Itty-Bitty Review: I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly - Thomas Hellman and Emilie Clepper

IKnowAnOldLadyWhoSwallowedAFly.jpg

The Canadian imprint The Secret Mountain has been a big hit in our household, particularly with Little Boy Blue, for its combination of musical selections and illustration, both from a surprisingly diverse range of genres.

The Secret Mountain's latest book I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly is likely to continue its winning streak 'round these parts.  It uses the songs of Alan Mills, born a century ago in Quebec and celebrated for his many albums of folk songs, particularly for children.  Musically, he's best known in North America -- and probably elsewhere -- for composing the music to the title track, given a sprightly rendition here by Canadian musicians Thomas Hellman and Emilie Clepper.  "Sprightly" is a good adjective for the album generally -- the goofy rhymes on the polka "Heel, Toe, and Away We Go" are given extra oomph by the accordion and brass accompaniment.  Most of these songs may not be familiar to most listeners south of the border (most weren't for me), but they'll be engaging to many preschoolers.

The 39-minute album and book will be most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 5.  You can listen to the songs here (follow the links for the songs after the leadoff title track).  The book itself features lyrics for all the songs -- stretched out over several pages for the title track, a 2-page spread for the rest -- with the distinctive illustrations of Quebecois artist PisHier (big heads everywhere!) providing an amusing visual counterpoint.  Regardless of whether I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly is an introduction or a re-introduction of Alan Mills to you and your family, the very youngest among you will find some delight here.

 

Review: Through the Woods - The Okee Dokee Brothers

OkeeDokeeBrothersThroughTheWoods.jpg

There aren't many blockbuster albums in the world of kindie.  There are lots of albums that sell well, and lots of albums that achieve a level of critical popularity inside and outside the kindie world -- but something that combines parts, that's rare.

The Okee Dokee Brothers' Can You Canoe? was one of those rare albums.  It was critically acclaimed as the best album of 2012, winning the Grammy for best children's album of that year as well as taking the top spot in the Fids and Kamily Awards.  It also continued to be one of the few kindie albums (Non-Laurie Berkner/Elizabeth Mitchell/TMBG Division) to make Top 50 charts at iTunes and Amazon.

All of which is to say, Justin Lansing and Joe Mailander, those boys from Minnesota, had a mighty big task in following up that album. Did they succeed with Through the Woods: An Appalchian Adventure Album?

It's hard to say, precisely because of its predecessor's tremendous success. Are all the elements there? Yes -- a big-hearted spirit, a fancy for metaphor, tenderness leavened with humor, it's all there.  But I would be lying if I said I had the same instantaneous reaction to this new album as I did 2 years ago, and maybe the reason it's taken me 3 months to write this review is that I've been trying to figure out why.

The best answer I can come up with -- and it's not a great one, though it is an honest one -- is that it's mellower, its philosophy perhaps more inwardly focused.  Compared to Canoe, whose can-do attitude and celebration of exploration was front-and-center from the first note (my NPR review of the album is one my favorite pieces there and draws heavily on those themes), this new album, inspired by walks along the Appalchian Trail, generally sings in a more relaxed key.  The title track, featuring a lovely descending bass line, is the spiritual successor to the last album's title track, but most of the songs are more content to celebrate tiny moments -- dancing with neighbors in "Jamboree," the gentle love song "Evergreen," the ode to keeping things loose "Out of Tune."

The Brothers do a good job of reworking some well-known folk tunes like "Big Rock Candy Mountain" (featuring Hubby Jenkins from the Carolina Chocolate Drops) and "Hillbilly Willy," their version of "Old Dan Tucker."  Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer each make a separate appearance, with Marxer's banjo playing on "Fiddlestick Joe" of particular note. Dean Jones co-produces with Lansing and Mailander, and Jed Anderson with his usual light (and spot-on) touch.

The album will be most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 9.  The album packaging, featuring art from Brandon Reese, is lovely -- it's the sort of thing that warms this physical product fan's heart.  (There is also a DVD with music videos and footage from the trip.)

So, in sum, Through the Woods is an excellent album, one that should provide your family with hours of very pleasurable listening.  If you came to love the band because of Can You Canoe? then you will continue to love them no less after this new album.  And if you, like me, love this album a little bit less, it's OK, too -- it's still pretty great.  Highly recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: Newborn, Too - Sara Hickman

SaraHickmanNewbornToo.jpg

Sara Hickman was one of the first kindie crossover artists -- musicians who made their name making music for adults who discovered the world of making music for kids.  Starting in 1999, when she released the album Newborn, followed by Toddler a couple years later, the Texas-based Hickman always kept one toe in the kindie world, releasing or coordinating 5 albums and a DVD.

Fifteen years after releasing Newborn, Hickman has a brand-new album for the youngest of young'uns -- Newborn, Too.  While Newborn was a mix of lullaby and uptempo tracks, the new album is designed just for sleepy time.  As is often the case with lullaby albums from intelligent singer-songwriters, Newborn, Too features a number of well-chosen modern songs given new life in this new lullaby setting.  Some are familiar -- John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" and Billy Joel's gorgeous "Goodnight, My Angel" -- while perhaps the most affecting are less well-known, such as Adrian Belew's "Dream Life."  Hickman's emphasis on families of whatever sort on songs like "Family Tree" and "Welcome Home" (a lovely song for parents with newly adopted children).  While some of the songs are a bit too brightly produced for my own sleepy time lullaby preferences, the album generally stays safely in the lullaby camp (and avoids the goopiness lullaby albums can be prone to).

The 47-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 0 through 5, and with its emphasis on modern songs, appropriate, too, for adults looking for a mellow album featuring Hickman's strong voice and interpretive sense.  It's been awhile since Hickman made a straight-up album for kids, but Newborn, Too is a welcome return to the fold.  Recommended.

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

BearsAndLionsWereAClubInTheWoods.jpg

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

EdieCareySarahSampleTilTheMorning.jpg

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

IfWeMustWeMustGoodMsPadgett.jpg

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.