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.

Weekly Summary (7/14/14 - 7/27/14)

Review: Sing As We Go! - Charlie Hope

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Singer-songwriting Charlie Hope has a bright, clear voice that appeals to many ears.  In attitude, temperament, and vocal quality, I've previously compared her to Raffi, and I think the analogy still holds.

On her recent release, Sing As We Go!, Hope continues with the formula that has won her fans on both sides of the Canadian-United States border.  Take a batch traditional songs, mix in a handful of poppy folk originals, add a dash of kindie royalty, and stir.  Hope's voice and producer Dean Jones' unfussy musical choices give a fresh spin to the traditionals.  A simple touch like the toy piano on the old camp chestnut "I Love the Mountains" helps give the song new life to the adult listener who may have heard the song more times than they probably should.  While some of the titles like "When the Ice Worm Nests Again" and "Little Rooster" might not sound familiar, the melodies probably will, with Hope occasionally writing some new lyrics for the songs.

The originals here are lovely -- from the lost '70s AM-radio tune "With You" (co-written and performed by Hope and Gustafer Yellowgold's Morgan Taylor) to Jones' "Harmony" (a duet between Hope and Elizabeth Mitchell) and Hope's own gentle ode to the parent-child bond "From You" -- and feel just as timeless as the actual classics they're next to.  (And speaking of kindie royalty, Molly Ledford, Randy Kaplan, and Chris Ballew aka Caspar Babypants also appear on the album.)

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 7.  You can listen to extended clips from each song on the album here.  Also, I happen to find the album art here particularly delightful, an artful mix of hand-drawn, computer-drawn, and knitted illustration from Zooglobble favorite Charlotte Blacker.

I first listened to this album months ago, set it aside as real life took over, and when I came back to it recently in preparation for writing this review, I was struck by just how delightful this is.  It's traditional but not musty, sweet but not cloying, engaging but not pandering.  It's a gem of an album, definitely worthy of a comparison to Raffi.  Highly recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: Just Say Hi! - Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could

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It occurred to me as I listened to Just Say Hi!, the latest album from Brady Rymer and the Little Band That Could, that I'm not sure I've ever seen Rymer frown.  I'm sure he must occasionally -- maybe -- but I can't recall anger or frustration when I've seen him play live or at kids music events.  For the most part, it's just a big grin.

Rymer's music for families has typically had that gregariousness, noticeable even in a genre that has more than its fair share of happy, gregarious folk.  On his new album, Rymer doesn't change course as he serves up another 11 tracks of feel-good roots-rock.  It's not that the whole album is butterflies and unicorns, relentless peppy.  Rather, songs like danceable "Just Say Hi!" ("Don't be afraid of the unfamiliar / Look 'em in the eye / Give 'em a smile, and / just say "hi!") and the anthemic "Tomorrow's People" have Rymer's positive attitude baked right in, faces turned toward the sun even when things aren't perfect.  While I could do without the goofy "Pet Song (We Thank You)" because the silly voices sound out of place on the album, for the most part earnest songs like "Red Piano Rag," a ragtime (natch) about Rymer's piano-playing Grandma Helen, or the zydeco-tinged "My Home," stand up to repeated spins.  And of course The Little Band That Could still sounds great.

The album is most appropriate for kids ages 5 through 10.   You can hear the 38-minute album here.  Look at that album for Just Say Hi!.  See that big grin on that monster -- that's Rymer's smile in cartoon form.  I think your family will probably be smiling after listening as well.  Definitely recommended.

Review: Aqui, Alla - Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band

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Is there any stopping Lucky Diaz and Alisha Gaddis, the couple at the heart of Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band?  The release a couple months ago of Aqui, Alla marked their sixth album in little more than three years.  That's on top of the TV show, the nonstop touring, and, oh yes, the Latin Grammy for for Best Spanish-language Children's Album for Fantastico!.

The answer, then, is probably no.

Unlike Fantastico!, which almost exclusively featured Spanish-language reworkings of their previous English-language hits, the new album features all new songs (plus "De Colores," because of course).  Diaz and Gaddis returned to team up with Gilbert Velasquez, who produced Fantastico!, and they somehow manage to merge Diaz' natural indie-pop sound with the sounds of Tejano music.  I mean, anytime you can bring in someone like Flaco Jimenez on accordion (on the leadoff track "Viva La Pachanga"), you just sit back and enjoy the result.  While most of the tracks are bouncy, danceable tunes, the album ends on a more mellow note, with the tender "Aqui, Alla" (about the multi-varied backgrounds of many Americans) before finishing with "De Colores," which isn't really a dance song (though Diaz et al. come close to turning it into one).

The one downside to the album -- and it's not going to be a downside for everyone -- is that the album comes with no way for the English-language speaker to bridge the gap between the music and their own experience.  For the Spanish-language speaker, of course, that's not an issue at all, but I found myself wishing that explanations of the songs in the promotional material were included in the album packaging.  You can enjoy the music without knowing a whit of Spanish, and yes, you can find lyrics and translations at Diaz' website -- but I think some of those families would enjoy it more if there were more of a guide right there with the CD.

The brief 26-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8.  You can hear the album here.

I love finding out what Diaz and Gaddis are cooking up next for families who love kids music.  The duo could have totally rested on their laurels with one Spanish-language album and left it at that, but they came back with Aqui, Alla, which is better in almost every way.  It gives me hope that a third album of their hybrid Spanish-language indie-jano (that's "indie" + "Tejano") will grace shelves and iPods at some point.  (And I'd encourage them to do even more to bring us non-Spanish dancers along for the ride.)  Definitely recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: First Songs - Danny Lion

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Dan Flannery may be best known in the kindie world for being half of the well-loved duo the Flannery Brothers, but he has an alter ego as a dandelion-brandishing lion superhero.

Wait, what?  I must've been confused by the album cover.

The Flannery Brothers aren't defunct by any means, but Dan has taken his master's degree in Child Development and job teaching preschool classes and music and turned that into Danny Lion, his very preschool-focused music alter ego.  His debut DL album First Songs from late last year is a half-hour and a dozen songs of genial silliness for your favorite preschooler.  Super-simple -- there's a song about having a "Banana on the Head" that is exactly about that -- but that's the point (and the charm) of the album.  The instrument list includes ukulele, bass, and cajon, and… well, that's it, really.  It's just songs like and "Puppies in Cars" and "Dance Happy" which will, well, put a smile on your and maybe even Pharrell's face.

The album will appeal to kids ages 2 through 6.  You can listen to the whole album here.  This is simplicity done right -- letting the humor and happiness shine through.  Definitely recommended.