Podcast Review: Ear Snacks

Ear Snacks logo cover

Ear Snacks logo cover

Well, with this the plural in "Podcast Reviews Are Now a Thing Here" is in fact true.

The Los Angeles-based kindie duo Andrew and Polly first became known to the kids music world for their melodic and occasionally quirky music, but it's their podcast Ear Snacks that is, I think, their most forward-thinking creative effort for audiences of kids.

They call it a "radical new podcast for kids," and while I tend not to believe most descriptions that try to hype the individuality of the product, in this case I think the phrase fits.  Each episode is loosely structured around a single theme -- the most recent one, Episode 9, is "Rain," but they've also covered beeps, pairs, disguises, balls, and more.  The duo (married, with a kid of their own) tackle the topic by talking with one another, playing audio clips of kids talking about it, talking with adult experts, and playing music.  The adults they talk with are sometimes scientists, but sometimes they're just people with a hobbyist's interest (like Polly's father or a friend who just really digs seahorses).  The music, well, as you'd expect, it's really good.  (The song at the end of the "Rain" podcast is one of the best kids' songs you'll hear this year.)  And all of this is wrapped into a single, well-edited whole.

The podcast is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7.  The iTunes link for the show is here (you can find it elsewhere, of course, including at the podcast's main page above).  Episodes are roughly 15-20 minutes in length, and are released roughly monthly.  (Sometimes there are much shorter bonus episodes released in between the main releases.)  Aside from a suggestion of supporting the show, perhaps by buying a t-shirt, the show is ad-free.

I recently called Ear Snacks a half-absurdist podcast for kids, and I stand by that assessment.  Yes, it features kids, and curious ones at that, and that's nothing new, but its blend of music and its deemphasis on straight-forward storytelling is certainly unique for the emerging genre.  It's a hoot.

Two Unnecessary (Albeit Necessary) Kids' Albums

Lisa Loeb - Nursery Rhyme Parade album cover

Lisa Loeb - Nursery Rhyme Parade album cover

In one sense, I place albums of nursery rhymes in approximately the same category as entire albums of Beatles covers -- pretty much unnecessary.  The Fab Four's originals are so iconic (and often perfect) that redoing them seems pointless unless the artist is doing something entirely novel with the songs.  A single Beatles song mixed among originals or covers of other artists? Sure.  But an entire album?  Even if it's really good, they're more likely to send the families to dig out what Beatles music they have.

With nursery rhymes and classic kids' songs, I have the same basic issue, but with a different spin.  With albums covering classic songs like "London Bridge," "The Wheels on the Bus," and "Row Row Row Your Boat," and so on, artists have two possible approaches: 1) simple renditions that put the melody and lyrics up front, and 2) entire reworkings of the songs whose elaborate arrangements, rather than the song itself, become the point ("Pop Goes The Weasel"... gone metal!).

The latter approach isn't without merit -- such arrangements can sometimes help listeners of all ages hear an overly familiar song with new ears, or introduce those listeners to a genre they might not typically spin.  As you might expect, the former approach -- simple songs done (relatively) simply -- is my preferred approach, but the problem here is that, well, exactly how many such albums does a family need?

Besides the fact that the only member of our family in single-digits age-wise is our youngest Boston Terrier, we are also card-carrying members of Team Wiggleworms and Team Raffi.  Songs for Wiggleworms and Singable Songs for the Very Young (and their immediate successors) met our need for collections of nursery rhymes and familiar kids' songs a decade ago and, well, there's no need for anything new.  That's overstating things maybe a bit, but not a lot.  Songs for Wiggleworms features dozens of classic songs, usually with nothing more than a guitar for accompaniment.  Singable Songs for the Very Young is more expansive -- some original songs amidst the classics, with more elaborate arrangements -- but at its heart, it's still an album of classic kids' songs.

