Review: Hot Air - Recess Monkey

Hot Air album cover

Hot Air album cover

I've come to think that the biggest risk Recess Monkey takes is the opposite of most bands' risk: rather than waiting too long between albums, the Seattle trio's insane level of productivity offers its own perils.  Producing an album a year (if not more) like clockwork might almost make listeners think of the albums as interchangeable cogs rather than unique creative expressions.

With their new album Hot Air, the band has released one of their more stylistically varied albums.  With song subjects -- or at least titles -- loosely grouped around an airborne topic ("Lighter Than Air," "Paper Airplane," "Head in the Clouds," to name just a few song titles), the band covers broad distances (see what I did there?) musically.  From the soft-rock of "Lighter Than Air" to the Beatlesque tunes of "Paper Airplane" (White Album) and "Head in the Clouds" and "Morning Sun" (Sgt. Pepper's) to the XTC ripoff (lovingly, I'm sure) "Thunder & Lightning," there are many approaches, and in a more sophisticated way than the "buffet" style kids albums sometimes employ.  "Oh Lando" might be viewed as a shameless (and spoiler-filled!) courting of the Star Wars fanboys and fangirls in their retelling of The Empire Strikes Back, but there have been much worse attempts.  There isn't a single song that's the can't-miss hit of the summer (and "First Things First," though it may be popular in concert, wears out its welcome quickly to the adult listener), but on the whole it's yet another solid collection of tracks that will appeal to varying degrees to a wide sector of the kids' music world.

The 39-minute album is most appropriate for kids 4 through 8.  The album comes packaged -- for those of you who still buy albums -- with a DVD that ties the songs on the album together into a movie -- a series of music videos, really -- about a boy who grows up to enter an air race with a homemade balloon and encounters a penguin... OK, does the story really matter?  (Not really.)  It adds value and so your preschoolers might enjoy it, but it's not essential to enjoyment of the album.

To go back to the opening question, yes, I think there's a chance that Recess Monkey's rock-solid consistency and productivity has led to folks -- including me -- to take their music for granted.  As much as it feels weird to me to say this, I kind of wish they'd take a year off just to see how it affects their musical output -- and their fans' reactions to a longer-than-normal recorded absence.  Regardless, Hot Air is definitely recommended.

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

Itty-Bitty Review: Sundrops - The Harmonica Pocket

Harmonica Pocket album cover

Harmonica Pocket album cover

The Seattle-area duo The Harmonica Pocket (songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Keeth Monta Apger and his wife Nala Walla) have always been led by an animating interest in the natural world, but never quite as fully as on their fourth family album Sundrops, which is officially released today.  The theme -- sunshine and rain -- is a pretty genius one (especially for a Pacific Northwest band) and the dozen tracks here explore (mostly) the beauty of both sun and rain.

The album starts off particularly strongly -- the country-folk of "Sing In the Sun," followed by the pure pop goodness of "Raindrops," which features fellow Northwest musician and co-producer Johnny Bregar on the Hammond B3.  That song, with the lyric "We'll dry off someday / It's just water anyway," and "It's Gotta Rain (If You Want a Rainbow)," give you a good sense of Apgar's songwriting attitude.   (They also feature the small band Apgar and Bregar brought in to fill out the sound.)  Much of what follows is also an enjoyable, amiable folk-pop shuffle through the natural world -- I particularly liked "Digga Dog Kid" (a duet with Chris Ballew AKA Caspar Babypants, who knows his way around songs about being outside) and their reworking of "You Are My Sunshine," featuring many new lyrics.  I didn't like "Are You a Monster Too?," which didn't seem to fit in at all amongst the sun and rain songs, but since I greatly adored "I Love Ukuleles," a song featuring wordplay around the phrase "I love you..." (and Marcy Marxer on ukulele as well, natch) perhaps I just didn't like "Monster," period.

The 40-minute Sundrops is most appropriate for listeners ages 3 through 7.  Its mellow sound and open-hearted lyrics will make a nice accompaniment for both rainy afternoons and sunny Sunday mornings.  Recommended.

