to listen to their own favorite band's songs recrafted with bells.

Personally, I land solidly in the camp of quiet music for nighttime feedings, so my praise for 'Til the Morning: Lullabies and Songs of Comfort should be viewed through that lens.  The album is the product of Edie Carey and Sarah Sample and while they hadn't recorded an album together previously, their voices make for a sleepy blend.

Overproduction is the biggest pitfall for a lullaby album a parent might conceivably use late at night for, you know, getting their child to sleep.  This album is generally well on the safe side of that line, with Carey and Sample underplaying their vocals and the musical production, while tasteful, not overpowering the songs.  The album is evenly mixed between well-chosen covers (the Dixie Chicks' gorgeous "Lullaby", or an interesting reworking of "California Stars," the Woody Guthrie-by-way-of-Wilco song), lullaby standards ("Slumber My Darling"), and originals (I particularly liked "Your Own Stars").

You can stream several of the songs from the 49-minute album (most appropriate for kids ages 0-5) here'Til the Morning is an album of love songs, just like all lullaby albums should be, and beyond that it also has a feeling of things fitting just so, its songs of comfort also comfortable.  Definitely recommended.

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

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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: Baby Beatles - Caspar Babypants

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Let us first stipulate that there is no need for a Beatles cover album. The most popular rock band of all time, I have no doubt full cover albums number in the thousands (let alone individual songs, which probably approach if not exceed a million in recorded form).  The originals are permanently lodged in listeners' heads, often in a way that those listeners might wonder why anybody would even try improving upon them.

So, having said that, what of Caspar Babypants' latest collection of songs, Baby Beatles?  Is this just a cop-out, the kindie equivalent of digging into the Great American Songbook as a final musical cash grab?

Let's answer that last question with a firm "no."  As he noted in a recent essay, Chris Ballew, the Caspar Babypants mastermind, owes a great deal of his musical career to the inspiration of the Beatles.   It is better, perhaps, then to view this album as an homage to the lads from Liverpool and their songs, and in that regard Baby Beatles works quite nicely.

Ballew's entire Babypants career has been dedicated to making music for the youngest listeners -- while he certainly would welcome the kindergarteners who want to dance along, he's more interested in their younger siblings.  So while he's always been interested in stripped-down arrangements, that becomes even more important in a covers album where the tricky part is retaining the song's essence while giving the artist's own spin.  That's especially tough given how familiar some of these songs are. 

For the most part, I think Ballew succeeds, usually by making the songs nimble and as light as a feather, even more so than his previously-released songs.  "Here Comes the Sun" is peppier than the original, an incredibly joyful way to kick off the album (his version of "Ob La Di Ob La Da" with Jen Wood gives me similarly happy feelings).   I love the use of faint handclaps on "Birthday."  "Blackbird" hews very closely to the original, but why wouldn't it when it's so perfect to begin with?

I'm not enthused with every reworking -- "Yellow Submarine" and "Octopus's Garden" in particular sound too thin -- but the hits here exceed the misses.  And while some of the song choices seem odd and perhaps picked because of their ostensible ties to childhood ("Mother Nature's Son," "Little Child," "Cry Baby Cry"), those choices at least prevent the album from just being a recap of the Beatles' greatest hits.

The 20-song has a runtime of about 48 minutes and is most appropriate for kids ages 1 through 4, though, c'mon, it's the Beatles.  Just about everybody will recognize at least some of these tracks. 

I don't think any Beatles cover album is essential -- just listen to the originals -- but Baby Beatles is just different enough to hold the listeners' attention far more than they would for some random (often Muzak-inspired) cover.  There is no such thing as a bad Caspar Babypants album, and while I look forward to the next album of his original music and less-well-known traditional songs, this will do quite nicely in the meantime.  Definitely recommended.

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