Itty-Bitty Review: We're a Club in the Woods - Bears and Lions

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My introduction to the Florida-based duo Bears and Lions was at Kindiefest a couple years back, where a couple guys dressed up as, yes, a bear and a lion (in '70s era basketball uniforms, no less), strode up on stage and proceeded to play one of the more goofy sets of songs I'd heard in kids music.  Jangly, southern-fried guitar-pop songs about jumping out of airplanes, man's best friend, and PAN! CAKE! SWEEP! STAKES!  (Just listen to "Pancakes" all the way through, trust me.)

So a lot of my attitude regarding their 2014 debut, We're a Club in the Woods, is colored by the impressions their slightly anarchic set created.  They mostly played  uptempo songs during their abbreviated Kindiefest set, and the gleeful energy on tracks like "Pancakes," "Airplanes," and "Mediocre Kid" is every bit present here on the album.  Slightly less energetic songs like "Jeremiah" don't stand out nearly as much.  The album, when played live, is intended to be more a story, so the pogoing theme-song-like "Bears and Lions" makes more sense if you think of it as the song they play at the very end of the set after Bear and Lion have formed their own club in the woods.  It's not a perfect album by any means, but nobody would consider it cookie-cutter kindie-pop.

The 36-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8.  You can stream the album here.  We're a Club in the Woods is a little odd, but in a good way, and well worth checking out.  Definitely recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: 'Til the Morning: Lullabies and Songs of Comfort - Edie Carey & Sarah Sample

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Reviewing lullaby albums can be difficult because the expectations people have for lullaby albums can vary dramatically.  Some people want music to play in their infant's room while the infant sleeps, while others want mellow songs for cool-down time, and still others want to listen to their own favorite band's songs recrafted with bells.

Personally, I land solidly in the camp of quiet music for nighttime feedings, so my praise for 'Til the Morning: Lullabies and Songs of Comfort should be viewed through that lens.  The album is the product of Edie Carey and Sarah Sample and while they hadn't recorded an album together previously, their voices make for a sleepy blend.

Overproduction is the biggest pitfall for a lullaby album a parent might conceivably use late at night for, you know, getting their child to sleep.  This album is generally well on the safe side of that line, with Carey and Sample underplaying their vocals and the musical production, while tasteful, not overpowering the songs.  The album is evenly mixed between well-chosen covers (the Dixie Chicks' gorgeous "Lullaby", or an interesting reworking of "California Stars," the Woody Guthrie-by-way-of-Wilco song), lullaby standards ("Slumber My Darling"), and originals (I particularly liked "Your Own Stars").

You can stream several of the songs from the 49-minute album (most appropriate for kids ages 0-5) here'Til the Morning is an album of love songs, just like all lullaby albums should be, and beyond that it also has a feeling of things fitting just so, its songs of comfort also comfortable.  Definitely recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: If We Must We Must - The Good Ms. Padgett

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As kindie music families go, the Littletons are talented.  There's Daniel Littleton, an integral part of You Are My Flower, AKA Elizabeth Mitchell (Littleton's wife), not to mention their daughter Storey, who also appears on their albums.  There's also Daniel's brother Miggy, an integral part of The Good Ms. Padgett along with Anna Padgett (Littleton's partner) and 7-year-old daughter Penelope Littleton.

Of course, in both cases, the women are the ones in front singing and writing the songs.  And on The Good Ms. Padgett's third album If We Must We Must, Padgett takes a page out her sister-in-law's playbook by mixing in some choice covers amidst her originals.  Compared to the folksier and often hushed Mitchell, however, Padgett cranks up the volume, if not to 11, at least to 8 or 9 on a few tracks.  It's hard to go wrong with Jonathan Richman, and her take on his "Hey There Little Insect" is nicely crunchy.  "Mommy's Lips," a reimagined version of the Vaselines' "Molly's Lips" (made famous via a Nirvana cover), is sweet and swirly and indie-poppy.  Padgett's originals can be roughly divided into two camps -- rocking songs like the title track and "Tattle to the Turtle" that tend to have a lesson to share, and mellower songs like "Beach House" and "I Love Your Heart" that tend toward the more atmospheric and simple.  I tend to prefer the latter, but the energetic and organic sound of the band (which also includes Daniel Littleton on a number of instruments, Elizabeth Mitchell on vocals and "poncho coordination," Jean Cook on violin, and Tara Jane O'Neil on "ecstatic tambourine") makes those tracks listenable for far longer than those types of "teaching" songs usually are.  (Side note: LOVE the cover, designed by Tae Won Yu.)

You can stream the 33-minute album, most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 6, here.    If I had to choose between the two bands, I'd still pick You Are My Flower (hey, we've been listening for more than a decade), but If We Must We Must is The Good Ms. Padgett's best album yet, and it stands up entirely on its own.  Recommended.

Review: Laurie Berkner Lullabies - Laurie Berkner

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When asked to name a Laurie Berkner song, most parents in the midst of the Berkner phase of their life would probably name "We Are the Dinosaurs" or "Pig on Her Head" or any of the peppy songs that I'm sure are still garnering lots of views on Sprout or Noggin or YouTube or wherever it is these the young turks are watching their music videos.

But Berkner's also written and perform some lovely lullabies over her kindie career.  For my money, "Moon Moon Moon" is one of the best songs she's written, period.  Given that she hadn't focused as much on slower nighttime songs, the decision to record Laurie Berkner Lullabies, her latest album, released earlier this summer, isn't that surprising.

