Review: !Come Bien! Eat Right! - José-Luis Orozco

José-Luis Orozco ¡Come Bien! Eat Right! album cover

José-Luis Orozco ¡Come Bien! Eat Right! album cover

It is easy to think of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings as the record label of Ella Jenkins, Pete Seeger, and many more who joined the label more than a half-century ago.  But they've also signed up to release recordings from artists not even born when Ella and Pete first started recording -- hi, Elizabeth Mitchell, welcome, Sarah Lee Guthrie!

From that perspective, the fact that Los Angeles-based musician and educator José-Luis Orozco has joined the Folkways fold is both entirely fitting and novel.  If you're not familiar with Orozco's work, then there's a good chance that you haven't been in a classroom with young kids, particularly a classroom with bilingual kids.  Since 1971, Orozco has released 15 albums; his website's biography page says those albums (along with a DVD and 3 songbooks) have sold more than two million copies, and I believe it -- if you look at the iTunes and Amazon best-selling children's music lists, his albums, particularly De Colores and Other Latin American Folk Songs, are often found there.  (That album is one of the very few kids' music albums that my wife, who's taught young kids and in classrooms with lots of bilingual speakers, introduced to me.)

Which brings us to !Come Bien! Eat Right!, Orozco's 16th album and his first distributed through Smithsonian Folkways.  In one sense, it feels completely natural that a musician and educator of Orozco's standing should be part of a record label so committed to celebrating and spreading the folk music of the world here in the United States (and around the world).  And in another sense, you're surprised that this grandfather isn't already part of that family and that it's taken all this time for the two to finally partner.

The album's theme, in case you haven't already guessed it from the title and album cover, is healthy eating.  It features 38 songs, the first 19 in Spanish, followed by the same 19 songs in English translation.  So, for example, the album leads off with "Damos gracias," a simple blessing sung in Spanish and accompanied only by percussion from producer and well-known Latin musician Quetzal Flores -- and then you can fast-forward nineteen tracks to track #20, "Thanksgiving," and listen to the same song (and arrangement) sung in English.

On Orozco moves through the meal -- fruits, vegetables, proteins, grains.  Musically, the accompaniment is generally simple, but I think it shines best when it features other Los Angeles musicians, such as Gabriel Tenorio on the quinto sonero on "La comida en mi plato/The Food on My Plate" or Tylana Enomoto on violin on "Verduras/Veggies," one of my favorite tracks.  There's some call and response on the album featuring a couple of kids, and, of course, "De Colores" makes an appearance, nimbly reworked into a song called "Sabroses colors/Tasty Colors," all about eating fruits and vegetables with healthy colors.  And -- yay! -- "Chocolate," a classic traditional song that's always fun to sing along with.

You might think that this album is "educational," and... it totally is.  I don't speak much Spanish, and so I could listen to the Spanish language tracks and enjoy them, but when I switched to the English-language versions, some of them seemed very... educational and lacking some of the vibrancy I felt on the Spanish-language track.  Now that's OK, but if you -- or your kid -- are expecting something freewheeling, this album isn't that.  There are definitely songs you could pull out and place onto a broader playlist, but as something to listen to 62 minutes straight without an explicit expectation that your family will learn more about healthy eating or learning a different language, it's not designed for that.

The album will be most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7.  I feel almost contractually obligated (note: I'm not) to mention that the album packaging and liner notes are lovely -- in this particular case all the notes are produced in Spanish on one side, and English on the other.    The lovely illustrations are by Elisa Kleven.

Orozco's music has been heard by literally millions of kids, and his new association with Folkways is not the culmination of a career, but just another feather in the cap of a much-beloved and well-respected musician and educator.  It wouldn't be the first choice of mine for an introduction to Spanish-language music, but for educators seeking to broaden their Spanish-language collections or looking for something bilingual to address issues of eating and nutrition, there's a bounty here.  And the rest of us can certainly find a number of tracks to nibble on.  Recommended.

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

Video: "Breakfast Club" - Tim Kubart (feat. Carly Ciarrocchi) (World Premiere!)

