A Decade of All Kindie Things Considered

Meltdown album cover

Meltdown album cover

Exactly ten years ago today, I had what was at the time a very weird experience -- I heard my voice on the radio.  That's because my voice was hitting the airwaves as part of an interview with Melissa Block about kids music on NPR's All Things Considered.  Over the course of five minutes, Block and I chatted about Dan Zanes, Brady Rymer, Laurie Berkner, and Justin Roberts, my kids, a philosophy of kids music, with a slight diss of the Beatles -- a band I really like! -- thrown in for good measure.

The whole process actually started a couple weeks before when I received an e-mail from Block herself asking for some more information about me.  Fast forward a couple weeks, and after some discussions with Block and an NPR producer -- no doubt to make sure that I had something to say and could say it without sounding like an idiot -- I went to a local studio (not my NPR affiliate) and chatted about the various albums.  I have no memory of how long the conversation went -- I'm sure it wasn't for much more than 30 minutes -- but the next day I got an e-mail saying that they'd edited the piece together and it would be airing later that afternoon.

I don't remember if I had an actual "driveway moment" listening to that piece, I don't even remember where I heard that piece (in the car, maybe, or at home).  But I'm guessing that the piece generated quite a few driveway moments across the country, because eight months later, I found myself back on the air, talking about some more kids music.  Three more times, Block and I chatted, and then starting in 2009, I started writing and recording honest-to-goodness reviews.  My first NPR kids music review was for Lunch Money's Dizzy in 2009, and it remains one of my most favorite pieces of audio I created for ATC.

Since that review, I've done 20 more kids music pieces for ATC, featuring 24 albums.  (Oh, and a commentary on the sound of a lawnmower.  Yeah, I know!)  It has been an absolute blast writing, editing, and recording these reviews, and working with the amazing folks at NPR who, if they've ever been frustrated with my written product or slow starts in warming up my voice ("a little more Shatner"), never mentioned it to me.  I learned quite a bit about writing and editing for radio.  And of course it's been a thrill to be able to bring serious (and fun) consideration of an oft-maligned musical genre to a broad national audience.

Having said all that, the worlds of public radio, of music consumption, of music promotion -- these have all changed significantly over the past decade.  People can argue about the value of criticism, but it is hard to argue that the perceived value of criticism has faded over the past ten years.  All Things Considered has not been immune to those changes, either, and the amount of reviews they've run from any genre of music, particularly over the past six months, has dropped dramatically.  I do not think that will change significantly in the future, and so I'm not sure when I'll next appear on All Things Considered.  (If I do, I'm not sure it'll be in the standard 3:30-ish review format I've honed over the past 6-7 years.)

I would be sad about that possibility, were it not for the fact that the past decade has just been so damn fun.  I've never ever taken for granted the gift I was given with a short e-mail from an NPR host titled "Who are you?" a decade ago.  So I just think it's an appropriate time for me to say "thanks" to everyone at NPR who have let me share that gift with all the wonderful musicians I got to talk about.  I hope this piece on Jazzy Ash's Bon Voyage isn't the last piece I record or write for NPR, but if it is, I'd be cool with that.

Review: Explorer of the World - Frances England

Explorer of the World album cover

Explorer of the World album cover

Frances England didn’t plan on becoming a kids musician when she made her first album more than a decade ago.  She just wanted to contribute something to her son’s preschool fundraiser, and wrote songs for a homegrown CD while supervising her son’s baths.  But that album’s popularity far surpassed the small world of that San Francisco school.  Last Friday she officially released her fifth album for families, Explorer of the World.

As the album title suggests, England is concerned with themes of exploration, observation, and investigation.  But rather than traveling long distances, she pays close attention to the world literally outside her front door -- walking her dog around her neighborhood, for example, noticing patterns and colors.  She’s inspired as much by visual artists like Wendy McNaughton and Keri Smith as by musicians, and like those artists, she encourages her listeners to pay attention to the art around them daily.

England’s music isn’t as shiny and poppy as that of her peers, but this new album is even more experimental than most kids music.  Instead of using chord progressions as the jumping-off point for songs, on some tracks she used field recordings she made walking around San Francisco.  “City Don’t Sleep,” for example, started with recordings from late-night walks along North Beach.

