Review: Tomorrow Is a Chance To Start Over - Hilary Grist

Tomorrow Is a Chance To Start Over cover

Tomorrow Is a Chance To Start Over cover

It didn't occur to me until I sat down to write this review, but the label that has released the biggest, most diverse set of original music for kids and families over the past several years is a book publisher: Montreal-based The Secret Mountain.  They've released 23 albums over the past decade and more -- some totally in French (as would befit a publisher based in Montreal), some in English, some in languages from around the world.  Their book/CD collections have featured lullabies, folk music from around the world, even a couple books from the longtime kids musicians Trout Fishing in America.  And while some of the albums are re-releases of albums, dressed up with the accompanying book, many (like the Trout Fishing) albums are entirely new.

The 23rd and latest album from The Secret Mountain is a book/CD titled Tomorrow Is a Chance To Start Over, a "Bedtime Story and Dream Songs" collection from Vancouver-based musician Hilary Grist.  In both its music and its accompanying pictures, it is to my mind the most modern- looking and sounding release from TSM.  Grist has four folk-alt-pop albums for adults under her belt, and this new album sees her turn her attention to that most unconditional of love songs, the lullaby.  The title track is one of the most gorgeous songs you'll hear all year, for kids or not.  Its message of dropping worries, that tomorrow is, well, a chance to start over, is reassuring for sleepyheads of all ages, and Grist's vocals are somehow soaring without being totally inappropriate for a sleepytime disk.

With the exception of "Cradle Song," a reworking of Brahms' Lullaby, which concludes the album, the rest of the songs are original lullabies.  Some of them like "Fall in My Loving Arms" and "I'll Be There sound as if they might have been originally written for an adult audience (though not inappropriately so), others ("Say Goodnight" and "City of Green and Blue") feel more kid-centered.  Of course, the beauty of many of the best contemporary lullaby albums lies in part in the ability of the singer to pull together different songs to weave an overall mood of unconditional love.   And songs like "Float Away," "Le Petit Oiseau," and "Still" help produce that mood.  The album starts out a little "loud" for a lullaby album, but by the end, it's all very

The book features an original story about brother and sister Ira and Isabelle, who find themselves struggling to fall asleep and so take a boat far away but instead of finding a Sendak-ian collection of wild things, are greeted by a robin who encourages them to drop their worries and fly.  (The theme leads well into the title track.)  The siblings' clay characters were created by Grist, and the photographs -- a first for a Secret Mountain book as opposed to illustrations -- a distinctive mixture of collage and tiny models by an artistic team led in part by Grist's husband Mike Southworth.  Babies won't appreciate the photographs, perhaps, but their parents certainly will.  You can also hear Grist read the story as the album's first track.

I think that most successful lullaby albums work for both the target age range of kids ages 0 through 5 as well as their parents, and by that measure Tomorrow Is a Chance To Start Over succeeds quite well -- it's a lovely collection of songs, with some memorable images to match.  Here's hoping The Secret Mountain continues to bring new artists like Grist into their fold in future years.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I received a copy of the book/CD set for possible review.


Review: Big Block Singsong Volume One and Big Block Singsong Greatest Hits

Big Block Singsong Greatest Hits

Big Block Singsong Greatest Hits

After I listened to and watched Big Block Singsong’s album (Big Block Singsong Greatest Hits) and DVD (Big Block Singsong Volume One) a couple times, my first question was “Why have I not heard of these before?”  I initially assumed that the fact it was a (relatively new) Disney Junior show meant that I was just out of the TV loop.

Turns out that the delightful series of 2-minute music videos date back to 2009, when Canadian illustrator Warren Brown and composer Adam Goddard (now Goddard/Brown) first unleashed Big Box Singsong, as it was then known, onto the world.  (No such thing as an overnight sensation, right?)  So I have nobody to blame but myself for not knowing about the videos until their move to CBC, Disney Junior, and Nick Jr. in the UK and inevitable worldwide conquest.  Now there are 59 videos, 49 of which are the Season 1 pile which provide the 24 songs drawn for the album and DVD.  I, for one, welcome our new big block overlords.