Let's get the worst thing about the album out of the way -- the title.  I can deal with the awkwardness of the title (the grammatical pedant in me keeps wanting to rename it "Laurie Berkner's Lullabies"), but I should warn you that this is probably not the soothing album you'll listen to quietly as you feed your infant at 2 AM or something your preschooler listener will drift off to sleep to.  There are too many songs that are -- for a lullaby -- a bit too exuberant.  In other words, taken as a whole, this album may not always work to aid sleep.

But if you reframe your perspective, if you instead think of this as a "cool down" quiet time album with songs that reassure the young listener that they're sounded by love, then on that level the album succeeds admirably.  There are a number of new classic songs -- "Fireflies" most immediately comes to mind, but so does "A Lullaby" and "Stars Are Shining" -- that more closely approximate the more hushed tone I think of when the word "lullaby" comes to mind.  She covers classic lullabies "All Through the Night" and "Little Boy Blue" and "I Gave My Love a Cherry (The Riddle Song)," all well done (Berkner's daughter Lucy duets with her on the latter).

Berkner's desire to revisit some of her classic tracks yields mostly positive results -- "In the Clouds" has too much production value to be an adequate lullaby, but it undoubtedly sounds better than the 15+-year-old version on Berkner's debut album Buzz Buzz.  (I also like Berkner's duet with sometimes Laurie Berkner Band bassist Brady Rymer on a slightly simpler "Under a Shady Tree.")  I don't like how Berkner complicated the simplicity of the original track of "Moon Moon Moon," but I understand why she wanted to try her hand at a new version.  As always, Berkner's voice is a strength of the album, and she manages to avoid the overly precious approach that dooms a lot of lullaby album from repeat listening.

The 21-track 52-minute album will be most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 7.

I liked Laurie Berkner Lullabies quite a bit once I stopped insisting it be the perfect lullaby album.  Berkner fans (and kindie fans generally) will not be disappointed -- it's an album that lets Berkner stretch some other songwriting muscles and show her playfulness in a more relaxed set of songs.  Definitely recommended.

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

Itty-Bitty Review: Jam on Rye - Randy Kaplan

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Without a doubt, Randy Kaplan is a raconteur, good at telling stories.  He tells them through song rather than spoken word or on paper, but his characters and offbeat humor sometimes bordering on the absurd might remind you (in a very kid-friendly way) of, say, David Sedaris.

That storytelling drive is back in full effect on his fifth family album Jam on Rye.  I say that because his last album, Mr. Diddie Wah Diddie, featured bowdlerized versions of classic blues tunes.  I liked the album quite a bit, but in retrospect, the parody/homage format meant that it was less character- and quirk-driven.  In other words, less Randy.

Not so on the new album.  From a memorable shower door ("Ode to a Shower Door," which features a guest appearance from a past Kaplan character), to parental frustrations with a visit to a Mexican restaurant ("Don't Fill Up on Chips"), the new songs let Kaplan play with voices and characters to good effect.  One of my favorite tracks here is "Crew Cut," which wistfully recounts a series of different hairstyles.  His songs range from scatalogical humor ("Burpity Burp Burp Burp") to tender ("Not Too Young for a Song") to tender scatalogical humor ("Everybody Farts") -- you can tell that Kaplan's new status as a parent has given him a brand new well of material to work with.  Longtime Kaplan producer Mike West once again helps fill out Kaplan's guitar work with a full range of instruments.

The 46-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8.  You'll laugh, you'll cry -- OK, your kids won't cry, but you'll at least take a minute to appreciate the whirlwind of parenting.  Definitely recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: Good Egg - Joanie Leeds and the Nightlights

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When I think of the female stars of kindie -- Laurie Berkner, Elizabeth Mitchell, Frances England, Molly Ledford of Lunch Money, to name some -- the names that come to mind are folk-rockers or indie-rockers, (sometimes) with more of an emphasis on preschool audiences.  What's missing are lots of nationally-known names making pop-rock for the elementary school crowd -- the female equivalents of your Justin Roberts, Recess Monkey, and Ralph's World (among many more).

I'm not going to speculate on why that is, but would suggest that New York City's Joanie Leeds is close to staking her claim in the kindie pop-rock star canon.  On her sixth kids' CD, Good Egg, Leeds and her Nightlights run through the gamut of kid-accessible topics -- food fights, Halloween, parents, doctor's visits -- filtered through a pop-rock lens (with the occasional punk-rock or arena-rock touches).  She's not tackling the subjects in any particularly unique way, but the combination of her fine voice, solid playing (and producing from Dean Jones), and hummable melodies produce a set of songs that sound good here (and will sound good live as Leeds increasingly plays on a national stage).

I think Leeds is at her best in songs with the tiniest bit of edge.  Songs like "Food Fight" (I think you can guess what that's about) and "Confusing Costume" have more vim than the kinder, gentler Leeds on tracks like "Kids Place" or "With My Dad."  (I'll forgive "Hipster in the Making," which seems likely to bore the kids while amusing the Park Slope parents in Leeds' backyard with Pitchfork and dub-step references.)

You can stream the entire 42-minute album -- most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9 -- here.   I'm not sure that Good Egg is the final step towards Joanie Leeds' total world domination, but it is a slick collection of appealing pop-rock songs that, if your family is a fan of Justin Roberts and Recess Monkey, perhaps your family should try on for size.  Recommended.