Review: Rise and Shine! - Caspar Babypants


Music writers -- at the very least, this one -- aren't necessarily fans of consistency in their artists.  It stretches our ability to find something new to say about an artist when she constantly turns out the same type of thing.

Sometimes it's consistently bad, and I imagine that some writers could have fun picking apart those albums exhibiting significant failures of imagination, talent, or quality control, if not all three. (I am not one of those writers.)

But sometimes it's consistently good, and those are the trickier ones for me.  Chris Ballew, aka Caspar Babypants -- he's one of the trickiest.  His seven Caspar Babypants albums have been uniformly excellent, with only his most recent, Baby Beatles, a collection of Fab Four covers, at all deviating from the norm of well-crafted, lightly-arranged collections of gentle and gently skewed originals mixed with covers of folk classics that, like looking through a prism at different angles, retained the essence of the original but let you see (or hear) it in a different way.

So how does his latest album, Rise and Shine, differ from the rest of the CB work?  Hmmm… to begin with, it felt to me like it's his most toddler-focused album in quite some time, songs like the strings-laden Beatlesque "Rise and Shine" and the handclapp-y jam "Littlest Worm" with the hint of lessons might be most… useful for your almost-three-year-old.

But that's the barest of distinctions, and the album feels every bit part of the Caspar Babypants world we have come to know and love.  It celebrates the natural world, with songs featuring birds, worms, mice, and squirrels -- sometimes acting more or less like they actually do in the real world, in the crisp "Pretty Crabby," and sometimes acting more anthropomorphically, as in what is probably one of my top 5 Caspar Babypants songs, "Bird in an Airplane Suit" ("Look up / look up / you can sometimes see / a bird in an airplane suit").  (I also quite enjoy the simple and wistful "Girl With a Squirrel in Her Hat.")

Ballew's ear for reworking traditional songs and mixing those new arrangements amongst his sometimes whimsical originals remains as sharp as ever.  "Rain Rain Come Today" is very much reworked, something you might have heard in the '60s.  And while the traditional lullabies on the disk are hardly lullabies - "Hush Little Baby" is funky, and "Rock a Bye Baby" also fails the sleep test, he does end the album on a slow note, tempo-wise.

I'll peg this album as most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 6.  You can hear samples from the 50-minute album here.

In the end, Rise and Shine is another solid entry in Ballew's kid-canon, as strong as any over the past decade, perfect for your youngest kid or niece or nephew, but still just as delightful to their older siblings (or their parents).  Sometimes novelty is overrated, but Caspar Babypants isn't.  Highly recommended.

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

Video: "Bird in an Airplane Suit" - Caspar Babypants

One of the most brilliant songs on Caspar Babypants' new album Rise and Shine is the loopy "Bird in an Airplane Suit."  One concept -- what if an airplane was really, well, a bird in an airplane suit -- whisked along by Chris Ballew's crisp, simple arrangement and efficient lyrical work.

So I was happy to hear that he's created a video to go along with the song, and - joy! - it's every bit as simple, efficient, and brilliant as the song itself.  About a hundred Ballew-drawn illustrations later, it ranks right up there with "$9.99," which, long-time readers will know, is high praise from me indeed.

You might be wondering, scanning down the page, sooooo.... where's the video? Well, there's no embedding available for it, which makes me sad. (Not really.) But it's totally worth clicking that link in the next line. I wouldn't ask you to if I didn't think your family would get a kick out of it.

Caspar Babypants - "Bird in an Airplane Suit." [YouTube]

How I Got Here: Danny Adamson, the Not-Its! (The Cure, Joni Mitchell)

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Danny Adamson, guitarist for the sartorially superior Seattle pop-punkers The Not-Its, sometimes jokes about wanting to rock kids' faces off at upcoming shows.  Thus, it might surprise you to learn that when asked to write about an album that influenced him for our "How I Got Here" series, he picked an album by Joni Mitchell.    And also one by the Cure (who, I will note for the record, played the loudest show I've ever been to, at any rate).

But this isn't some fancy late-minute conversion -- check out his bio, he lists Mitchell and the Cure among his top 5 favorite artists there, too.

So read on for Adamson's stories of how the Cure saved his life (or at least from getting beat up) and singing along with Joni and how those helped him rawk melodically. 

Which band or artist is your favorite of all time?  Growing up, that was always the question asked.  Since people could never choose just one, I started altering the question to “What are your top 5 bands or artists of all time?”  This gained far better results, as people could no longer pull the “I’m so eclectic and well rounded, how can I possibly choose only one when I like soooo many styles of music?” card.  This served me well at parties during my 20’s.  Now I don’t ask, because I am stuck in the 80’s and 90’s and find that I no longer recognize bands that people list.  I am lazy about discovering new music these days and find if you put on a Wilco album in a social setting, 95% of people will be generally pleased.