Laurie Berkner - Favorite Classic Kids' Songs album cover

Laurie Berkner - Favorite Classic Kids' Songs album cover

So from one perspective -- my own family's, reviewer's hat aside -- the latest releases from Laurie Berkner and Lisa Loeb, are utterly unnecessary.  We have the unadorned collection of songs, we have the slightly adorned collection of songs, and we've been listening to them for so long that they feel like much-loved stuffed animals.  Why anyone would throw those stuffed animals away for lovely new stuffed animals is beyond me.

But there are lots of families who haven't yet found that stuffed animal, and perhaps some of those families will find in Laurie Berkner's Favorite Classic Kids' Songs and Loeb's Nursery Rhyme Parade a stuffed animal that they can rely on.

Because make no mistake, these types of albums should be in the collection of every family with a preschooler in the house.  These are the foundational songs of childhood, with melodies (and often lyrics) that have lasted for literally centuries.  These are the songs that parents and caregivers should be singing to (and hopefully with) the young ones in their midst, and good collections of classic songs help families do that, by reminding the adults of songs (both lyrics and melodies) and offering the kids repetition to solidify their knowledge of the song.

Of the two albums Berkner's is more reminiscent of Raffi's fuller arrangements and approaches.  Her band appears on many tracks, and she shares vocals with a number of musicians.  Sometimes she sings a cappella, and some tracks end up on the other end of the production spectrum ("Shoo-Fly" features strings), but all the arrangements put the song first.  And Berkner still has one of the best female voices in kindie.

On her album, Loeb goes the more minimalist Wiggleworms route.  More a cappella, and when she is accompanied, it's usually just with a simple guitar.  If the listener wants the song, just the song with as little embroidery as possible, then Nursery Rhyme Parade is the album more likely to meet that listener's expectations.  To be clear, Loeb has a fine voice herself, and it's produced well, but it's hard to envision a much simpler album.

The albums are different enough -- beyond the arrangements, surprisingly enough there are a number of songs that are featured on only one album or the other -- that you could conceivably get both.  But assuming you only want one, there are other differences that might influence your choice.  For example, Berkner's album is actually a 57-track collection that stretches to 2 hours and 9 minutes in length.  About half of those are remastered previously-released tracks (including 6 Berkner songs included as "bonus" tracks), but even then you'd get 27 new songs.  Loeb's collection zips by, 37 tracks in 31 minutes, and, perhaps more importantly, it's featured on Amazon Prime Music, which means that you're not going to be able to hear it on streaming services like Rhapsody and Spotify (both of which are streaming Berkner's new disk).  It's part of what appears to be a new effort by Amazon to target family audiences, and while you can buy Loeb's album from Amazon, either in mp3 or physical format, I think much of the audience will be Amazon Prime customers streaming it.  (There are very few albums of classic kids' songs in the Amazon Prime collection that won't induce parental frustration -- Loeb's is one of the few that passes muster.)

So, do you need these albums?  If you're a Laurie Berkner fan or a Lisa Loeb fan and you have kids still in preschool, then I think their albums will be an excellent fit for your family, even if maybe you already have a preschool song collection.  If you have preschoolers, but don't have a preschool song collection, then both these albums are worth exploring.  There are other albums that serve the same audience, but the arguments I might make for favoring one over another would be mostly my own particular biases.  You don't need these albums at all, but you do need albums like these -- perhaps even these albums -- very much so.  With those caveats, these are both definitely recommended.

Note: I received copies of both albums for possible review. 

Review: Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! - The Amazing Keystone Big Band with David Tennant

The Amazing Keystone Big Band - Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! album cover

The Amazing Keystone Big Band - Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! album cover

I wouldn't say that if there's one classical music piece you've heard, it's "Peter and the Wolf," because orchestral melodies are woven throughout modern life, even if you're only vaguely aware of it.  But if there's one classical music piece you've heard because somebody was trying to teach your child (or you, when you were young) the concepts of symphonic orchestral music, it's "Peter and the Wolf."

