Review: Super Audio Sunshine - Todd McHatton

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If Dan Zanes coined the phrase "age-desegregated music" for his folk-rock take on traditional songs from across the country (and globe), Southern California's Todd McHatton has taken that attitude and applied it to psychedelic power-pop.  While some of his music has occasionally tapped into a more childlike part of the brain as in his massive kindie hit "I Think I'm a Bunny," which featured the winsomely squeaky monster Marvy Monstone, mostly he's recorded music accessible to all ages.

This doesn't change on his latest album, Super Audio Sunshine.  Sure, Marvy makes his now traditional album appearance, this time on the (happily) existential album closer "Every Little Monster."  But for the most part, the occasional song like "A Slice of Pie" -- yes, it's about eating pie -- which resides squarely in what we might think of as kindie is usually followed immediately by a song like "What Makes Me Smile," which with only the most minor of changes would be a pure pop-rock love song.  (It is a pure pop rock love song, though, to be sure.)

McHatton doesn't alter his sonic approach from past work, either -- "Wonderbuzz" could be a long-lost track from XTC's long-lost kid-friendly album, and songs like "Refreshments on Neptune" and "Giraffe On a Flaming Unicycle" are every bit as far-out as those song titles imply.  As a result, McHatton's music can be an acquired taste and families who prefer their kindie more conventional might not groove to the whole thing.

The album is best suited for kids ages 4 and up, with no real upper age limit (see discussion above); you can stream the entire 41-minute album here.  As McHatton himself noted, he finds it "much more interesting and exciting to write about fantastical, dynamic, bizarre things than to rehash any common, tired, depressing, dark subject matter."  Super Audio Sunshine is another example of that artistic principle at work, and most families will find at least a few songs exercising their bliss muscles.  Recommended.

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

Review: Full Moon, Full Moon - Papa Crow

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Michigan-based musician Papa Crow zigs and zags.  His hushed, heartfelt debut Things That Roar was earnest, while the follow-up EP What Was That Sound? was… well, maybe it was heartfelt, too, but it was a heartfelt and fun album about flatulence, so I think you see my point about the zigging and zagging.

Having gotten toots out of his system -- so to speak -- Papa Crow (aka Jeff Krebs) returns to the warmth of his debut with his recent release Full Moon, Full Moon.  If the first album sounded a little bit like it was recorded in the middle of a Michigan winter, this new album has a sunnier, more expansive feeling, like it was recorded over the course of some long Michigan summer days with many friends.

"Moving to the Beat" is a gentle ska-tinged tune featuring organ and saxophone, while "Great White Pine" is straight-ahead bluegrass tune about camping.  If "I Wanna Rock & Roll" starts out softer than I'd expect a song titled that to begin, it ends with a suitably loud riff.  Krebs says the album loosely follows a day in the life of a child from sunup to sunup, so as you'd expect, a lot of the album's second half is mellower -- "Give Some, Get Some," featuring Frances England, is a highlight, as is the title track and "The Michigan Waltz," the latter written by Krebs' grandfather.

You can listen to 3 full songs from the 42-minute album (most appropriate for kids ages 3 through 8) here.  The album is made with evident care and craft, and will again appeal to families who are fans of Frances England, Elizabeth Mitchell, and Dan Zanes, artists who originally inspired Papa Crow.  This album which celebrates the outside world is a worthy successor to both of its predecessors -- more so the debut than the cheekier EP -- and worth checking out regardless of how well you know his music.  Definitely recommended.

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

Itty-Bitty Review: Year-Round Sounds - The Hipwaders

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For a reviewer, the beauty of releasing an album loosely themed around different seasonal activities is that regardless of when one gets around to reviewing it, it's still timely.

So let's give it up for the Hipwaders' Year-Round Sounds and its opening track "Mic Check."  Yes, it's literally a song about a mic check -- a short, sharp power-pop song that at 61 seconds packs more hooks in than most songs three times its length -- and not about the new year.  But of course it's a perfect way to start out the year, er, album.  (Perhaps they can conclude their next album with a song called "Mic Drop.")  And if you're looking for another alternative take on the New Year, that's followed up by "Kings & Queens," all about babies and again a perfectly appropriate "start of the year" song.  Onward through the year, covering spring (a cover of "Peter Cottontail" and the swirly "Gaia She Knows"), school ("The Books I Like To Read" and "Smile About"), plus Halloween and Christmas (including an appropriately Bakersfield-y cover of Buck Owens' lost Christmas classic "A Very Merry Christmas").  

The album is most appropriate for kids 4 through 9.  At 14 tracks and 30 minutes in length, the album flies by and if your family doesn't dig one of the songs (or if it's July and and you have no interest in their appropriately Bakersfield-y cover of any Christmas song), another one's coming up shortly.  (Listen to samples via the player at the bottom of this page.)  While it's not quite the classic that the Hipwaders' last album, The Golden State, is, Year-Round Sounds still satisfies.  Fans of the Hipwaders, power-pop, or of noting celebrations big and small will find a lot to like here.  Definitely recommended.

