Review: Two Kids Music Albums from Iceland

[Cue Jim McKay voice] Spanning the globe to bring you a constant variety of the best of kids' music from around the globe, it's Zooglobble! [End Jim McKay voice]

I've never been shy about shining the spotlight on kids music from outside English-speaking North America -- plenty of Spanish-language music from multiple continents, not to mention Putumayo and Secret Mountain (and other labels' ) albums from around the world.

I feel safe in saying, however, that this is by far the furthest afield I've ever traveled, because today I bring you not one but two album reviews from the fine country of Iceland.  Honest-to-goodness kindie music from the northern European country of just a shade over 300,000 people.

The first of the couple albums here is the classic Ekki bara fyrir börn.

"Classic?"  Huh?

Yes, because that album title translates into Not For Kids Only.  This, friends, is a faithful -- albeit Icelandic-language -- cover of the Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's classic 1993 family-friendly bluegrass album.

It's from Icelandic record label Warén Music, and while I'm not sure I could've told you what I expected such a remake to sound like in advance of hearing, I guess I was surprised at the result, which was... well, pretty straight-forward.  It is as if Garcia and Grisman learned Icelandic, got a pot of coffee, found a few more musicians, and re-recorded as if they were some American kindie version of Michael Haneke remaking Funny Games.  (What really happened? Somebody brought over a copy of the original, and the musicians were inspired to recreate it.)

Aside from the language barrier, musically it'll sound a lot the '93 version, albeit a little more punched up, as if a few more musicians stumbled across Garcia and Grisman as they noodled away in the woods.  It's a little odd at points to hear such familiar melodies with unfamiliar words (take "Lagarfljót" for example, the translated version of "Shenandoah").  And then there's Lautaferð bangsanna, which is "Teddy Bear's Picnic" as sung by a Tom Waits' vocal double in Icelandic.  (Listen to the whole thing here.)  With the language barrier, this is accessible to all ages.

I realize this is essentially a novelty record for the English-speaking world -- you'd have to be a massive Garcia/Grisman completist or speak Icelandic in your family to want this.  But it's joyful, and a neat reminder of music's boundary-less nature.

If Ekki bara fyrir börn is American kindie (or American proto-kindie) rendered inscrutable for the typical American audience, Skýjaflétta is thoroughly Icelandic in conception, but completely accessible to audiences of any language.  The album is the brainchild of Sólrún Sumarliðadóttir, who plays in amiina, an Icelandic sextet that grew out of a string quartet and, in addition to releasing music on their own has also played with Sigur Rós.  Sumarliðadóttir wrote the music to accompany a couple of modern dance pieces for very young children, up to age 3.  (According to Sumarliðadóttir, the first 5 tracks are for a piece called "Clouds," the remaining tracks score "Twist and Turn".)

As you might expect from that background, these aren't straightforward pop songs.  The word "Skýjaflétta" means "a braid made of clouds," and this is an ambient dreamscape, but a shiny one, filled with pops, clicks, and toy pianos.  Some tracks, like "Twisty Tangle and Turny Braid," (as translated in English) and "Build" are pensive, exploratory, while songs like "Explore" are designed for more reflective wonder.  They are all wordless, making them, of course, open to everyone.

You can listen to six tracks from the 31-minute album here.  Ironically, just as the Icelandic-language album is for all ages given that almost all Americans will just listen to the music, the instrumental nature of this album, makes it all ages, too, though kids under 5 might particularly groove to this.  This is a thoroughly charming album and while I'm sure I will never get a chance to see the dance pieces these were composed for, I'm glad the album has a chance to cross the ocean for families with adventurous listening habits.  Definitely recommended.

Christmas Album Reviews 2013

We are a family that often writes our annual holiday letter long past Christmas.  (This year: not yet written.)  So as long as I can get out these Christmas album reviews before Christmas Eve night, I feel OK with it.  The 12 Days of Christmas, after all, start after Christmas, not before.

Having said all that, this was definitely a low-key year when it came to kindie and kid-friendly Christmas music.  Oh, sure, Todd McHatton added to his Christmas canon, and there were a handful of songs here and there, but compared to prior years, the haul was low.  Even Noisetrade, a reliable source for good holiday music samplers, didn't have anything this year I felt like passing along.  So this'll be a briefer look at just a half-dozen albums (because, hey, Christmas Eve is tonight and you don't have time to read a lot, right?).  They're not necessarily targeted at kids, but like most Christmas songs, they're perfectly appropriate for folks ages 4 through 94.

