Weekly Summary (11/4/13 - 11/10/13)

Reviews from Portland, Kindie Capitol of the World

You heard me.  Portland, Oregon is the kindie capitol of the world.  So much music is coming out that city that I can't keep up with it all.  I realized that even though I'd semi-recently reviewed new albums from Cat Doorman and Lori Henriques, there were a whole bunch of other albums from that city that I hadn't yet reviewed, and every time I was getting close to writing a Portland-based review, another album would be released.  Aaaargh. You're killin' me, PDX.  (But in a good way.)

And here's the thing, not only are there are a ton of artists emerging from Portland right now, they're all incredibly supportive of one another.  They definitely have each others' backs.

Here, then, are six from the past 18 months or so that are worth your time -- they're all recommended.  It's not the full list of Portland albums I've received over that time, and there are more on the way.  But it's a great place to start, and you're bound to find at least one album to meet your family's needs.  They're ordered roughly from most "traditional" sounding to least so.

While I am reluctant to do comparisons between albums in a single post, if I had to direct your attention to just one or two albums, it would be Red Yarn's The Deep Woods and the Pointed Man Band's Swordfish Tango -- they're two debuts that stretch the notion of what kids music can be even as they draw on songs and sounds that are 50, 100, or even 500 years old.  Swordfish Tango  is definitely recommended and The Deep Woods  is highly recommended.

Without further ado, then, here are the reviews... 

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Songs for Johnson Creek: Various Artists - This benefit album for the Johnson Creek Watershed Council is coordinated by JCWC Executive Director Matt Clark (himself a kindie musician with a few albums under his belt).  It features mostly-previously unreleased songs from a bunch of Portland-area artists (Aaron Nigel Smith, Laura Veirs, Lori Henriques, Cat Doorman, and some folks noted below) and, as you might expect, has a nature theme.  In terms of the new tracks, I really liked the Alphabeticians' "Roe Together," Red Yarn's "Big Blue Dome," and Lori Henriques' "Let's Go Take a Peek at the Creek."  The album is roughly split between songs that more explicitly encourage a conservation/eco-conscious approach and those that just celebrate nature.  The album will be especially appropriate for those in a outdoors-y mood.  This album has a mix of songs and age ranges that makes a target age range difficult to peg, but you can stream the 36-minute album here to check for yourself.

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 Be Alive: Johnny & Jason - Fuzzed-out rock mixed with a bit of British Invasion mostly for toddlers and preschoolers.  The second album from duo Johnny Keener and Jason Greene features short, sharp rock tunes written mostly for bouncing around, with very kid-simple subjects.  Leadoff track "Up Up Up" is definitely on the toddler end of thing while the country-folk "Lollipop Trees" is far more fanciful and for your daydreaming kindergartner.  I also dig the swirly organ on "Let's Play"   You can stream the 23-minute album here

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Monster Suit: Mo Phillips -- Lo-fi Bakersfield-tinged indie rock with a side of goofiness and dollop of tenderness on top.  "The Princess and The Cowboy," on which Phillips duets with Little Sue, sits on the tenderness side of the equation ("It doesn't matter what you do just how you do it / Make sure it's full of happiness and heart") while "Rollerskate Banana Peels," well, you can guess where that sits.  Song topics sit squarely in the field of kid-centered topics (the zoo, messy hair, trucks).  Best for ages 3 through 6, you can stream some of the songs from the 34-minute album at Phillips' website.

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Junior: The Alphabeticians - The duo of Eric Levine (Mr. E) and Jeff Inlay (Mr. Hoo) proudly represent the TMBG/BNL wing of PDX kindie rock, and not just because I used a lot of alphabetical letters there.  I mean, it's not everyday that you get to hear the word "sycophant" in a kids' song (appropriately rhymed in "Elephant"), right?  This album continues the brainy wordplay of their previous albums (see "General Relativity" for an explanation of how you're specifically related to your distant relatives) and multiple alphabet-inspired songs (natch) with a slight expansion of their sound (banjo! cello!).  Best for ages 4 through 8, you can stream the 37-minute album here.

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The Deep Woods: Red Yarn - The most ambitious album in the bunch is from Andy Furgeson, AKA Red Yarn, who uses ten musicians and 150 friends and neighbors ("The Community Singers") to give 11 traditional songs (plus one original, the title track) the folk treatment in the old meaning of the term.  "Bob the Rabbit" is a driving rock melding of "John the Rabbit" and "Rabbit Soup," while "Old Blue" with its yelps might remind you young whippersnappers of the Lumineers.  (I personally had an early Arcade Fire feel throughout.)  "Mr. Rabbit" has an almost desperate urgency while "The Fox," which brings together "The Fox," "Midnight Special," and "Go Tell Aunty Rhody," is absolutely gorgeous.  This is a folk revival, in all the many meanings of the word "revival."  Best for ages 3 through 10, you can stream the 36-minute album here.