There are many things Tim Kubart is good at, but right near the top of that list is his ability around a kids music video.  From "Superhero" to "2nd Grade Show", Kubart's videos are engaging and produced with panache.

He's got a brand-new album out this week, the filled-with-hits Home, and one of those hits gets the honor of lead single and video.  The song "Breakfast Club" features an earworm of a melody, handclaps, and a slick guest rap from Kubart's Sprout co-star Carly Ciarrocchi -- it's a winner of a track all by itself.

But the video itself is no slouch, either.  It's not plot-based like those two videos mentioned above, but what it lacks in visual narrative drive, it gains in natural good humor.  As has been the case in his other videos -- and generously, given his visibility on TV -- Kubart plays a supporting role in the video.  The stars are the friends that sing around the breakfast table, and in this case, Kubart notes they're literally his friends and friends of friends.  He was the preschool teacher of some of the kids (though not of actor Kal Penn, who appears in the video with his nephew and family).  As a viewer, it's nice to see the range of kids and families who appear -- some who feel like they're ready for their closeup, and others who just seem bemused by the idea of filming.  (Also: can you spot the cameo appearances by stars of Kubart's previous videos?)

Kubart's got a few gigs lined up in October to celebrate the album's release -- several shows in and around Austin during the Austin City Limits Festival, plus Boston, Philadelphia, NYC, even Dayton, Ohio -- for more details, go here.

But, if you can't see him play live, his videos are always worth your family's time.  I'm pleased as punch to present the world premiere to "Breakfast Club."

Tim Kubart (feat. Carly Ciarrocchi) - "Breakfast Club" [YouTube]

Review: Odds & Ends - Andrew & Polly

Andrew & Polly - Odds & Ends album cover

Andrew & Polly - Odds & Ends album cover

Sometimes album titles don't signify much, but in the case of the brand-new album from Los Angeles-based duo Andrew & Polly, I think it's 100% on point.

Just like the random collection of stuff on the shelf on the album cover art, the tracks here are an assortment of tiny treasures and tracks with less heft.  Unlike many albums, in an interview with them, the duo noted that the album reflects a collection of songs they've written and recorded over time.  Sometimes the results are magical -- "Little Bitta You," a previously-released single, is a zippy and sweet folk-pop song, for example.  And their new song "Grapes" is a strong contender for catchiest kindie track of the year, with a singalong chorus filled with "la la las."

At other points, it does feel like one of those "B-Side" collections that your favorite power-pop band might have released after fifteen years together -- your XTCs, your Fountains of Wayne. There are three covers ("Forever Young," "Here Comes the Sun," and my favorite of the three, "Ghostbusters"), for example plus "Critters," their non-religious take on Bill Staines' classic "All's God's Critters" ("got a place in the choir / some sing low / some sing higher...").

Andrew & Polly have been devoting a lot of attention to their podcast for kids Ear Snacks, and some tracks feel very much like excerpts like that.  "Ghostbusters," with a lot of kid-interaction, was sort of a prototype for the podcast, while "Fruitphabet" is a playful thing, more sound-and-word-play than pop song.  At 28 minutes in length, the album's brevity -- it's barely more than an EP -- is one more thing that makes me think of this as a "B-side" collection.

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 6, and I should make clear that my middle-aged perspective on what an album "is" (or isn't) won't matter to the kids, who will sometimes groove and other times laugh to the folky, smart, and weird stuff on Odds & Ends.  Ear Snacks is a genuinely original podcast as well.  Andrew & Polly can write such sharp music, that I'm very much looking forward to the next set of songs from the duo, which they say will be a coherent concept album.  In the meantime, there are some tiny treasures on this album, and those will do just fine.  Recommended.

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

Review: Gustafer Yellowgold's Dark Pie Concerns - Gustafer Yellowgold

Gustier Yellowgold's Dark Pie Concerns album/DVD cover

Gustier Yellowgold's Dark Pie Concerns album/DVD cover

Can it be true?  Can Gusfater Yellowgold's Dark Pie Concerns really be the seventh album from Gustafer Yellowgold?

