Kindie Keeps on Tickin' (Reviews of Early 2017 Albums)

After questioning why people read record reviews, I also said that I'd be taking a break writing reviews, at least as how I'd normally conceived of them.

But I had a few more albums -- a couple dozen maybe -- I wanted to get through first.

So let's take a look at a quartet of recently-released albums that show how kindie keeps on tickin' even while I get a little antsy about writing reviews.

The quartet can essentially be split into a couple of duos, the first pair a little more conventional, the second pair a little more atmospheric and adventurous.  Both pairs of albums have a lot to offer their listeners, but will probably have their own distinct sets of fans.

Big Buncha Buddies album cover

Big Buncha Buddies album cover

Let's deal with the more conventional albums first, starting with Big Buncha Buddies, a self-titled debut from Keith Munslow and Bridget Brewer

Munslow is a musician and comedian with a number of albums under his belt, while this is Brewer’s first, but her sense of humor (and voice) blends nicely with Munslow’s.  Some songs use humor as the default (“That Was A Bad Idea,” “Why Did You Teach Me That Word,” which is a country ballad bemoaning a questionable parental decision) whereas others just have a comedic interlude (Brewer’s pleading with her overeager and misguided dog in “Stray Dog”).  But there’s always a non-cloying sense of love and friendship, most notably on the last track “Don’t Grow Up Too Fast” and on the album’s centerpiece literally and figuratively “The Loneliest Whale,” which posits a connection between a solitary whale and a child trying to make her social way through the world.  Gently, the 35-minute album presumes a world in which people have imagination, are a little bit weird, and make connections despite (or because) of it.  Which as a non-obtrusive background to a set of songs that will amuse your 5-9-year-old, is a nice bonus.

Trippin' Round the Mitten album cover

Trippin' Round the Mitten album cover

Onward to Randy Kaplan, whose latest album Trippin’ Round the Mitten features his usual set of humorous takes, often featuring Kaplan as an aggrieved narrator dealing with the frustrations of the world around him.  Now that Kaplan’s a father, he’s got an even more constant stream of inspiration.  Kaplan has excellent taste in cover songs, sliding in ELO’s “Jungle,” The Dead Milkmen’s “Beach Song,” and “Mr. Bass Man” (among others), not to mention a sharp parodic ear, reworking “Mr. Bass Man” into “Mr. Spaceman” (hi, Elon Musk!) and turning Maroon 5’s “Sugar”’s inappropriate-for-a-four-year-old’s lyrics into an ode to a four-year-old’s favorite ingredient.  Kaplan’s comedic approach could be wearying if it weren’t for the fact that he’ll thrown in an incredibly heartfelt song, like following up “Cat & Mice” (about what happens on a “guys weekend” with dad and son) with longtime producer Mike West’s “Tongue Tied,” a gorgeous apology in song that parents and kids have both felt.  And in the case of Kaplan’s “On the Phone on the Toilet,” the salty and sweet are inextricably mixed.  Kaplan doesn’t change his formula here, but when the formula works well as it does again, I’m OK with that.  Longtime fans will dig in; if you’re new to Kaplan, this album is a fine place to start for your favorite 4-to-8-year old.

Spectacular Daydream album cover

Spectacular Daydream album cover

Moving on then, to the dreamier pair of albums, starting with Mo Phillips’ Spectacular Daydream, which is a strong contender for Most Accurate Album Title of the year, as the Portland musician gives us a dozen songs that seem inspired by, or designed to encourage listeners to, sleep.  It’s not that this is a lullaby album, but the dreamy imagery (sample lyrics: “Your ears are made out of French toast”) and lush and often mellow musical arrangements -- and guest artists including fellow Portland musician Red Yarn -- encourage a relaxed listen rather than active engagement.  The prominent use of ukulele helps in this regard as well.  In fact, thanks to a grant from Portland’s Regional Arts and Culture Council, Phillips has turned the album into a ukulele songbook with elaborate drawings -- it’s definitely the one album I’d encourage tracking down in physical format if you care at all about it.  (The younger listeners in the 3-to-7-year-old target audience may want to color the illustrations, too.)  Along with Pointed Man Band’s Between the Waves and the Cardoons and Red Yarn’s Born in the Deep Woods, Spectacular Daydream is the third in what has been an impressive 2017 thus far for Portland-based kids music.