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First up, Elizabeth Mitchell and Friends' Smithsonian Folkways album The Sounding Joy, which to my ears was the one album most likely to join the regular rotation in our household.  In my review of the album, I noted that it didn't really sound like a "kids' album" (as opposed to Mitchell's other work over the past 10-15 years), but at this time of year, that isn't as necessary.  (There's only one what I'd call "kindie" album on this list this year.)  Christians will definitely appreciate this more than non-Christians (no songs about Santa here), but those with a deep interest in folk music will also appreciate it.  Definitely for hushed midwinter nights.

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Next up, the only real kindie album on the list, Felix Navidad, from Tara Scheyer & the Mud Puppy Band.  This 2011 album is the third (and most recent) album from the Augusta, Georgia band.  Scheyer has an appealing voice that meshes well with the pop-rock sound.  While there are a few Santa-based tracks (I really like "Santa's Chimney Slide," a band original), the majority of the songs are not -- while it's got a popper sound, because it draws from a number of less well-known songs, there is actually a fair amount in common with the Mitchell disk.

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The folks at North Carolina's Merge Records sent me their label's 3 holiday albums, and they are a unique trio.  The first (oldest) of the 3 is 2008's The Singing Saw at Christmastime from Julian Koster.  A singing saw is the poetic term for a saw played with a bow.  The resulting sound is ethereal and, depending on your attitude, magical or annoying.  I can't imagine listening to this 29-minute album straight through as there isn't a lot of variety to the sound of these familiar Christmas songs, secular and not.  But sprinkled through an eclectic holiday mix?  Most definitely.

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Merge album #2 is from She & Him, the duo of Zooey Deschanel and M. Ward.  It's their 2011 album A Very She & Him Christmas.  Fans of the duo's retro-pop sound won't be disappointed with this release (though if you're not a fan of the band, this won't change your mind, either).  Deschanel's winsome voice is an appropriate vessel for these secular songs of Christmases past ("Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "I'll Be Home for Christmas," "Blue Christmas").  While there are a few uptempo tracks, for the most part, this is an album you'll want to play after the kids are in bed and you're recovering from the Christmas Eve activities looking at the tree.

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The most recent Merge holiday release is from Tracey Thorn.  Her 2012 album Tinsel and Lights is what I'd call a Christmas album, but not in the usual meaning of the term.  Instead of singing about the holiday, the album focuses on the emotions of the season, with Christmas as a backdrop.  (Thorn's lovely-yet-slightly-weary voice is perfect for this.) There are a few nice covers -- "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" makes an appearance, and Thorn also covers two modern Christmas classics, Joni Mitchell's "River" and Sufjan Stevens' "Sister Winter."  This is not a Christmas album your kids will ask you to play often, but it is one you'll probably dig out even after the tinsel and lights have been put away.

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Finally, Kelly Clarkson's Wrapped in Red made its way into our holiday music collection this year.  This 2013 release features Clarkson tackling a broad range of Christmas songs wrapped in glittery pop-rock sheen.  The originals and less-specifically-Christmas songs stand out on this album.  The "Wall of Sound"-era sound of the title track and the poppier "Underneath the Tree" show off Clarkson's voice to best effect, but I personally liked "Winter Dreams (Brandon's Song)" and her take on "Silent Night" with Reba (McEntire) and Trisha Yearwood.  And whatever demerits Clarkson she gets for the silly "4 Carats," she gets earns kudos for covering Imogen Heap's Christmas breakup song "Just For Now."  The album isn't a classic, but it's good enough to pack away and pull it out when you set up the tree next year.

Note: I was provided copies of all albums except the Kelly Clarkson album for possible review.

Itty-Bitty Review: Live at the Orange Peel - Secret Agent 23 Skidoo

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Those of us who review kids music talk about the importance of getting kids to see live music.  For all the work I put in reviewing albums from across the country, the connection with kids isn't made through the CD player in the minivan or the family iDevice, but through the shared musical experience of a concert.

Maybe it's because the live experience is so transformative that explains why there are so few live albums in the kindie genre and those that do exist, either on album or on DVD, don't fully capture the energy and joy from seeing a live act.

I can't say that Secret Agent 23 Skidoo's live album, the just-released Live at the Orange Peel, is the album that totally breaks free of those constraints.  But it is a lively survey of the undisputed king of kid-hop's first three albums.  Featuring ten songs evenly split among his first three albums (including some tracks like "Time Flies" that only appear on some versions of the albums), Skidoo and his band of co-conspirators show in 40 minutes why he's a popular act with family audience.  Returning to Asheville, North Carolina, where he got his start, his family, including his daughter Saki (A.K.A. MC Fireworks), and Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band provide the full musical experience that help set Skidoo apart from other kid-hop acts ("Magic Beans" sounds particularly good).  The songs aren't massively different in production on stage than on record, but hearing Skidoo (and Saki and the others) rap live does give it a little different feel.