What’s the concept?  Each video episode is about 2 minutes long and features an animated rectangular block with big eyes and mouth singing about a topic, usually themselves.  “Monkey”?  A gray-brown block with long arms singing about all the things he’s going to do meaning that it’s going to be a “two-banana day.”  It’s almost a celebration.  “Octopus”?  A red-brown block with eight tiny dangling legs.  The songs run the genre gamut, from folk (“Monkey”) to AutoTuned funk (“Sleep”) to Smile-era Beach Boys (“Nose”) to Queen (“Junk Food”).  The lyrics have a light touch and a sense of humor, with very little didactic “do this” guidance.

Big Block Singsong Volume One DVD

Big Block Singsong Volume One DVD

The videos are inherently humorous (it’s a square monkey, after all), but the lyrics sometimes offer opportunities for visual jokes.  You don’t need the visuals to enjoy the music, but there are definitely some videos (“Sleep,” for one) that add an extra layer of enjoyment.  While there's a unified animation style, of course, the different video and song concepts mean that if your kid is bored with one song, hang on, there'll be an entirely different one on shortly.

The music and videos are most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 6, but both music and videos (especially the videos) will probably tickle the funnybone of kids (and adults) considerably older than that.  The album and DVD are each roughly 45 minutes in length (with the DVD available with a French-language option of course).  You can get a complete list of places to watch the videos here, which includes the kid-friendly Disney Junior page.

The most difficult question may be, “if I get only one, which do I get?”  Sixteen of the songs including “Nose,” Sleep” and “Mad” are on both the album and DVD.  The advantage of the DVD is that you get the visuals in a format that doesn’t require an internet connection.  The advantage of the album is that you get the incredibly-awesome “Princess,” a track which doesn’t appear on the DVD, and, potentially, portability via CD or mp3 player.  If you don’t need multiple languages on the video, the cheapest and perhaps the easiest combination might be to get the standard-definition version of the 24 videos on the DVD via iTunes for just $6.99 and download “Princess” as an individual mp3 track.

So, yeah, I’m late to the party, but better late than never.  Big Block Singsong is ten tons of fun.  After listening and watching, your kids’ll probably have a two-banana day, too.  Both the album and the DVD are highly recommended.

Note: I received an electronic copy of the album and physical copy of the DVD for possible review.

Itty-Bitty Review: Hello My Baby - Vered

Hello My Baby

Hello My Baby

A good part of Vered's second album, Hello My Baby (subtitled Songs to Bond You and Your Baby) doesn't sound much different from its predecessor, her debut album Good Morning My Love.  The folk-pop songs are very tightly arranged, with Vered's lyrics often requiring her to sing, or almost rap, them quickly (see, for example, "Gotta Go").  And like its predecessor, the subjects and lyrics for most of the songs are designed to, well, bond parent and baby, so the song helps explain the child's perspective to the parent, and/or gently remind the parent the consequences of actions like being on the phone too much ("Phone").

If there's a big change from the first album, it's in the songs that speak much more directly to the parents.  "More of a Baby" is a duet with the Okee Dokee Brothers' Justin Lansing that recognizes the value of a baby's attitude toward the world.  "Something Other Than a Mom" reflects the voice of a mother trying to take back some of that personal identity she had before becoming a mom.  With a cello helping to underscore the frustration and sadness that can be mixed into life as a parent, it's rawness one doesn't hear often in kids music; rawness about parenting just isn't heard much in music, period.  And if that track is wistful, the album closer "All I Want" features the year's most memorable kindie chorus, with a handful of kindie musicians (album producer Dean Jones, Joanie Leeds, Rachel Loshak, Jon Samson, and more) singing "All I Want / is to sleep / seven hours straight / all I want / is to sleep."  Compared to most of the other tracks, this song is loose, letting all the emotion flow and spill out.

The album is most appropriate, as you might expect, for kids ages 1 through 5 and their new parents, natch.  (You can listen to samples of the 43-minute album -- soon -- here.)  To the extent that Vered sought to create an emotional dialogue between parents and their infants and toddlers, Hello My Baby succeeds.  For those parents, it's definitely recommended.

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

Review: Watching the Nighttime Come - Suz Slezak


Lullaby albums can be a nice way for an artist who typically records music for adults to slide into the kids music world -- maybe record a few public-domain lullabies and/or some love songs appropriate for tender ears, and with relatively little change, presto, you have a lullaby album!  The potential downside is that you get a bunch of songs recorded too loudly and with little of the magic that makes parents repeatedly put  good lullaby albums back into the CD player night after night.