Composed in 1936 by Sergei Prokofiev in Russia, the piece tells the story of the young (and brave) boy Peter, who along with his animal friends, outwits and captures a wolf intent on eating several of them.  Prokofiev gives each character a primary instrument (strings, for example, for Peter) and a melody, and mixes and blends them both as different characters interact.  There's a narrator providing some basic storytelling guideposts, though Prokofiev tells his musical tale so well, that once the story gets going, the words are, while not unnecessary, not bearing the weight of the story.

The piece is a classic, and there are literally dozens -- if not hundreds -- of versions recorded over the years.  We've got at least a couple on our own shelves.  And because it's a classic, there's really no need to have more than one or two versions unless you like the particular narrator.

Or unless the musicians have taken an entirely different approach, which is the case on Peter and the Wolf and Jazz!, a brand-new recording from France's The Amazing Keystone Big Band.  The big band features 18 younger French jazz musicians, and this new version deftly blends Prokofiev's symphonic story with a big band sensibility.  So instead of the string section (violins, violas, etc.), Peter's theme is represented by the band's rhythm section -- piano, bass, and guitar (which are, as the album's liner notes remind us, stringed instruments themselves).  The wolf is represented by the trombones and tuba instead of the French horns, and so on -- instruments that are similar in tone, but not necessarily the same ones.

The melodies themselves are unchanged, but the band's arrangement brings in a wide variety of jazz styles -- stride piano, hip-hop, free jazz, blues, cool jazz, and the like.  None of the stylistic shifts seem out of place -- rather, they feel appropriate to the story.  The triumphant parade march at the end is a swing style which to my ears sounds something like a New Orleans second line band would play in their own parade.

As for the narrator, David Tennant, best known on these shores as one of the Doctor Whos, does a fine job telling the story.  The wouldn't necessarily recommend the album just for his narration, but it's more than up to the task.  The liner notes are excellent, featuring many pages of the narration and illustrations by Martin Jarrie along with explanations by the band of their arrangement choices.  (The 54-minute album is appropriate for kids ages 3 through whatever, but you knew that already.) 

Peter and the Wolf and Jazz! isn't the first attempt to rework Prokofiev's tale for a jazz audience, but as best I can tell, it's the first in a half-century.  More importantly, it's taken that classic piece and made it sound fresh.  As a jazz album, it's wonderful, and as a classical album, well, it's wonderful, too.  Highly recommended.

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

Review: Great Pretenders Club - The Pop Ups

The Pop Ups - Great Pretenders Club album cover

The Pop Ups - Great Pretenders Club album cover

It's a brave new world in kids music.  I thought that the genre would have a few more years where CDs would be the primary mode of transmitting music (and funding musicians' careers), but if I had a dollar for every kids musician I've heard in the past year or so describing the collapse of their CD sales, I'd have enough money to go down to my favorite local record shop (literally) down the street and buy a couple albums.

As a keen observer of the music industry -- and someone for whom the CD is still my most preferred listening medium -- I, too, am nervous by what appears to be a shift to streaming services, which could lead to viewing music as a commodity.  What happens to commodities?  They're viewed as raw materials, often easily substituted for and by other items, with price being the main victim.  In this scenario, if you're a producer of said "raw materials," that doesn't end well if you take your time with your craft.

Luckily -- maybe -- kids entertainment is one of the battlefields upon which the new streaming entertainment wars are being fought.  Netflix, Amazon, and other SVOD (streaming video on demand) players both major and niche are touting their own independent series and collection of entertainment.  Video isn't the only battlefield -- players like Rhapsody are developing their own special kids' area, it can't be long until Spotify joins in, and folks like batteryPOP are developing a video-channel hybrid focusing on kid-friendly music and entertainment.

You might be wondering, what in the world does this have to do with Great Pretenders Club, the fourth album from the Brooklyn duo The Pop Ups?

Everything.

You see, Great Pretenders Club is the very first kids' album from Amazon Music (a second kids' album, from Lisa Loeb, will be released in October) and as such it's a trailblazing release.  It's available exclusively from Amazon Music, downloadable as well as in physical format (print-on-demand CD-R).  More intriguingly, it's being marketed primarily as being exclusively available for streaming on their Amazon Prime service.  In other words, selling the album seems to be a minor point -- what's more important is that you can stream it on Amazon... and not on Spotify, Rhapsody, Bandcamp, and so on.  Amazon has entered the kids audio entertainment fray, and they're using kindie to do it.

