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.