On to my attempt to sound interesting and eclectic!  I wish I could write about 5 albums that influenced me musically, but nobody wants to read that much from a guy who’s not even the lead singer of The Not-Its!  So I will limit myself to two, one which was huge in my world at the time I first started playing guitar in the 8th grade - The Cure's Head On The Door - and another album that made me realize that it’s actually a good thing to “try” to sing as well as you can (rather than just get by or do the punk rock screamy thing) - Joni Mitchell's Blue.


The Cure had many albums that were influential to me, and you can definitely make the case that my musical style leans toward their guitar heavy (less synth), earlier stuff, but Head On The Door was their first album that I obtained (would have said “purchased” but I probably stole that cassette as I was a sticky-fingered, hooligan in 8th grade).  I was a skater kid back then, not the “gothed out” type of fan, but The Cure influenced me in many ways….  There may or may not be VHS video footage somewhere out there of me holding a magazine page photo of Robert Smith’s face with the mouth cut out, lip-syncing to the song “The Catch.”  In junior high, just wearing a The Cure shirt once saved me from getting my ass kicked.  I threw something at a car and the hot pursuit ended with the car full of 20 something year olds catching me (don’t ask me how that happened?) and letting me off STRICTLY because of that shirt!

Anyway, that album was something new, that didn’t sound like pop music, or the poorly produced skate rock compilations I had received via my subscription to Thrasher skateboarding magazine.  I just liked how Head On The Door (and most of their other albums) sounded.  I wouldn’t say it is their best album, but definitely my favorite and most influential, as it just got me at the right time.  It was fun to try to figure their songs out on guitar.  Something about bands from across the pond felt cool to my friends and me.  Nobody at our suburban Seattle junior high was listening to The Cure or The Smiths and it felt nice to have something from far away that felt like our own.  Still to this day I put my boys to bed by playing guitar and often songs by The Cure make it into the rotation. 


I started playing in punk bands in 10th grade in 1991.  I played guitar, my good friend also played guitar and a new buddy played bass.  We eventually found someone who played drums but still nobody could or would sing.  I started singing by default because nobody else was willing.  I was not good and confidence took years to establish.  I had a girlfriend with a hint of granola in her.  She owned some fleece, a pair of Birkenstocks, and pounded me down with the obnoxious crooning of Joni Mitchell.  I fought it hard with Fugazi and Superchunk, (which I believe she still loves today) but both sides triumphed in that battle as Joni Mitchell’s album Blue worked its way into my hard wired system.

That album and girlfriend both went away - the album for a few years and the girl forever - until I picked up Blue (purchased this one) on vinyl in 1997 or so.  I lived with 4 guys in a dude/party house near the University of Washington at the time.  A typical scene for one of my roommates to find when rolling home would be hearing Joni Mitchell blaring from my room with a giant speaker hauled into the bathroom, speaker wire stretched across the hall, and me screeching the high falsetto sounds of JM from the shower.  I was singing along due to its obvious genius as it grew on me, but also because I was actually trying to get better at singing.  Eventually I could sort of keep up with her and learned that breathing correctly and weird stuff like that were important elements to singing well.  With the album Blue, I really think you can feel the energy and emotion she put into the album (which I don’t usually say because how the heck do I know what went down in that studio?), but it’s tough to ignore when it’s just one person and her guitar or piano.  Pretty awesome.

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For me, these two albums simply just sound good to me and hit me at that right time in my life.  As I’m writing this, I’m finding it an interesting case study between albums that sound good and my association with music for children and families.  I know many people relate to albums of their past by what the album said to them and how they emotionally connected with the lyrics.  I’m quite the opposite.  I could hear a song 5 times and still not really tell you what it’s all about.  I just like it if a tune sounds good or has a nice harmony and I will always fall for an amazing little drum fill or hi-hat trick.  So yes, the guy who has never paid attention to the deep meaning of love songs is now writing music for kids.  I know kids are amazing, bright and full of potential, but what they really want is a good hook and a badass guitar riff.


Video: Recess Monkey's "Tambourine Submarine" Live at Teatro ZinZanni

It is easy to get spoiled in this era of instant access.  So let's just take a moment to appreciate what Recess Monkey has done.  They filmed -- with six cameras -- their latest 54-minute kids show at Seattle's Teatro ZinZanni and put it on the internet for you to watch for free.  It's from their "Tambourine Submarine" show this past summer and fall and, in addition, to their high-energy live show, the show features some clowning (beyond Jack's and Drew's and Korum's), hula-dancing, and acrobatics.  I'd put the ratio at about 80% Recess Monkey / 20% circus, but close to 100% fun.  (Also, props for the '90s and even '80s rock song shout-outs.)

