Review: Born in the Deep Woods - Red Yarn

Born in the Deep Woods cover

Born in the Deep Woods cover

Some artists take tentative steps into kids music, but Andy Furgeson seemed to know exactly what he was doing from the get-go.  Playing as Red Yarn, the Austin-bred, Portland-based musician and puppeteer brought the fervor of a revival to his first kids' album, 2013's The Deep Woods, and then doubled-down on that feeling with his 2015 follow-up, the appropriately titled Deep Woods Revival.  Both albums brought energy and emotion to old folk songs to make those old songs sound urgent and vital.

After a 2016 detour into some stripped-down arrangements on Wake Up and Sing, Furgeson is back with the final entry in his "Deep Woods Trilogy," Born in the Deep Woods.  If the first two Deep Woods albums sound like they were recorded in a church somewhere, this new album has a much more Southern-fried rock sound.  Not quite in a bar, perhaps, but not exactly church pew, either.  For everyone who ever thought what Red Yarn needed was more cowbell, Born in the Deep Woods is the album for you.

The title track, a Furgeson original, has a driving sound that might fit in more with the earlier albums, but "Old Mother Goose" definitely has that Southern "classic rock" sound even as it weaves together some traditional nursery rhymes like "Hey Diddle Diddle" and "All Around the Mulberry Bush."  There are more completely original songs on this new album -- four or five depending on how you're counting -- than on previous works, but I think it's a testament to Furgeson's songwriting skills and his production work alongside co-producer Adam Selzer that it can hard be hard to tell his takes on songs sung for generations apart from the ones written for and inspired by Furgeson's two kids.

Furgeson knows how to have fun with a song -- check out the video for "Mockingbird," in which Furgeson plots the detailed musical background of the song with a detail rivaling the search for the Zodiac Killer -- but he seems particularly focus on the meaning of parenthood.  Songs like "Little Baby Born Today," "Old Black Dog," and "Deep Woods Revisited" address life -- both birth and death -- in the tone of voice of a parent.  The epic "Born Again" does, too, filled with slide guitar instrumental breaks and lines like "When we reach our destination / Across the river, across the nation / We find we're right back where we came from."  Could the Allman Brothers record that song and have it sound a little bit like the Red Yarn track?  Most definitely.

Born in the Deep Woods is not a kids music album, but only to those who haven't spent a lot of time thinking about kids music.  There's an alphabet song on here that even though I'd listened to the album a half-dozen times I didn't realize it until I looked at the lyrics.  (Which you should totally do if you decide to get a copy of the lovely physical copy.)  It is an intricate album, and while it's appealing musically and not cryptic in any way, for some listeners, the simpler Wake Up and Sing may be the better entry point to the Red Yarn discography.  You could put this album on for the 10-minute drive home from school, but it fits more a 45-minute Lego construction session.

I, for one, am looking forward to where Furgeson moves on from Born in the Deep Woods.  The Deep Woods have been a rich source of inspiration for the Red Yarn albums, but I also think that his songwriting on this album in particular indicates he can look beyond the folk music tradition that's informed so much of his work.  Not that he'd ever abandon that music -- and I don't want him to -- but I'm more interested at this point in seeing where he goes next than in further expansion of the Deep Woods mythology.  I hope he comes back to the Deep Woods in time, but I'd like to see what he discovers when he ventures out further to explore.  Highly recommended.

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

Rainbows and Unicorns and Kids Music (Foreverywhere - StevenSteven)

Foreverywhere album cover

Foreverywhere album cover

If teaching kids how to be patient -- how to defer gratification until later -- is a useful skill, then the release of Foreverywhere, the debut album from StevenSteven, may be the world's most important parental tool.

Perhaps you think I'm kidding that an album about rainbows and unicorns is the most anticipated album in kids music history?  Let me put it this way -- I made a joke about how kindie fans had waited so long for the album that it had become the Chinese Democracy of kids music.

Twice.  I'd forgotten that I'd made the joke already.

But here we are, February 24, 2017 -- more than a decade since former Blue's Clues star Steve Burns and Flaming Lips multi-instrumentalist Steven Drozd first unleashed upon kids music the world's most awesome tribute to Groundhog Day -- and, yes, Foreverywhere is out in the world and the result is rainbows and unicorns, and in particular, a guitar-shredding Princess Rainbow and a Lonely Unicorn who joins her band, falls in love, loses her, then searches literally the entire universe to find her again.

Honestly, the whole album feels a little bit like that sentence -- epic, heartfelt, and a little rambling at points.  (Also, it's meticulously crafted, which is probably more than I can say about the sentence.)

After several listens, I came to think of the album as three EPs smooshed together.  There's the science-y, "fact"-based set of songs in the first half -- the fuzzy psych-rock of "Mimic Octopus," the game-show-turned-pop-song "OK Toilet Bowl," and the song guaranteed to put a smile on my face every time I listen to it, "A Fact Is A Gift That You Give Your Brain" -- those are the tracks that will make power-pop fans of any age move their heads to the rhythm.  Then there's the goofier and sometimes downright odd takes on kids music tropes in the second half -- "If You're Ginormous And You Know It" features one giant drummer, while "The Happy Then Sad Then Triumphant Spider" takes more than six minutes to tell the tale of one spider, one rain spout, and one sun.  (It's like those chorales that take their lyrical inspiration from about 3 lines of Biblical verse.)