Suz Slezak certainly could have gone that route.  Along with her husband David Wax, she's part of the folk-roots rock band David Wax Museum, but Slezak chose to record and release Watching the Nighttime Come, her first kids' music album, a lullaby album, under her own name.  She could have easily gone the route I outlined above, but instead this new album is remarkable for how much Slezak the vocalist fades into the background and lets Slezak the musician step forward.  I tend to think of the start of the album as being the aural equivalent of the album cover -- playful as day's last light fades and, well, waiting for nighttime.  Slezak's songs "Where Did You Come From" and "You Got Love" are dreamy tracks, but ones on which her vocals take something approximating center stage.

As daylight fades, however, the overall feel of the music, rather than anything vocally-based, becomes most important.  The heart of the album -- "Jessie's Waltz," "Tallis Canon," and "Caballito Blanco" -- are, respectively, an instrumental, a 6-minute version of a 450-year-old hymn, and a Spanish-language lullaby.  Those are not the artistic choices of someone who just wants to create a lullaby album with a snap of her fingers -- those are the choices of an artist who's deliberately creating a hushed mood.  That mood on the album eventually breaks somewhat, as all nighttimes break.  Here it's with a cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye."

The album is going to be most appropriate for kids ages 0 through 5, but like most good lullaby albums, it's far more all-ages than a lot of kids music.  You can stream the 31-minute album here.

This is a somewhat idiosyncratic lullaby album, and if you're looking for renditions of the same set of lullabies you might typically hear on collections of sleepy songs, you should probably move on.  But I think this is exactly the kind of idiosyncratic that regular readers of the site will dig a lot, and even if you think you want yet another version of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on CD, I'm pretty sure that Watching the Nighttime Come will fit in nicely amidst your family's CD collection.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: Night Night! - Caspar Babypants


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.

Review: Rise and Shine! - Caspar Babypants


Music writers -- at the very least, this one -- aren't necessarily fans of consistency in their artists.  It stretches our ability to find something new to say about an artist when she constantly turns out the same type of thing.

Sometimes it's consistently bad, and I imagine that some writers could have fun picking apart those albums exhibiting significant failures of imagination, talent, or quality control, if not all three. (I am not one of those writers.)

But sometimes it's consistently good, and those are the trickier ones for me.  Chris Ballew, aka Caspar Babypants -- he's one of the trickiest.  His seven Caspar Babypants albums have been uniformly excellent, with only his most recent, Baby Beatles, a collection of Fab Four covers, at all deviating from the norm of well-crafted, lightly-arranged collections of gentle and gently skewed originals mixed with covers of folk classics that, like looking through a prism at different angles, retained the essence of the original but let you see (or hear) it in a different way.

So how does his latest album, Rise and Shine, differ from the rest of the CB work?  Hmmm… to begin with, it felt to me like it's his most toddler-focused album in quite some time, songs like the strings-laden Beatlesque "Rise and Shine" and the handclapp-y jam "Littlest Worm" with the hint of lessons might be most… useful for your almost-three-year-old.

But that's the barest of distinctions, and the album feels every bit part of the Caspar Babypants world we have come to know and love.  It celebrates the natural world, with songs featuring birds, worms, mice, and squirrels -- sometimes acting more or less like they actually do in the real world, in the crisp "Pretty Crabby," and sometimes acting more anthropomorphically, as in what is probably one of my top 5 Caspar Babypants songs, "Bird in an Airplane Suit" ("Look up / look up / you can sometimes see / a bird in an airplane suit").  (I also quite enjoy the simple and wistful "Girl With a Squirrel in Her Hat.")

Ballew's ear for reworking traditional songs and mixing those new arrangements amongst his sometimes whimsical originals remains as sharp as ever.  "Rain Rain Come Today" is very much reworked, something you might have heard in the '60s.  And while the traditional lullabies on the disk are hardly lullabies - "Hush Little Baby" is funky, and "Rock a Bye Baby" also fails the sleep test, he does end the album on a slow note, tempo-wise.

I'll peg this album as most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 6.  You can hear samples from the 50-minute album here.

In the end, Rise and Shine is another solid entry in Ballew's kid-canon, as strong as any over the past decade, perfect for your youngest kid or niece or nephew, but still just as delightful to their older siblings (or their parents).  Sometimes novelty is overrated, but Caspar Babypants isn't.  Highly recommended.

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