So often trailblazing releases are notable more for their context than their content, but in the case of Great Pretenders Club, the album's music is every bit as notable as the way it's been introduced to the world.  This is, simply put, one of the year's best albums.  From the minimalist bleeps and and zaps of album opener "Pretend We Forgot" to the trip-hop sound of title track at the very end (featuring HAERTS), Jacob Stein and Jason Rabinowitz give us eleven tracks of '80s drenched pre-K solid gold celebrating imagination and playfulness.  "We Live in an Orchestra" notices and turns into a song the sounds of everyday objects and adds a nifty guitar line and stringed accompaniment.  "On Air" wonders what it would be like to have one's own radio show (with a foam baseball bat), throwing in Duran Duran and Toto references.  "Googly Eyes" has for me a bit of Joe Jackson feel, while the groove of "Indoor Picnic" features in one part a descending melodic part that must be an homage to Tears for Fears' "Head Over Heels."  (I also can't believe that the part in "Make a Rainbow" that apes the Fifth Dimension's "Let the Sunshine In" wasn't intentional.)  I particularly dug the crunchy guitars of "Treasure Hunter," about playing hide-and-seek with different objects.  While there isn't a song that is as sublime as "Box of Crayons" or "All These Shapes," there isn't anything remotely close to a weak or even so-so track.

The 38-minute album will be most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7.  You can preview or purchase (and stream if you're an Amazon Prime member) the album here.

A few years from now, the fact that Great Pretenders Club was introduced to the world, Beyonce-style fully-completed, as the first kids music Amazon Music release will have been forgotten.  While Amazon has the market power to significantly change the trajectory of kids music and kindie's relationship to kids music, its ability to do will also determine whether this particular album itself will be forgotten.  Great Pretenders Club is a great album, so don't screw this up, Amazon.  Highly recommended.

Review: !Come Bien! Eat Right! - José-Luis Orozco

Jos  é-Luis Orozco ¡Come Bien! Eat Right! album cover

José-Luis Orozco ¡Come Bien! Eat Right! album cover

It is easy to think of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings as the record label of Ella Jenkins, Pete Seeger, and many more who joined the label more than a half-century ago.  But they've also signed up to release recordings from artists not even born when Ella and Pete first started recording -- hi, Elizabeth Mitchell, welcome, Sarah Lee Guthrie!

From that perspective, the fact that Los Angeles-based musician and educator José-Luis Orozco has joined the Folkways fold is both entirely fitting and novel.  If you're not familiar with Orozco's work, then there's a good chance that you haven't been in a classroom with young kids, particularly a classroom with bilingual kids.  Since 1971, Orozco has released 15 albums; his website's biography page says those albums (along with a DVD and 3 songbooks) have sold more than two million copies, and I believe it -- if you look at the iTunes and Amazon best-selling children's music lists, his albums, particularly De Colores and Other Latin American Folk Songs, are often found there.  (That album is one of the very few kids' music albums that my wife, who's taught young kids and in classrooms with lots of bilingual speakers, introduced to me.)

Which brings us to !Come Bien! Eat Right!, Orozco's 16th album and his first distributed through Smithsonian Folkways.  In one sense, it feels completely natural that a musician and educator of Orozco's standing should be part of a record label so committed to celebrating and spreading the folk music of the world here in the United States (and around the world).  And in another sense, you're surprised that this grandfather isn't already part of that family and that it's taken all this time for the two to finally partner.

The album's theme, in case you haven't already guessed it from the title and album cover, is healthy eating.  It features 38 songs, the first 19 in Spanish, followed by the same 19 songs in English translation.  So, for example, the album leads off with "Damos gracias," a simple blessing sung in Spanish and accompanied only by percussion from producer and well-known Latin musician Quetzal Flores -- and then you can fast-forward nineteen tracks to track #20, "Thanksgiving," and listen to the same song (and arrangement) sung in English.