Co-producers Dean Jones and Dave Winer bring a lot of different perspectives in terms of the musical production, and the result is an album that vibrates as their approaches (Jones: earthy kitchen-sink sound; Winer: try-anything sonic collage and percussion) differ, but resonate with each other and with England.

I was trying to come up with the appropriate age range for the album, and while I'm going to put at ages 5 through 9, like much of England's more recent work, it's probably broader than that.  Not for toddlers, perhaps, but also for kids older than 9, if you get them to sit down and really listen.  (You can listen to this album -- along with the rest of her music -- here.)

Even though this album celebrates exploring her own backyard, Frances England is more interested in the process of keeping her eyes open to the world around her.  In discovering her own neighborhood, she reminds the rest of us that we can do the same with our own streets and sidewalks.  Highly recommended.

Review: Why? - They Might Be Giants

They Might Be Giants - Why? album cover

They Might Be Giants - Why? album cover

They Might Be Giants have been making clever and subversive pop music for more than 30 years.  Late last year, they released their second album of 2015, but this one is for kids of all ages.

In the year 2002, They Might Be Giants did something thought to be a little crazy - they released an album for kids.  That record, titled No!, was both a commercial and critical success, and sent the band down an unanticipated path as part-time kids’ music superstars. They then released 3 themed albums through Disney -- one each about letters  numbers  and science -- while continuing to make music for adults.  If you’ve paid any attention to kids music over the past decade, you certainly have run across the band.

Six years after that last kids’ record, the band returned in late 2015 with a new kids’ music album.  Free of a Disney collection, the new album is a spirited, free-form follow-up to No! appropriately titled Why?.

On the song “Out of a Tree,” everybody thinks it’s a disaster that an 8-year-old has gotten stuck in a tree... everyone, that is, except the adventurous 8-year-old himself.  And while the album doesn’t have a specific theme, many songs celebrate kids’ independent streaks.  Of course, sometimes that leads to decisions that aren’t the wisest in retrospect.

Despite the frustration the parent of such a kid might experience, a song like “Definition of Good” shows that sometimes moments of random curiosity spark warm family memories.

The freeform nature of the roughly 40-minute album makes it a little more difficult to nail down a specific target age range, but I'd peg it at about ages 4-10.

Many of the people the band sings about or to on this album question authority and explore the world in messy ways, coming up with answers to new questions.  That attitude is useful for not only 30-year-old rock bands but also much younger listeners -- it’s what helps give me hope that the world’s problems can be tackled head-on.

Review: Christmas and Holiday Music 2015 (Albums)

Every year brings a handful of Christmas and holiday-themed albums from the kindie world, and 2015 is no exception.  (Here's my review of 2014 holiday kids music, in case you want to reminisce around the fire about last year's efforts.)  This year, I'll be splitting my holiday posts into at least two -- this post will focus on reviews of full albums and EPs, while a follow-up will take a look at holiday singles and videos.

Without further ado, then, let's get into it.

Andrew & Polly - Other Days album cover

Andrew & Polly - Other Days album cover

Andrew and Polly - Other Days

This is the shortest holiday album I'll be reviewing, but it's also my favorite.  It's non-religious but ecumenical -- Hanukkah and Christmas happily coexist (especially in the leadoff track "Thank You for the Box") -- and in less than 12 minutes the four indie-pop tracks celebrate the season with a decidedly sunny attitude (there's a song called "L.A. Christmas" featuring Mista Cookie Jar, after all).  But the closing track "A Mapmaker's Song" is a kindie successor to "I'll Be Home for Christmas." (Listen to the album on Bandcamp and Spotify.)

Rocknoceros - Happy Holidays album cover

Rocknoceros - Happy Holidays album cover

RocknocerosHappy Holidays

Ranking a close second on my holiday list this year is this collection from the Washington, D.C.-area trio.  They ease into the holiday with a Halloween song ("Halloween Masquerade") and "This Thanksgiving" before turning their attention to the December holidays with songs original and traditional.  (Or, in the case of "Oh Christmas Brie," silly puns.)  One of the things I look for in holiday albums is something that distinguishes the music from the tens of thousands of other such albums, and besides the power-holiday-pop, I guess for me it's their mashup of "Auld Lang Syne (Enjoy Yourself)" -- not quite a Christmas song, but a great song with which to head into 2016.

