There aren't many blockbuster albums in the world of kindie. There are lots of albums that sell well, and lots of albums that achieve a level of critical popularity inside and outside the kindie world -- but something that combines parts, that's rare.
The Okee Dokee Brothers' Can You Canoe? was one of those rare albums. It was critically acclaimed as the best album of 2012, winning the Grammy for best children's album of that year as well as taking the top spot in the Fids and Kamily Awards. It also continued to be one of the few kindie albums (Non-Laurie Berkner/Elizabeth Mitchell/TMBG Division) to make Top 50 charts at iTunes and Amazon.
All of which is to say, Justin Lansing and Joe Mailander, those boys from Minnesota, had a mighty big task in following up that album. Did they succeed with Through the Woods: An Appalchian Adventure Album?
It's hard to say, precisely because of its predecessor's tremendous success. Are all the elements there? Yes -- a big-hearted spirit, a fancy for metaphor, tenderness leavened with humor, it's all there. But I would be lying if I said I had the same instantaneous reaction to this new album as I did 2 years ago, and maybe the reason it's taken me 3 months to write this review is that I've been trying to figure out why.
The best answer I can come up with -- and it's not a great one, though it is an honest one -- is that it's mellower, its philosophy perhaps more inwardly focused. Compared to Canoe, whose can-do attitude and celebration of exploration was front-and-center from the first note (my NPR review of the album is one my favorite pieces there and draws heavily on those themes), this new album, inspired by walks along the Appalchian Trail, generally sings in a more relaxed key. The title track, featuring a lovely descending bass line, is the spiritual successor to the last album's title track, but most of the songs are more content to celebrate tiny moments -- dancing with neighbors in "Jamboree," the gentle love song "Evergreen," the ode to keeping things loose "Out of Tune."
The Brothers do a good job of reworking some well-known folk tunes like "Big Rock Candy Mountain" (featuring Hubby Jenkins from the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and "Hillbilly Willy," their version of "Old Dan Tucker." Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer each make a separate appearance, with Marxer's banjo playing on "Fiddlestick Joe" of particular note. Dean Jones co-produces with Lansing and Mailander, and Jed Anderson with his usual light (and spot-on) touch.
The album will be most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9. The album packaging, featuring art from Brandon Reese, is lovely -- it's the sort of thing that warms this physical product fan's heart. (There is also a DVD with music videos and footage from the trip.)
So, in sum, Through the Woods is an excellent album, one that should provide your family with hours of very pleasurable listening. If you came to love the band because of Can You Canoe? then you will continue to love them no less after this new album. And if you, like me, love this album a little bit less, it's OK, too -- it's still pretty great. Highly recommended.