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Swordfish Tango : Pointed Man Band - The oddest-sounding album of the bunch is from Pointed Man Band.  A combination of Tom Waits and Shel Silverstein, the Beatles and Parisian cafes, the music smells of hardwood floors and flannel and wood construction blocks.  Let's put it this way - it's an album that besides featuring a song about an invisible duck and Western Washington witches, it includes a song about dancing without pants -- in French.  (Plus, of course, the title song, in 3 parts.)  If this sounds all a bit too precious, perhaps it comes close to that line, but I don't think ever crosses it -- it's fun, earnest, and delightfully weird.  Best for ages 5 through 10, you can stream the 34-minute album here

World Premiere Video: "For Halloween This Year" - You and Me and the Rain (Lori Henriques and Todd McHatton)

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It's been a busy past few weeks for Los Angeles' Todd McHatton.  Last week saw the release of his (first) EP and animated show with Mista Cookie Jar as part of Todd and Cookie.

This week, another new band he's a part of, You and Me and the Rain, is unleashed upon the world.  His partner in this effort?  Portland's Lori Henriques.

The first product of their collaboration is a duet about Halloween creativity called "For Halloween This Year," though to call it a "duet" sells it short by half, as both Henriques' older child and McHatton's younger one make vocal contributions.

The idea of combining Henriques' jazz and showtune sensibility and McHatton's psychedelic kindie was not obvious to me when I first heard of it, but their shared taste for nifty wordplay ("is rogue in vogue this year?") and their well-matched vocal tones shows that this could be very fruitful.  What could come from this? It's fun not knowing.

In any case, I'm pleased as punch to present the world premiere of the song's video, directed by Gina and Todd McHatton and offering low-cost, high-imagination costumes for Halloween (or anytime of year).

You and Me and the Rain (Lori Henriques and Todd McHatton) - "For Halloween This Year" [YouTube]

Review: The World Is A Curious Place To Live - Lori Henriques

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Who are the inheritors of the edutational mantle passed on from Schoolhouse Rock ?  While the crunchy pop purveyors of, say, the Bazillions have distilled a handful of lessons into 3-minute songs whose chord structures and arrangements would fit on any AAA radio station, who took the less-poppy and more obscure route that some of those songs from 40 years ago took?

Lori Henriques, that's who. 

Her 2011 kids music debut, Outside My Door , was one of those "unlike any other CD" CDs for which the phrase actually fit.  A mixture of 1970s piano jazz, Broadway exposition, Sesame Street , and, yes, Schoolhouse Rock , the album eschewed pop-rock for jazzy explorations of birthdays, twins, and more subjects of kid-concern.  It was smart without being snooty (yes, she rhymed "goat turd" with "awkward").

On her new disk, The World Is A Curious Place To Live, the Portland, Oregon-based Henriques even more fully embraces her inner Schoolhouse Rock  nerd.  From the album title, which isn't so much descriptive as it is sage advice, to the songs within, which deal with topics scientific, mathematic, and linguistic.  In fact, the 35-minute album can even be thought of as 3 separate and sequential EPs on each of Henriques' obsessions.

The first EP, featuring the most scientific songs, includes the album's strongest songs.  With its celebration of curious people both famous and close to Henriques' orbit, the opener "Curiosity" features a bouncing chord accompaniment and her evident delight in the wordplay. (For good measure, Henriques throws in a scat line or two.)  On songs like "Crunchy Privilege," you can hear why she cites Cole Porter as an influence.  And while Henriques having fun moving her fingers quickly to match the lyrics, the two strongest tracks on the album are "When I Look Into the Night Sky" and "Dinosaur," two  ballads.  The former, an ode to wonder and amazement, is based on "Saint James Infirmary" and has a lovely video to match.  The latter is wholly original, simultaneously an honest-to-goodness love song for a dinosaur and a wry recounting of millions of years of evolution ("We've still got the ants / And they're still crawling round on our floor").  I can't see this playing on too many radio stations, but it so totally nails that combination of earnestness and nerdiness that's one of kindie's most appealing strains.