Greg Page - Here Comes Christmas cover

Greg Page - Here Comes Christmas cover

Greg Page - Here Comes Christmas

Best known in the United States probably for being the original Yellow Wiggle for the massively successful Australian preschool rockers, Page hasn't been totally silent in the meanwhile -- he's done a TV show, Butterscotch's Playground.  But this is his first newly-recorded album in a long time.  The best tracks here are the originals that lead off the album, particularly "Here Comes Christmas" and "Christmas Bells."  They're appealing pop songs that should entertain kids and families who have no memory of the Wiggles.  The rest of the tracks feature a wide variety of secular and religious Christmas songs.  Page's strong voice is sometimes undercut by electronic accompaniment -- if releasing a kajillion different holiday albums with a big band works for Brian Setzer, I think it could work for Page, who has a clear affinity for traditional arrangements.

Rain for Roots - Waiting Songs cover

Rain for Roots - Waiting Songs cover

Rain For Roots - Waiting Songs

Rain For Roots consists of four vocalists (including Coal Train Railroad's Katy Bowser) who make Christian kids music that's devotional without being tacky.  This new album, specifically designed for the waiting season of Advent, sees them continuing that approach.  The album features original songs from the quartet (with some kids singing along in places), along with traditional songs "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" and "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" bookending the new songs.  The explicitly Christian approach will limit the audience for this album perhaps, but if you are celebrating the Christmas season from a Christian perspective, this is an excellent addition to your holiday music rotation.  (Stream the album on Bandcamp.)

Little Rockers Band - Yule Be Cool cover

Little Rockers Band - Yule Be Cool cover

The Little Rockers Band - Yule Be Cool

Yule Be Cool is, as you might guess from the album cover, fairly ecumenical in its approach to the holiday season, with a number of Jewish Hanukkah songs to go along with the Christmas songs (or, sometimes, both in one, as in the reworking of "Feliz Navidad").  The 47-minute album is a mix of old and new, and most interesting when it emphasizes the band's pop sound, like on the '60s sound of "It's Christmas Time Again."  Finally, after hearing their take on Madonna's "Holiday," I can't believe that we haven't heard that particular song on more holiday albums.

Maestro Classics - The Nutcracker cover

Maestro Classics - The Nutcracker cover

London Philharmonic Orchestra (Maestro Classics) - The Nutcracker

Finally, it's another take on what must be a top-10 Christmas album subject, Peter Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker."  What differentiates this version from most (if not all) of the hundreds (thousands?) of other recordings is twofold -- first, the recording features narration to go along with the music.  Lots of kids have probably seen some form of the ballet either live or on TV, so it's not like the narration is necessary, but it might actually help those kids who've seen it to remember more of the story, particularly in the first act.  Second, the recording pares down the 90-minute ballet to just shy of an hour.  I doubt any but the most obsessed listeners will notice the difference.  I wouldn't recommend this version as a family's primary copy of "The Nutcracker" -- it's much-beloved for good reason -- but as an alternative, it'll do just nicely.

Note: I received copies of all albums in physical or digital format for possible review.

Review: Mi Viaje: De Nuevo Leon to the New York Island - Sonia De Los Santos

Sonia De Los Santos - Mi Viaje: De Nuevo Leon to the New York Island album cover

Sonia De Los Santos - Mi Viaje: De Nuevo Leon to the New York Island album cover

Dan Zanes' ¡Nueva York!We are in at least the third wave of Spanish-language kids music.  The first wave was a narrow but very deep wave, for the most part consisting of Jose-Luis Orozco and Suni Paz, who each have been making music and releasing records for roughly forty years.  (They're still doing so.)

The two of them (separately) made their folk music, often with little more than their voices and guitars, but in the late 2000s, the second wave swept through.  This second wave was considerably broader, but also far more shallow.  This was because most of the music was designed with the idea of teaching Spanish to English speakers in mind.  This led to literally dozens of Spanish-language albums featuring simplistic lyrics and, often, music to match.  There were exceptions, of course -- Dan Zanes' ¡Nueva York! from 2008, his attempt to translate his age-desegregated music to a non-English idiom and capture in music the vibrancy of the Latin culture in New York City was the most notable -- but mostly they proved the rule.  I don't know how successful these albums were in teaching Spanish, but the fact that such albums aren't released much these days suggests that there isn't much of a market for them, educationally or musically.