The Moonlights album cover

The Moonlights album cover

Finally we have The Moonlights, the debut from The Moonlights, better known to kindie fans as the duo's component parts, Dean Jones (Dog on Fleas, kindie super-producer) and Rachel Loshak (Gustafer Yellowgold).  From the album's very start, when "That Light" quotes Shakespeare, there's a fable-like quality to the 33-minute album that is completely enchanting.  (That album cover picture of a moon shrouded in fog is an excellent visual companion.)  The songs celebrate the natural world in all its many splendors, often in awe, but occasionally feature a more comedic touch.  "Symphony for Dogs" is about writing a symphony for canines that humans can't hear while "Early Bird" spins the phrase "the early bird gets the worm" into a whole series of animal pairings.  And while the dueting between Jones and Loshak is lovely on tracks like "Colour of Leaves" and "Bake a Cake" (the sweetest love song you'll hear on a kindie album this year), I think it's really Loshak's voice which is the star, a clear soprano deployed to beautiful and occasionally humorous effect, featured by Jones' typical instrumentally restrained but eclectic arrangements.  To me, this ranks up there with Dog on Fleas' best albums and Jones' solo Napper Delight.  These four albums are all worth you checking out -- all definitely recommended to be sure -- but this one is my personal favorite, definitely a candidate for my favorite of the year.

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.

Review: Between the Waves and the Cardoons - Pointed Man Band

Between the Waves and the Cardoons cover

Between the Waves and the Cardoons cover

The first time Dan Elliott's Pointed Man Band made its way on this site, it was in a heads up nearly four years for a Kickstarter project I stumbled upon randomly.  The resulting album, Swordfish Tango, echoed Tom Waits not only in that album title, but in sonic construction.  The result was a weird amalgam of pots and pans and strings and a song that led me to include a tag for "fart songs about invisible ducks" in the post.  (Sadly, it's the only post on this site for that tag.)

The second PMB album Flight of the Blue Whale hung the jazz and Parisian pop tendencies of the debut onto a story of a red fox who works as a clock repairer and his adventures, which eventually involve a flying blue whale.  More focused thematically, perhaps, but no less weird sonically.

Now it's time for the release of Elliott's third album, titled Between the Waves and the Cardoons, and it's a straight-up dance-pop album with songs about how to brush your teeth!

Of course it's not.  It's every bit as oblique as the first two albums.  Conceptually, it's a story cycle with loosely-related songs about nature, moving roughly from Oregon's west coast ("The Waves," "Anchor's Aweigh"), up the Columbia River with the salmon ("Upstream"), and, after other songs about (actual) birds and the bees, eventually winding up with "The Cardoons," a celebration of family and community.  (Cardoons, incidentally, are a lesser-known relative of the artichoke.)  Sonically, this album is far less Waits and far more Decemberists, with Elliott emphasizing the orchestral chamber pop that his fellow Portland musicians sometimes use, though with far less death and betrayal than Colin Meloy et al often sing about.  String quartets, brass, even a harp, and a mellotron and Steinway grand piano thrown in for good measure, there's a lot of orchestration going on.

Between the Waves and the Cardoons is a picture book in multiple meanings of that phrase, but not a simple one with clear pen lines and punchlines.  I like those sorts of picture books, too, but like to have more complex, more challenging picture books thrown into the mix.  (This 30-minute picture book is probably best for kids ages 5-9.)  The album might not be everyone's cup of nettle tea, but if you've read this far thinking, I think my family might be interested in that, then I think your family will definitely be interested in that.  Recommended.

Note: I received a copy of this 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: I Believe in Little Things - Diana Panton

I Believe in Little Things cover

I Believe in Little Things cover

I'm surprised there aren't more albums like Diana Panton's I Believe in Little Things. Given that jazz often takes classic songs and standards as the basis for creating something entirely new, why haven't jazz musicians devoted more attention to classic kids' songs?

On her new album, the Canadian jazz singer Panton doesn't reach all the way back to "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb," but instead uses classic twentieth century songs written for kids' entertainment as her starting point.  So she turns to Sesame Street songwriter Joe Raposo, Kenneth Ascher and Paul Williams' songs from The Muppet Movie, and some Disney, among others.  Panton's crystal-clear voice is a delight to listen to, with her backing musicians (primarily Reg Schwager on guitar and Don Thompson on bass, piano, and vibraphone) providing a subtle background from which her voice shines without being brassy, which would serve these songs poorly.  As lovely as the renditions are, the musicians explore the songs to a point that some listeners with short attention spans may drift off ("When You Wish Upon a Star" clocks in at nearly six minutes).  As a result, I'll peg the 55-minute album's target age range as ages 5 and up.

I hesitate to call this "kindie" or "kids music" -- remove the delightful album art by Jacqui Lee and replace it with abstract shapes or stylish pictures of Panton and her band, and it's a tossup as to whether it'd be filed in "children's music" or "jazz."  Having said that, the answer to that question is probably a tossup under the current album art as well and probably irrelevant -- it's an album kids and adults are both likely to enjoy settling down with.  Recommended.

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