The other two EPs-of-a-sort are fun, but don't quite reach the heights of the preceding songs.  The counting songs are brief and for the most part meld familiar classical melodies with skip-counting lyrics for numbers 2 through 6 ("Counting by Six is Sublime" to me works best).  The language songs include a Norwegian travelogue ("When in Norway") and, appropriately for Henriques, a wordsmith at heart, a celebratory ode to words themselves ("Vocabulary").

As on her debut, the only accompaniment is Henriques' piano, which she nimbly plays.  The age range may differ by section -- older kids probably won't find the number songs as interesting as the language and science ones -- but there's a sweet spot between the ages of 5 through 9.  Henriques has joined Justin Roberts and decided not to have her latest album streamed on Spotify, but you can stream samples on iTunes.  And, as with her debut, the album packaging from her brother Joel Henriques is lovely.

I think the thing I love most about The World Is A Curious Place To Live  is that Lori Henriques clearly practices what she sings, offering up celebrations of the world outside of ourselves.  Her jazzy-pop-by-way-of-Broadway-and-Carnegie-Hall is still unique in the world of kids music and worth being curious about.  Definitely recommended.

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

Pointed Man Band Kickstarts Itself

Let's see... a new Portland band attempting to Kickstart a brand new album that features guitars, middle school choirs, and pots and pans.  Whose first song, I would add, celebrates the Krampus.  And whose album titles echoes -- intentionally or not -- Tom Waits.

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This could be hipster overload.

But I think after you listen to "Grandmother's Invisible Duck," a demo track from the album, I think you might just be interested in pledging to Dan Elliott's Kickstarter for the Pointed Man Band.  I think most of the readers here would think there's already no distinction between children's music and real music, but I also think those same families will warm to the handmade sound.

A little bit Telephone Company, a little bit Dog on Fleas, with a touch of Sufjan Stevens (and not just song-title-wise) -- I'm eager to hear the final result.

Also: If the criterion was solely new kindie bands, Portland has probably taken over the title of Kindiest City in America.

Cat Doorman Songbook - Cat Doorman (aka Julianna Bright)

It took awhile, but the kids music scene of Portland, Oregon is now humming along with a number of actual (not fake) kids musicians.  Which isn't too surprising -- the city has a thriving music scene and has a very creative population generally.  No wonder it's the home to Etsy.

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Into this scene comes Julianna Bright, an artist (on Etsy, natch) and musician.  For her foray into making music for families, she's created an alter ego of sorts, Cat Doorman.  Her debut album, the Cat Doorman Songbook, contains echoes of other kids albums before hers, but the cumulative effect is one unlike just about anything.

You have the folk tradition on the leadoff track, "Peaceful," which begins, "We live to be peaceful / We live to be / Free from the whim / There's always something new to need. / We cherish what we use and / We share the rest. / We know this is how / It feels to be blessed."  The song rocks harder than most songs with the same theme, perhaps, but the spirit is the same.

But even more important to the album than a spirit of peace and love is the celebration of do-it-yourself and individual expression.  Songs like "Oh, the Inspiration!" and "Yeah!," as different as they are sonically, speak of the spark that drives people to create and express themselves.  (It actually makes "So Many Words," the alphabet song that's the closest thing to a traditional kids song -- and it's quite a way from it at that -- seem safe by comparison.)  On the ragtime-y "Two Old Shoes," Bright sings, "For every moment you could foment thoughts of loneliness / Or cause to be afraid / Line your sturdy hearts up children, throw them open and / Behold the world you made."  The celebratory lyrics are paired with an organically rough but sweet folk-rock sound made by a large group of musicians including members of the Decemberists and the Corin Tucker Band.

The whole album builds up to the stunning "Lonely Girl," the most striking kids' song you'll hear all year.  A slow song that begins as a character study of a distracted little girl ("Watch as she circles the school parking lot singing, 'This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine' / Here she is in her school's study hall / Losing time staring holes in the wall."), the song ends with a full-throated exhortation ("Lonely girl, yours is a timorous lot / You think too much Darling of what you are not and / Next time you do please recall you can sing / and the itch at your back is the beat of your wings and / They'll carry you forward to wonderful things.").

She had me at "timorous."

The 36-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 10.  You can stream three songs here.  I'd also commend the illustrated lyric sheet by Bright.  Fans of the handmade nature of the album and packaging may also want to explore Night and Day Studios' iOS app for Little Red Wagon.

Fans of Frances England, Elizabeth Mitchell, Dean Jones, and Lunch Money should find in Cat Doorman a sympathetic soul.  It's possible that if Cat Doorman Songbook didn't exist, Etsy would have had to create it.  It reminds families of the worlds and possibilities that lie outside our door, if only we're willing to see them and create them ourselves.  Definitely recommended.