So here we are in the third wave, I think.  What are the features of the third wave?  I think they're threefold:

1) An expansion of the sound from guitar-based folk music to encompass not only traditional music from a wider range of Spanish-speaking countries, but also shinier pop and rock sounds.

2) The diminution of interest in the song as explicit Spanish-language teaching tool.  There are still songs and albums for which that's a more important point, but they tend to be much better songs, which makes any educational point go down much more smoothly.

3) The choice to write songs in Spanish just because it happens to be the best language for telling the story of the song.  Much as a musician might choose a particular genre, they can choose a language as well.  Here in the United States, of course, English is usually the default option... but it's not the only option.

It's in this third wave that we find Sonia De Los Santos, who brings us Mi Viaje: De Nuevo León to the New York Island, her first solo album for families.  Over the course of twelve tracks, De Los Santos sings about her journey ("viaje") from her home in Monterrey, Mexico to New York City.  For the most part, the journey isn't literal, but rather a journey in song.  Unsurprisingly, since De Los Santos first came to attention to the kids' music world when she joined Dan Zanes' band back around the time of ¡Nueva York!, Zanes plays an important role -- his Festival Five Records is releasing the album, and he and his band appear on several track.  ("Tan Feliz," a De Los Santos original, has a very Zanes-ian folk-rock sound.)

But this is not another Dan Zanes album, which allows De Los Santos to put her own mark on the style of family music Zanes popularized.  Setting aside the language difference (98% of the lyrics here are not in English), De Los Santos travels the Spanish-speaking hemisphere to dip into a broad series of styles.

As I live in the Southwest United States, and have for the better part of thirty years, perhaps I gravitated to the sounds most familiar to me, those of Mexico, the sons with sizable bands of stringed instruments (jarana and requinto, for example, which are versions of guitar).  So "La Golondrina" ("The Swallow," another De Los Santos original) and album closer "Monterrey" appealed to me.

But it's definitely a broader tour than that as she records songs from Venezuela ("Luna y Lucero," or "The Moon and Star"), Chile ("Indeicto Dormido," featuring a distinctive pan flute sound), and Cuba ("Burubndanga," with Caridad De La Luz aka La Bruja helping out on vocals).    She sings a lullaby, "Txoria Txori," in a language I've never even heard of before, let alone heard, Euskera, which is from the Basque region in Spain.  She even translates a couple English-language songs into Spanish, most notable Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land."  Here, it becomes "Esta Es Tu Tierra," building from a single voice to a large chorus, and in its translation and structure, it's an artistic choice that is both subtler and bolder politically than anything else you're likely to hear on a kids' record this year.

The cumulative effect is indeed that of a journey, but I wish De Los Santos had been even more of a guide.  De Los Santos' voice and the musical arrangements convey a fair amount of the songs' emotional and lyrical content, and she provides some brief comments in the liner notes, but there are no lyrical translations attached.  (The website has some, but not all, translations as of the time of this writing.)  I think, therefore, that some of the impact of the album will be muted for, say, the 5-year-old kid who doesn't happen to speak Spanish.

This will be an increasingly interesting choice for artists in the future -- do they make albums featuring non-English songs explicitly for an audience of primarily English speakers, or do they craft the albums for the target non-English-speaking audience and hope the English speakers come along for the ride?  I think that artists are going to come down on both sides of that question, and continue to wrestle with what they're trying to do.

The 41-minute album is most appropriate for kids ages 4 through 8.  You can listen to "La Golondrina" here.  As with most Festival Five albums, the physical album packaging is lovely -- it's definitely an album worth considering getting a physical version of.

Mi Viaje is an engaging album, and De Los Santos has succeeded in her goal of having listeners understand her journey from Mexico to New York City.  A Spanish-language kids music album might seem like a niche record, but as De Los Santos and others in this third wave of Spanish-language kids music of the past couple years have shown, it can speak to a fairly broad audience.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: Rise Again Songbook - Peter Blood and Annie Patterson (editors)

Cover of Rise Up Singing Again

Cover of Rise Up Singing Again

Can singing together change the world?

On its surface, the answer is "no," but the act of singing together produces a lot of other changes that might nudge the world into a better place, particularly in how we deal with people we meet.