And the third set is the epic story of the Lonely Unicorn and his search for Princess Rainbow, which stretches across 3 songs spread through the entire album.  If you think six minutes is too long of a song for your favorite 4-year-old, wait 'til you play them the nearly 11-minute closing title track.  And I suppose that's where some parents will think, "AWESOME!" and other parents will say, "ARE YOU NUTS?"  Personally I am sympathetic to the latter group -- I'm not sure how many younger kids will retain their attention on those longer, somewhat sleepier tracks -- but am pleased that the duo just went for it.  (Skip the tracks, go back to "A Fact," if you need the shorter blast.)

You may hear lots of kids music this year, and you may even hear kids music this year you like more than Foreverywhere, but I'm pretty sure you're not going to hear anything like it in kids music this year.  There is no small amount of rainbows and unicorns in this album ready to be unleashed upon the world, and, yeah, it was worth the wait.  Definitely recommended.

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

Itty-Bitty Review: Ear Snacks: Songs from the Podcast - Andrew & Polly

Ear Snacks: Songs from the Podcast cover

Ear Snacks: Songs from the Podcast cover

Readers of the site over the past year or so know I've paid a lot of attention to podcasts made for kids, and one of the most delightful of the bunch is Ear Snacks, a funny and occasionally surreal podcast for preschoolers from Los Angeles-based duo Andrew & Polly.

They've now collected the best tracks featured on the podcast's first season in the prosaically titled Ear Snacks: Songs from the Podcast.  That title is the most straightforward and boring thing about the entire album whose unifying theme, if anything, is silliness.  There's a meta-song for preschoolers about dancing to songs ("Dancing Pants," featuring fellow L.A. musician Mista Cookie Jar), a swinging song about getting the mail ("Mail," natch), and the crunchy pop of "I Wanna Be a Giraffe."  And I haven't even mentioned until now the stone-cold classic kindie classic track "Grapes."  It's not total silliness -- listen to the gorgeous "How Can You Tell If It's Going To Rain?" -- but the meter swings more to the giddy rather than somber.  (Just listen Andrew and Polly hiding in the hidden track at the end...)  I liked Odds & Ends, the duo's previous album that featured some songs from early podcast episodes, but I found the songwriting here to be a step beyond that -- they sound quite confident in their own, quirky voice.

At 37 minutes in length, the album is just the right length for the 2-to-6-year-olds who are the album (and podcast's) target audience.  (A shout-out as well to the liner notes, filled with "Snacktivities" listeners of any age can do using just their creative brains.)  Filled with goofiness leavened with just enough sweetness, Ear Snacks: Songs from the Podcast is a collection of music you don't need the podcast to appreciate.  It's a fabulous compilation of more than a year's worth of creativity, a great bunch of songs for listening at any time.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I received a copy of the album for possible review. We also both participate on the board of Kids Listen, an advocacy group for kids' podcasts.

Itty-Bitty Review: Meet You By the Moon - The Que Pastas

Meet You By the Moon cover

Meet You By the Moon cover

The Texas-based band The Que Pastas started out as a somewhat jokier band.  (They also started out as a Colorado-based band, but that's an entirely different story.) Over time, while they haven't exactly dropped their sense of humor, chief Pastas Gene Davis and Simon Flory have added a healthy dose of heart to their songs.

Meet You By the Moon, their recently-released second full-length album, is a major step forward for the band, a solid collection of Americana with touches of the Beatles and the third grade cutup.  The band's always had a bit of Americana sound, but with producer Salim Nourallah (Old 97s, Rhett Miller, among others) at the helm, it's brought more to the fore in sound, attitude, and instrumentation.  There's the stomp of "Llama," the hint of zydeco on the reading anthem "Book Lion," and the fiddle accents on the suffused-with-heart "Saturday Morning."  And for every jokey song like "Common Denominator" (a re-recorded version of an early demo track), there's a new song like "Helen's Song," written from the perspective of a parent looking forward to future awesome events in their child's life (e.g., first corn dog at the State Fair). 

The 26-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8.  While the band's fans who grew up appreciating the band's outgoing attitude with a touch of class clown in their songs will still find songs to scratch that itch, wearing more heart on their sleeve will hopefully expand their audience further.  Definitely recommended.

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

Itty-Bitty Review: I Chew - Hullabaloo

I Chew album cover

I Chew album cover

I don't know if practice makes perfect, but it usually helps things considerably.  When you write a song a day for a month as Steve Denyes of San Diego's Hullabaloo did last year, not all the songs are going to be keepers, but the songwriting muscle will be stronger at the end than at the beginning.

For the band's latest album I Chew, Denyes (along with bandmate Brendan Kremer and Shawn Rohlf) took the best of the bunch, added a handful of new songs, and recorded them in their familiar simple folk-roots style.  The result is a collection of 16 songs that cover a surprisingly broad range of styles in its 21 minutes.  Silly songs like the nonpartisansong "Senator John Arthur Clydesdale III" bump up against the political "I Wear Pink," which gently makes the apparently still controversial argument that boys can wear pink and play with dolls.  (I know! But Denyes sings of actual pushback he received.)  "Air-O-Plane" is a sequel in many ways to Woody Guthrie's "Car Car" and "Aeroplane," while "I Can't Let It Go" speaks just as much to the 40-year-old obsessives as the 14-month old ones.  There's a hint of Shel Silverstein, too, in "Boring," not to mention the spoken word "Worm with Wings."  (The tracks will be most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7.)

Denyes didn't just have a month to hone his songwriting -- he's been playing for kids for more than a decade.  And slowly but surely, he's become one of kindie's better songwriters, a living argument in favor of consistency while occasionally mixing things up (by, say, writing a song a day).  As he sings about in "Day 16," start trying to write a song, and eventually you'll have a song.  Do it often enough, and some of it will end up pretty good.  Definitely recommended.

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.