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

Itty-Bitty Review: How To Be a Cloud - Kira Willey

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On her third kids music album How To Be a Cloud, Kira Willey continues, to my ears, to take tiny but graceful steps from the yoga-focused music that was the basis for her first album Dance for the Sun and second album Kings & Queens of the Forest.

All three albums feature a set of songs leading off the album, with a second series of tracks featuring most if not all of the tracks from the "front half," as it were, as the basis for a series of 2-to-3-minute pose cycles.  Whereas on the first album the yoga versions of the songs were obvious, on the new album, the songs are used more often as soft backgrounds for a series of yoga poses whose relationship to the song and the lyrics than obvious.

The thing is, the poppy songs stand perfectly well on their own.  Leadoff track "My Favorite Day" is a lighter-than-air confection with a surfeit of good feelings, with other tracks like "Gotta Lotta Happy" hitting the same beats.  My favorite track on the album might be "Jazzy," a celebration of a girl who loves to sing and dance through her day, which sprightly moves along.  Slower tracks like the title track and "When You Sleep" serve up nice counterpoints to the faster tracks.  Willey also reworks her big hit "Colors" with a 75-student kindergarten choir and it's every bit as charming (albeit in a different way) as the original, solo effort.

The album will be of most interest to kids ages 3 through 7.  You can listen to songs from the album here.  I don't mean to put down the yoga part of the CD -- after all, my first hook into Willey's music was, as occasional yoga practitioner, that yoga part.  But How To Be a Cloud shows that her music stands perfectly well on its own, no pose required.  Come for the yoga, perhaps, but stay for the music.  Recommended. 

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

Itty-Bitty Review: Food! - Ben Tatar and the Tatar Tots

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I'd like to think that I'm reasonably adventurous in my food tastes, eager to try to new foods from different cultures if they're offered to me.  But sometimes I'm perfectly pleased with comfort food -- macaroni and cheese, cheese crisps, a big bowl of cereal.

So it's with that metaphor in mind I offer up Food!, the debut EP from Chicago's Ben Tatar and the Tatar Tots.  Other than Tatar's willingness to dive deep back into the horn-accented sounds of the '70s, there's nothing particularly adventurous about the music here.  It's straight-ahead kid-pop with touches of Chicago (the band), ska, doo-wop, and Randy Newman.  And subject-wise, it's seven occasionally humorous songs about, well, food.  (And, not to put too fine a point on it, unadventurous foods like grape jam, chocolate milk, and pie.)

But like a good bowl of mac'n'cheese, when done right, this style of kids music can be very satisfying.  The multi-instrumentalist Tatar plays in a number of bands throughout Chicago, and the level of production is excellent, with Tatar handling a lot of duties, but also bringing in his friends to fill out the sound.  Standout tracks include "The Grape Jam," "Lemonade!," and "Piece of the Pie (Mama's Theme)," all designed to go down easy.

The 23-minute album will appeal most to kids ages 4 through 9.  (You can hear a couple samples here.)  Food! is a modest but well-crafted debut.  Unless you consume it too much, I guarantee no indigestion.  Definitely recommended.

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

Review: Question Bedtime - MC Frontalot

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It's an open question whether "nerdcore" is a larger or smaller niche than "kindie," but almost by definition "nerdcore kindie" is smaller than either, and with Question Bedtime, MC Frontalot (who coined the term "nerdcore") has essentially created the first nerdcore kindie album.

Question Bedtime is the Brooklyn-based rapper's sixth album, and first for families, and instead of addressing subjects like video games in his songs, he's gone back in time to fairy tales from various cultures.  But rather than straight-up retellings, he's often given them a twist.  Goldilocks and the Three Bears becomes "Gold Locks," featuring rapper Jean Grae as the titular character, who rather than being scared of the bears, is a bear-eating hunter.  "Start Over" features a conversation of sorts between the Big Bad Wolf and a chorus of girls who aren't exactly buying his version of events with Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother.  Nor does he limit himself to more familiar fairy tales you've heard hundreds of times - "Wakjąkága" features the title character who, well… just read Frontalot's lyrics, and you'll understand that it's not common.  Besides "Start Over," I also particularly liked "Shudders," whose retelling of the story of the youth who went out to learn what fear is (and is really more about fearlessness) is a useful song in an album that features stories that kids have, at points, shuddered at.

One listen to a handful of songs (or reading those lyrics above), and you'll quickly gather that this is not an album for your favorite preschooler.  Not that it's inappropriate or a Joseph Campbell treatise, mind you, just that his dense wordflow and his refusal to dumb down the darker themes of the stories are going to appeal more -- and, really, mean more -- to a significantly older audience, probably ages 9 or 10 and up.

I liked Question Bedtime, but it demands close attention if the listener is to get the most out of it.  (And close attention is hard, no matter if you're 6 or 36.)  The more you like dense hip-hop wordplay, the more you'll like this, and that's not what every kids music family is looking for.  But if you've read this far, and thought, "Hmm, that sounds kind of cool," then I think it's definitely for you.  Recommended.

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