No doubt Peter Blood and Annie Patterson, the editors behind the Rise Again Songbook, strongly agree.  Musicians and songleaders, the two of them in 1988 edited and published through Sing Out! magazine Rise Up Singing, a collection of 1,200 songs.  (The fact that no less than Pete Seeger wrote the introduction was a leading indicator of the book's acceptance in the folksinging world.)

Now the pair are back with Rise Again: A Group Singing Songbook, a sequel featuring another nearly 1,200 songs for singing alone or (presumably preferably in the eyes of editors) with others.  The late Pete Seeger contributed a preface this time around and Billy Bragg the foreword.  Assuming three minutes per song, that's another 60 hours or so of singing.  (Better bring your throat lozenges.)

We purchased the original Rise Again (the 15th Anniversary Edition) more than a decade ago, and while I can't say that it's led to nightly rounds with the family, neighbors, or strangers passing by on the street, we do dip into it occasionally.  So while I don't know if I'm the followup's primary audience, I'm certainly more predisposed than the average American to find value in Rise Again.

The basic structure of both books is to include lyrics and chord changes, along with some basic songwriting credit and recording history, but not to include melodic notes.  (You can see part of a sample page here.)  This is an eminently reasonable decision -- only a small percentage of the population can actually read music, and if you're trying to choose songs to sing, you're probably going to gravitate to familiar melodies for which you don't need the music.  It does mean that folks like me (who can read music) who love exploring unfamiliar songs need to turn to Spotify, YouTube, the CDs by Patterson and Blood featuring basic melodies, or the public library to learn the songs, but that means turning away from the pleasures of diving into the book.  (But again, I'm probably in the minority here.)

In both books, the songs are organized by theme.  Some themes are fairly obvious and well-defined -- "Faith," "Seas & Sailors," "Travelin'" -- while others are a bit more nebulous (and also reflect the desire for social justice that in part was the animating impulse behind these books), such as "Earthcare," "Peace," and "Struggle."  (There are also sections specifically for kids under age 8 and lullabies.)  While it's possible that a reader could find a song of interest thumbing through individual sections, or guess in which section a particular song might nestle, they're far more likely to use the Titles index in the back.

Because readers are likely to turn to these books to sing familiar tunes, the differences Rise Again has compared to its predecessor are not insignificant.  I haven't done a statistical analysis -- it would take some time to tally up the results from 2,400 songs -- but it feels like I know considerably more songs in Rise Up Singing than in the new book.  There are more public domain songs, more songs that have been around for generations, centuries even.  The comparative lack of familiar songs isn't a problem in and of itself, but for me there are just fewer familiar songs.

On the flip side, however, Rise Again features way more contemporary artists than the original book did, and not just because the original book came out in 1988.  Here's a partial list of artists just from the first page of the Artist Index in Rise Again who aren't in the equivalent index in the 1988 book: Adele, Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem, The Avett Brothers, The Band, Billy Bragg, Garth Brooks, Jackson Browne, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Johnny Cash, Tracy Chapman, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Cliff, Bruce Cockburn, and Coldplay.  I'm not going to recognize every song by those artists, either, but that's indicative of a book that's trying to reach a broad audience that might not necessarily have copies of Peter, Paul & Mary albums in their iPhones.

(As an aside, there are also some familiar kids music names -- besides daisy mayhem, familiar names like Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Bill Harley, Peter Alsop, Jay Mankita, John McCutcheon, The Nields, and Barry Louis Polisar appear in the book.)

A couple technical comments, one positive, one a suggestion for improvement.  First, the positive: these are spiral-bound books, which aids greatly in its use -- it lays flat anywhere, and you can even fold it around so you only see one page.  The suggestion for improvement?  Add a ukulele chord chart to go along with the guitar chord chart on the last page.  The ukulele is an incredible sing-along instrument, and deserves to be a part of this book as much as the guitar.

So would I recommend Rise Again?  From a sheer familiarity standpoint, I'd probably recommend Rise Up Singing before this new book as I think that even with another quarter-century's worth of songs included in Rise Again, for most folks I think they'll find the original has more songs they'll be able to sing.  But there are certainly enough songs that have seeped into the national consciousness in this new book that it'd keep your family occupied for months if not years to come.  And hopefully it's not too much to ask that this be an ongoing project, that this become a trilogy another quarter century from now.  I'd definitely recommend Rise Again as I do think in its small way it could change the world, one singalong at a time.

Note: I was given a copy for possible review.