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

Itty-Bitty Review: Turkey Andersen - Turkey Andersen

Turkey Andersen debut album cover

Turkey Andersen debut album cover

The debut EP is the proof-of-concept of the recorded music industry.  It's not intended to be perfect, it's just supposed to be an introduction, something that says, this could work - this does work.

Such is the case with the debut self-titled EP from Turkey Andersen.  Who is Turkey Andersen?  Well, I don't think he and Northampton, Massachusetts musician Henning Ohlenbusch have ever been seen together at the same time.  More importantly, though, in the course of 8 songs and 16 minutes, these songs put smiles on faces and quirky, poppy earworms in brains.  "If a Sandwich Was a Sandwich" is the most brilliant 30-second song ever ("If a sandwich was a pillow then the bread would be the pillow case," the song starts out, and maintains that level of rational absurdity for another 25 seconds).  The centerpiece of the album is "Time Travel Clothes," all about the trouble you can get into if you wear the wrong clothes while traveling through time.  (We've all been there, right?)  I also find "Hot and Stuffy" very funny and also educational about how to get a room to the right temperature.

You can stream the album here.  It'll be most amusing to kids ages 3 through 7.  Its combination of TMBG quirkiness and songwriting with Jonathan Richman-esque earnestness and vocals is pretty much instantly appealing.  If this debut is proof-of-concept, then I think it's proven that Turkey Andersen needs some investors.  More, please.  Definitely recommended.

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

Itty-Bitty Review: Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue - Papa Crow

Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue

Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue

I praise the willingness of musicians to follow wherever their idiosyncratic muse takes them, and by that measure, few kids musicians would receive higher praise than Michigan's Jeff Krebs, aka Papa Crow.  It's not that he changes musical styles dramatically from album to album -- you can hear his gentle folk-pop on his fine albums Things That Roar and Full Moon, Full Moon and you can also hear it on his EP about farting and tooting, What Was That Sound?.  It's the subjects that are wildly different.

You can also hear his folk-pop on his latest EP, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue.  His subject this time? The nonsense poems of 19th century writer Edward Lear.  Accompanied with nothing but his vintage 1947 Gibson guitar, Krebs tells these stories through melodies he's written for the album.  Lear might be most well-known for his poem "The Owl and the Pussycat," which Krebs includes here, but the strongest songs to my ear are the leadoff track, the sea-shanty-like "The Jumblies," and the blues-y "Calico Pie."  (Special shout-out to Krebs for recording the 110-line "The Courtship of the Yonghy Bonghy Bo," which Krebs reports took him 54 attempts to reach a suitable take.)

The album will be most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8.  You can stream and purchase the 19-minute EP here.  Kids will need to be in the right frame of mind to enjoy the songs here -- they do require some attention -- and these may work better mixed in with other songs, rather than in one set.  But it's a fun album nonetheless.  Settings of 150-year-old poetry to song is probably not the way to kindie fame and fortune, but I'm glad that Papa Crow has chosen to explore this particular side path.  Recommended.

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

Review: Flight of the Blue Whale - Pointed Man Band

Flight of the Blue Whale album cover

Flight of the Blue Whale album cover

When you look at the Amazon page for Flight of the Blue Whale, the second album from Portland, Oregon's Pointed Man Band, here are the three genres in which Dan Elliott (who in the great indie rock tradition has taken on a band nom de plume for his music) has slotted the album:

- Children's Music

- Avant Garde & Free Jazz

- Miscellaneous

That, readers, is a review -- and an accurate one -- in seven words.  Oh, were we all able to be so concise!  But citations of Amazon genre categorizations are not why you visit this site, so onward I press.

In my review of the debut Pointed Man Band album Swordfish Tango from 2013, I wrote that the album was a "combination of Tom Waits and Shel Silverstein, the Beatles and Parisian cafes, the music [smelling] of hardwood floors and flannel and wood construction blocks."  The follow-up is both slightly more mainstream and weirder, if that's possible.