On Orozco moves through the meal -- fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains.  Musically, the accompaniment is generally simple, but I think it shines best when it features other Los Angeles musicians, such as Gabriel Tenorio on the quinto sonero on "La comida en mi plato/The Food on My Plate" or Tylana Enomoto on violin on "Verduras/Veggies," one of my favorite tracks.  There's some call and response on the album featuring a couple of kids, and, of course, "De Colores" makes an appearance, nimbly reworked into a song called "Sabroses colors/Tasty Colors," all about eating fruits and vegetables with healthy colors.  And -- yay! -- "Chocolate," a classic traditional song that's always fun to sing along with.

You might think that this album is "educational," and... it totally is.  I don't speak much Spanish, and so I could listen to the Spanish language tracks and enjoy them, but when I switched to the English-language versions, some of them seemed very... educational and lacking some of the vibrancy I felt on the Spanish-language track.  Now that's OK, but if you -- or your kid -- are expecting something freewheeling, this album isn't that.  There are definitely songs you could pull out and place onto a broader playlist, but as something to listen to 62 minutes straight without an explicit expectation that your family will learn more about healthy eating or learning a different language, it's not designed for that.

The album will be most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7.  I feel almost contractually obligated (note: I'm not) to mention that the album packaging and liner notes are lovely -- in this particular case all the notes are produced in Spanish on one side, and English on the other.    The lovely illustrations are by Elisa Kleven.

Orozco's music has been heard by literally millions of kids, and his new association with Folkways is not the culmination of a career, but just another feather in the cap of a much-beloved and well-respected musician and educator.  It wouldn't be the first choice of mine for an introduction to Spanish-language music, but for educators seeking to broaden their Spanish-language collections or looking for something bilingual to address issues of eating and nutrition, there's a bounty here.  And the rest of us can certainly find a number of tracks to nibble on.  Recommended.

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

Review: Odds & Ends - Andrew & Polly

Andrew & Polly - Odds & Ends album cover

Andrew & Polly - Odds & Ends album cover

Sometimes album titles don't signify much, but in the case of the brand-new album from Los Angeles-based duo Andrew & Polly, I think it's 100% on point.

Just like the random collection of stuff on the shelf on the album cover art, the tracks here are an assortment of tiny treasures and tracks with less heft.  Unlike many albums, in an interview with them, the duo noted that the album reflects a collection of songs they've written and recorded over time.  Sometimes the results are magical -- "Little Bitta You," a previously-released single, is a zippy and sweet folk-pop song, for example.  And their new song "Grapes" is a strong contender for catchiest kindie track of the year, with a singalong chorus filled with "la la las."

At other points, it does feel like one of those "B-Side" collections that your favorite power-pop band might have released after fifteen years together -- your XTCs, your Fountains of Wayne. There are three covers ("Forever Young," "Here Comes the Sun," and my favorite of the three, "Ghostbusters"), for example plus "Critters," their non-religious take on Bill Staines' classic "All's God's Critters" ("got a place in the choir / some sing low / some sing higher...").

Andrew & Polly have been devoting a lot of attention to their podcast for kids Ear Snacks, and some tracks feel very much like excerpts like that.  "Ghostbusters," with a lot of kid-interaction, was sort of a prototype for the podcast, while "Fruitphabet" is a playful thing, more sound-and-word-play than pop song.  At 28 minutes in length, the album's brevity -- it's barely more than an EP -- is one more thing that makes me think of this as a "B-side" collection.

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 6, and I should make clear that my middle-aged perspective on what an album "is" (or isn't) won't matter to the kids, who will sometimes groove and other times laugh to the folky, smart, and weird stuff on Odds & Ends.  Ear Snacks is a genuinely original podcast as well.  Andrew & Polly can write such sharp music, that I'm very much looking forward to the next set of songs from the duo, which they say will be a coherent concept album.  In the meantime, there are some tiny treasures on this album, and those will do just fine.  Recommended.

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