Review: Desert Island Disc - Recess Monkey


Rather than complaining about Recess Monkey's incredibly high level of productivity and quality as I have multiple times in the past, I thought I'd try to, you know, straight-up review the Seattle band's tenth (!) album for families, the recently-released Desert Island Disc.

Novel, I know.   (Besides, how am I ever going to top this interview?)

As with many Recess Monkey albums, the band's latest album is nominally a concept album, loosely tied around the theme of being stranded on a desert island, the follow-up to their last album, this summer's Deep Sea Diver .  And as with most Recess Monkey albums, following the theme isn't strictly necessary, as the songs stand up well enough without the scaffolding of a theme to prop up interest in their young listeners.

Indeed, if the songs hold together in any particular way, it's more in their sound.  In the orchestrations (from Jherek Bischoff, brother of drummer Korum Bischoff), toned-down retro-rock, and love songs, this is easily their most Beatles-esque album since their little-heard debut Welcome to Monkey Town .  From the shuffle of "Pearls of Wisdom" to the sweeping strings on "Dessert Island" to the gorgeous love song "Long Gone," there are lots of echoes of the Fab Four's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band  (save for the "Getting a Sunburn," for which the band is probably getting lawyered up in anticipation of the inevitable cease-and-desist copyright letter from the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson).  Maybe it's just all the ukulele -- never a bad thing in my book -- but the mellow sound puts more emphasis on Drew Holloway's songwriting.

I don't necessarily hear the band playing many of these calmer songs in concert (notable exception: "Hide and Seek"), but I could see this desert island disk being a popular choice for snowed-in wintry mornings.  And, yes, I said "love songs" -- "Long Gone" and "Smooth Sailing" are sweet songs, as emotional as anything as the band's recorded, packing a wallop.

The 40-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 9.  As noted above, it's not necessarily as danceable or totally goofy as some of their previously albums, though that's a deliberate choice.  You can stream the whole album here.

One would think that it's difficult for a band to turn out as much great music as Recess Monkey has in the past not-even-a-decade.   I could be stranded on a desert island for that entire period of time and be lucky to write a small fraction of the great songs they've produced over that time.  So let's be thankful that the incredibly productive and focused trio continues to produce wonderful music.  Regardless of Desert Island Disc  actually makes it onto your own family's "desert island disks" collection, it's really good. Highly recommended.

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

Review: Baby Beatles - Caspar Babypants


Let us first stipulate that there is no need for a Beatles cover album. The most popular rock band of all time, I have no doubt full cover albums number in the thousands (let alone individual songs, which probably approach if not exceed a million in recorded form).  The originals are permanently lodged in listeners' heads, often in a way that those listeners might wonder why anybody would even try improving upon them.

So, having said that, what of Caspar Babypants' latest collection of songs, Baby Beatles?  Is this just a cop-out, the kindie equivalent of digging into the Great American Songbook as a final musical cash grab?

Let's answer that last question with a firm "no."  As he noted in a recent essay, Chris Ballew, the Caspar Babypants mastermind, owes a great deal of his musical career to the inspiration of the Beatles.   It is better, perhaps, then to view this album as an homage to the lads from Liverpool and their songs, and in that regard Baby Beatles works quite nicely.

Ballew's entire Babypants career has been dedicated to making music for the youngest listeners -- while he certainly would welcome the kindergarteners who want to dance along, he's more interested in their younger siblings.  So while he's always been interested in stripped-down arrangements, that becomes even more important in a covers album where the tricky part is retaining the song's essence while giving the artist's own spin.  That's especially tough given how familiar some of these songs are. 

For the most part, I think Ballew succeeds, usually by making the songs nimble and as light as a feather, even more so than his previously-released songs.  "Here Comes the Sun" is peppier than the original, an incredibly joyful way to kick off the album (his version of "Ob La Di Ob La Da" with Jen Wood gives me similarly happy feelings).   I love the use of faint handclaps on "Birthday."  "Blackbird" hews very closely to the original, but why wouldn't it when it's so perfect to begin with?

I'm not enthused with every reworking -- "Yellow Submarine" and "Octopus's Garden" in particular sound too thin -- but the hits here exceed the misses.  And while some of the song choices seem odd and perhaps picked because of their ostensible ties to childhood ("Mother Nature's Son," "Little Child," "Cry Baby Cry"), those choices at least prevent the album from just being a recap of the Beatles' greatest hits.

The 20-song has a runtime of about 48 minutes and is most appropriate for kids ages 1 through 4, though, c'mon, it's the Beatles.  Just about everybody will recognize at least some of these tracks. 

I don't think any Beatles cover album is essential -- just listen to the originals -- but Baby Beatles is just different enough to hold the listeners' attention far more than they would for some random (often Muzak-inspired) cover.  There is no such thing as a bad Caspar Babypants album, and while I look forward to the next album of his original music and less-well-known traditional songs, this will do quite nicely in the meantime.  Definitely recommended.

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