Flight of the Blue Whale tells a story in song of a red fox who operates a small clock and watch repair shop, comes home to find moles invading his garden and the town, and goes off on an adventure to... well, it ends with a flight of a blue whale.  What happens in that ellipsis is, frankly, a little confusing and I don't even really think that's the point.  Bottom line, the more conventional narrative drive of the story -- whose moral is about taking time to dream and not just work -- is just a structure on which to hang these songs.

And the songs are just as odd as their predecessors.  The album kicks off with perhaps the most straightforward track, "Red Fox," an indie-pop tune featuring an infectiously catching organ motif, but from that track, we move on to the stomping sound of "Moles on Parade" and the accordion-drenched near-instrumental "Valse de Taupier," one of a couple waltzes on the album.  Sometimes Elliott sounds like Tom Waits (as on "Moles" and "Baleen Curse"), but more often his voice will remind listeners of a certain age and sensibility of David Byrne, as on careening "The Plan" and the modern big band sound of "Tunneling to Paradise."  The title track (another instrumental) sounds like a Parisian cafe dragged begrudingly out to the seaside.

The 33-minute album will be most appreciated by kids ages 5 through 9.  You can listen to the album here.  (I also think the album artwork from Brooke Weeber is lovely and complements the album and story itself.)

Flight of the Blue Whale is most definitely not an album that will please all listeners.  It is, as I've noted, a little confusing in places, esoteric in its musical choices -- it's not eager to please.  It is, however, joyful and all those things I just mentioned are also its strengths.  Some kids and families will adore this album -- they are the families who probably really liked Wes Anderson's take on The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  (Note: We were one of those families.  This album is in some sense a spiritual sequel to it.)  So, not for everyone, but maybe for you.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: The Start of Things - Alison Faith Levy

The Start of Things cover

The Start of Things cover

Kids' music in the 1960s -- that is to say, kids' music before there was even a name for it -- basically took the folk music path that was one of the dominant musical strains of the era.  For Pete Seeger and Ella Jenkins, there was some distinction between folk music for adults and that for kids, but it was a distinction more of presentation than of subject matter.  And that folk music orientation was basically the default kids' music option through the '80s if not the '90s until the kindie wave swept through at the start of the 21st century.

Imagine, however, if other musical strains of the decade -- psychedelic pop, Phil Spector's Wall of Sound production -- also found themselves working their way into kids'  music with songs for the youngest listener.  Were that to have been the case, Alison Faith Levy's brand-new album The Start of Things would be a stellar example of that alternate reality rather than sounding so unique in today's kindie landscape.

Levy first came to the attention of the kids' music world as a member of the Bay Area band The Sippy Cups, which started out as a kid-friendly cover band for the music of the '60s and '70s before gradually becoming a band which wrote its own psychedelic-inspired kindie pop.  The band had been on hiatus for several years before Levy released her first solo album, World of Wonder, in 2012.  While there were echoes of the Sippy Cups' psychedelic and Wall of Sound production on that first solo album, it's much more pronounced on The Start of Things.  The opening title track features a groovy organ, horns, and the theme of how it's OK to be nervous when tackling a new project (first day of school, opening night of a play, etc.).  It's my favorite track on the album, just a great pop song for kids that a lot of adults might sneak into their own playlists.

The track "Pull Your Weeds" envisions a friendship between Cinderella and Snow White and the empowering lyric (printed on the inside of the CD package, so clearly resonant with Levy) "Do your thing / Love what you do / Appreciate your beauty / Pull your weeds and / Stand your ground / And the world will come around."  While "The Start of Things," Pull Your Weeds," and songs like "Rainbow Tunnel" and "Little Dreamer" sound like they could easily be part of a musical Levy is working on based on World of Wonder.

Other songs, however, are rooted more in interactivity -- the raucous "Are You Happy?" runs through a series of emotions that the kid-listeners are encouraged to mimic.  The "Ballad of Boo Ghosty" is a silly little story about a ghostly friend, while "The Froggy Dance" is a nonsense poem.  Given these tracks, the 32-minute album will be most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 6, though some of the songs mentioned earlier in the review have a slightly older age range.

The Start of Things has a '60s-inspired sound, but it still sounds fresh.  That colorful and rainbow-adorned album cover nails the vibe of Levy's bright and empowered songs.  Definitely recommended.

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