Of course it's true -- why would I start out this review with a bunch of untrue rhetorical questions?  Over the course of more than a decade and those seven albums, Morgan Taylor has crafted an entire world about the yellow guy from the sun wrapped in a gauzy '70s AM-rock packaging.  The songs are catchy, but what lodges Gustafer into the kindie listener's memory are the lyrics and the videos illustrating Taylor's often surreal subjects and stories.

Sure, you can hear "Sunny Side" as a song celebrating waking up early and having a positive attitude, but the video suggests that it's really celebrating eggs cooked sunny side up (and features at one point some 8-bit squirrels).  "Dark Pie" brings a little electronic percussion (hints of Wilco's update of '70s soft rock on "Heavy Metal Drummer") to the public and private shame that is overbaking of pies.

This is an album of food-inspired songs and while there's always been more than a hint of food antagonism in the Gustafer oeuvre, that comes out in full force here -- from the Gary Glitter stomp of "Rock Melon" to the slightly disturbing craziness of "Gravy Insane" to the food-gone-amock soft-rock-turned-electro-rock-rap of "Cakenstein." (I love "Cakenstein.")  But Taylor indulges his softer XTC side as well, particularly on tracks like "Cinnamon Tap," "Strawberry Love," and "I Sandwich," which is an odd metaphor for love.

If there's any change from prior GY work, it's that unlike the past few albums, there is no story throughline to the album.  It has its "food" theme (though like They Might Be Giants' numbers and letters-inspired albums, it's as much a jumping-off point as anchor), but there's no plot per se.  That's fine, but I do miss those attempts at broader stories.

You can get the 29-minute album either as part of the DVD/CD set or just the album alone.  I think the music stands up on its own, but hopefully I've made the case for the videos as well.  The DVD/CD set also includes sing-along versions of all the songs, along with a 24-minute bonus video featuring Taylor telling you how to draw Gustafer's best friend, the pterodactyl Forrest Applecrumbie, with occasional sound clips from other songs.  As with all Gustafer albums, the sweet spot is for kids ages 3 through 8.

Gustier Yellowgold's Dark Pie Concerns is another surreal trip through the Gustafer universe, funny and memorable, both musically and visually.  Even if this trip doesn't head anywhere in particular, it's still fun to meander with him.  Definitely recommended.

Note: I was provided a copy of this DVD/CD set for possible review.

Video: "Gravy Insane" - Gustafer Yellowgold

Based on the lyrics and video for "Gravy Insane," the brand new song from Gustafer Yellowgold, perhaps the follow-up to the excellent Gustafer Yellowgold's Wisdom Tooth of Wisdom will explore slightly darker paths.  The song recounts how Gustafer's forest friends become gravy gluttons, keeping in line with the Gusta-verse's previously established food obsessions ("I Jump on Cake," anyone?).

Then again, reminders that bats can't drive cars are inherently humorous, IMO.

Gustafer Yellowgold - "Gravy Insane" [YouTube]

Itty-Bitty Review: Fun Food Songs - Raffi


It has been too long since Raffi gave us a whole album of original music for kids (2002 was the last time, with Let's Play ).  But even though the Canadian kids music legend still has an incredible voice and delights listeners in concert, he's more interested in tweeting and writing than recording new music.  And with a back catalog stretching back 25+ years and more than 10 albums, there's plenty of opportunity for his label to repackage his output in new ways for a new generation.  (See here an example from more than 7 years ago.)

This week sees the release of Fun Food Songs, a collection of songs associated (to varying degrees) with food.  Ranking high on the food association (and enjoyability) scale are Raffi classics like "Peanut Butter Sandwich" and "The Corner Grocery Store."  More of a stretch for the collection (but no less enjoyable) are songs like "Down By the Bay" and "Brush Your Teeth."  These songs are, for the most part, fun, in part because few of them were written or recorded with the idea of Making Food Fun.

The 15-song,  30-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 6.  Because I consider a lot of Raffi's work essential, collections of previously-recorded such as these aren't.  But it's a solid collection of songs from a wide range of his albums, and if you don't have any Raffi songs, or if you're looking for an instantaneous food-themed CD for a classroom or daycare setting, this'll be great.  Recommended.

Note: I was provided an advance stream of the album for poss