I would rather see Secret Agent 23 Skidoo live with my family than listen to Live at the Orange Peel.  But that's no knock on the new album - more so than many live kindie records, this one feels like it's its own creature rather than a pale document.  Skidoo fans will be pleased; newcomers could do worse for an introduction.  Definitely recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: Introducing: Jelly of the Month Club - Jelly of the Month Club

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Another day, another album by a collection of artists best known for their music for adults.

Yes, it's possible to be a kids music reviewer jaded by news that members of Southern California-area bands like Sublime, the Ziggens, and more came together to record as Jelly of the Month Club.  Been there, done that, right?

But as I am constantly reminded in this neck of the musical woods, it's possible to be surprised by people, and their debut album Introducing: Jelly of the Month Club is a blast of energy from beginning to end.  There's a ska-punk feeling to a lot of the songs, of course (Exhibit A: "The English Language," which is Schoolhouse Rock by way of the Clash perhaps), but there are more diverse sounds, such as the mellower album opener, the strumming "Brand New Friend."  Some songs like "Tell Someone" contain lessons of a sort, but that's a song that namechecks Cheryl Ladd and Chaka Khan, to name a few, so clearly there's a playfulness that cuts through any overt "Learn. This." approach.   There are points at which I wondered who the songs were for (I sort of feel sorry for any kid who understands the CSNY reference on "Gone Squatchin'"), so it's possible that some kids might not care. On the other hand, I don't know if "Girlfriend" is really a kids' song (it was originally recorded by the Ziggens), but there's such gleeful joy, especially in the chorus, that kids'll probably hook into it immediately.  And there's a fart song, too ("Timmy Turtle Head"), so it's got that.

The album is probably most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 9.  You can stream some of the songs from the 35-minute album hereIntroducing: Jelly of the Month Club won't be for every family -- it all depends on how energetic and inner-7-year-old boy your family likes their music.  But there's a lot here to enjoy and dance along with.  Definitely recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: Color This Album: Chris Doud, Willy Tea Taylor, and More

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Saying that Color This Album came out of nowhere is an insult to Oakdale, California (east of the Bay Area), but it's also sort of true.  One doesn't usually receive music as good as this from folks entirely removed from kids music hotspots.

But here we are anyway.  The album is 19 tracks of Americana goodness from the Heckabad record label, home to Chris Doud, (his band) The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, Willy Tea Taylor, and Joey No Knows.  There's the country bluegrass of "Larry the Frog," the Woody Guthrie absurdity of "Hop in the Car," and the bluesy lament "Lullaby to Stellaouise."  Or perhaps you'd prefer Bob Dylan-in-silly-mode "Crayons," the bluegrass raveup "Thirteen Bears" (it's the number of bears on the shirt, in case you're wondering), and the stone-cold classic of parental frustration/unconditional love "Take You Into My Arms."  If the 58-minute album runs a bit long and features a couple story-like tracks ("Elf Outta Work" and "The Ballad of Scruffers the Circus Dog") that bring the album to a halt, I guess that's what the fast-forward button is for.

Color This Album is most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 8.  (Listen to the whole album here.)  It's a romp through a world of animals and imagination, and the long-awaited (spiritual) sequel to the classic Bloodshot Records album The Bottle Let Me Down.  Here's to continued surprises (and hoping that these guys get a few gigs in the Bay Area if they want 'em.  Definitely recommended.

Itty-Bitty Review: Fun Food Songs - Raffi

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It has been too long since Raffi gave us a whole album of original music for kids (2002 was the last time, with Let's Play ).  But even though the Canadian kids music legend still has an incredible voice and delights listeners in concert, he's more interested in tweeting and writing than recording new music.  And with a back catalog stretching back 25+ years and more than 10 albums, there's plenty of opportunity for his label to repackage his output in new ways for a new generation.  (See here an example from more than 7 years ago.)

This week sees the release of Fun Food Songs, a collection of songs associated (to varying degrees) with food.  Ranking high on the food association (and enjoyability) scale are Raffi classics like "Peanut Butter Sandwich" and "The Corner Grocery Store."  More of a stretch for the collection (but no less enjoyable) are songs like "Down By the Bay" and "Brush Your Teeth."  These songs are, for the most part, fun, in part because few of them were written or recorded with the idea of Making Food Fun.

The 15-song,  30-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 2 through 6.  Because I consider a lot of Raffi's work essential, collections of previously-recorded such as these aren't.  But it's a solid collection of songs from a wide range of his albums, and if you don't have any Raffi songs, or if you're looking for an instantaneous food-themed CD for a classroom or daycare setting, this'll be great.  Recommended.

Note: I was provided an advance stream of the album for poss