Better Late Than Never: 2016 Children's Grammy Nominee Reviews

One of the embarrassing things about writing about the nominees for the 59th Annual Grammy Award for Best Children's Album is that even though I did so in late January 2017, many months after the 5 nominated albums were released, I had only reviewed one of the 5 nominees, Frances England's Explorer of the World.

So while I'm transitioning out of more intensive review mode into something... else, I did want to make sure I added a few words about each of these nominees.

As I went back and listened to these albums, or at least these following four albums, I was struck by the idea that these albums weren't necessarily albums that took incredible creative leaps beyond what the artists had done before.  Instead, these albums are good examples of the type of music some of kindie's most popular and consistent artists have to offer.

RecessMonkeyNovelties.jpg

Let's start with the act that's been the most prolific for the longest time, Seattle trio Recess Monkey.  The biggest -- and really only -- novelty of Novelties, the band's 13th (!) album, is the fact that it was released on Amazon Music and can only be purchased or streamed there.  Aside from that, it's another  solid collection of pop-rock songs pitched at your favorite ever-so-slightly snarky 7-year-old.  Yes, the song "Sweaty Yeti" is every bit as silly as that title might suggest.  Compared to other albums of theirs like Desert Island DiscNovelties dials up the clown prince factor, and dials down the emotional factor which, while never prevalent, sometimes played a supporting role.  But this is immediately identifiable as a Recess Monkey album and given the large role the band has played in encouraging other kindie musicians and their consistency (13 albums in, like, 12 years), the Grammy nomination was deserved.

BradyRymerPressPlay.jpg

Next we have Press Play, from New York's Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could.  If Recess Monkey's calling card has been silliness and high energy, Rymer's has been emotionally open roots rock, and he's been offering it for even longer than Recess Monkey, albeit at not quite as frenetic a pace.  (Press Play is Rymer's eighth album for families, dating back to the year 2000.)  Rymer sings unironically about the virtues of trying new things, being kind, and the blessings of family.  They're the kind of sentiments that, stripped of Rymer's energetic singing and his harmony-filled Little Band That Could, could feel cheesy or trite.  But Rymer's music has always managed to move past that and make those valuable notions on tracks like the country-tinged "Dress in Blue" and the horn-and-organ-aided "Chain Reaction" fun to dance to.  Rymer earned another Grammy nomination for Press Play, and it's because his music usually goes down as comfortable as a plate of burger and fries in the hometown diner the band is posing in an album photo.  

OkeeDokeeBrothersSaddleUp.jpg

The only one of this year's nominees who had previously won a Grammy (for Can You Canoe?), The Okee Dokee Brothers, came back with the final album in their three-part "Adventure Album series," Saddle Up.  As you can probably guess from the title, after traveling down the Mississippi River and up the Appalachian Trail, this time the duo went out west, spending a month on horseback in June 2015.  So there's more of a cowboy theme to their music, though I wouldn't describe this album as the boys going full Riders in the Sky.  As with the album's two predecessors, this album gently weaves a few more traditional songs (such as "Ragtime Cowboy Joe") into the originals.  One of the niftiest tracks is "Sister Moon and Brother Sun," which features Navajo lyrics on a story with Native American roots -- its mere presence on a "Western" album is, if not groundbreaking, at least noteworthy for its relative rarity.  The album features a slick DVD, and while the boys didn't earn another Grammy for this one, I think the three Adventure albums are definitely one of the most critically (and, comparatively, commercially) successful trio of kids' albums of the 21st century.  Fans of the Okee Dokee Brothers would likely have taken this just as much to heart as their two previous albums.

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Last on this list of reviews is the actual Grammy winner this year, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, a previous nominee and first-time winner for Infinity Plus One.  Skidoo continues to be the most vibrant practitioner of hip-hop for the younger set -- nobody else is as consistently intricate lyrically and musically.  I don't think Infinity Plus One is quite as... weird as its predecessor The Perfect Quirk, but it is far out, man.  Literally.  Because as you might guess from the album art, Skidoo's got a serious deep space vibe going on here.  A song like "Pillowfight Pillowfort" seems in the distant past at this point.  I'd say the whole album is more space-inspired than space-themed (the killer track "Secret Superhero" isn't really about space, for example), but in more than a couple places he proves to be a huge Carl Sagan fan.

As always, one of the secret weapons of Secret Agent 23 Skidoo albums' high repeat listenability is the depth of the musical arrangements.  You might hear "hip hop" in terms of the album description and think there's no connection with, say, Brady Rymer's roots-rock, but tracks like "Young Soul" and "Long Days & Short Years" would not sound out of place at all on Rymer's album.  (Actually, can we get a Skidoo/Rymer collaboration?  Thanks in advance.)  Infinity Plus One is a very solid collection of songs targeted more at the upper elementary school crowd, and while I think any of Skidoo's albums are a worthy entry point to his work for your family, this newly Grammy-crowned work is definitely an excellent place to start.  I'd recommend all these albums -- hopefully I've given enough clues to suggest which might be most appropriate if you're entirely new to kids music.

FrancesEnglandExplorerOfTheWorld.jpg

Very finally, I would be remiss if I didn't re-remind you of the review I did for Frances England's Explorer of the World, the other album nominated in this category.  I described it as "more experimental than most kids music," and if the four albums above are more refinements of the artists' individual artistic paths, I think Explorer shows off England's exploration (appropriately enough) of new paths, particularly in the music arrangements.  Tracks like "City Don't Sleep" feature sonic collages featuring everything but (and probably including) the kitchen sink.  This album was every bit as worthy a Grammy nominee as the four albums above, and I just didn't want you to forget about it as you were considering the albums above.

 

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: 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.